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RELS338 Religion and Human Behaviour (Advanced)

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 (Advanced)
Paper code RELS338
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2023 (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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One 200-level RELS paper
RELS 238
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

In addition to the above, 300-level students will also be able to:

  • Relate theoretical approaches to the study of culture and religion to one other
  • Argue for the merits of one theory relative to another, based on a familiarity with multiple religious traditions
  • Articulate the strengths and weaknesses of approaches to the study of culture and religion

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Not offered in 2023

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system