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Comparative Religion


Admission requirements

  • For Students of the BA Religiewetenschappen: successful completion of at least 45 EC from the first year of the bachelor's programme in Religiewetenschappen, including Inleiding Religiewetenschappen or equivalent. If you do not meet this requirement but would still like to take the course, please mail the Coordinator of Studies indicating the reasons for your interest.

  • Students of the minor Religion in a changing world are obliged to follow the course Religion in the World parallel to this course.

  • This course is open to students with an academic interest in the subject matter, who succesfully completed Inleiding Religiewetenschappen or equivalent. Please, contact the Coordinator of Studies and Prof.dr. A.F. de Jong, if you are interested in taking this course, but do NOT fulfill the abovementioned requirement.


Comparative religion has often been used as synonymous with the academic study of religion, even though most scholars in that field do not actively ‘compare’ religious traditions, but restrict their attention to a particular religion, in a particular place and a particular period. This course focuses on ‘comparison’ in the study of religion and on current insights in the limitations and possibilities of the ‘comparative approach’ in the study of religion. It does so by discussing two very different approaches to comparison: the highly contextual juxtaposition of evidence for a single religion in two different geographical and cultural settings (Clifford Geertz), and a decontextualized, theory-driven, approach to a crucial religious phenomenon: trance and spirit possession (Ioan Lewis).

Course objectives

Students will learn about current debates on comparison in the study of religion. They will learn to reflect critically on scholarly work on this particular subject, especially on the difference between contextualized and de-contextualized approaches, different attitudes to description and interpretation vs. representation and explanation. They will understand the explicit and implicit workings of comparison and will be able to apply these insights to specific case-studies.

Transferable skills

After successfully completing this course:

  • Students will have participated in a common effort to think through radically distinct contemporary theoretical perspectives on religion and culture and to report on those in a nuanced way

  • Students will have advanced experience in negotiating cultural and religious difference, with a focus on three central elements of human lives: politics, health, and perceptions of reality

  • Students will have practised their writing skills in reporting on complex academic theorizing

  • Students will have confronted their own ideas about reality, rationality, culture, and religion and have built up experience in writing about these fields in an academic way


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

  • First half: 3 essay questions + summary of literature, one midterm paper summing up the earlier ones (50 %)

  • Second half: final paper on the theory of spirit possession with reference to a particular case study (50 %)


The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average.


Resit will consist of the same parts as the first opportunity.

Exam review

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

First half: Clifford Geertz

  • C. Geertz, Islam Observed. Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, Chicago/London 1971 (repr.; students need to have this book)

  • R. Segal, ‘In defense of the Comparative Method’, Numen 48 (2001), 339-373

  • J.S. Jensen, ‘Why Magic? It’s just Comparison’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16 (2004), 45-60

  • D.M. Freidenreich, ‘Comparisons Compared: A Methodological Survey of Comparisons of Religion From “A Magic Dwells” to A Magic Still Dwells’, Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 16 (2004), 80-101

Second half: Spirit Possession

  • I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion. A study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession (London, 20033; students need to have this book)

  • J. Boddy, ‘Spirit Possession Revisited: Beyond Instrumentality’, Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994), 407-434

  • J. McIntosh, ‘Reluctant Muslims: Embodied Hegemony and Moral Resistance in a Giriama Spirit Possession Complex’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute N.S. 10 (2004), 91-112

  • D.N. Gellner, ‘Priests, Healers, Mediums, and Witches: The Context of Possession in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal’, Man N.S. 29 (1994), 27-48

  • A. Ong, ‘The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia’, American Ethnologist 15 (1988), 28-42


Students are required to register through uSis

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Prof.dr. A.F. de Jong