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RELS238 Religion and Human Behaviour

2021 information for papers will be published in early September. 

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.

Rituals and supernatural beliefs of some sort exist in all human societies. Moreover, there is evidence that religion traces back deep into the historical and archaeological record. The universality of religion suggests that it is a critical part of what it means to be human. But why are humans a religious species? And if religion is a human universal, then why does it take so many diverse forms across the globe? How is religion influenced by, and a part of, the larger culture? And how are the forms and functions of religion impacted by the social and natural environment? Why are religions so often concerned with regulating such important facets of human societies such as gender, sexuality, and violence? Will religion remain important as societies become increasingly modern? We will attempt to address these questions and others through a broad examination of religions as both human and cultural phenomena. Much of our exploration of these topics will occur alongside a group ethnographic project that investigates modern forms, and functions, of religions in New Zealand.

Paper title Religion and Human Behaviour
Paper code RELS238
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.1500
Points 18 points 18 points
Teaching period(s) First Semester, First Semester
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $904.05
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $3,954.75

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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.


Dr John Shaver:

Teaching staff

Dr John Shaver

Paper Structure


  • Quizzes 30%
  • In-class ethnographic exercises and discussion 15%
  • Research project 20%
  • Final exam 35%

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 two ethnographies. These two ethnographies are:

  • The Cassowary's Revenge: The Life and Death of Masculinity in a New Guinea Society, by Donald Tuzin; and
  • When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by Tanya Lurhmann
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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First Semester

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

First Semester

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Tuesday 09:00-10:50 9-12, 18-22