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date: 16 October 2019

(p. 1) Introduction: Aims, Scope, and Organization

Abstract and Keywords

This Introduction describes and contextualizes The Oxford Handbook of the Study of Religion. Chapters are organized into seven parts: Religion (five major conceptual aspects of research on religion including definitions and theories of religion, history/translation, spirituality, and non-religion); Theoretical Approaches (eleven main frameworks of analysis, interpretation, and explanation of religion); Modes (seven forms of the expression of religion); Environments (nine societal arenas or [sub]systems and their interdependence with religion); Topics (nine characteristic themes or concerns often studied comparatively in the study of religion); Processes (eight historical processes shaping and shaped by religion); and The Discipline (chapters on the history and the relevance of the study of religion).

Keywords: history of religions, religion, religious studies, study of religion, theories of religion

(p. 1) Introduction

Aims, Scope, and Organization

The first fifteen or so years of this century have seen the publication of various compendia consisting of commissioned chapters to survey the state of the art in the study of religion\s (in English: Braun/McCutcheon 2000; Hinnells 2005/2010; Segal 2006; Orsi 2011; in German: Figl 2003; Stausberg 2012; and in Portuguese: Usarski 2007; Passos/Usarski 2013).1 The present volume bears the ambitious title of a handbook. This reflects its publication as part of the Oxford Handbooks series, whose volumes are meant to “offer authoritative and up-to-date surveys of original research in a particular subject area.” More fundamentally, this Handbook has aimed from its inception at a greater degree of completeness and coherence than all the above books. Its far greater number of chapters is organized more coherently and systematically in seven sections, as follows.

Part I: Religion

Self-evidently ‘religion’ is the key issue of the study of religion\s. The first section addresses five major conceptual aspects of research on religion, starting with definitions and theories of religion. The study of religion\s deals with religion as a historical and cross-cultural phenomenon; the third chapter therefore addresses the historicization and translation of the concept of religion. In recent years, two developments have put the boundaries of religion into question: the emergence of spirituality and non-religion, categories discussed in one chapter each.

(p. 2) Part II: Theoretical Approaches

The second section surveys eleven main frameworks of analysis, interpretation, and explanation of religion. (The chapters in this and the following four sections are presented in alphabetical order.) Some of these have been with the study of religion\s since its beginnings, while others have been applied to religion in more recent times or their application has become more popular in recent times (e.g. economics). Not all of these approaches are equally well recognized: for example, semiotics is relatively well known, but the importance of semantics is often overlooked. There are separate chapters for cognitive science and evolutionary theory; though these approaches are related and coexist in much research, their genealogy and research questions are distinct. For more established theoretical approaches—such as Marxism and social theory—chapters survey recent applications and advances, not just historical perspectives, because none of these theoretical approaches are dead. Similarly, hermeneutics will remain relevant as long as interpretation remains important to the study of religion\s. Where ‘critical theory’ is often used as an umbrella term covering a range of theories, this book features a more specific subset: feminism/gender theory; Marxism; postcolonialism; and poststructuralism.

Part III: Modes

Reflecting recent turns in the humanities and social sciences, the third section of this Handbook surveys eight forms of the expression of religion. Some have been long-standing concerns in the study of religion\s: e.g. space and time, categories that have recently been theorized in new manners, with space now central to thinking about culture. Others—e.g. narrative and performance—have emerged as sites of theoretical innovation since the 1960s. Communication reflects and extends the linguistic turn. Materiality (presented here with a focus in visual materials) has emerged vigorously in this century, while the sonic qualities of culture and religion are receiving wider recognition, as witnessed by the body of research reviewed in that chapter.

Part IV: Environments

In modern Western settings at least, religion is generally distinguished from other societal arenas, spheres, or (sub)systems. At the same time, religion’s boundaries with these remain a matter of ongoing dispute or negotiation. For other cultures and historical periods, the meaningfulness or even the possibility of distinguishing religion from these (p. 3) other societal areas has been challenged. This Handbook considers ten such spheres and their interdependence with religion. While Part II contains a discussion of economic theory, Part IV provides a discussion of the ways societies and religions (or religious organizations) are shaped by different forms of allocation of resources, i.e. the economy. Other chapters consider law, the media, nature, medicine, politics, science, sports, and tourism.

Part V: Topics

Religion is typically identified by certain characteristic concerns that are sometimes studied comparatively in the study of religion\s. Salvation and gods/spirits, for example, have sometimes been held to be a defining feature of religion, but are treated here as topics for comparative analysis. Some of these topics have been particularly prominent in Protestantism and earlier Protestant-derived ways of studying religion. This is correlated with their being discredited as keys to analyzing religion in some recent scholarship. Yet, people continue to have experiences in religious terms and settings, and people continue to hold forms of belief related to religious traditions. Connected to the topic of experience, there has been an abundance of research on emotion, also in religious contexts. Readers will no doubt think of other chapters that might have been included in a book of this sort. (We listed many further potential contributions ourselves—more than one specific chapter on our wish list failed to materialize for one reason or another.) This ‘topics’ section is the one in which there is the largest scope for discussion regarding chapters that might have been included. That said, the other topics considered in this section are also prominent in the study of religion\s and related disciplines like anthropology and sociology and their treatment here reviews important developments, distinctions, and arguments: gift and sacrifice; initiations and traditions; and priests, prophets, and sorcerers.

Part VI: Processes

As stated earlier, the study of religion\s addresses religion as a historical phenomenon. Historical change is sometimes conceptualized in terms not of contingent events but of ordered developments that follow a specific logic. The sixth section of the Handbook surveys seven historical processes. A key dimension of history is innovation and tradition. A popular example of a more specific historical process is secularization, which refers to the idea that history, at least in certain contexts, manifests some sort of cumulative decline, marginalization, or diminution of religion. Apart from the question of the accuracy of this linearity, on closer inspection it turns out that secularization is a composite of different processes, of which two are dealt with separately in this section: societal (p. 4) differentiation; and individualization/privatization. While secularization refers to the assumed modern process of a decline of the importance of religion for society and individuals in general, the historical process of the disintegration or death of religions has rarely been addressed specifically. A more recent macro-narrative of historical change is globalization. Three other chapters address additional processes of proven centrality to the recent study of religion\s: objectification/commoditization/commodification; and syncretism/hybridization.

Part VII: The Discipline

Religion is studied in various ways by many disciplines. Some degree of internal diversity notwithstanding, we consider the study of religion\s to be an academic discipline in its own right (Engler/Stausberg 2011, 129–134). Despite some inter- or cross-disciplinary overlap in data, methods, and theories, scholars of religion are not anthropologists, economists, geographers, philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, theologians, etc. This Handbook sharpens the profile of the study of religion\s as a discipline. It does not seek to characterize religious studies, which we take to be a much broader interdisciplinary field. This is why we decided against including necessarily superficial surveys of complex fields like anthropology of religion, psychology of religion, sociology of religion, etc. There are already many publications available that provide such surveys, from book chapters to other handbooks in this same Oxford Handbook series. The disciplinary profile of this Handbook is reflected in the last section, which only comprises two chapters: one on the history of the discipline; and one on its relevance, a crucial topic in times of an ongoing need for self-justification, not least in the face of understandable attempts by students, by their parents, and by governments, donors, and other funders to understand what this discipline is good for.

Notwithstanding some prominent exceptions, the study of religion\s is currently practiced in much of the world. Though not strictly global, this Handbook is a highly international enterprise. Contributors are affiliated with universities in twelve countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, USA).

This Handbook emphasizes discussions of published research and seeks to advance the state of the discipline. In addition, all chapters have several features that make them reader friendly and apt for teaching purposes. Beyond detailed indices for the volume as a whole and rich bibliographies for each chapter, these features include chapter summaries, glossaries, and lists of annotated readings. In this regard, this Handbook follows the example set by our Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion (2011), which can be considered an informal companion to this book. Questions of research methods are an essential aspect of the study of religion\s but, because they received extensive treatment in that other handbook, they are not addressed explicitly in this one.

Braun, Willi and Russell T. McCutcheon, eds. 2000. Guide to the Study of Religion. London and New York: Cassell.Find this resource:

Engler, Steven and Michael Stausberg. 2011. “Introductory Essay. Crisis and Creativity: Opportunities and Threats in the Global Study of Religion/s.” Religion 41(2): 127–143. doi: 10.1080/0048721X.2011.591209Find this resource:

Figl, Johann, ed. 2003. Handbuch Religionswissenschaft. Religionen und ihre zentralen Themen. Innsbruck, Wien, and Göttingen: Tyrolia/Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.Find this resource:

Hinnells, John, ed. 2005. Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2010.Find this resource:

Orsi, Robert A., ed. 2011. The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Passos, João Décio and Frank Usarski, eds. 2013. Compêndio de Ciência da Religião. São Paulo: Paulinas/Paulus.Find this resource:

Segal, Robert A., ed. 2006. The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion. Malden, MA: Blackwell.Find this resource:

Stausberg, Michael. 2010. “Prospects in Theories of Religion.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 22(4): 223–238. doi:10.1163/157006810X531021Find this resource:

Stausberg, Michael, ed. 2012. Religionswissenschaft. Berlin: de Gruyter.Find this resource:

Stausberg, Michael and Steven Engler, eds. 2011. The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Usarski, Frank, ed. 2007. O espectro disciplinar da Ciência da Religião. São Paulo: Paulinas.Find this resource:


(1) The backslash (following Stausberg 2010) is intended to foreground debates over exactly what it is that our discipline studies, given a whole series of theoretical and meta-theoretical questions regarding the meaning and framing of ‘religion’ and ‘religions.’