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The Promise of Salvation

A Theory of Religion

Why has religion persisted across the course of human history? Secularists have predicted the end of faith for a long time, but religions continue to attract followers. Meanwhile, scholars of religion have expanded their field to such an extent that we lack a basic framework for making sense of the chaos of religious phenomena. To remedy this state of affairs, Martin Riesebrodt here undertakes a task that is at once simple and monumental: to define, understand, and explain religion as a universal concept.

Instead of propounding abstract theories, Riesebrodt concentrates on the concrete realities of worship, examining religious holidays, conversion stories, prophetic visions, and life-cycle events. In analyzing these practices, his scope is appropriately broad, taking into consideration traditions in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Daoism, and Shinto. Ultimately, Riesebrodt argues, all religions promise to avert misfortune, help their followers manage crises, and bring both temporary blessings and eternal salvation. And, as The Promise of Salvation makes clear through abundant empirical evidence, religion will not disappear as long as these promises continue to help people cope with life.

Table of Contents


1. Religion as Discourse: On the Critique of the Concept of Religion

Modern Religious Discourses

The Indispensability of the Concept of Religion

On Discourse-Theory Criticism

On Postcolonial Criticism

On the Necessity of Analytical Concepts

From Language to Social Reference

2. Religion as Social Reference: On Justifying the Concept of Religion




The Politics of Religion

Travelers’ Reports


3. Scholarly Imaginations of Religion

Religion as a Divine Gift of Reason

Religion as an Experience of Revelation

Religion as Projection

Religion as Protoscience

Religion as Affect

Religion as a Function of the Brain

Religion as Sacralized Society

Religion as an Interest in Salvation

Religion as a Commodity


4. Religious Practice and the Promise of Salvation:

Outline of a Theory of Religion

Defining Religion

Understanding Religion

Explaining Religion

5. Averting Misfortune: General Religious Practices

Religious Calendars

Life-Cycle Practices

Variable Practices

6. The Radical Quest for Salvation: The Practices of Religious Virtuosos

On the Concept of Virtuosity






Japanese Virtuosos


On the Logic of Virtuoso Practices

7. Turning toward Salvation: Religious Propaganda

Conversion and Propaganda

Conversion Narratives

Reports of Enlightenment

Prophetic Promises

8. The Future of Religion

On the Universality of Religion

Secularization, Disenchantment, and Deinstitutionalization

The Return and the Future of Religion





Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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