The aim of this book is to offer a survey of the world’s religions. We must ask ourselves at the outset what is the general character of the thing the more specialised chapters describe. There are three important questions which must be considered prior to any detailed description of the religious life of mankind in history: What is religion? What kind of unity does it possess? How far is it available for disinterested study? Each of the questions will be considered in separate subsections below.
Before they are tackled it is worth while to note some important features of the context in which they are considered—features which also help to reveal some of the assumptions underlying the approach behind this entire work. So it is vital to understand that what is offered in these pages is a work in the study of religions and not in theology. Theology is an attempt to express or articulate a given religious faith (see Smart, 1973:6). Theology thus begins, and is shaped by, the fundamental beliefs of, say, Christianity. The theologian in his development of these beliefs may offer historical accounts of the scriptures or church of his religion, but such accounts will be part of an attempt to state and defend the fundamentals of his faith for his fellow believers and the age in which they live. The student of religion attempts to offer a reflective account of the various facets of one religion or of many. He aims at detachment and disinterestedness in observation so far as these are possible. In describing the beliefs, practices and institutions of a particular religion he seeks neither to defend nor attack them, but only to understand. So it should be possible to offer a study of religion (or of religions) without committing oneself or one’s reader to the truth or falsity of that religion (or religions). Whereas to present a theology is to claim endorsement of some religious beliefs. It is in the spirit of detachment and disinterestedness that the present volume is offered.