Faculty fellow’s book explores religion’s powerful and complicated roles

Author: Josh Stowe

Thomas Tweed

In his latest work, Ansari Institute Faculty Fellow Thomas Tweed explores how religion has shaped human society thus far—and how it continues to do so in powerful and complicated ways.

The book, Religion: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2020), draws on Tweed’s expertise as a leading authority on the historical study of religion to provide a concise and wide-ranging introduction. It unpacks the roles religion can play in helping to address or worsen significant global challenges such as conflict and climate change.

“I had always thought that I wanted to write a short summary about religion for wider audiences,” says Tweed, Harold and Martha Welch Professor of American Studies and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, where he also served as the founding director of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion. “Scholars sometimes direct their writing just to other scholars. And, I'd always thought that at some point I wanted to write an overview for the general reader.”

In part, Tweed’s work explores religion’s “stickiness”—its power to cement social bonds that can be both cohesive, creating attachments within groups, and adhesive, creating bonds that extend to other groups. “When inward-looking groups look outward with fear or fury, they can become, to coin a term, dehisive, a bond-breaking social force,” he writes in the book.

This understanding of religion’s power to create bonds leads Tweed to a pragmatic analysis that sees religion’s power to help humanity, while also recognizing its potential downside if used as a tool of division.

“I'm neither bubbling with optimism nor mired in gloom. I think it could go both ways,” Tweed says, reflecting on how religion might affect global violence and climate change. “There’s been historical precedent for religion being used to make things better and to bring people together. And in terms of violence, almost every tradition, since 1945, has had some forms of religious nationalism and exclusivity that have led to violence and injustice.

“But there are examples from almost every tradition too where some leaders and ordinary folks have used these kinds of spiritual resources to make the world better. So, I think both of those things have been happening, and I'm hopeful that religious communities can draw on those resources to make the world more peaceful, just, and sustainable for everyone.”

In addition to exploring how religion might help or hurt responses to the challenges humanity faces, Tweed uses the book to flesh out what religion is, what it does, and how it has changed—and provides an overview of religion in today’s world. He also explores how religion is expressed and experienced—something that introductions to religion often do not cover.

“I wanted the book to talk about the multiple modes in which religion's expressed and experienced,” Tweed says. “So, I'm not just talking about ideas or institutions or rituals, but all the ways that religion is expressed in architecture and ritual and thought and so on. Part of what I wanted to do was provide a richer array—from Buddhist sculpture in Afghanistan to Bernini's image of Saint Teresa in Rome. I think sometimes books for popular audiences don’t really give you a sense of all the multiple ways in which religion is expressed.”

“I was really inspired by the Ansari family’s confidence that spiritual resources can bring communities together to make the world better.”

The book allows Tweed, a past president of the American Academy of Religion, to share the deep expertise he has honed during his career with a broad general audience. A faculty fellow with Notre Dame’s Institute of Latino Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, Tweed wrote the book while serving as director of the Ansari Institute and as a fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

“I thought it would fit the purposes of the institute, in thinking about integral human development in a broad frame, reaching out to wide audiences, and thinking about multiple traditions,” Tweed says. “And it was a way of thanking the Ansari family, for whom we're all deeply grateful. I was really inspired by the Ansari family’s confidence that spiritual resources can bring communities together to make the world better.”