Comparative Study of Religion

Professor Courtney Bickel Lamberth, Director of Undergraduate Studies 


The  concentration in the  Comparative Study of Religion at  Harvard  invites  students to explore the most  consequential and momentous questions  relevant to the understanding of individual and communal human life. Concentrators  consider  topics  such as the significance of ritual and practic ;  differing  conceptions  of human  nature and the nature of the divine;  and  comparative study of how people understand the meaning of life, suffering  and  death.   Our  program  is unique in allowing students to  ponder  these and other “big” questions in  rigorous  and  critical  ways. 

The  Study of Religion  as an academic field  draws upon social  scientific and  humanistic methods to interpret religious phenomena worldwide. Scholars of religion  use a range  of  tools: historical  methods  to  think  about  how  religions  change  over time; comparative methods to analyze rituals or texts in different religions; anthropological methods to study how religion shapes human cultures and societies; and literary-critical methods to interpret and understand religion texts. It is a diverse, creative field in which scholars talk across disciplinary boundaries. Due to this interdisciplinary approach, the concentration attracts creative, versatile students willing to learn different ways of thinking about and interpreting human life, community and culture.

Students studying religious traditions focus on sacred texts, rituals and symbols; philosophy and theology; and the history and lived experience of participants in the traditions. The program stresses the acquisition of certain skills: (1) the arts of reading and interpreting texts, practices and societies; (2) clear writing (essays are a substantial part of the requirements of the sophomore and junior tutorials); and (3) the knowledge of the fundamental literature on theories of religion, and on the various methods of the study.  Competency in religious studies indicates the ability to think critically and with historical and cultural learning about the complicated place of religious history, imagination, motivation, and memory in national and international affairs. Such skills have become one marker of an educated person, who is appropriately prepared for the responsibilities and pleasures of democratic citizenship and leadership. 

Concentrators draw up an individual concentration plan of study under the supervision of the Director of Undergraduate Studies, their concentration adviser, at times also in consultation with appropriate members of the Committee on the Study of Religion. There are four options for the concentration: (A) a focus on two religious traditions (or one tradition and one thematic focus); (B) a focus on a single tradition in a comparative context; (C) a joint concentration with religion as the primary field of study, and (D) a joint concentration with another field as the primary field of study. All four programs require general, methodological, or comparative courses outside of the major religious tradition(s) being studied. These courses provide analytical tools and knowledge of other traditions that enable students to think with comparative and theoretical imagination about diverse religious phenomena. Concentration credit for study abroad is possible in consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. 

  1. Two religious traditions/geographical areas; or one tradition/geographical area with a particular approach to the study of religion.   
  2. One religious tradition or geographical area in comparative context. 
  3. Joint concentration with religion as the primary field. 
  4. Joint concentration with religion as the allied field. 
Non-honors track: 12 courses (48 credits) / Honors track: 14 courses (56 credits) 
  1. Required courses:  These vary with the option chosen, as detailed below under each of the four options.  All plans of study are tailored to individual student interests, in consultation with concentration advisers. 
  2. Tutorials:  The tutorial program under each option is integrated closely into the student’s plan of study as detailed below. In Options A, B, and C the required tutorial courses are as follows: 
    1. Sophomore year:  Religion 97, tutorial seminar (one term), required. Letter-graded. 
    2. Junior year:  Religion 98r, an individual or small-group tutorial, required. Letter-graded. 
  3. Honors Candidates
    1. Thesis:  To be eligible to write a thesis, a student must maintain a minimum GPA average of B+ in the concentration through the first term of the junior year. 
    2. Senior Seminar:  Religion 99a and 99b (two terms), required only of students writing a thesis. Graded SAT/UNS. 
  4. Other Information
    1. Traditions:  The "tradition" can be either a major religious tradition, (such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam) or an historical complex, such as East Asia. The traditions listed are those for which there are ordinarily sufficient course offerings at Harvard. Other traditions may be possible, depending upon the availability of faculty and course offerings.  The option of incorporating a particular approach into the plan of study allows students to focus their work on a closely affiliated discipline.   
      • Ancient Near Eastern and Israelite 
      • Buddhism 
      • Christianity 
      • East Asian Religions 
      • Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman Religions 
      • Hinduism 
      • Islam 
      • Judaism 
      • Modern West and Religions of the Americas 
      • South Asian Religions 
    2. Interdisciplinary Approaches
      • Philosophy of Religion 
      • Religion and Social Science 
      • Religion, Race, and Gender  
      • Religion, Literature and the Arts (e.g., music, fine arts, creative writing) 
      • Religion and Science 
    3. Language Instruction:  In the evaluation of an honors thesis, the student’s ability to demonstrate an awareness of primary texts in their original language, when such considerations are relevant to the development of the thesis project, is ordinarily a consideration. Honors candidates are thus advised to study the language(s) they will need to interpret texts from the tradition(s) they choose. In general, students may count language courses towards concentration credit when the primary texts they are reading in the course are either from a religious tradition or relevant to the study of a religious tradition, beginning with the second year of a given language track. 
    4. Pass/Fail:  In addition to Religion 99a and 99b (see above), one additional course taken Pass/Fail or Sat/Unsat at Harvard can be counted for concentration credit. A relevant Freshman Seminar may therefore be counted for concentration credit, pending approval by the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies regarding Pass/Fail credit for courses taken abroad. 
    5. Joint Concentration:  The Comparative Study of Religion may be combined with another field in the overall framework of a joint concentration. Ordinarily, students wishing to combine Religion as the primary field will do so in the context of Option C.  Students interested in a joint concentration involving Religion should consult the Director of Undergraduate Studies. 
Option A: Two religious traditions/geographical areas; or one tradition/geographical area and a particular approach 
  1. General: Comparative and Methodological Studies: three courses. 
    1. One comparative course. Comparative courses vary from term to term, so consult the DUS for yearly options. 
    2. Religion 97 (one term). 
    3. One other course outside the student’s major tradition or geographical area. 
  2. Major Tradition or Geographical Area: Five courses. 
    1. Four courses focusing on a particular era or cultural/geographical area important in the tradition.
    2. Religion 98r (one term). 
  3. Second Tradition or Approach:   Four courses focusing on a particular era or cultural/geographical area, or four courses in a particular interdisciplinary approach (see above).  
  4. For Honors Candidates:  Religion 99a and 99b. 
Option B: One religious tradition/geographical area (in comparative context) 
  1. General: Comparative and Methodological Studies: four courses (16 credits). 
    1. One comparative course. Comparative courses vary from term to term, so consult the DUS for yearly options.  
    2. Religion 97 (one term). 
    3. Two other courses ordinarily in a tradition and/or geographical area other than the major one. 
  2. Major Tradition: Eeight courses (32 credits). 
    1. Seven courses, of which normally three focus on a particular era or cultural geographical area important in the tradition. 
    2. Religion 98r (one term). 
  3. For Honors Candidates: Religion 99a and 99b. 
Option C: Joint Concentration with Religion as Primary Field 
  1. General: Comparative and Methodological Studies: three courses (12 credits). 
    1. One comparative course. Comparative courses vary from term to term.  Consult the DUS for yearly options  
    2. Religion 97 (one term). 
    3. Two courses outside of the student’s Major Tradition or geographical area. 
  2. Major Tradition: Five courses. 
    1. Four courses focusing on a particular era or cultural/geographical area important in the tradition. For thesis writers, one of these courses will be Religion 99a. 
    2. Religion 98r (one term). 
  3. Allied Field:  At least four courses. As all joint concentrators must write a senior thesis, one of these courses will typically be Religion 99b, although in some instances, a senior tutorial in the other field may be substituted for Religion 99b or combined with it. One term of junior tutorial in the other field is often required. Precise course requirements are subject to concentration requirements of the department or committee that administers the program in the other field. 
Option D: Joint Concentration with Religion as Allied Field 
7 courses (28 credits) 
  1. General: Comparative and Methodological Studies: three courses 
    1. Religion 97 (one term). 
    2. Two other courses, at least one of which is outside the Major Tradition. 
  2. Major Tradition:  Four courses (16 credits) focusing on a religious tradition or geographical area. Religion 98r is strongly recommended, though not required. 
Each student is assigned a Concentration Adviser who will meet with the student at the beginning of each term to discuss the concentration plan. In most cases the Concentration Adviser will also serve as the special field adviser who counsels the student on issues related to the major tradition(s). When these two advisers are not the same, a special field adviser will be appointed in addition to the concentration adviser. 
For up-to-date information on advising in the concentration please see the  Advising Programs Office website
Faculty members from a range of Faculty of Arts and Sciences departments and from the Harvard Divinity School share in the teaching and administration of the concentration. For study resources concentrators draw not only upon the collections at Widener Library, the Harvard Art Museums, and the undergraduate libraries, but also upon the Andover-Harvard Library and area studies libraries, such as the Harvard-Yenching and Tozzer libraries. 
The  Handbook for Concentrators  and names of current concentrators willing to discuss the program are available at the office of the Study of Religion, 302 Barker Center. For more information, contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Courtney Bickel Lamberth. 
Number of Concentrators as of December
Comparative Study of Religion
Comparative Study of Religion + another field
Another field + Comparative Study of Religion