Skip to Content

Graduate Department of Religion

Home > Degrees > History and Critical Theories of Religion

History and Critical Theories of Religion

PURPOSE: The PhD program prepares students for teaching and advanced scholarship in religious studies. Training is two-fold. Students are first introduced to a variety of critical approaches to the study of religion. Questions of theory and method are central. Each student will also focus on one primary religious tradition. Graduates of the HACTOR program will emerge 1) with a rigorous grounding in at least one religious tradition, and 2) in conversation with the wider contemporary social scientific and humanities disciplines as they relate to the study of religion.

HACTOR research is typically carried out with a concern for the construction of the category of “religion.”  Thus objects and ideas are not taken to be inherently religious, but rather assume this quality thanks to historical, ideological, or methodological gestures. Comparative approaches to religion may also frame this type of research. The orientation is toward the disciplinary object (and the conditions for its emergence), the disciplinary subject (and the conditions for its emergence), and their dialectical interaction. Neither theory nor method can be appropriated aside from the object to be methodically theorized.

Our faculty specializations cover a variety of approaches to the critical study of religion including African American Studies, Ethnomusicology, Anthropology, Philosophy, Comparative Literature, Psychology, Gender Studies, Textual Studies and Historical Methods. Faculty expertise also extends across many religious traditions, including Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Ancient Near East, Indigenous and Contemporary American Religions, Daoism and Chinese religions.

TRAINING: Students are expected to devote a significant portion of their graduate study to familiarizing themselves with the major critical theories and methods of Religious Studies. Training takes place through two required first-year seminars, “The Study of Religion” (Fall) and “Topics in HACTOR” (Spring), as well as method courses outside the GDR relevant to the student’s work (e.g. courses in Anthropology, Critical Theory, Gender Studies, Philosophy, Sociology). A HACTOR colloquium will be held once or twice each semester. This informal gathering will explore both faculty and student research, with attendance being mandatory for all second year students.

REVIEW: All HACTOR students will be subject to a formal review of progress at the end of their second year of study. Core HACTOR faculty will review each student, and make the following determination: a) progress has been satisfactory, allowing progression to the qualifying exams; b) the student will not continue in the program, but will be awarded a terminal MA; or c) the student will not continue in the program.

AREA OF CONCENTRATION: Subsequently, students will take courses moving toward Qualifying Examinations and the writing of a dissertation. The bulk of the student's courses, to be worked out with the student's adviser, will be directed toward developing a major area of concentration. This major area of concentration will consist of courses in methodology as well as in a particular religious tradition. These courses should be chosen so as to lead to a dissertation that will make a contribution to a) the methodological study of religion and/or b) the understanding of a particular religious tradition.

MINOR FIELD: Each student is also expected to develop a minor, consisting of at least twelve hours of course work in a religion or methodology complementary with the major area. This minor may be completed in one of the religious traditions or methodologies available in this program, in one of the other fields in the GDR, or in another department within the Graduate School (Classics or Philosophy, for example). A "Minor Area Worksheet" must be completed before the student sits for Qualifying Exams.

EARNING A MINOR IN HACTOR: GDR students outside of HACTOR may complete a minor in this area. In consultation with a HACTOR area minor advisor, twelve course hours will be completed, followed by a minor area exam as part of the student's Qualifying Exams. The specific course of study, including language requirements, will be set by the minor area advisor.

LANGUAGE COMPETENCE: Students must have the language competence required by their dissertation project. These requirements must be met before sitting for the Qualifying Examinations. At minimum:

1) Students must demonstrate a reading knowledge of two modern research languages appropriate to their work, normally from among Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Modern Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, or the student's native language (if not English).

2) Options for one of the languages: Students may count reading knowledge of an ancient language, such as Sanskrit, Biblical or Rabbinic Hebrew, Greek, and other relevant ancient languages as their second language (the ancient form and the modern form of the same language count as a single language). Students who pass a graduate level course in statistics or statistical research design may count that course as fulfilling the second language requirement, except when the student's native language fulfills the first language requirement. This option is possible only if statistical research is essential to the student's proposed dissertation work.

Access to international research communities is important. Students are thus strongly advised to go beyond these language minimums and become competent in both French and German, in addition to primary source languages their research might require.

PROSPECTUS FOR QUALIFYING EXAMINATIONS: In the semester prior to sitting for the Qualifying Examinations, the student will prepare a prospectus describing each of the five parts of the Qualifying Examinations, and will meet with the Area Director, the first two readers and the minor area adviser for discussion and approval. The prospectus will include bibliographies [ Sample bibliographies online ] for each examination. A "Qualifying Exam Worksheet" must be completed by the student, and signed by the Area Director, at least three weeks prior to sitting for exams.

QUALIFYING EXAMINATIONS: Qualifying Examinations will consist of five parts: 1) an examination on the development and content of critical theories of religion; 2) an examination on the particular methodology or theory of religion that the student proposes to employ in the dissertation; 3) an examination on the religious tradition to which the student will make primary reference in the dissertation; 4) an examination on the student's minor area of concentration; and 5) an oral examination on a draft (6-12 pp, single spaced not including bibliography) of the dissertation proposal. This oral examination will also be an opportunity for discussion (approximately 30min) of the student’s written answers in the first four exams. This discussion will not change the grades given, but will be a chance for committee members to explore with the student omissions and weaknesses that might hinder dissertation writing. A research paper may be substituted for exam four, in consultation with the Minor area adviser. [Sample questions online]

The Area Director will collect the QE questions from the PhD committee members, and submit them to the GDR administrative assistant, who will administer them to the student. Committee members will receive the written answers, will grade them, and return a “QE REPORT” to the Area Director, who will inform the student and the entire committee of the results. These reports will be passed on to the GDR administrative assistant, and they will remain in the student’s file. See section twenty-one of the GDR's "Guidelines and Policies" for further important information.

PhD COMMITTEE: The student will identify a primary adviser (chair or first reader), a second reader, and at least two other faculty who agree to sit on the PhD committee. The Dean of the Divinity School, along with the GDR chair, will officially appoint the PhD committee. One member must be from an area of the GDR outside the student’s major, and one from another Department in the Graduate School. HACTOR faculty whose primary appointment is outside RLST and Divinity may satisfy the latter requirement. At least four members must be from the Graduate School. This committee will serve for the duration of the student’s program, seeing her/him through the Qualifying Exams, preparation of the dissertation, and dissertation defense. Students are encouraged to begin organizing a committee early in their second year, and not to leave this until just before the Exams period. Changes in the makeup of a PhD committee are possible, in consultation with the Area Director and the Chair of the GDR.

DISSERTATION PROPOSAL: The proposal is prepared in consultation with the primary adviser and, after review by the PhD committee (as part 5 of the QE's), is shortened and submitted to the full Graduate Department of Religion faculty for approval. This final form of the dissertation proposal (4-5 pages single spaced not including bibliography) is to be completed no later than six months after the end of the Qualifying Examination. Failure to meet this deadline will constitute a "fail" on that part of the QE's.

STUDY ABROAD: Normally students are expected to have spent time studying or living in a region associated with the primary religious tradition of the dissertation. Ideally the period of study abroad would occur during the time of graduate study and might be linked with language study or dissertation research. However in certain cases, for example projects centered on North America or the Ancient world, travel and study abroad may not be relevant.

DIRECTION: The Chair of the GDR with the consent of the Chair of Religious Studies appoints the Area Director for a one-year term, renewable twice. The Area Director will meet regularly with the Chair of the GDR (via regular GPAC meetings), and at least once a year with the Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science responsible for graduate education. Normally the HACTOR faculty will meet once during the Fall semester.

NOTE: This description of requirements supplements The Bulletin of Vanderbilt University Graduate School and "The Guidelines of the Graduate Department of Religion." Students are expected to meet all of the common requirements of the graduate program as described in those publications. Students should also consult the "Genral Requirements" page of the GDR.

Students in HACTOR are eligible for fellowships in Theology and Practice.