Klass's Ordered Universes was intended to introduce students to the "traditional categories" of the anthropology of religion and also "update them in terms of the research and theorizing of recent decades." The older introductions employed "theoretical perceptions and assumptions that have long since been jettisoned in most of the other areas of anthropological concern and activity." (p. xi) Klass discusses different categories and assumptions put forward by both old and recent anthropologists and shows how they affect the researches and results of the study of religion. One who expects a bunch of case studies and papers might be disappointed.
Klass can discuss the difficult theoretical issues in very clear language. I would classify his approach is functionalist or operationalist, that is, how do the various religious behaviours, rituals, and ideas actually function if the lives of communities and individuals. Many would like to take the view that the only real knowledge is that gained through application of the scientific method by scientists. In blunt terms, this means question of the origin of religion really is:
"When early humans, emerging from the primeval slime, became aware of the universe around them and began to consider it, why did they have to come up with such absolutely silly conclusions, ones without basis in reality and studded with outlandish notions and even more outlandish nonexistent beings." (p. 9-10)
The antidote (p. 6) is to recognize that the people they study, even `primitive' ones, are just as intelligent and insightful as we are, and that in their own terms, they find their activities and beliefs just as true and verifiable as the things we do and believe. This is not at all the same as accepting everything ourselves, but of understanding how others view the world. It is not necessary to see all religious leaders such as shamans and medicine men as both intelligent and dishonest.
Well, if it is hard to establish the origins of religion, perhaps one can find a definition of religion. A number have been tried and found wanting. The belief in supernatural beings fails as a definition because, as Durkheim pointed out long ago, there are some religions which have no such beliefs such as Jainism and Theravada Buddhism.
What is the aim of religion? There is a certain ethnocentrism in regarding religion as primarily concerned with the supernatural beings. Recalling the South Indian scholar and philosopher, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, he suggests that for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, God is a supreme person who reveals his will to prophets and lawgivers, whereas for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, religion is primarily aimed at salvation from the cycle of births and deaths rather than God or the gods. (p. 107) Interesting, but I do not think this is a rigid division.
Klass proposed the following "operational definition:"
"Religion in a given society will be that instituted process of interaction among members of that society---and between them and the universe at large as they conceive it to be constituted--which provides them with meaning, coherence, direction, unity, easement and whatever degree of control over events as they conceive as possible." (p. 38)
Such a definition is a starting point which does not impose particular beliefs and structures on the society under study nor does it exclude them.
Klass discusses many issues. What might be meant by values? What types of religious leadership are typical of simpler and of more stratified societies? Is witchcraft a legitimate category? What are the difficulties of applying a general religious assumption to a particular individual? What different kinds of `' are there? He distinguishes soul, atman, ghost and ancestor in Chapter 13, "The Incorporeal Dimension."
What is the divine? We should not impose Abrahamic religious conceptions of God indiscriminately. Is God impersonal or personal? Is the divine an aspect of the universe or separate from it?
Chapter 18, "When Worldviews Collide," contains fascinating material about when science meets religion, when African beliefs meet Catholicism in the Caribbean, when Great Tradition Hinduism coexists with tribal or Little Traditions, and other things. There is no one answer and there are many theoretical and practical difficulties in describing what happens.
Klass is weakest when discussing contemporary religion. He distinguishes three main trends. 1) The Scientistic Way, which includes any religion which finds science is primary in the kinds of things it investigates and where religion conflicts, it is in error, though texts such as the creation stories in Genesis have "symbolic content."
Those who follow the 2) Fundamentalist Way consider that when they conflict, religion trumps science. These include many intelligent people, including some scientists and scholars, not just the poorly educated . H. L. Mencken thought that fundamentalism would die out with education, but it hasn't.
The third category is 3) the Post-Rationalist Way. Post-rationalists tend to agree that science has shown the unreliability of the Bible and other religious literatures. They do think that science accounts for God, religion, and meaning, but they are quite diverse in their beliefs. They have universalistic views and see that there is more to the world than European culture and capitalism. Many see that our planet has grave problems in the "greenhouse effect, toxic waste, overpopulation, and so on." They also consider no views as completely wrong, which can lead to acceptance of a lot of pseudo-science, even in the face of criticism.
My own quite traditional faith accepts revelation, reason, and philosophy. It has long fostered learning, scientific research, and now supports modern religious scholarship. It is universal in scope and flourishes in many different cultures. Klassen's 3 categories are not mutually exclusive and one can hold elements of all three. So, I do not think he has adequately applied his admirable methods to contemporary religion, which is not, after all, his specialty. It's the methodology that is his main point, and there is so much in the book for the field researcher that I still give it 5 stars.