Studying World Religions
What Is Religion?
Religion is a characteristic of the human species, stretching from antiquity to the present, from simple societies to the most complex, from the unlearned to the educated, from the weak to the powerful, from the young to the old, from the peripheral to the centers of power. Yet religion is notoriously difficult to define. Some scholars would argue that no definition can be adequate, since religion as expressed throughout the world and throughout human history is simply too diverse and complex to be neatly captured in a short definition that identifies a common condition. Indeed, most of the common assumptions about religion fail when we try to apply them to all traditions we normally think of as religious.
Surely gods must be present in religion, one might think. No, for some religions deny either the existence of gods or their relevance. Surely an afterlife must be important in religion. No, for some religions either deny an afterlife or do not divide present and future existence in this way. Perhaps a moral code of some kind captures a common element in religion. No, for in some societies morality is primarily dealt with by philosophers rather than priests, by the academy rather than the temple, and among some peoples codes of behavior provide social order and create stable societies without appeal to religious motives or motifs. Perhaps the common feature among religions is some sense of the “Other”—an awareness of a dimension beyond the visible and the ordinary. But that definition, even if true, is too vague, open ended, and without sufficient content to provide substance to our definition of religion.
Another problem makes it difficult to find a precise definition of religion. It is sometimes not possible to distinguish
neatly the religious dimension from the nonreligious. For example, many political ideologies have offered a comprehensive vision of the world and demanded sweeping commitment of their members, differing little from the sense and scope of religious claims. By the same token, some religious systems are essentially political in nature, while others are predominantly personal. Or consider the world of sports. Normally, sports provide small adventures of escape into the realm of play and relative meaninglessness; sometimes, however, sports become warped into a comprehensive world of conviction and commitment by which an individual’s life is inspired and value and meaning determined, and where good and evil battle each other on the playing field for the souls of fans.
The difficulty in finding a fully adequate definition of religion need not lead us to the conclusion that the concept of religion is without substance, though recently some have come to hold that view. There seems to be enough commonality among things that are not easily grouped under any other category to suggest that some broad phenomenon lies behind them. Further, such matters cross diverse cultures and span vast periods, giving us a sense that at some level religion is a profound part of the human experience.
Religion and Religions
So difficult is it to specify the defining features of religion that often the study of religion focuses on individual religious traditions themselves, treating each religious tradition as a separate study. It is not religion per se that is studied, but a variety of religions, each a subject in its own right. That is largely our approach in this book.
We examine each major religion individually, as a self-contained system. We observe the complex and sometimes quite distinctive features that have come together to create each religion. We recognize and attempt to understand the world of coherence and meaning that each religion has created for its adherents. In some ways, then, we are examining religion more in the concrete than in the abstract. Our hope is that by taking this approach, we will gradually clarify the answer
to the more difficult question “What is religion
?” as we observe religions
in their varied and sometimes strikingly similar expressions.
There are, of course, other ways to introduce the subject of religion. Rather than looking at each religion as a unique entity, as we have done in this text, we could have examined the phenomenon of religion, looking for those common elements that make religions religious—the religious essence of things. Another approach would have been to introduce religion by looking at the various ways religion is studied across a number of disciplines. These matters are taken up briefly in this introductory chapter, providing a glimpse into the essence of religion and the nature of the academic discipline of religious studies. After that, we turn to the main core of our text—a separate chapter for each major religious tradition.
What Is a “World” Religion?
The list of religions that one studies in introductory courses on world religions varies widely on the periphery but is undisputed at the core. Four religions account for the overwhelming majority of religious adherents—over 75 percent of the world’s population, or over 90 percent of the religious population. These are Hinduism and Buddhism (Eastern religions) and Christianity and Islam (Western religions). About 15 percent of the world’s population is classed as “nonreligious,” leaving less than 10 percent that belong to other religions. Of these smaller religions, Judaism, Jainism, and Sikhism are usually treated in introductory texts, along with Daoism, Confucianism, and Shinto, whose adherents can be less precisely calculated.
It should be noted that it is extremely difficult to get an accurate count of religious adherents. The figures usually do not discriminate between those who regularly attend religious events and closely observe religious practices and those who do not—between the devotee of a religion and the resident of a country in which a particular religion is dominant. Further, the figures appear to
count different things in different traditions (e.g., residents in the Christian count, but devotees in the Shinto count). Comparative counts of adherents, then, are highly problematic, though the figures we have used here are the ones most often offered in reference works. More discriminating, problem-free criteria need to be developed if we are to make more accurate statements about the size of religious traditions.
In attempting to count religious adherents, animists must be considered too. Animism is a particular old form of belief that sees the physical world acted on and dominated by spirits, who can render benefits or wreak havoc. Every aspect of the physical world, from fiery volcanoes to rippling brooks, reflects the power or the presence of the spirit world. No societies actually labeled their beliefs as animism; the term was coined by anthropologists to designate these belief systems because of their similar characteristics. It is difficult to count those who are animists and those who are not. On the one hand, aspects of animistic beliefs often can be found in what we have identified in this textbook as world religions. On the other hand, some world religions less reflective of animistic beliefs have grown by the conversion of groups or individuals whose primary beliefs had been animistic. These older beliefs often continue as a supplement to the newly adopted religion.
Other matters need to be noted in calculating the number of adherents. Many of the larger religions have subgroups with many more members than some religions that are counted as distinctive world religions in their own right. Judaism, for example, is smaller than a great number of the distinctive traditions within Christianity.
Further, some religions counted as world religions are largely confined to a particular people or location (e.g., Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Shinto). This is changing, however, as patterns of population shift in our increasingly mobile modern world, marked by considerable emigration of people from their traditional homelands. Even so, only the three great “missionary” religions (Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) have a substantial worldwide reach across peoples, cultures, and places.
Why Study Religious Traditions?
Religion is so much a part of the experience of being human that few areas of human activity and reflection are without some religious influence or association.
Personal and Group Identity
The majority of people define who they are and what they value, partly at least, on a framework of religion. Efforts to understand humans and their behavior will be incomplete unless we recognize the religious component that is often at the center of an individual’s or a society’s reflection. Rarely is religion so peripheral that it can be simply dismissed as inconsequential. In some cases, religion is so closely intertwined with the larger culture that the line between the two is blurred, as is the case with Sikhism and Shinto and, for periods of its history, with Judaism.
Religion and the Global Neighborhood
In a time not so long ago, neighbors were those who shared assumptions and goals. Backgrounds were similar; moral
sensibilities were largely the same. Neighbors met not only over their backyard fences but also in the same social and religious establishments. This is no longer true. Movements of people often have made neighborhoods more diverse than uniform, reflecting the varied nature of the global village. New neighbors bring with them their cultures and religious sensibilities. To...