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RELS238 Religion and Human Behaviour

An overview of the study of religions as cultural phenomena, with an emphasis on scientific explanations for what religions have in common and for the differences between them.

Religious rituals and supernatural concepts are found in all known human societies. This includes ritual practices like exorcism, blood sacrifices and going to church, as well as supernatural concepts like karmic forces, creation accounts, and mischievous demigods. This paper uses ethnographic and empirical studies to answer three big questions about human behaviour and religion. First, why does the content and importance of religious systems vary so much across societies? Second, are there general rules that explain human behaviour across societies, or can human behaviour only be understood within specific cultural contexts? Third, what are the religious systems of future societies likely to look like? Topics covered include sacrificial rites, social conflict, economic exchange, social control, and revitalization movements.

Paper title Religion and Human Behaviour
Paper code RELS238
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2023 (Distance learning)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $955.05
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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36 points
RELS 338
Schedule C
Arts and Music, Theology

Open to all students who are curious as to why humans are religious, why religions are different, and where religion is headed in the future.


Joseph Watts:

Teaching staff

Joseph Watts

Paper Structure


  • Quizzes 20%
  • In-class ethnographic exercises and discussion 20%
  • Research project 30%
  • Final exam 30%
Teaching Arrangements

On campus there are two lectures (each one hour) per week.

For distance students there are eight tutorials (one hour; via Zoom). On campus students are welcome to attend.


Readings for this paper will consist of journal articles and an open access book titled:

  • Kago, Kastom and Kalja: The Study of Indigenous Movements in Melanesia Today
Course outline

View sample course outline

Graduate Attributes Emphasised

Interdisciplinary perspectives, Scholarship, Critical thinking, Communication, Ethics, Information literacy, Research, Self-motivation.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this paper, 200-level students will be able to:

  • Understand the universal features of religions and be able to describe some of the patterned variability of religions across cultures
  • Know the major theories used to explain religions and their place in human societies
  • Understand the changing role of religion in human societies up to the modern period
  • Write a clear, persuasive and original commentary about an evidence-based argument

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Not offered in 2023

Teaching method
This paper is taught through Distance Learning
Learning management system