Course Syllabus

Introduction to Religious Studies

RELS 1113 section 002 (CRN 40720)
Spring 2023, University of Oklahoma, Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences
Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:00-10:15 in Physical Science Center 115


David Vishanoff
vishanoff at ou dot edu
Robertson 119

Office hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays 10:30–11:30, or by appointment. You are welcome either to come to my office (Robertson 119) or to meet with me over Zoom (just email me in advance 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—each of them a classic that has deeply shaped public and scholarly understanding of religion—with the goal of assessing each author’s assumptions, values, goals, and methods, while reassessing and developing your own approach to understanding religions in light of each book. Along the way, you will have the opportunity to learn many details about the textual, doctrinal, social, and ritual dimensions of several religions, but those details won't be our main focus. 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 Culture). It has no prerequisites. It is a fully in-person class.


Please purchase hard copies (not ebooks, since our classroom will be device-free) and bring the assigned book to class each day. You may order them through the OU online bookstore at

  • 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 before the start of classes.
  • Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage, 1989, ISBN 978-0679724537
  • Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Anchor Books, 1990, ISBN 9780385073059
  • David Haberman, Journey Through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna. Oxford, 1994, ISBN 978-0195084795

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? You should aim to make a substantial contribution about once a week, whether orally in class, in writing online, or any combination of the two.

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)

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. There is therefore a severe grade penalty for excessive absences. If you will not be able to attend regularly, please drop the course. You will be allowed to miss up to four classes without penalty, after the deadline for adding classes. Every absence beyond your first four will result in a reduction of your final course grade by one half of a letter grade. For example, if your course grade would have been a B, but you missed six classes (two more than allowed), you would be down to a C. Please note that there is no limit to this penalty, so if you miss enough classes you will quickly drop down to an F in the course, regardless of your grades on assignments. I fully expect that you will occasionally (up to four times) be unable to attend class for one reason or another, so it is not necessary to apologize or provide any excuse for your absences. On the other hand, if a serious ongoing personal or health situation will result in four or more absences during the term, please do talk to me about it as soon as possible, and I will be as supportive as I can. Absences that result from religious observances will be not be counted, and 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.

I will usually take attendance just before class begins, so if you arrive after class has begun you will be irrevocably recorded as absent unless you check in with me after class, in which case I will record you as merely late. Please don’t be embarrassed about doing this; I’m not offended by your lateness. Nevertheless, since arriving late can undermine your learning and can be distracting to other students, I may decide to count each lateness as a fraction of an absence if lateness becomes a recurring problem.

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 on the basis of your own understanding of the subject, plagiarism (reproducing or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without citing them), failing to document sources as required in an assignment, using or submitting text (even in modified form) that was generated in whole or in part by automatic text generators such as ChatGPT, 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 regard to academic misconduct. If you have questions about academic integrity or plagiarism, please ask; my aim is to foster an environment of trust in which you can learn, grow, and try out ideas while being transparent about your thinking and learning.

Student experience survey (a moral requirement)

At the end of the term you will have the opportunity to answer the university's online survey about your experience in this course 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 their learning experiences. 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 the survey. Thank you; my future students and I will be grateful that you did.

General course 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.
  • On all writing assignments the instructor reserves the right, before assigning a grade, to request an individual meeting with any student to ask for explanation of any aspect(s) of their writing, and then assign a grade based on the total evidence of the written paper and the student's explanations. This could improve the grade somewhat if the instructor feels the student had excellent ideas that were not fully communicated in writing despite a good effort, or it could dramatically reduce the grade if the student's explanations cast doubt on whether the student actually wrote the paper themselves from scratch. This policy is needed in order to safeguard against students using recent advances in artificial intelligence to obtain essays that they did not write themselves but whose actual provenance might be difficult to prove. If academic dishonesty is suspected, the case will be referred to the Integrity Council (see Academic Honesty above), but even if the Council is not able to establish that academic misconduct has occurred this policy will enable the instructor to assign a low or failing grade on the assignment if the student is unable to explain to the instructor's satisfaction how the paper resulted from their own thinking. In other words, being ready and able to explain your writing orally if asked is part of what is expected in all writing assignments in this class. If you cannot explain how each aspect of your writing resulted from your own thinking, you have missed the point of the assignment, and if the instructor discovers this you will be graded accordingly.
  • 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.
  • Because recordings or transcripts of class sessions could undermine the limited communal nature of our discussions, and could be used to facilitate academic dishonesty, making or using such recordings or transcripts is not permitted and may constitute academic misconduct.

University policies

  • In order to help alleviate the stress of "dead week" or "pre-finals week," I have designed the schedule so that all our papers and almost all our reading are completed before the last week of classes. We will use the last week to reflect 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 Accessibility and Disability Resource Center (, 730 College Avenue, 325-3852, TDD 325-4173, who will be able to help figure out what is best and whether you should formally register with the Center. The ADRC is committed to supporting students with disabilities to ensure that they are able to enjoy equal access to all components of their education. This includes your academics, housing, and community events. If you are experiencing a disability, a mental/medical health condition that has a significant impact on one or more life functions, you can receive accommodations to provide equal access. Possible disabilities include, but are not limited to, learning disabilities, AD(H)D, mental health, and chronic health. Additionally, the ADRC supports students with temporary medical conditions (broken wrist, shoulder surgery, etc.) and pregnancy.
  • Title IX Resources and Reporting Requirement: Anyone who has been impacted by gender-based violence, including dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, harassment, and sexual assault, deserves access to resources so that they are supported personally and academically. The University of Oklahoma is committed to offering resources to those impacted, including: speaking with someone confidentially about your options, medical attention, counseling, reporting, academic support, and safety plans. If you would like to speak with someone confidentially, please contact OU Advocates (, available 24/7 at 405-615-0013) or another confidential resource (see “Can I make an anonymous report?” at You may also choose to report gender-based violence and discrimination through other means, including by contacting the Institutional Equity Office (,, 405-325-3546) or police (911). Because the University of Oklahoma is committed to your safety and that of other students, all faculty are mandatory reporters. This means that I am obligated to report gender-based violence that has been disclosed to me to the Institutional Equity Office. This includes disclosures that occur in: class discussion, writing assignments, discussion boards, emails and during Student/Office Hours. For more information, please visit the Institutional Equity Office (
  • 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 Accessibility and Disability Resource Center at 405/325-3852 as soon as possible. Also, see for answers to commonly asked questions.
  • 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 (
  • Emergency Protocol: During an emergency, there are official university procedures that will maximize your safety.
    • Severe Weather: If you receive an OU Alert to seek refuge or hear a tornado siren that signals severe weather.
      1. Look for severe weather refuge location maps located inside most OU buildings near the entrances
      2. Seek refuge inside a building. Do not leave one building to seek shelter in another building that you deem safer. If outside, get into the nearest building.
      3. Go to the building’s severe weather refuge location. If you do not know where that is, go to the lowest level possible and seek refuge in an innermost room. Avoid outside doors and windows.
      4. Get in, Get Down, Cover Up
      5. Wait for official notice to resume normal activities.
    • Additional Weather Safety Information is available through the Department of Campus Safety.
    • Armed Subject/Campus Intruder: If you receive an OU Alert to shelter-in-place due to an active shooter or armed intruder situation or you hear what you perceive to be gunshots: 1. Avoid: If you believe you can get out of the area WITHOUT encountering the armed individual, move quickly towards the nearest building exit, move away from the building, and call 911. 2. Deny: If you cannot flee, move to an area that can be locked or barricaded, turn off lights, silence devices, spread out, and formulate a plan of attack if the shooter enters the room. 3. Defend: As a last resort fight to defend yourself. For more information, visit OU’s Emergency Preparedness site ( Shots Fired on Campus Procedure – Video (
    • Fire Alarm/General Emergency: If you receive an OU Alert that there is danger inside or near the building, or the fire alarm inside the building activates: 1. LEAVE the building. Do not use the elevators. 2. KNOW at least two building exits 3. ASSIST those that may need help 4. PROCEED to the emergency assembly area 5. Once safely outside, NOTIFY first responders of anyone that may still be inside building due to mobility issues. 6. WAIT for official notice before attempting to re-enter the building. OU Fire Safety on Campus (