Religious Studies


Courses in the department of Religious Studies seek to cultivate an understanding of religion as a significant, widespread, and diverse human phenomenon. To this end, courses explore the literature, history, thought, ethics, institutions, and practices of some of the world's major religious traditions. Special attention is given to clarifying the role that religions have played in the cultural and social worlds of which they are a part, both how religions contribute to and are in tension with other dimensions of culture and society.

The major in Religious Studies provides a firm grounding in the liberal arts. Students will develop an ability to read sources carefully and critically, to approach the study of a topic from a range of cultural positions and from multiple disciplinary frames, and to develop well-reasoned positions. While the rigorous curriculum and comprehensive project prepare students who intend to pursue graduate work in Religious Studies, the skills developed in the department are also valuable to students who plan to pursue a range of professions, including law, medicine, business, social services, government, or religious vocations.

Major Requirements


A total of 40 units in the department of Religious Studies are required for the major.The major is structured to accommodate a wide variety of interests relating to the study of religion. Students, working collaboratively with an advisor, will design a personalized program to match their interests and objectives. Some majors may opt for a program that is broadly conceived, seeking exposure to a variety of religious traditions and studying religion through a variety of methodologies (such as, literary studies, history, sociology, or philosophy). Others may choose to specialize in one religious tradition, or in one approach to the study of religion.

The only required course for the major is:

RELS 490Senior Seminar


We strongly encourage students to take courses in other disciplines – such as languages, art history, music, politics, literature, and history - that will enrich their understanding of how religion is conceived, articulated, and practiced. We also strongly encourage majors to participate in international programs, especially in locations where they may encounter a new religious environment. When appropriate, one or two courses from outside the department or from international programs may be applied toward the major.


A total of twelve courses (48 units) are required for this major, eight courses (32 units) of which are to be taken within the Religious Studies department and four courses (16 units) from another department(s).

Given that Religious Studies is an intrinsically interdisciplinary field of study, some majors may need to partner more robustly with another discipline to pursue the course of study they have designed. For instance, a student interested in the presence of religion in literature or a student interested in the sociological study of religion may need to draw more heavily on the faculty and courses offered by the English or the Sociology departments. Other students with a regional focus or a theoretical focus may need to draw on resources spread across departments. For example, a student interested in Asian religion may need to take courses from the Language, History, and Art History departments, while a student interested in gender and religion may need to take courses from the Critical Theory and Social Justice, Sociology, Philosophy, and History departments. In these cases, majors, in consultation with their advisors, may design a Religious Studies major with an interdisciplinary concentration.


Students majoring in Religious Studies will satisfy the final component of Occidental College's college-wide writing requirement by successfully completing the Senior Seminar and the comprehensive requirement. See the Writing Program and consult the department chair for additional information.


While courses in the major are intended to introduce students to a range of religious traditions and to orient students to a variety of approaches to the study of religion, the comprehensive project gives students the opportunity to select a research topic of particular interest to them and to pursue that topic in much greater depth than course work allows. Work on the comprehensive project will further cultivate and assess the skills that ground the discipline: inventiveness, research and methodological abilities, critical reading, analytical thinking, and effective writing and oral communication.

In the spring semester of their junior year, students will meet with Religious Studies faculty to talk about potential topics and they will conduct preliminary research. In the fall semester of their senior year, students enroll in RELS 490, which guides students through the research and drafting of the project and which provides students with feedback on work in progress. Although there is no class associated with the comprehensive project in the spring semester, students are expected to continue to revise and polish their papers until the due date. Also in the spring semester, students will present their research orally to the campus community.

Once the comprehensive projects are submitted, the Religious Studies faculty assesses the papers and oral presentations, awarding them one of the following marks: Pass with Distinction (PD) is awarded to exceptionally sophisticated work that surpasses the departmental standards, Pass (P) is awarded to work that meets departmental standards, and Fail (F) for work that fails to satisfy departmental standards.


The Department of Religious Studies awards Honors to students who have demonstrated excellence in the discipline of Religious Studies. In the spring semester, the Religious Studies faculty will review the seniors’ record in the department and makes its determinations based on achievement in coursework, sophistication of the comprehensive project, and contribution to the intellectual community.

Minor Requirements

Five Religious Studies courses (20 units) are required for the minor. The courses, chosen in consultation with the Chair of the department, should cover a range of religious traditions and methods of studying religion.


Religious Studies Courses


Regular Faculty

Kristi Upson-Saia, chair

Associate Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., University of Washington; M.Div., Princeton Theol. Sem.; Ph.D., Duke University

D. Keith Naylor

Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Stanford University; M.A., Pacific School of Religion; Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara

Dale Wright

David B. and Mary H. Gamble Professor in Religion, Religious Studies

B.A., San Diego State University; Ph.D., University of Iowa

On Special Appointment

Malek Moazzam-Doulat

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Occidental College; Ph.D., State University of New York, Stony Brook

Sanford Ragins

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Ph.D., Brandeis University