Spirituality, religion and social change

Offer semester
2nd semester

Lecture time
Wednesday 16:30 – 18:20

Lecture venue

Course description

CCHU9014 Spirituality, religion and social change aims to engage you in a reflection on spirituality and religion, and on their relevance to contemporary social change. It will aim to do so in a manner which is personally meaningful, appropriate for critical analysis, and relevant to social action.

Society is undergoing a resurgence of religious beliefs and practices. Many of us are personally committed to spiritual or religious beliefs, are engaged in what could be called a “spiritual search”, or at the very least have many questions of a spiritual nature.

As faith in secular ideologies declines, there is a growing tendency to turn to religious traditions as conceptual and social resources for personal growth and social engagement. But is this appropriate or even right? In the past few decades the world has witnessed a dramatic resurgence of spiritual seeking and religious engagement in society, in ways that may be either constructive or destructive. Given the historical record, is it realistic to expect religion to provide answers to personal and social problems?

Open to believers, agnostics, skeptics, atheists and seekers, this course will give you exposure to, and an opportunity to engage with, the spiritual heritage of humanity: you will discuss passages from the scriptures of the world’s major religious traditions, as well as spiritual themes contained in popular feature films.

You will critically consider the contemporary social implications of religious teachings and spiritual principles when applied to questions of truth and knowledge, power and authority, conflict and cooperation, and sacrifice and service. You will reflect on whether these approaches to human spiritual life are part of the cause or part of the solution for global social problems.


Course learning outcomes

On completing the course, you will be able to:

  • Engage in self-reflective dialogue with others on issues of spiritual and social concern.
  • Compare expressions of religion and spirituality emanating from different cultural and religious backgrounds.
  • Apply scientific perspectives and concepts to analyze, interpret and evaluate spiritual concepts and their associated social and religious practices.
  • Evaluate the appropriateness of different forms of spiritual and religious engagement for improving the human condition in the context of an emerging global society.

Study load

ActivitiesNumber of Hours
Fieldwork / Visits20
Required readings36
Assessment: Short essays36
Assessment: Field journal writing10


Short essays60%
Attendance and participation in lecture group discussions and tutorials16%
Reflective journal24%

Required reading

Students are required to read materials on the course website as well as a weekly chapter or book selection of approximately 10-25 pages long, taken from the list of recommended readings:

Bellah, R. (2011). Religion in human evolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Berger, P. (1967). The sacred canopy: Elements of a sociological theory of religion.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces.

Descola, P. (2014). Beyond nature and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of the religious life.

Gennep, A. van. (1909). The rites of passage.

Harari, Y. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. New York: Random House.

Harper, S. (Ed.). (2000). The lab, the temple, and the market: Reflections at the intersection of science, religion, and development. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre Press.

James, W. (1901). The varieties of religious experienceA study in human nature.

Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on moral development, Vol. I: The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Kripal, J. (2011). Mutants and mystics: Science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Levi-Strauss, C. (1964). Mythologiques: The raw and the cooked.

Palmer, D. A., Shive, G., & Wickeri, P. L. (Eds.). (2011). Chinese religious life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Plate, S. B. (2008). Religion and film: Cinema and the re-creation of the world. London; New York: Wallflower.

Ratzinger, J., & Habermas, J. (2008). Dialectics of secularization: On reason and religion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure.

Wallace, B. A. (Ed.). (2003). Buddhism & science: Breaking new ground. New York: Columbia University Press.

In-class discussion will focus on the concepts in these readings as well as quotations from religious and philosophical texts including Zhuangzi,Laozi, the Great Learning, the Baghavad Gita, the Dhammapada, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Qur’an, the Hidden Words, Nausea, The Myth of Sysyphus, etc.

Recommended reading

A list of suggested additional readings will be posted on the course website.

Course co-ordinator and teachers