The Religious Studies Skills Book

Close Readings, Critical Thinking, and Comparison

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Eugene V. Gallagher, Joanne Maguire
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , December
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Religious Studies Skills Book is directed at undergraduate students who are taking their first religious studies course. That is made explicit right from the start: the opening sentence of the book is “Teachers want you to succeed” (1). That framing remains consistent throughout the book; at every juncture, the student as reader is centered. The aim is largely to demystify the academic study of religion by laying bare its foundational intellectual operations, and in this respect the book is quite successful. It is also thoroughly researched, both in the field of religious studies and in the scholarship of teaching and learning. It is persistently hampered, however, by an unnecessarily elevated writing style and by a lack of attention to the colonial (and frankly racist) origins of the discipline of religious studies. In these respects, the book implicitly centers not just any student, but a student who is white, middle class, and academically well prepared for college-level work. For these reasons, and despite its obvious strengths, I find it difficult to offer more than a qualified recommendation for The Religious Studies Skills Book.

The book’s greatest strength is its attempts to demystify the academic study of religion, and academia more generally, for introductory students. An entire chapter is devoted to learning to read a syllabus, and it includes an illuminating discussion of the relationship between religious studies and general education at different types of institutions. Likewise, the authors do an admirable job of breaking down the various intellectual operations baked into terms like “critical thinking” and “comparison,” and they link these operations specifically to the academic study of religion. In this sense, a student who comes to class expecting to memorize facts about different religions and ultimately learn which one is “right” for them will get a clear sense of what to actually expect in a general education religious studies course. Overall the book is successful at revealing much of the “hidden curriculum” of higher education, and of religious studies more specifically.

The book is likewise very well grounded in disciplinary history and practice. Structurally, it moves from basic to more complex operations, with each new layer building on the previous: bracketing enables close reading, which in turn promotes critical thinking and ultimately comparison. The grounding in the scholarship of teaching and learning is also solid, as the authors persistently explain to students how to be successful at doing various assignments and exercises in religious studies classes and how these assignments will help them to acquire the requisite skills for these classes. For instance, chapter 3 on bracketing explains how assignments like reading, discussion, and field observation help students to learn to suspend judgment before they carefully engage with data. Thus the book succeeds at showing first-year students how to think like neophyte scholars of religion.

Two persistent flaws in the book, however, undermine its usefulness for its intended audience of first-year undergraduates. First, there is the issue of academic register. Toward the end of the book, the authors advise students: “Write in simple, declarative sentences. Do not mistake grammatical complexity for profound thought” (167). Sadly, they do not always take their own advice, and their attempts at demystification are often couched in the turgid vocabulary and syntax of professional academic writing. Words like “abeyance” and “capacious” abound to a degree that would inhibit readability for many actual first-year undergraduates in American colleges and universities. Likewise, though the book as  a whole is well structured, individual chapters often fail to make the progression of ideas explicit (e.g., 60–63, in which the discussion of “reading” in chapter 2 never connects explicitly with the chapter’s main topic, “bracketing”). These sorts of transitions need to be explicit for overburdened undergraduate readers, or many of them will be unable to assimilate the information. Problems with formatting and clarity are also evident in the exercises that accompany the book on the publisher’s website—for example, the sample syllabi in the exercises for chapter 2 are rife with spacing errors and would be nearly unreadable for dyslexic students.

Likewise, the absence of any serious discussion of the racist, sexist, and imperialist roots of religious studies represents a serious barrier for many first-year college students. Real college students in introductory religious studies courses will inevitably encounter racist, sexist, and imperialist attitudes in the materials that they read for their courses. These attitudes present a legitimate barrier for students who have been historically marginalized or objectified by the discipline of religious studies, and any book that purports to prepare all students to encounter such texts should prepare them for it. The only reference I can find to that history, however, is quoted here, and it is deeply problematic: “Colonial conquests gave the study (of religion) a tremendous boost, as scholars encountered new fields of study as explorers plundered new lands and encountered difference” (15). No further qualification is given. While I have no doubt that the authors do not intend to praise colonialism here, I can imagine how this sentence might be read by a student whose own ancestors have experienced colonization. We are well past the point at which any work that purports to introduce the academic study of religion can ignore racism, sexism, or colonialism in our discipline.

For these reasons, and despite its obvious strengths as a student-centered introduction to religious studies, I cannot offer an unqualified recommendation for The Religious Studies Skill Book. The authors frame the book as a stand-alone accompaniment to an introductory religious studies course, one that students will use autonomously (1–4). I could not imagine using it, however, without significant scaffolding, which in turn would seem to defeat the purpose of the book. However, the clarity and the complexity with which the authors present the fundamental intellectual operations that constitute religious studies as a coherent discipline make it useful nonetheless, if not for students, then certainly for faculty who are planning introductory religious studies courses.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher M. Jones is assistant professor of religious studies at Washburn University.

Date of Review: 
July 8, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eugene V. Gallagher is Rosemary Park Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Connecticut College.

Joanne Maguire is Professor of Religious Studies and Department Chair at the University of North Carolina.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.