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RELS110 Introduction to the Scientific Study of Religion

An introduction to scientific methods and their application to the study of religion, focusing on scientific explanations for religious belief and behaviour.

Have you ever wondered why many people are religious while others are not? Or whether or not religion has measurable effects on a person’s mental health or behavioural outcomes? This paper introduces students to the scientific theories and methods employed to understand religion as a natural phenomenon. Students will learn what cutting-edge psychology experiments reveal about religious belief, as well as the systematic patterning of religions across cultures. The course will also discuss the place of religion within the context of human evolution, scientific studies of religion in contemporary New Zealand, and the future of religious belief and unbelief.

Paper title Introduction to the Scientific Study of Religion
Paper code RELS110
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period(s) Semester 2 (Distance learning)
Semester 2 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $955.05
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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Schedule C
Arts and Music, Theology

Associate Professor John Shaver

Teaching staff

Associate Professor John Shaver

Dr Joseph Watts

Paper Structure

This paper is structured around six themes:

  • Introduction
  • Psychological Approaches
  • Anthropological Approaches
  • Evolutionary Approaches
  • Religion: Today and Tomorrow


  • Quizzes: 20%
  • Essay: 30%
  • Final exam: 50%
Teaching Arrangements

The Distance Learning offering of this paper is taught remotely.

  • On-campus students will meet two days a week. There will also be tutorials held every week, in person for campus students and via Zoom for distance students.
  • Distance students please note: one of the advantages of online study is that the learning process is asynchronous (ie you don't have to attend scheduled lectures and can study when and where it is convenient). However, you will find it helpful to follow the on-campus lecture schedule when studying, as each unit has been designed to build on information provided in the previous unit.

Textbooks are not required for this paper. All resources will be provided electronically.

Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Information literacy, Research.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
  • Understand and explain how science and religion provide different types of explanatory frameworks, and how and why they often co-exist;
  • Understand and explain why humans are religious, and what it does for people and groups;
  • Understand and explain the future of religion, including the continued of emergence forms of non-belief, such as atheism;
  • Be able to apply a scientific understanding/explanation of religions with which they are unfamiliar.

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Semester 2

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

Semester 2

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Tuesday 09:00-09:50 28-34, 36-41
Thursday 09:00-09:50 28-34, 36-41


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Friday 10:00-10:50 29-34, 36-41