Religion, Theory, Critique

Classic and Contemporary Approaches and Methodologies

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Richard King
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , July
     688 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Religion, Theory, Critique presents itself as a volume that “seeks to move forward our understanding of both the history of the field of the comparative study of religion and its possible future directions” (xiii). It does so by providing its readers with a substantial selection of critical contributions on topics ranging from the “invention” of the science of religion to the relationship between “religion” and language, from post-Enlightenment critiques of “religion” to “religion” and globalization. As Richard King states in the book’s preface, this publication first and foremost aspires to engage with religious studies—its history, methods, and theories—as an academic field that produces its very object of study by means of the discursive processes necessary for its apprehension. Overall, then, this edited volume offers a composite perspective on what we may learn about “religion” and scholars of religions, if we focus on the processes that underscore its study.

 In this perspective, the book complements recent publications by the North American Association for the Study of Religion [NAASR] on theory and method—Theory in a Time of Excess (Aaron W. Hughes, ed., Equinox Publishing Limited , 2017), and Method Today (Brad Stoddard, ed., Equinox Publishing Limited, forthcoming). Yet, in light of its structure, and declared intent to serve, ideally, as a university textbook that engages in “discussion(s) of classical approaches with contemporary cultural and critical theories” (see the publisher’s page), the book is more akin to The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (John Hinnells, ed., Routledge, 2010), which also offers a critical history and state of the field.

 It is in the context of these works, and the latter book in particular, that, in my view, it is possible to best appreciate the contribution of Religion, Theory, Critique (especially to the training of religious studies scholars). The book, in fact, arranges its individual essays so as to form a collective meta-narrative on the “diverse ways in which religion can and has been theorized” (xiv). In this respect, its strength and appeal rests not on its factual content (this, I would argue, is of comparable breath, depth, and expertise as the above mentioned publications), but rather on the underlying self-aware character of each thematic contribution to be but one among a broad family of historically related (complementary, though often competing) perspectives on (arguably) the same object of study: “religion.”

The book offers focused insights on this broad theme from forty-four scholars (primarily based at institutions in the USA, UK, Canada, Germany, and Netherlands, but also France, Finland, Japan, and South Africa) who authored fifty-six original contributions, most published here for the first time, with the exception of three that have appeared, with some minor differences, in earlier publications.

By way of introduction, the volume opens with “The Copernican Turn in the Study of Religion” by Richard King (1-22). This is a pivotal chapter (notably both the first, and one penned by the volume’s editor), as it offers a summative and foundational assessment of the contemporary state of the field in light of its postmodern, postcolonial, critical-theory informed constructivist turn, eventually leading to an augural suggestion for a reappraisal of the relevance of comparative approaches to the study of “religion” as a necessary condition for the development of self-reflective and auto-critical approaches to the Western scientific project.

The ensuing contributions expand on this overarching approach to religious studies and engage in more circumscribed and in-depth analyses and critiques of historical and contemporary approaches to, and theories of “religion.” They are grouped into twelve distinct sections: (1) “Historical Foundations /Genealogies” (which offers six perspectives on the origin and function of “religion” as a taxonomical category, grounded in the specialist examination of distinct historical and geographical contexts, ranging from Roman Late Antiquity, to Modern Japan); (2) “The Enlightenment Critique of Religion”; (3) “Religion Beyond the West” (which contains four contributions that aim at expanding the historico-genealogical study of “religion” beyond its European-Christian roots and post-Enlightenment developments, with examples ranging from indigenous African religions to modern China); (4) “Religion and Experience” (which provides six reflections about psychological theories and approaches to “religion” from William James to the contemporary cognitive sciences); (5) “Religion, Language, and Myth”; (6) “Religion/Society/Culture”; (7) “Religion, Ritual, and Action”; (8) “The Phenomenology of Religion and its Critics”; (9) “Religion and Contemporary European Thought” (which offers five assessments of the impact works of post-Marxist and postmodern, primarily French, thinkers on the study of “religion” such as those of Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault; (10) “Religion, Genre, and Sexuality”; (11) “Religion, Coloniality and Race”; and (12) “Religion/Nation/Globalization.”

As it is, and keeping in mind its intended use as a textbook, Religion, Theory, Critique is, in my view, praiseworthy for its historico-critical, self-reflective, and multi-disciplinary discussion of the complex whole that is religious studies. It is, needless to say, not exhaustive of the field at large as it can be observed (and practiced) today, nor of its history, cross- and multi-disciplinary roots and ties, or of its theoretical biases. Yet, more than other volumes of its kind, it succeeds in conveying the radical need (the urgency, I would say) of a critical self-awareness in approaching the study of “religion” and the historical development of this enterprise, including the complex web of categorical lenses and implicit biases that characterize this fundamentally European, Enlightenment and Christian Protestant academic project. This alone makes it an excellent pedagogical reference. In addition, I would argue, it elevates this book above the ordinary realm of undergraduate and graduate reading lists, as a welcome companion to current theoretical and methodological debates within religious studies at large.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Rondolino is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Carroll University.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard King is professor of Buddhist and Asian studies at the University of Kent. He is the author of Early Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism (1995);Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and the “Mystic East” (1999); Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (1999); and Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion(2004, with Jeremy Carrette).


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