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Comparative Religion (10ec)


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


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 explicitly on the role of ‘comparison’ in the study of religion and on current insights regarding the limitations and possibilities of the ‘comparative approach’ in the study of religion. Students will be introduced to a range of perspectives on comparative religion and to two examples of theory-driven applications of comparison to the study of religion: first, the work of Mary Douglas on categories of purity and pollution; and second, Ioan Lewis’s descriptive analysis of spirit possession cults.

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


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

The course is assessed on the basis of two papers:

  • First half: one mid-term paper discussing Douglas and the use of comparison in the study of religion (50%);

  • Second half: one final paper discussing Lewis’s theory of spirit possession with reference to one case study (50%).

Students will also need to submit, in groups, four reports on discussions of course readings. These are mandatory but ungraded (pass/fail). Groups will be assigned at the beginning of the course using Brightspace.


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: Comparative methods

  • Mary Douglas (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge. [Required for mid-term paper; students will need this book]

  • David M. Freidenreich (2004), 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 (1): 80-101.

  • Robert A. Segal (2001), In defense of the Comparative Method. Numen 48: 339-373.

  • Jonathan Z. Smith (2000), The “End” of Comparison: Redescription and Rectification. In Kimberley C. Patton and Benjamin C. Ray (eds), A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp 237-242.

Second half: Spirit possession

  • I. M. Lewis (2003 [1971]), Ecstatic Religion: A study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. London: Routledge. [Required for final paper; students will need this book]

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

  • David N. Gellner (1994), Priests, Healers, Mediums, and Witches: The Context of Possession in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. Man N.S. 29 (1): 27-48.

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

  • Aihwa Ong (1988), The Production of Possession: Spirits and the Multinational Corporation in Malaysia. American Ethnologist 15: 28-42.
    Other readings will be made available during the course.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.



In the academic Year 2021-22 this course will also be offered for 5 ec, only for students of the BA Religiewetenschappen or Minor Religion in a changing World who had this course in 2020-21 or earlier in their Studyprogramme, but didn't pass the course. The offer is part of the transition programme and 2021-22 is the last academic year in which finishing this course for 5 ec is possible.

If you need to follow this course for 5 ec, please contact the Coordinator of Studies