Introducing Religion

Religious Studies for the Twenty-First Century (5th edition)

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Robert S. Ellwood
  • New York: 
    , November
     372 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The latest edition of Introducing Religion offers the beginner an accessible and compelling introduction to the study of religion and religious studies. Robert S. Ellwood states in his preface that this is what the text ultimately aims to accomplish, and he meets this self-declared goal. The book is primarily written for undergraduate students, so more seasoned scholars of religion are better off utilizing the work as a pedagogical resource or as a quick reference text. Some scholars might, however, find some of the newer trends in religious studies over the last five years addressed by Ellwood of interest. In particular, the fifth edition adds to its repertoire updated reading lists for further study, a short blurb on “hyper-religion,” and an entirely new chapter on religion and politics.

What makes Ellwood’s fifth edition most useful is the careful organization, revamp, and composition of the further reading sections at the end of each chapter, the glossary, and the appendix titled “Studying Religion” (348–57). While Ellwood’s main goal is to introduce religious studies to beginners, it is clear that Ellwood is equally interested in pushing the fledging religious studies student out of the nest so that they may explore the discipline’s vast world on their own. He writes in the opening pages that he hopes “the fields of inquiry introduced in these pages will stimulate an appetite for more, encourage good classroom presentations, and induce students to find in them material they want to explore further in research projects” (xviii). The supplementary materials in the textbook set up students to fulfill Ellwood’s wish. The further reading lists aid first-time students of religion to pursue topics and threads that excite them, and the appendix mentioned offers frameworks and ideas for student papers and more in-depth research. The glossary is additionally helpful for the religious studies novice. These leads and accessible resources make Ellwood’s book stand out in the best way among other introductions to religious studies.

The other additions promised by Ellwood in his preface are hit and miss. The term and concept hyper-real religion does appear in the text, but only once outside the preface (176). Further, it is simply touched upon; even for an introductory text, readers may be left wanting a little more from Ellwood on hyper-real religion, especially since it was promised as a significant addition in the preface of this edition (xviii).

Conversely, the new chapter on politics and religion does not disappoint. In this new and final chapter of the textbook, Ellwood gives his readers two typologies for thinking about the relationship between religion and politics. The first type happens when leaders of religious groups weigh in on specific political issues (for example, debates of abortion or climate change), and then their congregants or followers vote in accordance with the views of their leaders. The other type revolves around a strong political personality, narrative, or symbolism. If one analyzes modern political figures and symbols as mythical characters and meaning conveyors, it becomes clearer how some people are able to ostensibly worship a political party, symbol, or figure, says Ellwood.

Both of these typologies in my view are helpful for students trying for the first time to make sense of religion and politics. A lone complaint about this chapter is that both archetypes offered to explain the relationship between religion and politics are top-down models. What about more democratic and egalitarian political movements that incorporate and utilize the language of religion? Are there not ways of explaining religion and politics from the bottom up? If Ellwood had offered such a typology, it would have made his chapter more diverse and compelling. Moreover, Ellwood’s mythic model seems to simply be a mashup of Max Weber’s charismatic authority typology and Robert Bellah’s civil religion, thinkers and concepts that are surprisingly absent from this chapter. After all, each of these thinkers is paramount to understanding the way religious studies has traditionally understood religion and politics, especially in America.

Last, Ellwood states that his book aims to be about religious studies, not religion or world religions as such (xviii). While he provides an excellent introduction to religious studies, it is doubtful whether his book is as focused on the discipline as he hopes. The first chapter in particular strikes oddly, since it spends quite a few pages defining religion without ever stating the goal of religious studies as this reviewer understands it: to identify and make more intelligible religious phenomena. Furthermore, while all scholars must make choices when writing introductory material, his decision to include Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud’s definition of religion in this chapter instead of, say, the likes of Bruce Lincoln and Clifford Geertz is also perplexing, since the psychology-of-religion subfield has all but died in recent years, while the history-of-religion subfield has continued to dominate the larger field.

This book is excellent for a student beginning their religious studies journey. It is useful for teaching, too. However, it is not clear that another edition was warranted, especially since some of the promised additions were not delivered as robustly as one would hope. Nevertheless, Ellwood’s book is must buy for teachers and for any novice who wishes to begin learning more about the study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James W. Waters is a PhD student at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert S. Ellwood is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion at the University of Southern California, USA. He is the author of over twenty-five books, including Many Peoples, Many Faiths, The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace, The Sixties Spiritual Awakening, and Islands of the Dawn.