Seven Ways of Looking at Religion by Benjamin Schewel, Yale, 248pp, £35
Like many of us, I suspect, I have not spent much time considering religion, its history and development from a purely intellectual standpoint. It has been enough to spend time in the pew pondering the mysteries of Christianity, my own failings, and how to live a better life.
Having read Benjamin Schewel’s book, subtitled “The Major Narratives”, I was humbled to realise the depths of my ignorance. And the thought occurred that perhaps I should have spent more time trying to understand what has brought religion to its current reduced state in contemporary society. The value of this book is that it makes accessible the work of many powerful minds who devoted their lifetimes to thinking about religion in its cultural context.
The subtitle is the key to the author’s approach, which is to digest the work of thinkers about religion and to group this around seven hypotheses, which he names as follows: the Subtraction Narrative; the Renewal Narrative; the Transsecular Narrative; the Postnaturalist Narrative; the Construct Narrative; the Perennial Narrative and the Developmental Narrative. This might sound very academic but it is not a difficult book to read.
Schewel gives a concise precis of each writer he has chosen and then places them in the context of one of the narratives. He puts the philosopher (and Catholic convert) Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, in the Renewal Narrative. Schewel writes that this narrative argues that the decline of earlier religious tradition is the cause of our current malaise and that we can only solve these problems by renewing that religious tradition. He goes on to explain MacIntyre’s thinking, beginning with the idea that the moral chaos we now experience stems from our abandonment of the “virtue tradition”.
Schewel selects three notable thinkers to illustrate each narrative, so that the reader is offered is a handy primer and introduction to some of the most profound thinkers about religion. Some you will have heard of, but others are likely to be known only to specialists; yet in every instance there are insights and challenging ideas.
The section on the American sociologist Rodney Stark, for example, lays out his theory that Europe’s uniquely low level of religious practice stems from Christianity’s historically monopolist position on the continent. By contrast, the United States, Stark says, has a free market in religion which has an invigorating effect.
The specialist vocabulary that makes so many works on religion and philosophy such hard-going is kept to a minimum. I did not know, however, what soteriology was (it is the doctrine of salvation) nor what monism was (the theory that denies duality and therefore promotes the idea that there is one Supreme Being) – but these were exceptions. In the main, Schewel has written a book which, unlike so much academic writing, is clear and fluent. It left me feeling, if anything, more optimistic about the future of religion.
Schewel says that Western intellectuals have long been theorising about the decline of religion – Matthew Arnold wrote about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” in his poem Dover Beach nearly 170 years old. However, he notes that whereas intellectual opinion anticipated a time not far off when religion would be irrelevant, the Secularisation Theory has fallen on hard times in recent years.
He writes that the high point of Secularisation Theory came in the mid-20th century when the sociologist Peter Berger could solemnly predict in the New York Times that “by the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects” – which must qualify as one of the most inaccurate forecasts ever. As Schewel notes, there has been, in the intervening 50 years, a resurgence of religion as a powerful political factor in some of the most dramatic world events.
Just a few years after Berger wrote those lines the Iranian Revolution changed the face of the Middle East, while in Poland Catholic belief was quietly corroding the foundations of the communist system. Perhaps wondering himself how he could have so misjudged things, Berger was later to write that the influence of Secularisation Theory stems from “an international subculture composed of people with Western-type higher education … This subculture is the principal ‘carrier’ of progressive, Enlightened beliefs and values. While its members are relatively thin on the ground, they are very influential as they control the institutions that provide the ‘official’ definitions of reality, notably the educational system …”
Schewel’s book would be a valuable addition to anyone’s library but it is not cheap; as is the way with academic books where the expected sales are low the reader pays a high price – £35 in this instance.