The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion. Edited by Robert A. Segal and The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Edited by John R. Hinnells


Pp. xix, 471 , Oxford and Malden, MA , Blackwell , 2006 , £75.00 and $130.00 (hardback only).

Pp. xii, 556 , London and New York, NY , Routledge , 2005 , £65.00 and $130.00 (hardcover), £21.99 (paper, not available in US).

These volumes add general overviews of the study of religion to already significant collections of specialized companions. There are 18 Blackwell Companions, either published or forthcoming, and six published Routledge Companions in religion. The Blackwell Companion (hereafter simply ‘Segal’) claims to offer ‘the most comprehensive survey to date of the study of religion’ and the Routledge (hereafter ‘Hinnells’) to be ‘a major resource for everyone taking courses in religious studies’, which explains ‘the most important methodological approaches to religion’.

Hinnells identifies his target audience as ‘students in their first year of studying religion’ (p. 3), whereas Segal makes no such identification. Some of the latter's chapters seek to provide a basic introduction (such as Lawrence Cunningham's ‘Holy Men/Holy Women’ and Douglas Davies' ‘Death and the Afterlife’) and some to be useful to postgraduates (for example Thomas Ryba's masterful but demanding chapter on phenomenology) and thus they seem somewhat inconsistent. However, in such a complex and varied field both ends can be served by a single volume. While postgraduates in, say, the psychology of religion, will be little helped by the articles on psychology, they would no doubt benefit from a nuanced, upper-level introduction to the philosophy, sociology, or anthropology of religion. In this way both volumes work as efficient antidotes to over-specialization, although Hinnells' chapters are more consistently introductory. The volumes do not introduce religious traditions; the reader must look elsewhere for that.

Both are similarly organized, each offering nine chapters on ‘Approaches’ followed by chapters on ‘Topics’ (14 in Segal) or ‘Issues’ (19 in Hinnells). All are written by ‘specialists and leaders in their field’ (Hinnells p. 3). They agree on seven approaches: Theology, Philosophy of Religion, Sociology of Religion, Anthropology of Religion, Psychology of Religion, Phenomenology of Religion, and Comparative Religion. Segal offers unique chapters on the Economics of Religion (Rodney Stark) and Literature and Religion (Stephen Prickett), where Hinnells offers unique chapters on Theories of Religion (by Robert Segal) and Religious Studies (Donald Wiebe). Hinnells also offers two unique introductory chapters, ‘Why Study Religion’ and ‘The Study of Religion in Historical Perspective’ by himself and Eric Sharpe respectively. In the Topics/Issues sections the variation between the two is greater, with chapters corresponding directly in only four cases: Fundamentalism, Secularism, Mysticism, and New Religious Movements. (Rather disappointingly the chapters on Fundamentalism in both volumes are written by Henry Munson – not that there is any significant shortcoming with Munson's work, but one would have preferred an alternative perspective.) There is evident overlap between Hinnells' chapters on Postmodernism (Paul Heelas), Mysticism and Spirituality (Richard King), and Myth and Ritual (Robert Segal) with Segal's on Modernity and Postmodernity (Colin Campbell), Mysticism (Jeffery Kripal), Myth (Segal again), and Ritual (Catherine Bell). Segal's volume also offers unique chapters on Body, Death and the Afterlife, Ethics, Heaven and Hell, Holy Men/Holy Women, Magic, Nationalism and Religion, and Pilgrimage to a total of 24 chapters. Hinnells offers unique chapters on Gender, Insider/Outsider Perspectives, Orientalism, Religious Authority, Hermeneutics, Pluralism, Religion and Politics, Religion and Geography, Religion and Science, the Cognitive Approach, Religion and Culture, Religion and the Arts, and ‘Migration, Diaspora and Transnationalism’ to a total of 30. Thus Hinnells' volume seems to concentrate more on the study of religion and Segal's on the objects of the study.

Another distinction between the two is that Segal favours a social scientific approach to the study. Segal is a renowned proponent of such an approach, aggressively asserting his position from the outset, presenting religious studies as merely ‘taxonomy at the descriptive level’ (p. xiii) where the social sciences ‘seek to explain the data’ (p. xiv). This is reflected in Segal's choice of contributors. Of his 24 contributors, half of them are professors of secular disciplines, whereas for Hinnells 19 of 27 hold positions specifically in ‘religion’. Segal's selection sometimes involves an insensitivity to the Eastern traditions, for example, Jeffery Burton Russell's article on Heaven and Hell, in which knowledge of non-Western conceptions remains superficial. Interestingly, however, there are four contributors from positions in theology or divinity in Segal's volume but only two such in Hinnells'. Segal's contributors also slightly favour the US, with 14 holding US positions as compared to 9 UK. In Hinnells there are 11 of each, the remainder being Australian or Canadian. In only one case (as far as I am aware) is a contribution from other than a native Anglophone, Gustavo Benavides contributes the chapter on ‘Magic’ in Segal. A member of a department of theology and religious studies, Benavides is not one of those insensitive to the East. Of the total of 27 contributors to Hinnells, 5 are female, where of 24 to Segal, 3 are female.

Despite the distinctions between them, in both volumes the major themes that emerge are modernism and postmodernism, secularisation, and the sheer variety of the data involved. The discussions of modernism and postmodernism are informative and anyone interested but not already expert in the debate would do well to consult both volumes. Despite some scathing asides on postmodernism, such as Rodney Stark's ‘postmodernists and other opponents of reason’ (Segal p. 53), the chapters on postmodernism are more appreciative and hopeful. Both volumes also have chapters on the Sociology of Religion and on Secularisation and all four of these concentrate on secularisation. This theme receives further significant mention in 14 other chapters in Hinnells. (There are probably a comparable number in Segal but that is difficult to determine due to a significant shortcoming in such a volume – it has no subject index, only a name index.) The consensus seems to be that ‘hardly anybody was prepared for the dramatic resurgence of religion’ or that ‘religion has re-emerged as a relatively autonomous public force’ (Riesbrodt and Konieczny in Hinnells p. 125) and ‘secularization did not happen in the United States … Nor … in the developing world’ (Davie in Segal p. 180). Surprising then, Segal concludes with an article on Secularization by Steve Bruce that emphatically concludes in favour of the secularisation thesis and simply assumes a general ‘decline in the power, prestige, and popularity of religion’ (Bruce in Segal p. 414). Bruce simply ‘forgo[s] examining’ discussion of any disagreement (p. 414) and proceeds to explain the forces contributing to the secularisation that is characteristic only of Great Britain according to Grace Davie in the same volume (p. 177–9).

The massive spread and variety of data relevant to secularisation is echoed in every other approach and topic (examples are too many to quote but see Segal pp. 119, 148, 172, 189, 214, 251, 371 – I could go on). This is typical of a paradigm free and therefore finally unscientific study. The study of religion can only be truly scientific where, in some delineated area, scholars agree without exception on the definition of terms and thereby produce some substantial change and advance in that area. Although scientific approaches can contribute to the study of religion, the study itself remains unscientific, just as scientific analysis can contribute to the study of art, but art history itself remains a humanities discipline. A fully scientific study of religion resembles Hari Seldon's ‘psychohistory’ in Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – it is science fiction.

For one so committed to the social scientific approach Segal edits an admirably variegated volume, with the inclusion of theologians and divines, religion and literature. On the other hand it is Hinnells who provides chapters on Religion and Science and the Cognitive Approach. Do the volumes reveal any comparative weakness between ‘religionists’ and humanists and their social scientist colleagues? Possibly so in the case of Ian Markham's article on theology (Segal, pp. 193ff.), which is disappointingly monotheocentric, but this is not usually the case. The theologian, Thomas Ryba, provides an impressive contribution to Segal's volume, as does Stephen Prickett with his irreducibly humanist approach to Literature and Religion. Bruce's chapter, on the other hand, is seriously flawed, not only by being based on too narrow a sampling of data, but by making naive claims such as ‘As societies became industrialized, their people became divided into those who were well-informed true believers and those who fell away’ (p. 413). What of well-informed secularists? What of the global situation? Segal's description of religious studies is based on a grossly over-simplified caricature of ‘religionists’, especially of ‘the most influential contemporary religionist’ [sic], Mircea Eliade, for whom ‘religion provides contact with God’ (p. xiv). This simply ignores all the work done on Eliade since the late 1990s, and any nuance distinguishing his ‘sacred’ from ‘God’.

Despite some wonderful chapters in Segal's volume and some slightly disappointing ones in Hinnells', I find fewer problems with Hinnells'. This may well be a function of my preference for religious studies as a discipline in the humanities rather than as a social science, but I believe the former to be more coherent, consistent, complete and accurate. Perhaps for social scientists the opposite will hold. However, I find disappointingly absent from Segal's volume the extremely important questions of religion and art and of diaspora studies, which are included in Hinnells. Also, and somewhat paradoxically, one of the most promising and most empirically scientific of approaches is lacking from Segal's volume, that of the ‘Cognitive’ study of religion, covered in Hinnells' volume by Luther Martin.

Despite shortcomings and differences of opinion, any scholar who embarks on the daunting task of coming to grips with the huge variety of data that compose the whole of the field of the study of religion will be well-served by either of these volumes and more so by both, not the least by their valuable bibliographic contributions.