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    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.

    About this paper

    Paper title Religion and Human Behaviour
    Subject Religious Studies
    EFTS 0.15
    Points 18 points
    Teaching period Not offered in 2024 (Distance learning)
    Domestic Tuition Fees ( NZD ) $981.75
    International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.
    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.

    May not be credited together with RELS 338.


    Associate Professor John Shaver

    Teaching staff

    Associate Professor John Shaver

    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


    Not offered in 2024

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