Martin RIESEBRODT, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 228pp. Paperback. Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta.

In the grand sociological tradition Riesebrodt has proposed here a general theory, one which sets out to both explain the endurance of religion and to place some order on the boundless and somewhat chaotic field of religious phenomenon in contemporary culture.  He grounds his theory in an empirical consideration of how religion works itself into the lives of people in a variety of societal contexts.  Riesebrodt looks at, for instance, worship and related behavior in a number of religion traditions and uses this as a conceptual tool to tease out the significance of religion in daily life.  As an organizing principle religion can be explained in three seminal and characteristic dimensions.  Religion provides individuals and groups with a way and a promise to deal with misfortune, a capacity to cope with acute crises when they arise and, perhaps most critically, as suggested in the book’s title, the promise of salvation. 

The endurance of religion can well be explained by the first two of these defining characteristics.  Riesebrodt’s argument is that as misfortunate, crises and unheralded events are very much part of the human condition then religion will have a place in a variety of cultures.  Even in those places where these factors can be somehow mitigated against the prospect of unwanted and undesired change can lead people to develop an interest in and affiliation to religious beliefs and behaviors.  The third general characteristic is the most existential.  Here the author develops a theme that is well known in the general sociological literature, that of the pivotal attraction of religion for its promise of an entrée into a world beyond the earthly confines of space and time.  The attraction of the eternal or what others have called an exchange with the gods has long been seen as one of the most enduring aspects of a religious worldview.

Riesebrodt’s analysis does have predictive and explanatory power.  For instance, it offers an explanation for the decline of so called mainstream religious groups in secular cultures such as those of much of northern Europe and elsewhere.  Following from Riesbrodt’s theory it could be argued that religious groups in these places have not provided a strong articulation of engagement with the transcendent as a crucial part of their mission and identity.  If a religious group does not offer a sense that the metaphysical is a real and important dimension of human life then it cannot provide any mechanism for negotiating this realm.  For in this view, the attraction of religion is that it provides the believer with a well ground and actualized promise that not only the eternal exists but that by following the strictures of the religion a person can acquire access to this reality.  And this is not only for a fleeting moment but for eternity.  Indeed, the reluctance of many religious groups to talk in terms that recognize the transcendent and the capacity of the person to enter into this world through their actions and beliefs is the primary cause for the problemization of religion. 

Even when its transcendent dimension is neglected religion does not easily disappear because misfortune, crises and unexpected events are likely to occur even in advanced and relatively prosperous Western nations.  The consumerist culture in many of these places creates the conditions where wants and desires can never be fully met and in such circumstances feelings of contentment and security become less widespread.  To be sure the uncertainties of life in these situations are not life threatening and can be alleviated to some extent by regulatory factors but in any context life cannot be totally free from unanticipated and unwanted events. Since the dawn of time religion has been one enduring way of dealing with these situations and in Riesebrodt’s view will have every chance of continuing to do so.   

This book provides a clear and incisive theory of religion which should inspire research in the field for some time.