Theory as a Tool in the Social Scientific Study of Religion and Martin Riesebrodt's The Promise of Salvation


  • Acknowledgments: We are grateful to Marie Cornwall and Laura Olson for their enthusiastic support for publishing the results of our deliberations in this JSSR Special Topics Forum.

  • All authors contributed equally to the article. The articles included in this special forum came from a conference held at the University of Chicago Divinity School titled “Comparing Religions: On Theory and Method” in January 2011. The purpose was to explore the empirical implications of Martin Riesebrodt's (2007, 2010) practice-based theory of religion.

Mary Ellen Konieczny, University of Notre Dame, 815 Flanner Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556. E-mail:


No single paradigm or debate currently orients the social scientific study of religion. Because of this, those engaged in the multidisciplinary study of religion find that a public conversation is often difficult. In this article and the Forum it introduces, we explore Martin Riesebrodt's recently published book, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion. Responding to the inadequacies of secularization paradigms, rational choice models, and postmodern criticism, Riesebrodt proposes an approach that ideal-typically reconstructs the subjective meanings of institutionalized religious practices (liturgies). These subjective meanings center on the prevention and management of crises—social, natural, and bodily—through appeal and access to superhuman powers. This pragmatic emphasis on the superhuman defines religion as a distinct sphere of social action transhistorically and transculturally. Riesebrodt's theory creates new analytical possibilities, especially for understanding the modern resurgence of religion under conditions of secularization.