Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters. By Christian Smith

Author: José Casanova

January 28, 2019

In a review of Christian Smith's Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters José Casanova describes the book's general definition of "religion" as the best theoretical-analytical definition he has seen, even if at the end it also proves not fully satisfactory and is certainly not sufficient to ground a general “theory” of religion. Casanova describes Smith’s definition as lengthy, complex in its multiple interrelated components, and convincingly comprehensive, in that it includes religion’s essential elements, while excluding accidental ones. However, it does overlook “primitive” religion or even all prehistorical religions before the Axial Age, which emphasize that the goods pursued or hoped for are those of the collectivity not those of individuals. This raises the more fundamental question of the absence of any kind of historical analysis or of any kind of theoretical-analytical conceptualization of the historical dynamics and processes of religious change in Smith’s theory of religion. Casanova concludes that while he agrees with Smith that “it is impossible to do good social science while bracketing ontology and sidelining causality,” one could add that it is impossible to do good social science if one ignores the historicity of all religions. The review was published in the Journal of Church and State.

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