Academic journal article World History Bulletin

The Concept of "World Religions" as Currently Used in Religious Studies Textbooks

Academic journal article World History Bulletin

The Concept of "World Religions" as Currently Used in Religious Studies Textbooks

Article excerpt

The neglect of religion as a major factor in world history (both in teaching and research) is coming to be recognized, but the question of how to incorporate it raises a lot of issues. For those of us faced with decisions on how to structure a course or a curriculum, whether at the college or high-school level, questions regarding what to include and exclude are paramount--as in other fields of world history. It might be useful, therefore, to see how our colleagues in religious studies handle this issue. Courses in comparative religion have been a staple of college curricula for a long time, and the textbooks available for such courses can at least provide examples of how to subdivide, classify, and make selections within this vast subject-matter.

In such an enterprise, a seemingly unavoidable construct raises its head, namely, "world religion," or "world's religions," or "world's great religions." Scholars have pointed out that, as a guide to a consistent classificatory scheme, the concept poses many difficulties. (1) Are world religions those which are held by a plurality of nationalities or ethnic groups? Then Judaism and Hinduism would have to be excluded. Are world religions characterized by a "universal" message or content that transcends the concerns of more localized religions? If "universal" is taken to include an elaborate cosmology, then many Native American, African, and Melanesian religions deserve to be included, which they are not. Does "world religion" simply refer to those with greater numbers of adherents? If one goes by the statistics in the 2005 Encyclopedia Britannica's Book of the Year, the answer would have to be no: Jews, Sikhs, and Jains, which usually get a chapter each devoted to their respective religions, make up less than 1% of the world's population, compared to 4% in the "ethnoreligionist" category (i.e., tribal or indigenous) and 12% listed as "nonreligious." (2)

While some recent works have interpreted these asymmetries as symptomatic of a pro-Western or pro-Christian bias, the evidence points more unambiguously to a bias in favor of written traditions. In other words, membership in the canon of "world religions" is marked by a common feature of having a scripture or scriptures which have been around for a long time (the most recent being Sikhism, whose holy book dates back to the sixteenth century). Religions which lack such writings are lumped together in a single category, which regardless of what part of the world they come from, is variously labeled "traditional", "primal", "basic", "tribal", or "indigenous". These, of course, are newer names for what was formerly labeled "primitive." There is certainly a vestige of a pro-Western bias here; the question becomes how this issue is handled in contemporary textbooks.

The books included in this survey are those which publishers sent as examination copies to several of my colleagues in the religion departments at Louisiana State University and Loyola University in New Orleans, who generously lent them to me. I included only works which had a copyright date after 2000. They are, in alphabetical order by author:

1) Robert S. Ellwood and Barbara A. McGraw, Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in World Religions, 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

2) John L. Esposito, Darrell J. Fasching, and Todd Lewis, World Religions Today, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

3) Mary Pat Fisher, Living Religions, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.

4) Lewis M. Hopfe and Mark R. Woodward, Religions of the World, 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.

5) Theodore M. Ludwig, The Sacred Paths: Understanding the Religions of the World, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

6) Warren Matthews, World Religions, 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004.

7) Michael Molloy, Experiencing the World's Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change, 4th ed. …

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