Exploring religion: places, practices, texts and experiences
This module offers an accessible and cutting-edge introduction to the study of religions, exploring places, practices, texts and experiences. You will encounter a range of religious traditions, in particular Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, in diverse geographical, cultural and historical contexts. You will study these religions as they are actually lived and investigate their impact on different societies and cultures. The module challenges various widely held assumptions about religions and the study of religion, and engages students with three core questions: What is religion? How do we study religion? Why should we study religion? Drawing on rich audio-visual material, this module develops key skills for study and employability.
What you will study
This module offers you the critical tools to think about religion and gain a deeper understanding of its place in the modern world. Three core questions are asked: what is religion, how do we study religion, and why should we study religion? It consists of four blocks of study based on the key frames of places, practices, texts and experiences. Within this structure, it also offers in-depth engagement with three broad religious traditions – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam – as well as various forms of indigenous religious traditions and contemporary spirituality. You'll study religion in its social, cultural, geographical and historical contexts. You'll explore themes such as the internal diversity of religious traditions; their cross-cultural and transnational aspects; lived and material religion; and the fluid boundaries between the religious and the secular. It will equip you with a greater sense of religious literacy and vital skills, which can be important for lifelong learning, careers and good citizenship.
The module begins with an introduction to the key questions: What is religion? How do we study religion? Why should we study religion? You'll reflect on the category ‘religion’ in your own locality with an interactive activity called ‘Take a picture of religion’. The unit will also get you started with a Learning Journal, which you'll develop as the module progresses.
Block 1: Places
The module then moves to explore the ways in which religions use, interpret and transform places and spaces. It begins with a case study of religious buildings in London, which includes a suite of 360-degree tours of these sites, and discusses the difference between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives on religion. It then examines mosques in a range of geographical and cultural contexts, and the role of mosques in local communities. Attention then turns to a whole continent, India, in order to introduce the religious traditions we call Hinduism, and the ways in which religion shapes understandings of geography and national identity. Finally, we return to cities but move from buildings to streets and spaces in a case study on Christianity in the Philippines. Here you'll encounter the theory of secularization, which is contrasted with the idea that religion is becoming more ‘liquid’ and adapting to contemporary circumstances rather than disappearing.
Block 2: Practices
In this block, the module challenges the assumption that religion is primarily about internalised ‘belief’ by focussing on religion as it is practiced and lived – in a range of practices and rituals. This block furthermore provides a gentle introduction to theory, asking how ideas and theories may inform the observation and interpretation of religion as what people ‘do’. It begins with a unit about religion and food, asking ‘what does religion taste like?’ It then looks more closely at various practices associated with (Shia) Islam, (Nigerian) Christianity and (Swaminarayan) Hinduism in both their places of origin and the UK. This will reveal the diversity of practices within broader religious traditions and the ways in which beliefs and experiences are grounded in formal ritual and everyday life. The block considers the idea of transnational religion – and the flows and connections of religious traditions between different geographical and cultural contexts.
Block 3: Texts
This block addresses texts as a media for cosmologies, stories and doctrines. Texts are not only storehouses of information but can be performed and are often material objects. A central theme is the diverse varieties of religious text: religious texts are not only the great canonical, written works of particular traditions but come in a variety of forms, including oral narratives, buildings, devotional art and movies. The block begins with an exploration of the ways, some of them controversial, in which the Bible is interpreted by Christians and how this has changed through time. It then considers another foundational religious text, the Qur’an, and its organisation, interpretation and the way it is used in everyday life. The third unit explores Hindu temples as texts, followed by a case study on a specific branch of Hinduism, ISKCON, and how it has engaged with the translation and visual representation of its sacred texts. The final unit focuses on how sacred stories are transmitted in some indigenous religious traditions through ritual performance and oral narratives. As a whole, this block explores the variety of ways in which religious texts of many kinds can be ‘read’.
Block 4: Experiences
The focus of the final block is religious experiences. What is religious experience, and how are religious experiences represented? It first introduces ideas and theories of religious experience, and how we can study and interpret the experiences of others, beginning with a case study of Cargo Cults. It then explores the auditory element of religious experience focusing on the question ‘what does religion sound like’? The links between religious experience, music and dance are developed with an exploration of mysticism in the Sufi tradition. The final chapter of the block explores the experience of pilgrimage. This includes examining the variety of different experiences people have, in both religious and ‘secular’ sites, how pilgrimage has changed through time, and why it seems to be increasingly popular for a variety of religious, ‘spiritual’ and non-religious participants.
You will learn
By studying this module, you will:
- encounter religions in a diverse range of places, practices, texts and experiences.
- study key approaches and methods in the study of religion.
- develop essential cognitive skills.
- develop a range of key practical and professional skills.
This is an OU level 2 module, and you need to have the study skills required for this level, obtained either through OU level 1 study or by doing equivalent work at another university.
No preparatory work is required but having studied Discovering the arts and humanities (A111), Revolutions (A113) or Global challenges: social sciences in action (D113) would be an advantage.
You might find the OpenLearn courses Religious diversity: rethinking religion and Why not 'World Religions'? helpful as a taster of the module’s approach to the subject.
You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:
- a week-by-week study planner
- module materials
- audio and video content
- assignment details and submission section
- online tutorial access
- discussion forums and news from the module team.
You’ll also be provided with four printed module books, each covering one block of study, including printed readings.
You will need
For one week of study, you will be required to use either Chrome, Firefox or Edge.
For a few module activities, it would be helpful, but not essential, to have access to a device for making digital images (e.g. a camera with a phone, or a digital camera). For one activity, it would be helpful, but not essential, to have access to a sound recording device – i.e. the kind available on many mobile phones. However, access to these devices is not compulsory and will not disadvantage you in the module. Also, alternative activities will be made available for those with particular accessibility requirements.
You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS (11 'Big Sur' or higher).
Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.
To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).
Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.
Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.
It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.