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University of Oklahoma

[SOC 5970] Special Topics/Seminar - 492

Thomas Burns

Course Description

Special Topics Seminar: Religion and Society

The course will serve as an introduction to the major religions of the world, giving a sense of their histories, the societies of which they are part, and the institutions with which they interface, such as the economy, the polity, family and the law. Religious traditions considered include: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and indigenous traditions

Course Dates

DatesJune 17 - 26, 2022
Last day to enroll or drop without penaltyMay 19, 2022

Site Director

This is a three-credit hour online course. Please see your local Site Director or email our online site coordinator at

Professor Contact Information

Course ProfessorThomas J. Burns, Ph.D.
Mailing AddressOU Dept. of Sociology, KH 331, Norman, OK 73019
Telephone Number405-325-1751
Professor availabilityThe professor will be available via email to students before and after the class sessions. On-site office hours are half an hour before and after each class session, by appointment.

Textbook(s) and Instructional Materials

Student materials are available at the OU Bookstore Website at The website has book selling, renting, buying, returning, and order tracking capabilities. If you need help with an order, or if you have any questions contact the toll-free phone at 1-(855)-790-6637, agents are available from 9a – 5p (EST) Monday – Friday. Text prices are available online

The Illustrated World's Religions A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions
The Illustrated World's Religions A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions
by Smith, Huston
Published by HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 9780060674403
Religion and Society
Religion and Society
by Burns, Thomas
Published by University Readers
ISBN: 9781609270537

OU Email

All official correspondence from instructors will be sent only to students’ address.


Email Account and Canvas: Students are expected to check their OU email accounts and the course site on Canvas daily for updates from the instructor


Course Objectives

The goals of the course are:

  • To develop an understanding and appreciation of the major religions of the world
  • To understand how religious institutions, develop historically
  • To develop a sense of how social science can study religion
  • To see how religious institutions are influenced by, and have an influence on, societies and the people in them

Course Outline

  1. General Introduction and Orientation a. Go over the syllabus and discuss general ideas in the discipline
    1. Read Smith Chapter 1 (pp. 8-15)
  2. Hinduism
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Hinduism (pp. 17-57)
    2. Read from Burns Volume on Hinduism (pp. 1-26)
  3. Buddhism
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Buddhism (pp. 58-97)
    2. Read from Burns Volume on Buddhism (pp. 27-57)
  4. Confucianism
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Confucianism (pp. 98-121)
    2. Read from Burns Volume on Confucianism (pp. 59-82)
  5. Taoism
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Taoism (pp. 122-143)
    2. Read from Burns Volume on Taoism (pp. 83-112)
  6. Judaism
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Judaism (pp. 178-203)
    2. Read from Burns Volume on Judaism (pp. 113-140)
  7. Christianity
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Christianity (pp. 204-229)
    2. Read Selection from Burns Volume on Christianity (pp. 141-166)
  8. Islam
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Islam (pp. 144-177)
    2. Read from Burns Volume on Islam (pp. 167-192)
  9. Native Traditions
    1. Read Smith Chapter on Native Traditions (pp. 230-243)
    2. Read from Burns Volume on Native Traditions (pp. 193-219)
  10. Course Conclusion and Wrap-up
    1. Read Smith Concluding Chapter (pp. 244-251)

Assignments, Grading and Due Dates

Welcome to the course. I am committed to making your learning experience here a highly positive one. Enjoy your study of one of the world’s endlessly fascinating subjects–the study of the world’s religions and the societies of which they are part!

The course is designed so that students who pay close attention to the lectures and who grasp the reading can have a reasonable expectation of doing well in the course.

While doing well on the tests is certainly a large component of a person’s grade, that alone is insufficient in terms of the overall expectations. The course is designed to encourage class participation. It is expected that with few exceptions (see the university website for bona fide reasons for missing), students will be in class each time, will have read the assigned material in advance, and be ready to discuss it.

Some useful things to look for in seeking to understand a religion and the society(ies) of which it is part (note: these are also questions around which you may organize your final paper):

1. Major guiding beliefs and social practices

2. More specific theological beliefs

e.g. monotheistic/polytheistic/animistic, afterlife, approaches to God

3. Demographic characteristics

Estimates of numbers of people and their distribution (e.g. age, sex ratio, urban/rural, developed/developing countries, geography and history of parts of the world where it is most predominant.

4. Orientation to the world

inner-worldly/other-worldly, ascetic/mystical

5. Sacred objects and people

e.g. Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Priests, Communion, Prasadam

6. Rituals and other practices

Routinized action with others, promoting commonality of focus and perceptions) e.g. sacraments, dietary prescriptions, daily prayer, proselytization practices. How do these relate to key beliefs?

7. Interface with other societal institutions

Promotion of social solidarity and other functions in economy, polity, family. How separate are the other major institutions (e.g polity) from religion?

8. Religion as an ethical guide to everyday life

Given our discussion of religion and ethics, much as Max Weber has discussed a Protestant Ethic, what are some characteristics of the ethics of the religions we are studying (e.g. Confucian Ethic, or the Taoist Ethic?) What effects have these had on individuals and institutions in society?

9. Explication of Sacred Texts

Based on your reading and discussion how would you explain the meaning in a passage from a tradition’s scripture?

10. Generally

In general, when studying about a religion, to the extent possible, try to consider it from the standpoint of the people practicing that religion. In all cases, understanding is more important than judgment.


Methodologically, an important concept here is Max Weber’s idea of Verstehen. The point is to make the effort to understand others on their own terms, and to learn a great deal in the process.

In addition to any specifics about a religion, you should generally be able to give the central ideas of the religion in a few paragraphs. You should then be able to expand on those central ideas with meaningful detail.

Also, attend to the considerations in the study guides available on the class Canvas site about the specifics in a given religion. Class participation is important. Ideas that are stressed in lecture and discussion in class very often wind up on the test.

One sign of intellectual maturity is the ability to think about ideas in more than one way. In general, rather than memorizing lists of things from the books or lectures, try to integrate them into your thinking, come up with examples, and discuss them.


Class Discussion and Participation:

Class participation, quizzes and discussion are integral aspects of the course. It is important to be here, to do the reading in advance, and to be engaged in the lecture and discussion. This will help you and will also, by extension, help to foster a highly positive learning environment, from which we all benefit

Take-Home Final Exam:

This will test your knowledge from the course, including the class lecture and discussion as well as the readings. We also have a comprehensive set of study guides on the course Canvas site that will help you prepare. Due date is July 2, 2022.

Post Seminar Paper Assignment:

A brief paper (approximately 12 pages) on one of the religious traditions covered in the course, is required. A number of guidelines are in the syllabus. Due date is July 9, 2022.

The class paper accounts for 30% of the grade. You will write a paper (in standard American Sociological Association format, a handbook for which is posted on our class Canvas site) discussing one of the major world’s religions covered in the Canonical Texts Reader. The target length is 12 pages, typed, double-spaced.

While there is some flexibility here, I have included some guidelines in this syllabus for the study of religions in general, and for how they are situated within their respective societies. These guidelines are also quite useful in terms of organizing your thinking for when you write your paper. There are numerous references generally available for virtually all of the major world’s religions. As a target, you should plan on having about 8-10 references for your paper’ bibliography. Each reference should be properly cited using one of the conventional ways such as ASA format, guidelines for which are on our class canvas site. Alternatively, you may cite with one of the other commonly used formats, including Chicago, APA or Turabian. Your course paper should focus on one of the traditions covered in the course.




Class Discussion & Participation




Take-Home Final Exam


Post Seminar Paper Assignment



Technical Support Information

If you experience technical problems, contact Information Technology by visiting their website at: or contacting them by telephone at: (405) 325-HELP (4357).


Materials posted on the OU CANVAS system:

Access CANVAS at; enter your OU NetID (4+4) and password, and select course to access the material.


Procedures for Completion of Course Evaluation: 

Upon completion of the course students should go to the Advanced Programs Online Learning Information webpage and click on the applicable semester link under “Online Course Evaluation” which will direct them to the evaluation.  The evaluation will take approximately five minutes to complete.  Completion of the online evaluation is an important tool allowing Advanced Programs to gain information and student feedback for improvement of courses.

Your responses will be kept confidential.  They will be reviewed by the department and only supplied to the professor once grades for the course have been submitted.


Materials posted on the OU CANVAS system:

Access CANVAS at; enter your OU NetID (4+4) and password, and select course to access material. Please contact your local the IT Help desk at 405-325-HELP if you require assistance.  IT is available 24/7

Statement about the MHR Program Planner and Human Relations Website

Students should become familiar with the MHR Program Planner that was sent to each student upon admission into the program.  The planner has a description of the HR program objectives and requirements, suggestions for graduate study, financial assistance, and graduation information. Of particular interest is the information on the comprehensive exams and the internship.  For further information please visit the Department of Human Relations Website at:

Reasonable Accommodation Statement

The University of Oklahoma is committed to providing reasonable accommodation for all students with disabilities.  Any student in this course who has a disability that may prevent him or her from fully demonstrating his or her abilities should contact me personally as soon as possible so we can discuss accommodations necessary to ensure full participation and facilitate your educational opportunities.  Students with disabilities must be registered with the Office of Disability Services prior to receiving accommodations in this course.  The Office of Disability Services is located in Goddard Health Center, Suite 166, phone 405-325-3852 or TDD only 405-325-4173. For more information please see the Disability Resource Center website


Civility/Inclusivity Statement:

We understand our members represent a rich variety of backgrounds and perspectives. The Human Relations Department is committed to providing an atmosphere for learning that respects diversity. While working together to build this community we ask all members to:

  • share their unique experiences, values and beliefs
  • be open to the views of others
  • honor the uniqueness of their colleagues
  • appreciate the opportunity we have to learn from each other in this community
  • value each other’s opinions and communicate in a respectful manner
  • keep confidential discussions the community has of a personal (or professional) nature
  • use this opportunity together to discuss ways in which we can create an inclusive environment in this course and across the University of Oklahoma community.

Religious Holidays

It is the policy of the University to excuse absences of students that result from religious observances and to provide without a penalty for the rescheduling of examinations and additional required class work that may fall on religious holidays, without penalty.


Attendance/Grade Policy

Attendance and participation in interaction, individual assignments, group exercises, simulations, role playing, etc. are valuable aspects of any course because much of the learning comes from discussions in class with other students. It is expected that you attend all classes and be on time except for excused emergencies.

Excused absences are given for professor mandated activities or legally required activities such as emergencies or military assignments. It is the policy of the University to excuse absences of students that result from religious observances and to provide without penalty for the rescheduling of examinations and additional required class work that may fall on religious holidays. Unavoidable personal emergencies, including (but not limited to) serious illness; delays in getting to class because of accidents, etc.; deaths and funerals, and hazardous road conditions will be excused.

If you are obtaining financial assistance (TA, STAP, FA, VA, Scholarship, etc.) to pay all or part of your tuition cost, you must follow your funding agency/institution’s policy regarding “I” (Incomplete) grades unless the timeline is longer than what the University policy allows then you must adhere to the University policy. Students who receive Financial Aid must resolve/complete any “I” (Incomplete) grades by the end of the term or he/she may be placed on “financial aid probation.” If the “I” grade is not resolved/completed by the end of the following term, the student’s Financial Aid may be suspended make the student ineligible for further Financial Aid.

Students are responsible for meeting the guidelines of Tuition Assistance and Veterans Assistance. See the education counselor at your local education center for a complete description of your TA or VA requirements.

OU faculty will submit grades online through ONE not later than 30 days after the course end date. Course end dates are approximately one calendar month after the final seminar date on this syllabus and are provided on the official scheduling website for reference.

Academic Integrity and Student Conduct 

Academic integrity means honesty and responsibility in scholarship. Academic assignments exist to help students learn; grades exist to show how fully this goal is attained. Therefore all work and all grades should result from the student's own understanding and effort.

Academic misconduct is any act which improperly affects the evaluation of a student’s academic performance or achievement. Misconduct occurs when the student either knows or reasonably should know that the act constitutes misconduct. Academic misconduct includes: cheating and using unauthorized materials on examinations and other assignments; improper collaboration, submitting the same assignment for different classes (self-plagiarism); fabrication, forgery, alteration of documents, lying, etc…in order to obtain an academic advantage; assisting others in academic misconduct; attempting to commit academic misconduct; destruction of property, hacking, etc…; intimidation and interference with integrity process; and plagiarism. All students should review the Student’s Guide to Academic Integrity at 

Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining an appropriate learning environment. All students should review policies regarding student conduct at 

Accommodation Statement

The University of Oklahoma is committed to making its activities as accessible as possible. For accommodations on the basis of disability, please contact your local OU Site Director.

Adjustment for Pregnancy/Childbirth-Related Issues

Should you need modifications or adjustments to your course requirements because of documented pregnancy-related or childbirth-related issues, please contact the professor as soon as possible to discuss. Generally, modifications will be made where medically necessary and similar in scope to accommodations based on temporary disability. Please see

Title IX Resources

For any concerns regarding gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking, or intimate partner violence, the University offers a variety of resources, including advocates on-call 24/7, counseling services, mutual no-contact orders, scheduling adjustments, and disciplinary sanctions against the perpetrator. Please contact the Sexual Misconduct Office at or (405) 325-2215 (8-5), or the Sexual Assault Response Team at (405) 615 -0013 (24/7) to report an incident. To learn more about Title IX, please visit the Institutional Equity Office’s website at 

Course Policies

Extended Campus (also and formerly known as Advanced Programs) policy is to order books in paperback if available. Courses, dates, and professors are subject to change. Please check with your OU Site Director. Students should retain a copy of any assignments that are e/mailed to the professor for the course. Neither duplicating services nor office supplies are provided.

Any and all course materials, syllabus, lessons, lectures, etc. are the property of professor teaching the course and the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma and are protected under applicable copyright.

For more information about OU Extended Campus, visit our website at:

Statement on Respect

The classroom should provide a safe learning environment where students can express their views without fear of reprisal. That freedom of expression must be balanced by demonstrated respect for other’s viewpoints and appropriate and reasonable sensitivity, especially within the context of scholarly disagreement.  Disrespectful or uncivil dialogue (including, but not limited to, personal attacks, insults, or harassment) will not be tolerated.

Recording Devices/Phones/Computers

It is important for students to be fully present during class to fully benefit from lectures, discussions, and experiential assignments. Class sessions may not be tape-recorded. All telephones and pagers should be turned off or placed on silent mode. Computers may not be used during class. Students who require an exception to this policy should discuss exceptional circumstances with the professor.




Thomas J. Burns, Ph.D.



Ph.D., University of Maryland, 1990


Current Positions

Professor of Sociology at the University of Oklahoma and active in the International Relations, Religious Studies and Environmental Studies programs.


Frequently Taught Advanced Programs Courses

  • SOC 5970 Religion and Society

  • SOC 5790 Environment and Society


Major Areas of Teaching and Research Interest

Dr. Burns’s research focuses on the outcomes, evolution and emergence of social institutions from a comparative and historical perspective, particularly as they pertain to issues of religion and the environment.


Representative Publications and Presentations

  • Burns, T.J., T.W. Boyd, and P. Hekmatpour. 2021. Elective Affinities in the Anthropocene: Christianity and the Natural Environment Reconsidered. Social Science, Humanities and Sustainability Research, 2(4):82-95.

  • Burns, T.J., and B.S. Caniglia. 2017. Environmental Sociology: The Ecology of Late Modernity, 2e. Norman, OK: Mercury

  • Burns, T.J., and T.K. Rudel. 2015. Metatheorizing Structural Human Ecology at the Dawn of the Third Millennium. Human Ecology Review, 22(1):13-33.

  • Burns, T.J. (ed.). 2012. Canonical Texts: Selections from Religious Wisdom Traditions. San Diego: Cognella.

  • Burns, T.J. 2012.What Is Old and What Is New? Considering World-Systems in the 21stCentury and Beyond. In C. Chase-Dunn and S. Babones (eds.), Handbook of World-Systems Analysis. London:

  • Burns, T.J. 2009. Culture and the Natural Environment. In A. Begossi and P.F. Lopes (eds.), Current Trends in Human Ecology, Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars.

  • Burns, T.J., E.L. Kick, and B.L. Davis. 2006. A Quantitative, Cross-National Study of Deforestation in the Late 20th Century: A Case of Recursive Exploitation. In A.K. Jorgenson and E.L. Kick (eds.), Globalization and the Environment, Leiden: Brill.


Representative Awards and Honors

  • University of Utah, College of Behavioral and Social Science Superior Teaching Award

  • University of Oklahoma, Good Teaching Award

  • Society for Human Ecology, Gerald L. Young International Book Award

  • Society for Human Ecology, Distinguished Leadership Award

  • Book Review Editor, Human Ecology Review

  • Editorial Board, Journal of World-Systems Research


Representative Professional Affiliations

        Society for Human Ecology, American Sociological Association, Society for the Study of Social

        Problems, Oklahoma Sociological Association (Past President)