What class? Pilgrimage, Prayer and Purity: The Anthropology of Religion
Who teaches it? Professor Michelle Johnson, sociology & anthropology
"In this course, we probe the emotional aspects of religion and religious phenomena: How do people feel when a loved one dies? What does it feel like to be possessed by a spirit? How are emotional responses shaped by culture?
"We attempt to bridge the gap between the objective study of religious phenomena and the lived experience of them. For example, when we look at death, funerary rituals and burial practices, we take a trip to the cemetery and spend a class period with a mortician. When we read about pilgrimage and healing, we travel to the Grotto of Lourdes, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Maryland, to experience pilgrimage. In so doing, we seek to reveal the power of religion: its ability to render meaningful, complex and ever-changing social worlds.
"The pilgrimage field trip is powerful. Students also tell me how helpful it is to confront and explore deeply the topic of death — a 'taboo' subject in America — through books, articles, films, discussions, guest speakers and a trip to the cemetery.
"Students get to spend a class period with what some people call a 'spirit medium' from Milton, Pa. For as long as she can remember, she says she's been able to see and communicate with dead people. Students will learn that while rare in our own society, this is quite common in other societies.
"I want students to leave this course with a better understanding of religion and religious phenomena. I want them to go beyond their prior understandings of these as they explore religious practices worldwide, such as circumcision (for men and women), pilgrimage and healing, and death and funerary customs. I want them to understand the intersections between religious belief, religious practice and culture. I want them to understand how the practice of secondary burial in Indonesia (when corpses are buried, dug up, ritually treated, then reburied) might shape local beliefs about life and death.
"The 'exotic' religious practices we explore in the class are not so different from many practices right here at home in the U.S."
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