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African American Religion at Rice University

The rich historic legacy of the African American community gave birth to unique and powerful religious practices.  Events like the Hurricane Katrina response, the historic presidency of Barack Obama, and the Travon Martin case point out the continued, peculiar U.S. fascination with race. African American religion is now a frequent topic of conversation at dinner tables and public spaces in a variety of social and cultural settings.  Though African American religion represents a large crosscurrent of U.S. religiosity in general, African American religion has remained largely understudied.  Institutions like the historic Black Church and the Nation of Islam have literally shaped the trajectory of the United States and the world, but within the popular imagination and the academy have been largely ignored.

The program at Rice University in the Study of African American Religions seeks to expose the quantitative and qualitative significance of African American religion to a broader audience within our society, while also pushing forward rigorous, ground-breaking scholarship in a variety of fields within the academy.  Black religion spans a host of religious orientations, from traditional institutionalized forms of black religion like the Black Church and the Nation of Islam to lesser-known traditions like African American humanism.


Information from the “Religious Attendance Data 2000” points to the significance of Houston, for example, regarding an understanding of African American religious practice and belief. There are roughly 300,000 African Americans attending services on a regular, weekly basis; and this rate of attendance is 40% greater than for non-African Americans. Most of these African American Christians attend one of the 1000-1250 black churches. Furthermore, the presence of “mega-churches” in Houston point to another fertile field of study related to African American religiosity. Beyond mainstream Christianity, the presence of the Nation of Islam, Santeria, etc., point to the rich religious geography of African American communities in Houston.


The potential for unique contributions to scholarship on African American religion is further enhanced by Rice University’s close proximity to the religiously rich terrain of the South Carolina sea islands, Voodoo in New Orleans, as well as conjure and root work in other southern states such as Mississippi. Cross-cultural work is also possible based on easy access to Candomblé in Brazil, Voodoo in Haiti, and so on. A rich religious landscape and the resources of a world-class University provide a unique opportunity for the study of African American religion.

Research and teaching related to African American religion at Rice takes seriously the need for multi-disciplinary training, taking advantage of theoretical and methodological innovations in a variety of disciplines. In so doing, the study of African American religion at Rice involves synergy, a creative tension, between the standard areas of religious studies (e.g., theology and religious history) other humanistic disciplines, and the social sciences. Taking advantage of this rich religious context, the study of African American religion at Rice takes seriously developments in the United States, but also pushes for analysis that moves beyond such boundaries to understanding African American religiosity in the United States in relationship to hemispheric developments.

Furthermore, the study of African American religion at Rice seeks to ground theory and method in lived experience, recognizing that African American religion involves a quest for complex subjectivity that takes various forms and uses various signs and symbols. The approach to African American religion at Rice involves rigorous study of the field so as to develop expertise promoting a synergy between various disciplinary tools applied to African American religion with an emphasis on the dynamics of African American religious thought and the contours of African American religious life.

Upon completing this program, students will be prepared to teach materials related to religion in America, with particular expertise in African American religious thought and life. Graduates are also prepared to undertake sophisticated research related to the complexities of African American religiosity.

The University is home to many organizations whose goals overlap with various aspects of the program. For example, the Humanities Research Center, the Bonuik Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance, and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research provide institutional support and opportunities for dialogue and research initiatives that extend the work of graduate students beyond the Religious Studies Department. Students are also able to take advantage of the resources available through the Americas Colloquium and “The Our America” Archive.

On the Rice campus

we have a group of faculty members –including Anthony B. Pinn and Elias Bongmba in Religious Studies, John Boles, Edward Cox and Alexander Byrd in History, Michael Emerson in Sociology, and Caroline Levander in English – who are concerned, in broad ways, with the nature, meaning, and impact of African American religion on life and thought in the American hemisphere. Students will benefit from the opportunity to take courses from scholars in a variety of disciplines and in this way to foster a complex and interdisciplinary analysis of African American religion unique to the Rice context.

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