Studying Religion

An Introduction, 2nd Ed.

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Russell T. McCutcheon
  • New York, NY: 
    , January
     274 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I thought I saw disappointment in my students’ eyes when I explained on the first day of class that although this was a course about religion, they would not learn the origins of Hinduism, the “five pillars” of Islam, or the myriad practices commonly grouped under the category “Indigenous.” In truth, my perception was likely projection, though in providing reasons for choosing the course, students understandably expressed a desire to learn about “other” religions. The slim volume Studying Religion: An Introduction, 2nd Edition aided me in addressing that suggestion, albeit not in a way my students may have anticipated.

I used the 1st Edition of Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion in that introductory course. In part given that the institution where I teach has no Department of Religious Studies, I was not obligated to a particular scope or canon. Instead, students explored religion as one means of understanding human culture—a dynamic means—and what that entails for the practitioner as well as the scholar. McCutcheon’s text is an ideal companion for that endeavor, and this 2nd  Edition augments the strengths of the 1st while retaining its clarity and brevity.

McCutcheon’s contrast between a survey and an introduction in the preface reveals his motivations. The survey is often akin to a trip to the museum, peering at the novel and exotic arrangements of foreign peoples and objects, reading a brief description, and then moving on to the next exhibit without considering why they are arranged in such a way or alongside such other things. In contrast, according to McCutcheon, the introduction is “an act of initiation that displaces someone from one domain and, yes, introduces them into another” (xi). Yet he suggests, inspired by a Jonathan Z. Smith essay included in the afterword, that we do students a disservice when we present religion as a clearly-delineated domain of human activity, or as a concept whose definition is agreed upon. Religion, like other classificatory tools, “provides us with a little wiggle room so that we can get on with the production of knowledge and action in the world” (116).

Studying Religion’s introduction quickly disabuses the reader of a "world religions” approach, suggesting that first we should, following the sociological adage, make the familiar strange by examining our terms. Citing the suggestive example of Mt. Everest, McCutcheon contends that naming and classifying are neither fated nor (just) arbitrary, but rather convey significant meaning in what they reveal (and what they do not). After a brief chapter on the development of the term religion, the subsequent three chapters present three approaches to the study of religion: essentialism, functionalism, and “family resemblance.”

Each of these chapters has a newly-delineated section of criticisms, and McCutcheon uses the classic example of Plato’s Euthyphro here to drive the critiques of essentialism—which seeks something essential to what we call “religion”—home. Though a response to essentialist approaches, functionalism is critiqued for similar reasons—even in “bracketing” the truth claims of traditions, it reaffirms something essential about religion. The third, family resemblance approach splits the difference by establishing a set of overlapping characteristics of religion that reference function and may imply essence as well. Being the least willing to define religion, though, this approach is also most likely to be caught in self-referential loops, as McCutcheon illustrates with many examples, including the Internal Revenue Service’s definition of a church (8). The reader realizes that no method is without its criticisms.

The subsequent “Public Discourse on Religion” chapter includes well-known legal cases in the United States and France that have shaped the contours of the study of religion in the public university, while “Religion and the Insider/Outsider Problem” considers the boundaries of describing religion as an interested non-participant (with a fairly optimistic conclusion—after all, we’re all insiders and outsiders in various ways). The final chapter, “Religion and Classification,” suggests that despite their limitations, the functionalist and family resemblance approaches to religion hold the best hope for the continued study of religion by asking not so much “what”—but “who,” “how," and "why."

This 2nd Edition follows twelve years after the 1st, and while updates often are superficial, as the author recognizes, the changes made here justify republication. Organizational changes are minimal; the family resemblance chapter is moved earlier in the text in the 2nd Edition, in a location that seems more intuitive than the previous.

The 2nd Edition includes significant content additions. Most notable is an example at the end of each chapter to illustrate the primary ideas introduced. I found the example from the essentialist chapter—ironically the most contemporary, from the sitcom Ray—confusing, but most are concise and helpful, providing a launching point for further discussion or individual exploration. Less valuable is the page at the end of each chapter with a listing of the terms and scholars introduced, though it isn't particularly obtrusive. Terms and scholars are woven throughout the text and bolded at first introduction to prompt the reader’s curiosity, encouraging further exploration of the glossary. This glossary doubles the size of the slim volume, but all students of the field will benefit from this handy compendium of its terms and foundational scholars. As in the 1st Edition, each scholar’s description is accompanied by a couple quotes that helpfully represent the significance of their work.

As the sole text for an introductory course, Studying Religion is likely insufficient, as McCutcheon himself admits. The theories and methods in the study of religion are clearly described, but there are (still) not enough examples to communicate their value. I see this as an advantage—rather than disadvantage—of the text. It provides space for a researcher to dig deeper, and it gives instructors room to personalize a course and provide examples tailored to their own (and their students’) interests. While essentialists best look elsewhere for a guide to religion, those who want to explore religion as part of culture should start here.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Recla is Acting Associate Director of University Foundations at Boise State University,

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Russell T. McCutcheon is University Research Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama.


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