Religion, media and popular culture


About this course

For a long time, scholars understood religion as a phenomenon that was successfully relegated to the private spheres of life. Modern thinkers envisioned secularization as a gradual but progressive process, which guaranteed the boundaries between religion, politics, science and the economy. However, contrary to these expectations, religion never ceased to be of importance beyond the private spheres; not in the so-called West and not in the rest of our globalized world. Whereas much of the so called ‘return of religion’ is framed in reactionary terms – think of news broadcast about fundamentalist groups, for example – religion showed and shows itself in a variety of other contexts and processes. This course primarily aims to show where and how religion is audible and visible in contemporary societies and offers theoretical models to analyze this presence.

People do not necessarily turn to religion to resist the forces of globalization, but also in search of ways to become part of global networks, communities and processes. This pursuit is facilitated by cross-fertilizations between religion, media, entertainment and popular culture. For example: in 2015, in the Netherlands, 3.6 million viewers watched the live television broadcast of ‘The Passion’, in which famous Dutch pop- singers replayed the crucifixion of Christ in the city of Enschede. In 2013, in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis lead a night vigil on Copacabana beach that resembled first and foremost a contemporary pop concert, attended by 3 million peopled and streamed via the internet around the world.

This course offers students the tools to understand these phenomena in the context of processes generally described as globalization. The course will focus on the formations of contemporary religious communities in various parts of the world, so as to inform students of the differences between several religious traditions, the socio- political contexts in which they thrive and the various means through which these religions are channeled to their audiences and adherents. The focus on media and ‘popular culture’ signals the course’s aim to include in anthropological understandings of religion some of the important insights that come from the field of cultural studies and media studies. These insights can be summarized here as the need to include in anthropological understandings of contemporary societies, the effects that film, music, radio, social media and so forth have in the shaping of power relations between groups of people.

Learning outcomes

  • Insight into the genesis of the modern category of religion.
  • Refined understanding of the critique on the secularization thesis.
  • Enhanced knowledge of the concept ‘popular culture’ as a category of anthropological inquiry.
  • Understanding of the concept of the ‘sacred’ as anthropological category.
  • Refined understanding to religious processes and their effects.
  • Insight into how modern media are part of religious mobilization and revival.
  • Insight into the way in which religious movements and cultural processes interact.
  • Insight into the mediated processes that reproduce group boundaries.
  • Refined understanding of the relation between religion and globalization.
  • Improved writing skills (academic paper on a self-chosen topic).
  • Insight into the relation between cultural studies and anthropology.
  • Independent analysis of relations between different schools of scholarly debate.

Required prior knowledge

You must meet the following requirements

Link to more information

If anything remains unclear, please check the FAQ of Utrecht University.


  • Start date

    11 November 2024

    • Ends
      31 January 2025
    • Term *
      Period 2
    • Location
    • Instruction language
    Enrolment period closed
These offerings are valid for students of TU Eindhoven