CCHU9014 Humanities
Spirituality, Religion and Social Change

[This course is under the thematic clusters of ‘Sustaining Cities, Cultures, and the Earth’ and ‘The Universe and the Question of Meaning’.]


Course Description

The aim of this course is to engage you in a reflection on spirituality and religion, and on their relevance to contemporary social change. It will aim to do so in a manner which is personally meaningful, appropriate for critical analysis, and relevant to social action. Society is undergoing a resurgence of religious beliefs and practices. Many of us are personally committed to spiritual or religious beliefs, are engaged in what could be called a “spiritual search”, or at the very least have many questions of a spiritual nature. As faith in secular ideologies declines, there is a growing tendency to turn to religious traditions as conceptual and social resources for personal growth and social engagement. But is this appropriate or even right? In the past few decades the world has witnessed a dramatic resurgence of spiritual seeking and religious engagement in society, in ways that may be either constructive or destructive. Given the historical record, is it realistic to expect religion to provide answers to personal and social problems?

Open to believers, agnostics, skeptics, atheists and seekers, this course will give you exposure to, and an opportunity to engage with, the spiritual heritage of humanity: you will discuss passages from the scriptures of the world’s major religious traditions, as well as spiritual themes contained in popular feature films. You will critically consider the contemporary social implications of religious teachings and spiritual principles when applied to questions of truth and knowledge, power and authority, conflict and cooperation, and sacrifice and service. You will reflect on whether these approaches to human spiritual life are part of the cause or part of the solution for global social problems.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Engage in self-reflective dialogue with others on issues of spiritual and social concern.
  2. Compare expressions of religion and spirituality emanating from different cultural and religious backgrounds.
  3. Apply scientific perspectives and concepts to analyze, interpret and evaluate spiritual concepts and their associated social and religious practices.
  4. Evaluate the appropriateness of different forms of spiritual and religious engagement for improving the human condition in the context of an emerging global society.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

Second semester (Wed)


Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 24
Tutorials 12
Fieldwork / Visits 20
Reading / Self-study 36
Assessment: Short essays 36
Assessment: Field journal writing 10
Total: 138

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Analytical writing 20
Field visit report 20
Reflective writing 20
In-class assessments 30
Tutorial participation 10

Required Reading

Required readings will be posted to the class Moodle. There will generally be one article of around 20 pages to read per week. The assigned readings have been specially written for this course, based on transcriptions of previous years’ lectures. Additional suggested readings from books and academic articles are also uploaded to the class Moodle site. The course website (cchu9014.weebly.com) also contains additional materials and resources, including embedded videos and links. Please read the materials for each week BEFORE the lecture on the week’s topic.

Required Film Viewing

You are required to view the following feature films on your own: Avatar, Hero, Gandhi, Les Misérables. Copies of these films have been placed on reserve in the University Library. In lectures and tutorials we will discuss the relevant spiritual or religious themes associated with the films. Some ethnographic documentary films will be shown in class as well.

Recommended Reading

  • Bellah, R. (2011). Religion in human evolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Berger, P. (1967). The sacred canopy: Elements of a sociological theory of religion.
  • Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces.
  • Descola, P. (2014). Beyond nature and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Durkheim, E. (1912). The elementary forms of the religious life.
  • Gennep, A. van. (1909). The rites of passage.
  • Harari, Y. (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. New York: Random House.
  • Harper, S. (Ed.). (2000). The lab, the temple, and the market: Reflections at the intersection of science, religion, and development. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre Press.
  • James, W. (1901). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature.
  • Kohlberg, L. (1981). Essays on moral development, Vol. I: The philosophy of moral development. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
  • Kripal, J. (2011). Mutants and mystics: Science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Levi-Strauss, C. (1964). Mythologiques: The raw and the cooked.
  • Palmer, D. A., Shive, G., & Wickeri, P. L. (Eds.). (2011). Chinese religious life. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Plate, S. B. (2008). Religion and film: Cinema and the re-creation of the world. London; New York: Wallflower.
  • Ratzinger, J., & Habermas, J. (2008). Dialectics of secularization: On reason and religion. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  • Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Turner, V. (1969). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure.
  • Wallace, B. A. (Ed.). (2003). Buddhism and science: Breaking new ground. New York: Columbia University Press.

Recommended Website

Field Trips

Students shall join field trips to religious communities in Hong Kong, which may include Baha’i, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, and take part in activities such as meditation, spirit-writing, ritual, study circle, interviews and discussions with believers.


Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr D.A. Palmer
Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences
Tel: 3917 2051
Email: palmer19@hku.hk
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr D.A. Palmer
Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences
Tel: 3917 2051
Email: palmer19@hku.hk