Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion

By Wiebe, Donald | The Catholic Historical Review, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion


Wiebe, Donald, The Catholic Historical Review


General and Miscellaneous Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion. By Ivan Strenski. (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 2006. Pp. vi, 358. $34.95 paperback.)

This text is not focused on setting out how religion is practiced. Professor Strenski's interest here, rather, is to help undergraduate students to understand how religion came to be the focus of theoretical interest. He attempts to set out here how, in various ways, religion became problematic and how scholars attempted to solve those problems. As he puts it: "This book tells the 'story' of important attempts to raise and solve many of the chief problems of religion by inventing what we call 'theories' of religion" (pp. 1-2). That 'story' is set out in three parts.

In the first section of this volume, "The Prehistory of the Study of Religion," Strenski accounts for the emergence of a methodical study of religion as a response to the doubts raised about it in the intellectual ferment created by the Protestant Reformation and the discovery of new worlds that brought with it an encounter with other religions (chap. 1), and by the effects of the historical-critical study of the Bible on traditional religious belief (chap. 2). These developments spurred on thinking about "religion as such," which led, on the one hand, to a quest for the first or natural religion, and on the other, to the naturalistic study of scriptural texts. These enterprises, according to Strenski, constitute "the beginnings of serious and open critical inquiry into the nature of religion" (p. 17)-an inquiry that was executed by some scholars in a religious vein and by others as a secular or naturalistic undertaking.

In part two of the text, Strenski treats "Classic Nineteenth-Century Theorists of the Study of Religion" who he maintains were primarily concerned with the question of the origins of religion. Four major figures are treated here: Friedrich Max Müller (chap. 3) and William Robertson Smith (chap. 5) are presented as dealing with difficulties related to the understanding of sacred texts, and E. B. Tylor (chap. 4) and J. G. Frazer (chap. 6) represent early anthropological approaches to understanding religions and religion. For Strenski, Müller, and Robertson Smith not only were students of religion but also advanced religious agendas-they were therefore both "critics" and "caretakers" of religion (p. 132).Tylor and Frazer, on the other hand, are presented as antagonistic to religion.

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