Religion

What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters

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Christian Smith
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780691175416.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christian Smith, author of Religion: What It Is, How it Works, and Why It Matters, offers a theory of the nature of religion that will be interesting to scholars and students of religion who care about issues of theory and method. The theory is not unique, but it is thoroughly examined in a social scientific manner that is analytical, rational, and sociological. The author admits that he is following the approaches of Melford Spiro and Martin Riesbrodt, although he criticizes the latter over his use of terminology like “salvation” and “liturgy” because of its Christian theological associations. Smith admits that he intends to stay away from belief systems of various religions and instead focus on a practice centered view of. Smith also informs his reader that his theory of religion is influenced by a philosophy of critical realism and a social theory of personalism. The former influence informs us about what is, and how and why it works the way that it does. The way that it works tells us about relational causal influences by using empirical evidence and reason. Based on this type of foundation, a scholar can use this knowledge to explain her subject. According to personalism, human persons are natural entities that are not socially constructed, and who form their foundation in a situation in which they have an identifiable condition and a goal (telic) towards which they are moving: eudaimonia (happiness), defined as six basic goods

Smith’s book is structured according to five basic questions: What is religion? What causal powers does religion produce? How does religion work?; Why are humans religious? and What is religion’s future? The simplicity of this structure is misleading because the author is well aware that he is dealing with a complex subject. He also confesses to being an outsider (etic) to particular religious traditions, but he aspires to take seriously the insider’s (emic) perspective. According to Smith, religion can be defined as practices grounded in presuppositions about the existence and nature of superhuman powers that can manifest themselves as personal or impersonal. He claims that his focus on practices rather than beliefs distinguishes his theory from others.  

Chapter 4 discusses why humans are religious and allows the author to stress the naturalness of religion. Smith argues that religion gives people a chance to realize certain goods and avoid what is deemed bad. Smith identifies six natural goods: (1) bodily survival, security, and pleasure; (2) knowledge of reality; (3) identity coherence and affirmation; (4) exercising purposive agency; (5) moral affirmation; (6) social community and love. These natural goods are also teleological ends that enable humans to extend human power beyond natural limitations. Smith argues that humans are naturally religious in certain ways, but they do not share a religion gene, although differences of practice can be traced to biologically grounded genetic and neurological traits that shape differences among religious cultures.

In the final chapter on the future of religion. Smith offers an optimistic portrait of its future. He cannot imagine a time without religion, phenomena like secularization and pluralism notwithstanding. Based on history, we can expect the development of new religions, the growth of some religions, the decline of others, and that current religions will be transformed over time. Smith is suggesting that religion is a dynamic and not a static entity.

Without any apparent trepidation, Smith asks about the possible reductionism of his theory. He denies that it is reductionistic “because it does not deny the possibility that the truth claims of any religion are correct” (80). Many theorists of religion would find such a statement problematic, because all interpretations of religion are reductionistic to some degree (though Smith does acknowledge an explanatory reductionism). Another possible area of disagreement with other theorists is over the issue of subjective experience. It has been noted that Smith stresses public practices over subjective experience because they concern religiousness that he calls subjective appropriation.

Overall, this is a lucidly written book that should be widely read by students of religion. It should prove a welcome theory for those looking for a contribution to the social scientific study of religion. Besides its clarity, the author gives his readers much to think about and consider with regards to their own understanding of the nature of religion. The author’s illustrations of particular religions are well chosen to support his theory. It is enjoyable and helpful to read someone applying an analytical and realist approach that elucidates the subject. Thus, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the issue of the theory of religion and a refining of Riesbrodt’s sociology of religion.

On a personal level, my interest in this book was raised when I noticed how many times Smith used the term “power,” which he defines as the means to make things happen or to prevent them from happening. In this respect, power affords humans a rationale for producing religion. He adds that human powers are those that cannot achieve what supernatural powers can. This is fine, as far as it goes, but Smith never really makes an attempt to tell the reader what power is in itself. In other words, if a scholar is offering an analytical, sociological, and realist approach to the theory of religion, it does not seem unreasonable to expect a more substantial definition of a key element. Another shortcoming with this work is that it is obvious to a student making a superficial study of the subject that religion works by telling narratives about specific religions.

In many religious traditions, narratives enable particular religions to identify themselves and to distinguish themselves from other religions. In addition, on many levels of the phenomenon of religion, subjective experience assumes an essential role. Because of this role, it seems wise to hold subjective experiences in tension with practices that would hold in relationship individual and social subjective aspects with public practices. Moreover, the public practices that are so essential to Smith’s theory are obviously performed by embodied humans, an aspect that is not substantially discussed by the author. These four critical points are not, however, major reservations for rejecting the value of this book, which can still stand on its own substantial theoretical foundation. Based on the attitude expressed in his book, Smith would welcome being read from a critical perspective and taken seriously by readers.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carl Olson is professor of religious studies at Allegheny College.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. His books include To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil and What Is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up.

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