A Beginner's Guide to the Study of Religion

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Bradley L. Herling
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is religious studies a topic or a discipline?

On some level this question should only concern university administrators. If religion is a topic akin to sexuality or travel, then perhaps it calls for an interdisciplinary approach that draws together humanists and social scientists housed in more traditional methodologically-based academic departments. If, on the other hand, religious studies is its own discipline, then its researchers, teachers, and students will not fit in other academic departments and need their own administrative home in the university.

In A Beginner’s Guide to the Study of Religion, Bradley L. Herling argues that scholars of religion need to be trained in the distinctive methods of religious studies in order to defend its status as a discipline and its value as an academic major. Arguments for religious studies should not, however, be reserved for advanced students; rather these concerns should be raised at the outset of a student’s training in religious studies. Thus the primary audience for this book is the undergraduate religious studies classroom, but it is accessible enough that undergraduates considering majoring in religious studies or related fields would be well advised to read this book on their own, especially if they have not yet received formal instruction in the theory and methodology of religious studies.

The accessibility of this book is one of its greatest strengths. Herling writes in the comfortable, conversational voice of an experienced teacher who knows his students well. He provides clear explanations of the significance for the field of authors and ideas that can be difficult for students to understand on their own, and he does so with welcome concision.

The book itself begins with a brief “Preface for Students and Teachers” that lays out the book’s argument (and which should probably be reset as an introductory chapter because it is essential for all readers of the book.) The first of the book’s six chapters argues that to properly evaluate both the existential questions and behavioral impact of religion, one must cultivate the virtuous practices of self-consciousness, comparison, defamiliarization, and empathy. The second chapter introduces the notion of a social-scientific theory and problematizes a theological legacy within religious studies by identifying it with a second-order, insider perspective. The third chapter introduces Otto and James as representatives of the view that religion is essentially a personal experience, and Durkheim, Weber, Turner, and Geertz as advocates of the view that religion is an essentially social phenomenon. Chapter 4 presents Marx and Freud as attempting to undermine religion through rational analysis; Jung, Eliade, and Smart as phenomenologists engaged in crypto-theology; and Tillich and Wilfred Cantwell Smith as explicitly theological scholars of religion. Chapter 5 considers several of the topics that have dominated religious studies in recent decades, including gender, race, globalization, new religions, violence, natural science, and material culture. Chapter 6 concludes with an imagined dialogue between an undergraduate student of religion and a chatty stranger. The book is then rounded out with a bibliography of further readings on theory in religious studies, and nine smaller bibliographies on various world religions. The publisher has also made available a companion website that has 28 worksheets with comprehension questions on various subsections of the book’s chapters.

The efficiency of this book notwithstanding, fitting it into a (stereo)typical undergraduate curriculum could be challenging. The book covers much of the same territory as the opening (or closing) chapter of many “Intro to World Religions” textbooks but with triple the detail, making it hard to shoehorn into an already overcrowded course. On the other hand, it is not nearly detailed enough to serve as the principal textbook for a theory and methods in religious studies course (this is not, after all, what the book aims to do). The greatest strength of Herling’s book is the concise presentation of a few significant aspects of each of the theories and topics in chapters 3, 4, and 5 for contemporary scholars of religion, each of which is accompanied by discussion questions that guide students in their own application of these ideas. Consequently, the most profitable way to use this book in a 25-session course might be either to use the 21 subsections of the chapters as short introductions to longer theoretical and methodological readings selected by the instructor, or to pair each of the subsections with a piece of what Herling calls religious “data” (i.e., examples of some aspect of some religion) and for each class session to focus on how the theory and the data illuminate one another.

As effective as this book is at introducing students to many of the concerns that motivate research in religion today, it is not clear that Herling has delivered a compelling argument in support of his overarching claim that religion is not merely a topic that is amenable to interdisciplinary study, but rather religious studies, when grounded properly in theory and methodology, is a proper discipline that trains students to be attentive to and understand manifestations of religion, ranging from personal beliefs to communal rituals, in distinctive and profound ways. This is a difficult case to make because each of the other disciplines claim to have an adequate understanding of religion, and Herling makes his task harder by conceding to the other disciplines that to define religion as a sui generis encounter with the sacred (or any variation of this definition) is to indulge in illegitimate theologizing. Despite this knotty definitional problem, which A Beginner’s Guide to the Study of Religion is far from the first to struggle with, Herling should be commended for writing a welcoming book that many students and general readers will find a helpful companion through the early stages of understanding this multifarious thing we call religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mark A. Kaplowitz is an Instructor in Judaic Studies at the University of Memphis.

Date of Review: 
August 24, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bradley L. Herling is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Marymount Manhattan College, USA.

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