Outstanding Academic Titles 2023: Religion

Enjoy these five selections from the Choice Reviews 2023 Outstanding Academic Titles list. This week we highlight, Outstanding Academic Titles from the past year pertaining to Religion. A hearty congratulations to the winning authors, editors and publishers!

1. The secular paradox: on the religiosity of the not religious
Blankholm, Joseph. New York University, 2022

Blankholm (religious studies, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) analyzes what it means to be secular or nonreligious in the US today. He bases his study on interviews with persons identified with such groups as the American Humanist Association and on his own participation as both scholar and secular person in training events and conferences these groups sponsor. His conclusion is in the title. A religious substratum in American culture forces those who deny the existence of God to explain what they do believe. The paradox is simply that the very categories used to describe secularity come from what is rejected. Within secular organizations, the paradox echoes in debates over whether secularity provides a basis for ethics and whether the rejection of traditional types of religious authority dismantles any internal authority. Many of Blankholm’s informants faced the paradoxical situation of having to “deconvert” from a traditional religion to convert to a secular identity. This work enriches understanding of one of the fastest growing segments of the US population, those with no religious affiliation or identity. Though somewhat jargon laden, this study merits the attention of students of American religious culture at all levels. View on Amazon

2. Judaism, antisemitism, and Holocaust: making the connections
Patterson, David. Cambridge, 2022

Sounding the depths of Judaism, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust, Patterson (Holocaust studies, Univ. of Texas, Dallas) focuses on the object of anti-Semitic hatred—the Jew—to examine the metaphysical origins of exterminationist anti-Semitism and the singularity of the Holocaust. Jews are perceived as an unsettling, unnecessary, and unwanted divine presence in the world. Every “thou shalt” to take “responsibility for the infinite dearness of the other” (p. 7) is eschewed. The anti-Semite seeks a final solution to the Jewish question by eliminating altogether the voice of the divine commandment. Patterson’s poignant lyricism is paired with incisive research that aims to confront the persistent scourge of anti-Semitism in the post-Holocaust world. In a debatable chapter on anti-Zionism, Patterson sharply rebukes left-wing intellectuals as harshly as right-wing, anti-Israeli extremists and Islamic jihadists. Left-wing intellectuals might well criticize toxic Israeli policies regarding, for example, the treatment of Palestinians and Israeli settlements on the West Bank but still uphold the sacred right of the state of Israel to exist. All in all, Patterson has produced a deeply insightful exposé of anti-Semitism alongside a powerful affirmation of Jewish life amid the desolation of the post-Holocaust world.Netherlands, and Peru to China, she visits sites where experts from various disciplines—hydrologists, biologists, anthropologists, urban planners—are implementing slow water solutions by restoring ecosystems and reviving ancient water management techniques. Sometimes, Gies observes, the best solution is human retreat from lands threatened by droughts and floods because, as the title declares, “water always wins.” Although the author’s tendency to anthropomorphize water may irritate some readers, her diverse, research-based examples should prompt consideration of slow water solutions. View on Amazon

3. The delight makers: Anglo-American metaphysical religion and the pursuit of happiness
Albanese, Catherine L. Chicago, 2023

Any subject in the hands of eminent historian of American religion Catherine Albanese (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara) will be treated with scholarly precision and respect. This is particularly true in this study of some personages she calls “delight makers.” These people include the well known (Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Bushnell, William James) and some spokespersons of Anglo-American metaphysical religion many will find unfamiliar (Andrew Jackson Davis, Warren Felt Evans, and Emma Curtis Hopkins). Albanese’s work introduces the reader to an often-ignored part of the religious spectrum in US history. What unites this disparate group of thinkers is that all pursued a state of being marked by the experience of delight or happiness. Published at a time when Americans seem to be seeking all varieties of new forms of pleasure, Albanese’s treatment of delight makers from the 17th to the 21st century will be informative and appreciated by a wide audience, including those outside the academy. View on Amazon

4. Beyond heaven and earth: a cognitive theory of religion
Levy, Gabriel. MIT, 2022

How do the natural sciences relate to the humanities, particularly to religious claims? Drawing from the philosophy of Donald Davidson, Levy (Norwegian Univ. of Science and Technology, Norway) recommends a kind of “pragmatism,” implying that concepts of what is physical and what is mental cannot be reduced or identified because of certain limits of language. One result is a denial of formulating a completely scientific or physicalist psychology; another is a denial of subsuming all religious claims under scientific claims. The latter result has found influential support from Stephen Jay Gould, but Levy does not pursue his work. Levy claims that “science without the humanities is blind” (p. 183), but his “agnosticism” about religion leaves one wondering why science needs religion at all. His skepticism also extends to science: “Science cannot tell ontological truths” (p. 186). Readers are left wondering how Levy knows this. Does he have some access to reality that enables him to say that science falls short in capturing reality? That would seem to be a requirement of his bold skepticism, but it needs support and careful discussion. View on Amazon.

5Religion’s power: what makes it work Wuthnow, Robert. Oxford, 2022

One might think of a religion in terms of beliefs, ethical values, and personal practices, and those certainly are central elements. But Wuthnow (emer., sociology, Princeton) calls for looking at religion more deeply, specifically at its power as expressed in several key dimensions. He notes that this power can be used positively or negatively, but he wants readers to be aware of how religion can function in subtle, easily unnoticed ways. Wuthnow’s specialties have been cultural sociology and the sociology of religion, and he utilizes his expertise in these areas to draw out insights related to five central areas of religion’s power: ritual practice, discourse, institutions, identity, and politics. In successive chapters, he examines the power of religion in terms of these areas. Though the book is scholarly—Wuthnow discusses empirical research and points to key figures, theories, and ideas on the subject—it is also accessible. The author writes in a somewhat conversational style, without academic jargon, and he illustrates his ideas with interesting stories and historical examples. Other scholars have examined religion in politics but have not engaged in the kind of incisive sociological and historical analysis Wuthnow does. View on Amazon.

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