In fact, if I went back to college to day, I think I would probably major in comparative religion because that’s how integrated [religion] is in everything that we are working on and deciding and thinking about in life today.
John Kerry, US Secretary of State 2013-2017 (Obama administration)

How have religious traditions such as Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam influenced people’s relation to the world, their social interactions, and their ideas about human dignity, sexuality, peace and social justice? Why do religious images, buildings, clothes, and everyday practices often provoke fierce debates or even violent conflicts? How can we understand that religion doesn’t disappear in modern societies, but seems to be increasingly vibrant and politically influential on a global scale? And how does the transnational character of many religions feature in current social and political challenges such as migration, economic inequalities, or even climate change?

Religious Studies at University College Utrecht is a challenging, multidisciplinary and research-oriented track that engages students in scholarly as well as public-political debates. It approaches religious traditions, ideas and practices as transcultural phenomena that are deeply engrained into, e.g., political, economic, and cultural phenomena. The programme combines grounding in the central themes and theories of the study of religion, with the study of many specific religious practices such as praying, dancing, and fasting; the function of images, buildings, and food, and the relation between religion, politics, and secularism.

Since religious studies is by definition an interdisciplinary field, you learn how to study religions from various perspectives, including anthropological, historical, and philosophical approaches, gender studies, and in postcolonial constellations.

In recent years, religion’s unexpected resilience – albeit in new forms and under new conditions – pushed it to the center of public debates, politics, and even economy. Our cultures and our collective memories include many religious elements, and issues such as religious attire, ritual slaughter and ‘blasphemous’ performances (Pussy Riot) and images (‘Piss Christ’, ‘Muhammad cartoons’) spark public controversies around the world. But what is religion at all? And how can we understand the passions and practices, and ideas of religious people, such as rituals, pilgrimages, beliefs about heaven and hell, and moral en ethical ideas (the Golden Rule, divine commandments, human dignity, sin, salvation etc.)? What makes an object ‘sacred’ for a believer, e.g. temple, and icon or a relic, and what does it mean to respect or tolerate beliefs and practices one considers wrong, or irrational?

These are questions, which are addressed and thoroughly investigated in the Religious Studies track. The interaction between religion and other cultural and social expressions is central to the program of this track, and students are trained to analyse religions and religious dimensions or other cultural, social, and political issues from a multidisciplinary perspective. Courses are theoretically strong, empirically and historically informed, and synthesise methods used in historical analyses, the socio-cultural sciences, Philosophy, Gender Studies and Media Studies.

All teachers of the Religious Studies track actively participate in the international community of researchers in the study of religion, which gives students the opportunity to get involved in current research.

Since religion is part and parcel of all cultures in past and present, the Religious Studies track can be combined with many other tracks, such as History, Philosophy, Political Science, Arts, and Cultural Anthropology. There are also Religious Studies alumni from Utrecht University who now work in the financial sector (who specialized on Islamic banking), in law (who benefit from the understanding of diversity and discussions about religious law systems), and other areas of society and academia.

The course Introduction to Religious Studies leads to all level-2-courses of the Religious Studies track.

The courses Ethics and Religion and Philosophical Views on Humans and Gods are functional in both the Religious Studies and the Philosophy tracks. Students who want to take one of the advanced courses, but have not taken the introductory course (or, in the case of the level 3-course, one of the level 2-courses) are invited to contact the track coordinator. Under certain conditions the entry requirements can be waived if students have followed relevant courses from other tracks, and in many cases students can qualify for participation by doing additional reading.

A Liberal Arts and Sciences curriculum provides an outstanding basis for further study of religion in its various dimensions. We prepare our students so that they can enter a Master's programme in Religious Studies at leading universities.

The admission requirements of the Master's programme Religions in Contemporary Societies at Utrecht University and many Master's programmes at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States will allow students who have followed the four courses of the Religious Studies track to directly enter the programme. Other relevant courses (including off-campus courses) will strengthen the position of the student in competitive application procedures.

Supporting disciplines for prospective Master's programmes in Religious Studies include amongst others: Anthropology, History, Philosophy and Social Sciences.

UCHUMREL12: Introduction to Religious Studies
The course provides an interdisciplinary introduction to the academic study of religion. It proceeds along two lines: on the one hand, students are introduced to influential theoretical approaches to religion. On the other hand, theoretic approaches are used to study concrete religious traditions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and native African Religions. Special attention is given to perspectives on transcendence and immanence, ritual and sacrifice, reconciliation and retaliation, holy texts and the challenge of modernities.

UCHUMREL13: Global Religions: Ideas and Practices
This course introduces students to the dynamic, diverse, often colorful and surprising world of global religions. It addresses religious traditions that have a huge influence on the world as we know it: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, but also local traditions in, e.g., Sub-Sahara Africa.

The course integrates two components or perspectives: an ideational perspective that concerns religious beliefs and doctrines, and a practical ‘lived religions’ perspective that concerns religious acts and rituals. Both components are approached from a transnational perspective that investigates how religions develop, interact with each other and with other cultural phenomena and political institutions on a global scale. Special attention will be given to processes of mutual exchange that result in hybridity and syncretism, processes of othering and expulsion, which can lead to conflicts and violence, and to the presence and commodification of religious motives in popular culture (e.g. movies, pop and rock music, Christmas or the Hindu Holi festival (‘festival of colours’)).

UCHUMREL23: Religions in the Public Domain
The course focuses on the idea of the public domain as a key to the formation, expression, transmission and transformation of Jewish and Muslim traditions in past and present. Why is it so important for religious communities to be visibly present in the public sphere? What is wrong with the view that religion is a fully individualszed and privatised practice or set of convictions?

The course analyses such questions by focusing on the bodily and material presence of Judaism and Islam in predominantly non-Jewish/Muslim, European societies. Since religious practices are often related to the human body (clothing, singing, dance, haircut and shave etc.), the course puts special emphasis on the meaning and function of the body for ‘public religion’.

UCHUMREL24: Ethics and Religion (cross-listed – alternates)
Ethics deals with morality, with questions concerning human conduct, how we should lead our lives, and which social institutions (e.g. the law) are ‘just’. Answers to such questions have been provided by religious traditions as well as by philosophers. This course analyses influential contributions to ethical debates. It addresses important ethical theories such as virtue ethics, divine command theory, natural law theory, deontology and utilitarianism from authors and traditions such as Aristotle, Augustine, Confucius, Kant, Mill, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Moreover, a large part of the course will be devoted to analyses of specific normative concepts (duty, compassion, love, human rights) and concrete moral problems such as poverty, torture, humanitarian interventions and ‘just war’, animal ethics, or climate change.

The course is cross-listed so as to form part of both the Philosophy track and the Religious Studies track. Even beyond these tracks, this Ethics course should appeal to all students with an interest in politics, law, and social sciences.

UCHUMPHI25: Philosophical Views on Humans and Gods (cross-listed – alternates)
This course offers a survey of philosophical reflection on what it is to be human and what sets human beings apart from other animals, but also from gods or God, i.e. from any realm of the divine. Topics include personal identity; the meaning of freedom and the question of a free will as opposed to (providential or natural) necessity and determinism. Seminal views on the status of the human will be represented in primary texts by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, William James, Sartre and others. The course is cross-listed so as to form part of both the Philosophy track and the Religious Studies track.

UCHUMREL34 Religion and Political Secularism
Secularisation and political secularism are essential parts of the self-understanding of many Western societies. However, the resurgence and diversification of religious traditions and new forms of religiosities demonstrates that the privatisation and decline of religion is no inevitable consequence of ‘modernization’. The notion of the postsecular tries to grasp this offers new ways to understand the various forms and functions of religion in contemporary pluralistic societies. But what does it mean to live in a post-secular society? How do fundamental moral and political principles that are usually associated with secularism – freedom of expression, tolerance, gender equality, new media – relate to religion under conditions of the postsecular?

This course provides students with a map of contemporary approaches to religion and (post-)secularism, and enables them to use the relevant concepts and insights in analyses of political and social issues concerning religion. Beyond the Religious Studies track, this course is of interest to all students with an interest in politics, society, and law.

UCINTPOL32: Politics and Religion in the Modern World (interdisciplinary)
Politics and religion do not mix. Since the 17th century there has been an effort to separate religion from politics by making religion a private affair. And yet religion has continued to make its claim on politics, and vice versa. Indeed, the two have become more closely intertwined in recent decades.

This is a course that aims at understanding the relationship between religion and politics. In the first place, it offers a sweeping historical survey, starting in ancient times but focusing on the time from the French Revolution on. It examines across continents the modern effort to separate religion from politics or, in the case of fascism and communism, to create a this-worldly “political religion.” And it follows efforts of religious actors to reclaim a place in politics, from the Religious Right in the United States to political Islam in the Middle East.

Students will have the opportunity - after talking to Dutch experts about the Dutch case - to make an in-depth studies of contemporary “church-state” relations in the country of their choice, all the while drawing comparative insights from their fellow students. Finally, students will personally reflect in an essay on the pitfalls and opportunities in the relationship between religion and politics, on the basis of conversation with leading thinkers in the field.

RT2V13001: Sociology of Religion: Theories and Methods (off-campus)
How to develop adequate theories and methods to grasp the place and role of religion in the 21st century is the burning question in the sociology of religion. This course introduces foundational thinkers and key concepts. Exploring the various concrete manifestations of religion in our time (including New Age and the search for spirituality, the rise of transnational Pentecostal and Islamic movements, and the resilience of orthodox forms of Christianity), the course presents new foci in the contemporary study of religion that help us understand how religions transform via a constant exchange with wider societies.

RE3V19001: Buddhism in the Modern World (off-campus)
The course examines the multiple ways in which Buddhism has adapted to rapid economic, social, cultural and political transformations in the modern globalised world with a focus on the 19th and 20th century. Buddhism has shown a remarkable flexibility and an ability to co-exist with a variety of social structures typical of modern societies in rural areas as well as in highly complex Asian and Western urban centers. This class covers the impact of colonialism, urbanisation, secularisation, globalisation, and individualisation on Buddhist cultures and practices in Asia and the West. The course further explores the relation between Buddhism and gender, Buddhism and violence, Buddhism and science, as well as Buddhism’s popularity in the West.

Level Fall Spring Summer
1 HUMREL13: Global Religions: Ideas and PracticesX HUMREL12: Introduction to Religious Studies  
2* HUMREL23: Religions in the Public Domain HUMPHI25: Philosophical Views on Humans and GodsX–a  
  HUMREL24: Ethics and ReligionX–a  
3 UCHUMREL34: Religion and Political Secularism INTPOL32: Politics and Religion in the Modern Worldi  

X Cross-listed
a Alternates
i Interdisciplinary
* It is advised to follow the Humanities Lab course.

Christoph Baumgartner, PhD, Tübingen
Athics and Religion
(Post)Secularism and –Secularity
Religion and politics

Katja Rakow, PhD, Heidelberg
Fellow Religious Studies
Religion in contemporary societies
Religion in transcultural perspective
Religion in the nexus of individualism, therapeutic culture, and consumerism
Eastern Religions, esp. (Tibetan) Buddhism.

Mehdi Sajid, PhD, Bonn
Islamic intellectual history
Islam in the modern world
Islam and Muslims in the West

Pooyan Tamimi Arab, PhD, Utrecht
Anthropology of Religion
Material Religion
Religious Pluralism

Eric Ottenheijm, PhD, Utrecht
New Testament studies
History of Early Christianity

Annewieke Vroom, PhD, Amsterdam
Lecturer Religious Studies and Philosophy of Religion
Contemporary Religion
Comparative Philosophy
(Religious) Diversity and Dialogue
Asian Religious Thought and Practices

Contact person

Dr. Katja Rakow is the Religious Studies Fellow at University College Utrecht. Office: Janskerkhof 13, Room 0.01, 3512 BL Utrecht.