Course Syllabus

Introduction to Religious Studies

RELS 1113 section 004 (CRN 42844)
Fall 2020, University of Oklahoma, College of Arts and Sciences
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5:00-6:15 in Gould 150


David Vishanoff
vishanoff at ou dot edu
(405) 325-1150
Robertson 119

Office hours: Tuesdays and Fridays 10:00-11:00, or by appointment. Feel free to come to my office (Robertson 119), call my office phone (405-325-1150), or video chat (just call or email to let me know and then click here for my personal Zoom room).


The work of this class consists in figuring out and articulating the assumptions, values, and goals that shape your education and your thinking about religions, and what approaches to understanding religions make the most sense for you in light of that intellectual and personal self-awareness. Perhaps you could figure all that out on your own, but you will do it better if you are in conversation with others–with your fellow students, with your professors, and with some really smart people who have studied various religions in different ways. So we are going to read four very different books about religion, assess each author’s assumptions, values, goals, and methods, and keep reassessing and developing your own approach to understanding religions in light of each book. Along the way, you will have the opportunity to gain many new insights into textual, doctrinal, ritual, and institutional dimensions of several religions. My biggest hope is that this class will help you to become more self-aware and articulate about who you are, intellectually and personally, so that you can approach all your studies more critically and with greater integrity.

This course counts toward General Education requirement IV-WC (Humanities, Western Civilization and Culture). It is a traditional in-person class (not blended), but this semester we will resort to online discussions in Canvas in cases of illness, isolation orders, or campus closure.


Please purchase hard copies (not ebooks, since our classroom will be device-free) and bring the assigned book to class each day.

  • Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. HarperOne, 2009, ISBN 978-0061660184
    • You will need this book for the second week of class, so I suggest ordering it in advance.
  • Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage, 1989, ISBN 978-0679724537
  • David Haberman, Journey Through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna. Oxford, 1994, ISBN 978-0195084795
  • Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jossey-Bass, 2011, ISBN 978-0470581902

Course Goals

  • Articulate the assumptions, values, and goals that you want to have shape your education.
  • Become skilled at reading textbooks critically, discerning unstated assumptions, values, and goals.
  • Identify what approaches to understanding religions make the most sense for you given your own assumptions, values, and goals.
  • Develop increased intellectual humility, purposefulness, self-awareness, charity, and the ability to listen well.


Preparation and contribution (40% of the course grade)

There are two ways to demonstrate your preparation and contribute to this class:

  1. By speaking up in class. Oral contributions in class are often the most helpful for the rest of us–but only if what you say is clear, concise, relevant to where we are or where we need to go in our conversation, and well grounded in the assigned readings. Don’t talk just to fill silence! If you tend to speak up often, make a special effort to defer to those who speak less often, and please help me to notice students who have their hands up if I don’t see them.
  2. By posting written comments in Canvas, as a reply to the day's assignment, at least one hour before class, in response to my questions about the assigned readings. These comments should be concise, should refer to specific parts of the readings, and should present just one idea in response to just one of the questions raised in the assignment. You can mention ideas that others have already raised in their posts, but be sure to credit them, and add your own substantive contribution based on your own reading in your own words. Please keep a copy of all your posts for yourself as well, in case some get lost in cyberspace.

If you are shy, or have trouble formulating ideas quickly enough to speak up, I suggest you start out with written comments; then, when you have found your voice in writing, start looking for opportunities to bring up your ideas in class.

How much should you contribute? As long as we are meeting in person and you attend regularly, you should aim to make a substantial contribution about once a week, whether orally in class, in writing online, or a mix of the two. If you miss more than a couple of classes for illness, self-isolation, or any other reason, or if the whole class has to move online, then to make up for the loss of class discussion you will be expected to contribute online for pretty much every class--though I realize you might have to skip a few.

Your grade for “preparation and contribution” will be based not only on whether you have contributed regularly but also on the depth, insightfulness, clarity, and conciseness of your contributions, and especially on how well they reflect careful reading of the assigned texts. It will also be affected by little indications of preparation and engagement such as bringing the assigned texts to class, and by how well you help us to maintain a focused intellectual atmosphere in the classroom by doing things like staying alert and engaged, respecting others, refraining from any use of electronic devices, and avoiding anything else that might disrupt, distract, or discourage others from staying focused.

In order for us to be fully present, listen well, and engage well with each other in class, I would like us to forgo all use of electronic devices during class. I will enforce this policy silently, by reducing the "preparation & contribution" grades of any students I see wearing headphones or looking at devices, every time I notice it, without calling them out in class.

Four response papers (10% each)

Following our study of each book, you will write and submit in Canvas a brief essay (around 600 words) assessing how the author’s assumptions, values, and goals relate to your own, and what you can learn from that author’s approach that will help you in your understanding of religions and in your education more broadly.

Final exam (20%)

An essay exam (open-book and open-notes) articulating the assumptions, values, and goals that guide your own education and your own understanding of religions, and what aspects of the four approaches we have encountered this term you can embrace, reject, or learn from.

Attendance (crucial, but more flexible this semester)

The work of this course consists in thinking and reaching conclusions together in class, not learning information on your own. This is only possible with your consistent preparation, attendance, and participation. Therefore, I usually have a strict attendance policy; but this term is different. I don't want you to feel any pressure to come to class if you don't feel well, so there will be no grade penalty for absences. All I ask is that you communicate with me about your absences, even if you don't feel you have a good excuse, so that I can help you figure out the best way to still benefit from the course. And be sure to post online about the reading, preferably before class, if you are going to be absent (though I realize that circumstances might not always permit that). I will still record attendance, just so that I know who ought to be posting online daily to make up for missed discussions.

Academic honesty (all or nothing)

In my estimation, any form of deceit, however “mild,” warrants a final course grade of F. Individual instances of suspected academic dishonesty will be referred to the appropriate University authorities, who will investigate and determine appropriate penalties (which may include grade penalties, extra classes, suspension, expulsion, and/or other penalties). In my estimation, academic dishonesty includes (but is not limited to) turning in writing not created by yourself solely for this class, plagiarism (reproducing or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without citing them), failing to document sources as required in an assignment, helping other students to avoid doing their own reading or thinking or writing, selling a paper or post or exam essay or sharing it with someone who might use it instead of doing his or her own work, using the ideas or wording in others' online posts without citing them, submitting answers or comments online without having studied the relevant materials for yourself, and false excuses for absences or late or missed assignments. You have no need to invent excuses, because unmet requirements will affect only my evaluation of your work, they will not affect my respect for you as a person; so false excuses mean that you are attempting to falsify your grade, which in my estimation warrants a course grade of F. See for information on student rights and responsibilities with regards to academic misconduct.

Course evaluation (a moral requirement)

At the end of the term you will have the opportunity to answer the university-mandated online questions about this class at This may seem like a meaningless exercise, but I actually care a great deal about the insights that students give me in these surveys about themselves, their learning experiences, and my own teaching. There is no way for me to formally require completion of these evaluations, and I never find out which students do and do not fill them out (unless they mention their names in their answers, which can help me understand their comments better). But I hope you will agree, when you see how much of myself I poor into this class over the course of the term, that you owe me ten minutes of your time and some honest answers about the class! I sincerely want and expect every student to fill out an evaluation. Thank you; my future students and I will all be grateful that you did.

General policies

  • Assignments may or may not be accepted late, at the instructor’s discretion. Unless arranged in advance, any such lateness will be penalized one letter grade for each interval between class periods (or any fraction thereof) that elapses after the scheduled date.
  • No extra-credit work will be assigned or accepted; please do not ask. To benefit from this class, you need to do the work as it is assigned, not do other work later.
  • In order to help alleviate the stress of "dead week" or "pre-finals week," I have designed the schedule so that all our reading and papers are completed before the last week of classes. We will spend the last week reflecting back on the thinking we did during the term, tying together our thoughts, and preparing outlines for the final exam essay. (For specific provisions of OU's official pre-finals week policy see
  • Exams or work falling on religious holidays may be rescheduled without penalty; please let me know in advance, as soon as you are able to determine that a holiday may conflict with class or an assignment.
  • Any student who has a disability that may prevent him or her from fully demonstrating his or her abilities should contact me personally as soon as possible; I will be very glad to make accommodations to help you participate and learn more effectively. If you are unsure whether you should request some kind of accommodation, or what kind of accommodation might be most helpful for you, consult the staff at the Disability Resource Center who will be able to help figure out what is best and whether you should formally register with the Center (730 College Avenue, 325-3852, TDD 325-4173).
  • Title IX Resources and Reporting Requirement: For any concerns regarding gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, or stalking, the University offers a variety of resources. To learn more or to report an incident, please contact the Sexual Misconduct Office at 405/325-2215 (8 to 5, M-F) or Incidents can also be reported confidentially to OU Advocates at 405/615-0013 (phones are answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Also, please be advised that a professor/GA/TA is required to report instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination to the Sexual Misconduct Office. Inquiries regarding non-discrimination policies may be directed to: Faustina Layne, Interim Institutional Equity Officer and Title IX Coordinator, at 405/325-3546 or For more information, visit
  • Adjustments for Pregnancy/Childbirth Related Issues: Should you need modifications or adjustments to your course requirements because of documented pregnancy-related or childbirth-related issues, please contact me or the Disability Resource Center at 405/325-3852 as soon as possible. Also, see for answers to commonly asked questions.
  • Special university-wide COVID-19 attendance policy:
    • A temporary university policy has been established to protect the OU community by ensuring that students who are ill or required to isolate feel encouraged to remain at home. Missing a class session or other class activity due to illness or isolation will not result in a penalty for the absence, and the student will not be asked to provide formal documentation from a healthcare provider to excuse the absence. This policy is based on all students and faculty adhering to the principles of integrity, honesty, and concern for others.
    • Students who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, fever, shortness of breath, muscle pain, headache, chills, sore throat, loss of taste or smell, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea or who have been in close contact with others who have symptoms should:
      • Remain at home to protect others
      • Ensure that any needed screening has been conducted (COVID-19 Screening and Reporting Tool) and any needed treatment obtained
      • Contact the instructor prior to absence or inability to participate, if possible, and provide an honest report of the reason for which you cannot attend class or complete a course activity
      • Continue to complete coursework to the extent possible, using Canvas, zoom, and other online tools
      • Submit assignments electronically to the extent possible and as directed by the instructor
      • Communicate with the instructor to arrange modifications to deadlines or work requirements or reschedule exams or other important course activities, when it is necessary
  • Recorded sessions: In the unlikely event that we have to go online and some sessions of this course end up being recorded or live-streamed, these recordings will be the intellectual property of the individual faculty member and may not be shared or reproduced without the explicit, written consent of the faculty member. In addition, privacy rights of others such as students, guest lecturers, and providers of copyrighted material displayed in the recording may be of concern. Students may not share any course recordings with individuals not enrolled in the class, or upload them to any other online environment.
  • Masking policy: As outlined by the University of Oklahoma's Chief COVID Officer, until further notice, employees, students, and visitors of the OU community will be mandated to wear masks (1.) when they are inside University facilities and vehicles and (2.) when they are outdoors on campus and social distancing of at least six feet is not possible. For the well-being of the entire university community it is important that everyone demonstrate the appropriate health and safety behaviors outlined in the University Mandatory Masking Policy ( As this mandate includes all campus classrooms, please make sure you are wearing your mask while in class. If you do not have a mask or forgot yours, see the professor for available masks. If you have an exemption from the Mandatory Masking Policy, please see the professor to make accommodations before class begins. If and where possible, please make your professor aware of your exemption and/or accommodation prior to arriving in class. If a student is unable or unwilling to wear a mask and has not made an accommodation request through the ADRC, they will be instructed to exit the classroom.
  • If you are experiencing any mental health issues that are impacting your academic performance, counseling is available at the University Counseling Center (UCC). The Center is located on the second floor of the Goddard Health Center, at 620 Elm Rm. 201, Norman, OK 73019. To schedule an appointment call (405) 325-2911. For more information please visit
  • OU also has a detailed non-discrimination policy.

Course Summary:

Date Details Due