(Invited essay for Contemporary Sociology)

Brian Steensland

Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Religion: What it Is, How it Works, and Why it Matters, by Christian Smith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2017. 296 pp. $35.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780691175416

If sociologists have a working definition of religion in their heads, it is likely Emile Durkheim’s. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices oriented toward the sacred that integrates people into a moral community. College instructors using this definition invariably field questions from students about whether professional football, fraternities and sororities, shopping, or Marxism can also be considered religions. Durkheim’s definition intentionally cast a broad net. He anticipated the demise of organized religion and laid out an analytic framework for apprehending new sources of moral solidarity in the modern age.

In his new book, Religion: What it Is, How it Works, and Why it Matters, Christian Smith seeks to overhaul, if not overturn, nearly every facet of standard sociological treatments of religion, including Durkheim’s. The book’s subtitle telegraphs its ambitions. To wit: The definition of religion should center upon practices that seek access to superhuman powers; it should not focus on the “sacred.” Explanations of religion should operate through people’s desire for human flourishing and their limited capacities to attain it; explanation should not run through society’s needs for moral integration or religion’s secondary effects. Religion will be a durable feature of human society for the foreseeable future; it will not dissolve upon the tides of modernity. Religion warrants understanding for its own sake; scholars too often misapprehend religion when they interpret it orthogonally in light of its influences on politics, activism, or social attitudes.

Smith has written prolifically about religion for over twenty-five years, but he has never addressed the core aspects of religion so directly. Though the book has some weak spots, they are outweighed by its insights and the book’s aims to move the field beyond the rational choice and secularization paradigms. Smith’s is the most sustained sociological statement on the substance and study of religion in years. He simultaneously narrows and deepens the definitional scope of religion, identifies mechanisms of religion’s workings and influence, and seeks to reorient our theoretical and meta-theoretical approach to religion. Scholars with even glancing interests in religion should read and contend with his analysis.

What is Religion?

Throughout the book, Smith acknowledges the intellectual debt he owes to Martin Riesebrodt’s The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (2010). Riesebrodt’s conceptual contributions inform Smith’s analysis and Smith further re-orients Riesebrodt’s Weberian perspective with his own critical realist approach (more on the latter below). A chief commitment they share is the centrality of practice and practical action to religion. From this starting point, Smith develops his definition of religion, which he intends to apply broadly: “Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad” (p. 22).

There are four significant features of this definition that distinguish it from most others. First is the focus on superhuman powers. Humans appeal to superhuman powers to achieve things they cannot achieve for themselves. This, according to Smith, is the core feature shared by all religions. Other definitional foci—supernatural, transcendent, sacred, ultimate, God, etc.—are deemed inadequate for reasons he details. Second is the focus on practice: intentional, meaningful, repetitive behavior. In Smith’s account, practices are more fundamental than beliefs (or what he calls premises) because they precede and sustain beliefs. Practices are formative as well as expressive. Third is the distinctive focus on realizing human goods. Smith’s view of religion is based on a purposive action theory in which people seek human flourishing. Notably, the focus of flourishing is this-worldly. He cites evidence that people’s everyday religious concerns, on balance, focus more on earthly matters than other-worldly ones. Fourth, Smith consistently distinguishes between definitional questions of what religion is versus causal questions of what religion does. He therefore does not include the effects or functions of religion that many other definitions contain. Smith himself revises an earlier definition of religion he proposed that referenced moral order (Smith 2003).

Compared to most others, Smith’s definition restricts what should be considered religion. His approach cuts against the grain of much interdisciplinary work that sees “religion” where things are valued, meaning is made, symbols are referenced, people are unified, collective action is facilitated, and social boundaries are policed—e.g., consumer culture, the national parks system, political ideologies, secular holidays, celebrity empires, and the like. These things are worthwhile of study (and give religious studies scholars broad warrant for their analyses), but Smith contends that labeling them “religion” needlessly obfuscates the nature of the subject matter at hand.

How Does Religion Work?

Smith approaches the question of “how religion works” from two directions. The first focuses on cognitive aspects of causal attribution. Here he draws extensively from psychology to enumerate the myriad ways in which individuals ascribe causation to superhuman powers. Without beliefs about the causal efficacy of religion—and devices for sense-making when it “fails”—religion would be enfeebled at its very core. Here and throughout the book, Smith emphasizes a consistent theme. The mechanisms through which religion works at the cognitive and social levels are common to all realms of social life; they are not limited to the “religious sphere.” The features that mark religion as distinct are less how the mechanisms operate, but, in certain circumstances, the intensity, depth, and duration seen in people’s religious motivations and commitments. Premises regarding superhuman powers relativize risks and heighten rewards.

Smith’s focus on the cognitive dimension of how religion works is illuminating, but that emphasis also seems to run at odds with his definition of religion, which focuses on practices more than meaning. A reader could justifiably expect more central attention to the mechanisms identified in social scientific work on practices and embodiment (e.g., Luhrmann 2012; Davidman 2015). But the book can be harvested for such insights. Religious practices generate the plausibility structures that support and reinforce premises; they are pragmatically oriented; they are performed collectively and maximally well suited for creating emotional energy; and they provide leverage for understanding socialization and change.

The second angle Smith takes on religion’s workings focuses on what he calls its “secondary features”—the things that religion does to produce social influence but that are not unique to religion. These features are familiar to scholars of religion, but Smith covers them well: identity, community, meaning, expression/experience, social control, and legitimacy. He makes the strong claim that these secondary features, even taken collectively, are not enough to sustain religion without its core basis of practices accessing superhuman powers. Individuals may prioritize these secondary features, but religion as an institution is not sustainable in the long term if it provides secondary features alone. For individuals, religion’s core and secondary features create a “multiple overlapping patchwork” of reasons that religion “works” for people. If people benefit from religion’s multiple goods and some of its features disappoint or somehow fail, there are other features of religion that can sustain religious commitment. From this vantage point, religion contains multiple redundancies.

Having defined religion and addressed its secondary effects and causal influences, Smith addresses the “why” of religion. He flips commonplace assumptions. He mobilizes the scholarship on the naturalness of religion to argue that we should assume religion rather than secularity. Human capacities, desires, and limitations incline people to seek goods through access to superhuman powers. The secular outlook is the one requiring explanation. Yet the default state of human religiousness is also lax. Humans are naturally religious, but only moderately so. Variations in religiousness can be explicated through a nested combination of biological predisposition, group-level vulnerabilities, societal provision of security, and supply-side production of religious institutions and discourses.

This moves us onto the terrain of secularization theory. Smith engages this perspective, but not as deeply as some might want. Against the unilineal, evolutionary basis of standard secularization theory, Smith favors Eisenstadt’s (2000) “multiple modernities” perspective. Though Smith does not shy away from the challenges modernity poses to religion in some contexts, the future of religion, and secularization, is historically contingent and the paths are varied. Factors that potentially contribute to secularization—which Smith defines as a decline in culturally prescribed practices—include decreased trust in the ideas underlying religious practices, feeling less vulnerable to life’s misfortunes, and new reliance on other means to address life’s misfortunes. His confidence in the persistence of religion seems rooted in his dim view of modernity. While he is generally even-handed in appraising the virtues and vices of religion (religion does good and does harm), his book is salted with only pejorative statements about modernity. If “modern” premises, practices, and institutions cannot sufficiently provide the grounds for human flourishing, religion will persist, though in ever-changing forms.

How Should We Study Religion?

One need not fully share Smith’s assumptions about the naturalness of religion or the inadequacies of modernity to recognize the continuing need to understand and explain religion well. Demographic projections indicate that due to differential birthrates between religious and secular populations, the world will have a higher percentage of religious people in thirty years than it does now (Pew Research Center 2015). China, where religion has been violently repressed, is experiencing an upwelling of interest in religion (Johnson 2017).  Numerous world regions are witnessing the rise of Pentecostalism (Miller, Sargeant, and Flory 2013). Global culture requires a revised and well-fitting framework for understanding religion and its place in the modern world.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Smith’s framework is its meta-theoretical grounding in personalism and critical realism (Smith 2010; Smith 2015). From personalism comes Smith’s definition of religion centered on the pursuit of human flourishing. While some perspectives on religion emphasize fear, risk, and uncertainty, Smith contextualizes these aspects of religion in the broader pursuit of human goods. What makes Smith’s analysis further distinctive is the critical realist distinction between the real, the actual, and the empirical—i.e., between what exists independent of human apprehension, what happens in the world (whether observed or not), and what humans observe and experience. By adopting a philosophy of science that acknowledges the potential existence of real things unobserved, Smith can systematically address issues that other theorists of religion treat ad hoc. For instance, in a discussion of Ludwig Feuerbach’s projection theory, Smith references Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy (1967). Berger observed that religion is a human projection, but that it may correspond to something unobserved but nonetheless real. Human religion, in other words, picks up signals of transcendence. While Berger makes this observation in a “theological” excursus in an appendix, Smith’s theoretical apparatus is built around the existence of and difference between empirical reality and metaphysical reality.

Berger was, of course, a chief progenitor of contemporary social constructionism. Therein lies a key to positioning Smith’s approach to religion in the broader intellectual field. Smith carves out his critical realist position in juxtaposition to positivism and constructionism. In Smith’s account, positivist social science holds an impoverished view of the human condition, seeks untenable covering laws, and focuses on variables rather than meaning and mechanisms. Social constructionism, on the other hand, provides no analytic point of entrée for distinguishing between the real and the empirical. Each approach has its respective weaknesses, but both are deemed insufficient at the meta-theoretical level. Smith also contrasts critical realism with interpretivism. He is more sympathetic to this approach, but argues that it is inadequately causal in orientation.

Metaphysical commitments aside, Smith’s theoretical perspective on empirical research is quite similar to Riesebrodt’s Weberian perspective, especially to Weber’s methodological writings on seeking “adequate causality” through the blending of observable empirical regularities with the meaning-laden actions that produce them. Smith’s dissatisfaction with Weberian sociology seems rooted more in its metaphysics than its causal insufficiencies. Smith wants social science to acknowledge that reality is not limited to the empirical phenomena our methods capture. His stance has obvious relevance to the study of religion and overlaps with a related, current discussion about “real presence” among religious studies scholars (Orsi 2016). But the critical realist viewpoint is arguably more broadly relevant because it is part of the tacit, practical knowledge that is actually employed in large swaths of disciplinary sociology (Gorski 2013).

Smith’s book is a treatise but it reads like a compendium. It contains definitions, concepts, hypotheses, mechanisms, lists, case studies, reading summaries, research questions, and long discursive footnotes. In its variety, loose structure, and potential, it has affinities with Weber’s Economy and Society: a work of deep ambition and capacious substance, yet as much a resource book as a fully formed and thoroughly integrated work. Whether Religion has the impact Smith intends will depend on he and other scholars using its resources to refocus debates, sharpen questions, and inform interpretations. The study of religion will benefit if they continue to press ahead using the ideas laid out in this book.


Berger, Peter. 1967. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Davidman, Lynn. 2015. Becoming Un-Orthodox: Stories of Ex-Hasidic Jews. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Eisenstadt, S. N. 2000. “Multiple Modernities.”  Daedalus 129 (1):1-29.

Gorski, Philip S. 2013. “What is Critical Realism? And Why Should You Care?”  Contemporary Sociology 42 (5):658-670.

Johnson, Ian. 2017. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Luhrmann, Tanya. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Miller, Donald, Kimon H. Sargeant, and Richard Flory, eds. 2013. Spirit and Power: The Growth and Global Impact of Pentecostalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Orsi, Robert. 2016. History and Presence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pew Research Center. 2015. The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Washington D.C.

Riesebrodt, Martin. 2010. The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Christian. 2003. Moral Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Christian. 2010. What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Christian. 2015. To Flourish or Destruct: A Personalist Theory of Human Goods, Motivations, Failure, and Evil. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.