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Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters

Christian Smith
Published by Princeton University Press in 2017

In Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, Christian Smith proposes an insightful theory of religion, differentiating between the nature of religion itself and the various effects of religion. Seeking such differentiation, the complex and overlapping relationship between an ontological understanding of religion and religion’s practical effects and impacts in and on the world become clearly integrated. According to Smith, his general purpose in writing is “to advance an approach that explains religion clearly in order to enhance understanding and help generate fruitful new research” (3).

Upon first read, Smith seems to be motivated—as stated above—by a desire to help readers “make sense of all religions … by learning to approach and understand religion theoretically … becom[ing] equipped to grasp and explain any specific religion that may interest them” (2). However, a more careful and thorough analysis reveals a more nuanced motivation. By the end of the book, Smith’s purposes clearly shift as he pushes for “a major change in scholarly attitudes toward religion” (213). Regardless of Smith’s underlying motivations, any scholarly work claiming to explain religion comprehensively and inclusively is subject to critique within the scholarly community, and Smith’s work is no exception.

Seeking to substantiate his claim of comprehensively and inclusively explaining religion, Smith methodically presents his theory utilizing a series of questions and answers organized into five chapters. Smith begins with a preface stating: “My intended readership… includes not only academic scholars of religion, but also capable undergraduate and graduate students and the educated reading public” (ix). Smith follows the preface with a brief introduction before asking in Chapter 1, “What is religion?” (20). Within that chapter, Smith argues for a definition rooted in “the reality of religion as it is found in actual human lives and societies” (21). Instead of oft-debated conceptual understandings of religion, Smith emphasizes religious practices over and above religious beliefs and ideas. Consequently, Smith defines religion as a “complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on premises about the existence and nature of superhuman powers … which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate … with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad” (22).

Strongly drawing on attribution theory, which Smith uses abundantly to support his larger theory of religion, Chapter 2 seeks to answer, “What causal powers does religion produce?” (77). Smith identifies secondary features and powers including identity, community, meaning, expression and experience, social control, and legitimacy—none of which are unique to religion—as important secondary products. Religion both generates and is strengthened by such causal powers (78-79). Consequently, religion exerts tremendous power and influence over social and cultural movements by self-perpetuating formative causal powers. Thus, Smith summarizes, “The irony is that some people today dismiss religion as an antiquated practice … when, in reality, religion likely has many significant effects on and around those very people’s lives… [and] is far more influential” than most people recognize (117).

In Chapter 3, Smith continues with attribution theory logic, explaining how religion works by discussing causal attribution as religion’s “most essential dynamic” (136). After defining “attribution” as “assigning a specific person, reason, or force as the cause or originator of an outcome, work, or behavior” (136), Smith asserts the necessity of causal attribution for the existence of religion. Smith even goes so far as to claim, “Apart from the central process of making attributions, religion would collapse” (136).

After thoroughly defining and deconstructing the inner and outer workings of religion in Chapters 1-3, Smith finally provides a compelling rationale for discussing religion in Chapters 4-5. Providing his most persuasive arguments for the importance of religion, Smith concludes his theory of religion by answering the following two questions: “Why are humans religious?” (204) and “What is religion’s future?” (234). Smith utilizes Chapter 4 to assert the naturalness of religion, relying on the following three assumptions about humanity in building his case: humans are naturally oriented toward certain ends; humans think rationally; and humans are primarily “believing animals” (213).

To the first, Smith articulates, “All of people’s motivations … derive from their objective interest in realizing six natural, ‘basic goods’ … toward realizing their proper natural end (telos) of eudaimonia (happy flourishing)” (205). In support of human rationality, Smith writes, “[Religion] is natural to how human perception, cognition, and explanation ordinarily work” (213). And third, Smith affirms the commonality of faith among humans, stating, “Getting anything going in human life—whether science or religion or anything else—requires believing, trusting, having faith in the truth of some things that one cannot validate through experience or observation” (213). Lastly, Chapter 5 reasserts the naturalness of religion by concluding, “Religion will be a significant part of human life and societies as long as the human condition is like what it is now” (250), reaffirming the conclusions drawn in Chapter 4.

Before even beginning the main text, Smith does himself a huge disservice by grossly overestimating the intellectual abilities of his self-identified readership. He therefore misjudges the accessibility of his theory to the majority of his intended audience. In light of the suggestion that undergraduates and the educated public constitute about half of his proposed audience, the structure of Smith’s argument is troubling. Smith completely deconstructs religion using logic and language only appropriate for a scholarly audience before ever convincing readers of the credibility or importance of a scholarly conversation on religion.

Unfortunately, Smith runs the risk of not only losing undergraduates and the educated public within the first half of his book, but also of unnecessarily confusing younger students’ understandings of their own faiths.1 Smith’s method is the equivalent of putting a teenager under the chassis of a dismantled car—amidst moving parts and spare tools—with the expectation that he or she learns to drive the car. Imagine the progress the teenager would make toward learning to drive if he or she started in a fully assembled car. In the real world, teenagers learn to drive first, thus growing in appreciation for their vehicles in the most basic, but fullest sense. Then, in order to maintain and keep their vehicles functioning long-term, teenagers may choose to dismantle the car with the help of a skilled mechanic.

Therefore, a large segment of the proposed audience is unlikely to pick up, let alone understand, Religion. Smith’s theory would have reached a far greater audience, prompting more robust conversation, if he utilized a more fitting approach and plain language. However, serious scholars—the book’s most probable and appropriate audience—can and should take on the task of reading Religion, engaging fully with Chapters 1-3 with the foreknowledge of the strength of Chapters 4 and 5.

Amidst recent political and social turmoil in the United States, many people have simply stopped listening to those holding differing beliefs, views, and opinions. Unfortunately, scholars, at times lacking intellectual humility, likewise succumb to such temptations. Perhaps Religion’s most significant gift to readers is an exceedingly broad and applicable framework for discussing religion across various backgrounds, cultures, disciplines, and faiths. Christian scholars especially, often holding tight to the uniqueness of the Christian faith, will benefit greatly from an attentive reading of a theory of religion centering on commonality rather than difference. Smith himself models this endeavor in attempting to propose a charitable and inclusive theory of religion, regardless of his clear biases toward Abrahamic religious traditions, evidence in his numerous Christian examples.

Due to the broadness of Smith’s theory, scholars need to be aware of the intellectual work involved in applying the theory to individual religious traditions, a task Smith provides little help in accomplishing. Regardless, Smith’s work is a necessary encouragement to Christian scholars to consider religion—and the necessity of religion— holistically in hopes of realizing a future reality in which people “approach our religiously pluralistic world with less suspicion and hostility, carry on more invigorating and fertile conversations, and together enjoy greater mutual respect and peace” (262).

According to Smith, such a worthy proposed end is achieved only by reinstituting the study of religion as an area of “‘real’ importance … merit[ing] serious scholarly attention” (263). Smith declares that prejudices to the contrary are “internalized and honored even by many religious scholars” (263). Therefore, religious scholars have an important responsibility in shifting the narrative away from a prejudiced understanding of religious scholarship by engaging with and in religious scholarship. Reading Religion serves as a helpful springboard for scholars interested in both discussing religion at an intellectual level and conducting additional research on religion.

Cite this article
Jessica Martin, “Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:2 , 203-206


  1. Perhaps James K. A. Smith’s more accessible book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), might serve as suitable alternative or pre-read for less schol- arly audiences. Desiring the Kingdom uses similar logic, but more accessible language within a distinctly Christian framework, while it similarly advocates for the formative nature of practices (or lived realities) in developing faith (or religion).

Jessica Martin

Baylor University
Jessica Martin is currently earning her Ph.D. in Higher Education Studies & Leadership at Baylor University. She holds an M.A. in Higher Education & Student Affairs along with a B.S. in Medicinal & Biological Chemistry (and a minor in Theology).