Saturday, January 22, 2011

Understanding Religion

If I had it to do all over again . . . not that I have specific regrets per se . . . but if I had it to do all over again, I would have pursued a graduate studies course less focused on language and philology and more on the academic study of religion. I wish I had known about Baylor's program in the Sociology of Religion 3 or 4 years ago, for example. Many students and scholars in biblical studies go through their entire academic careers without ever considering how their field relates to the broader field of academic religious studies. A total lack of awareness of religious studies theory and methodology characterizes the curriculum of many biblical studies grad programs. My own intellectual interests are drawn more to the study of the religions that have built their traditions on the Bible than on an interest in biblical exegesis for its own sake. For that reason, I was excited to have the opportunity to teach a course called "Understanding Religion" at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin this semester.

Unfortunately, while I am well-trained in biblical studies, I am mostly self-taught on religious studies theory and methodology (despite my religious studies minor which lacked an explicit methods course). This undergraduate course is an introduction to the basic concepts of religion and an exploration of theory and method in academic religious studies with a goal of promoting basic religious literacy -- the ability to understand, recognize, and intelligently discuss religious issues.

Below is my starter bibliography for my self-education on academic religious studies and the wider relationship between religion and culture. I'd appreciate any comments or feedback from anyone who notices that my bibliography is missing something important. Are there any seminal journal articles or essays out there that I should know about?

What I Have in Hand and Have Started Reading
  • Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, 2001.
  • Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
  • Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. [1915.] New York: Free Press, 1965.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries: The Encounter Between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities. [1960.] New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
  • ---. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. [1959.] New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
  • Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books, Inc., 1973.
  • Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Twelve, 2007.
  • James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. [1902.] New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004.
  • Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Riverhead Books, 2008.
  • Kessler, Gary E. Studying Religion: An Introduction through Cases. 2nd Ed. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.
  • McGrath, Alistair and Joanna Collicutt McGrath. The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.
  • Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t. HarperOne, 2007.
  • ---. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter. HarperOne, 2010.
  • Sharpe, Eric J. Understanding Religion. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
  • Stark, Rodney. Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief. HarperCollins, 2007.
  • Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. [4th Ed. 1956.] Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
What I Know About but Haven’t Looked at Yet
  • The Encyclopedia of Religion. 2nd Ed. Macmillan, 2004. 
  • Frazer, James. The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore. 1890.
  • Lincoln, Bruce. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. 2nd Ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics, Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. SUNY Press, 2001.
  • ---. The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric. Psychology Press, 2003.
  • Smith, Jonathan Z. Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
  • ---. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
  • ---. Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Stark, Rodney. Exploring the Religious Life. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
  • Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. University of California Press, 1985.
  • ---. A Theory of Religion. Rutgers University Press, 1996.
  • Stark, Rodney and Roger Finke. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. University of California Press, 2000.


  1. A focus on philological issues, rather than broader ones, is more likely to keep you out of trouble until you get tenure, and then you can shift your focus. Anything you'll have to say will have more clout if you're viewed as a well-grounded authority.

  2. Hi Doug,

    I actually believe that rigorous philological grounding in a nonmodern literary culture is one of the most mind-opening and intellectually useful sorts of training you can get. It gives you an alternative place to stand--access to sophisticated written reflection other than the past century or two of European thinkers, who are naturally determined by modernity.

    A couple of things have worked well for me: focusing on a limited but exciting and important set of issues and data, rather than the exhausting world-religions-survey "if this is Tuesday, it must be Buddhism" method. For example if you introduce Weber's powerful question: "why do people obey?" and his deliberate straw-man of three types of authority, then develop and enrich it with his discussion of Prophetic charisma in his Ancient Judaism, you've got a topic that you can explore with both theoretical interest and your own real authority as a biblicist.

    Second, classics: to take a deep look at a few essential points of Durkheim, Frazer, Geertz, James and Weber raises enough questions for years of thought. I am wary of the bomb-throwing approaches of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens (a man who described the biblical authors as Bronze-Age, btw) because they tend to get people very worked up pro or con without looking slowly and carefully at the arguments and evidence.

    Finally, I'd disagree with the (appropriately anonymous, given the text in question) Zohar. The problem with avoiding big questions until tenure is precisely the danger of success: you may become an authority without having thought about or extensively debated broader issues. The sort of trouble one wants to avoid is the bad kind--people getting excited about how sloppy or badly argued your work is, not the good kind--people debating your work because of how interesting it is. And it seems like you are already steering towards the good kind: by using philology precisely to explore part of a big question that interests you.

  3. Thanks for the input, Seth and Zohar. I have to admit that tenure has been somewhat low on my radar what with all the various pronouncements of how it will probably not really exist anymore once I've been around long enough to be eligible for it. Kind of like social security.

    Anyway, this class is precisely not the world religions survey type. I intend to use examples from Bible, Judaism, and Christianity primarily to raise questions about religion in general and examine the "classics" of Durkheim, James, Weber, etc. I have intentionally avoided the rhetoric of the New Atheists since I first became aware of their work stumbling upon a prominent display of The God Delusion at Barnes & Noble. Since one of the goals of this class is discussing how religion is very much a part of contemporary debates, I felt it was a gap in my education that I'd been avoiding them this long. I expect it will be like when I finally got around to reading the biblical minimalists. They ask some good questions but try to replace long standing and well thought out answers with fallacious crap. Now I use their work almost exclusively for examples of how to argue using almost every one of the classic logical fallacies at once. With Dawkins, etc., the class will only be reading enough to stimulate discussion for perhaps one class session.

    My main gripe is that well-grounded philologically based programs like we've been through, Seth, tend to have no requirement for any of this religious studies reading. We're left to figure it out for ourselves when we start teaching. I would have liked at least one seminar on critical approaches to the study of religion or some such. Instead we study the linguistic structure of Hebrew poetry ad nauseum. I love Hebrew poetry though. Just not that much.

  4. Douglas:

    You're complaint is well taken, though hard to correct at the institutional level because of the considerable philological and historical training necessary for biblical studies.

    We're taking an unusual approach in the PhD program at Syracuse by admitting students to study "religion," rather than any particular subspeciality. We require them to take classes and do comp exams that explore some of the varieties of sub-disciplines that make up religious studies. Here we can and do take students who want to research Hebrew Bible or New Testament within a religious studies context. Of course, they end up with highly focused research areas. This approach has led to some cross-disciplinary dissertations on subjects like sacrifice, purity in ancient religions, and iconic function of bibles and other scriptures. But it requires students interested in biblical studies to pick up much of their philological training at the MA level somewhere else, before coming to us for a more religious-studies oriented PhD. The job market tends to reward this approach since many departments are looking for teaching versatility as well as research specialization.

  5. Thanks, Jim. I'd actually briefly toyed with the idea of applying to Syracuse after seeing one of your recruiting posters prominently displayed on one of our bulletin boards at UW. The MA at UW-Madison definitely gives all the grounding one needs (and more) in the philological biblical studies arena. If I'd known then that Michael Fox would be retired before I became a dissertator, I might have more seriously pursued that path after finishing my MA in 2007.