Reading Religion by the Numbers


C. Travis Webb

Last Updated Date

Sunday, September 4, 2016 - 20:19
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One of the many benefits of a book review site dedicated to “reading religion” is the vantage it affords. From an elevated survey, the intellectual dissonance which describes the study of “religion” takes on a particular, even if amorphous shape. That said, this isn’t really the forum to proffer some full throated assessment of the entire field, but we can at least take note of its topography. Where does it bulge, welter, attenuate, disappear? To get started, let me share some numbers with you.

Cynthia Eller has worked—from conception to launch—to realize a dynamic and comprehensive resource, and towards that end created a database that allows us to catalog, tag, and track the variety of books that pass through our offices. What you see above is an informal graphic that offers a rudimentary assessment of the relative magnitude of the nominalized “traditions” tracked by Reading Religion.

It goes almost without saying that this representation has numerous limitations. Many “traditions” were not parsed: you’ll find no Bahá’ís, Mormons, or Pagans on our x axis, and traditions like Daoism, Shinto, and Confucianism are subsumed in geographical territories (Chinese religions, Japanese religions). There’s also no way to know if the underrepresentation of non-Abrahamic traditions, 26% versus the Abrahamic traditions' 74%, is a result of conditioned behavior, bias, habit, or if it is a meaningful measurement. We only track the books we receive, and though we are trying to solicit review copies of all scholarly books about religion, surely there are more books on the subject than we see. But how many more? Enough to significantly alter the distribution of materiel we deploy against our epistemological borders? It’s possible, but I’m skeptical—if for no other reason than it’s also certainly true that we don’t receive every book published on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Of course, these are only best guesses at larger publishing trends. But much like we rely on numerical estimates to quickly assess the relative position of our various concerns, I’d suggest we’re looking at a useful, even if simplistic, approximation of the field in the early part of the 21st century—at least as it stands in the English-speaking world.

As with any effort to pry useful information from the world’s dumb fact, there are potential problems up and down the analytical chain. As editors, our decision to classify books by “tradition” reifies a questionable colonial typology, but it is one so pervasive that to abandon it would have hobbled the site’s usefulness. As researchers, we may have done a bad job of answering our own questions. For example, should William Elison, et al.’s Amar Akbar Anthony really be classified as “Christian,” just because one of the movie’s titular characters, Anthony, is counterpoised against the Hindu Amar, and the Muslim Akbar? We thought so, but you might argue differently. However, we also classified the book under “Hinduism” and “Islam.” In fact, if there’s any reasonable way to include a category, we do. We’re liberal in our typologies, under the assumption that the more hooks we provide our readers the more useful the site will be to them. All of these factors, and more, should be considered when evaluating the information presented. Service to the field was foremost in our minds, and that does not limn a compelling argument for scientific rigor.

Necessary qualifications aside, I would offer the following preliminary interpretation of my cocktail napkin estimates. However we define, or catalog, the phenomenon “religion,” it seems pretty clear from the anthropological record that human beings have been getting together to gesticulate, signify, exchange gifts, and (probably) sing since at least the 10th century BCE (see, for example, Klaus Schmidt’s archaeological work on Göbekli Tepe). Furthermore, the same pro-social imagination that carved pictograms, vultures, foxes, and anthropomorphic pillars from the stone on the Anatolian plane continues today unabated. It’s on fire in Dharamsala as much as in the megachurches of Dayton. That’s not to say that the transcendental themes that preoccupy us are ever the same—not at all. In fact, that’s precisely my point: there is an abundance of human significations, and that abundance is not reflected in our scholarly production.

Now, you might reasonably object that my disciplinary desiderata are my own, and have little to do with what should or shouldn’t be reflected in our scholarship. It’s a fair objection, I think, but you don’t have to agree with my intellectual priorities to see that given the varieties of religious (and non-religious) expressions in the world, and the population of peoples—roughly 3 billion (about 45%) do not ascribe to an Abrahamic faith—that our scholarly production is skewed. And that problem becomes even more pronounced if we focus on “Christianity” alone: the combined total of every other tradition on the site, 317, is well short of Christianity’s 411. This is not to say that scholars shouldn’t focus on Christian missionization in Zaire, for example, or the impact of religious activism on the Texas school board; it’s to say that there’s a whole lot of scholarship in those areas, and very little (by comparison) in the other areas, and traditions, of the world. Many scholars might not see the problem here, but then I would seriously ask if we should just admit that the study of “religion” in the West is primarily the study of “Christianity,” and the rest is garnish. However, I don’t believe that to be the case.

In my experience, our colleagues are unrestrained in their curiosity about other humans, and their various otherworldly significations, and it is because of this that I find my (provisional) assessment promising. Rather than lament our deficiencies, I would offer that if you’re persuaded by my suggestion that the books sent to us for review are a useful sample of the field’s preoccupations, then the potential for intellectual growth is tremendous. Yes, there’s a lot of work to be done to correct the imbalance, but in the early part of the 21st century it would seem that we’ve only just begun to study religion.

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