Religious Studies


Religion plays an important role in the ways people make meaning of the world, in turn guiding their views and practices and shaping the paths their lives take.

The Department of Religious Studies gives students the tools they need to understand and to engage with religious people from the past and present.  Religious Studies courses aim:

- to cultivate knowledge of the views and practices of a wide variety of religious communities;

- to provide an understanding of the historical underpinnings and trajectories of religious traditions;

- to steep students in a variety of methodological and theoretical approaches used in the academic study of religion;

- to help students perceive the various ways religion intersects with important issues and topics, including the environment, law, politics, race, socio-economic class, gender, and sexuality; and

- to provide students the opportunity to conduct an in-depth research project and to gain mastery of their chosen topic.

The major in Religious Studies provides a firm grounding in the liberal arts. Students develop an ability to read sources carefully and critically, to approach the study of a topic from a range of positions and from multiple disciplinary frames, and to develop well-reasoned judgments.

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 students with a wide variety of interests in the study of religion. Students, working collaboratively with an advisor, will design a personalized program to match their interests and goals. Some majors 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 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 490  Senior Seminar   4

We strongly encourage students to take courses in other disciplines – such as the 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 have the opportunity to study religion in situ. When appropriate, one course from another department or from an international program 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 second-stage 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

Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa

Associate Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Victoria University of Wellington; Ph.D., Australian National University

D. Keith Naylor

Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Stanford University; M.A., Pacific School of Religion; Ph.D., U.C. 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

Brian Clearwater

Non-Tenure Track Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., University of Tennessee; M.A., Ph.D., U.C. Santa Barbara

Peter Lanfer

Non-Tenure Track Assistant Professor, Religious Studies

B.A., Dartmouth College; M.A.R., Yale University Divinity School; Ph.D., U.C. Los Angeles

Malek Moazzam-Doulat

Non-Tenure Track Assistant Professor, Religious Studies, Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture

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

Cassia Roth

Non-Tenure Track Assistant Professor, Religious Studies