This volume represents the contributions of scholars who participated in a conference we called to respond to a perceptible lack in Western institutions in the study of “indigenous” religions. This lack is especially indicated in the history of religion programs offered at many US universities. Western religious scholarship, generally the world over, has privileged “world” religions by an absolute linguistic separation into two classes of religious studies: “indigenous” religions and “world” religions. This arbitrary and capricious bifurcation of religious scholarship fails to acknowledge the universality of religious systems of belief across the globe. It fails to acknowledge the very sacred spiritual traditions of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and wherever indigenous people inhabit the earth. With the advent of global secular ideologies, based on technological innovation, many indigenous traditions will continue to confront their own decline. The privileging of “world” religions is largely informed by a particular academic orientation of scholars, whose traditions developed out of the “axial age” civilization paradigm.
While the “world” religious traditions of Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity are amply studied and represented in the academy, the study of “indigenous” religions is speciously cut off from religious studies. Routinely, indigenous religions are restricted to anthropology or folklore. To correct this anomaly, to sensitize the larger academic community to the significance of native religious traditions in the world today, and to provide a rationale for their study, my colleagues in the American Academy of Religion formed a study group to raise awareness of this incongruity in lectures and sessions at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The central purpose of this study group is to create a forum in which to discuss theoretical and substantive issues, to investigate and understand indigenous and native traditions, and to augment the few available resources of the academy for examining indigenous religions.
Our study group began to attract a critical mass of internationally known scholars, whose primary interests epitomize the diversity of world religions. Because of the restraints of space, only the contributions of a very few scholars of indigenous religions are mentioned here in this volume. There are many thousands of indigenous religions in every continent across the globe that remain unrepresented. Showing significant empathy for the study of indigenous religion in American universities, a variety of scholarly opinions is represented in the study group by leading scholars: Tu Weiming of Harvard University; Jill Raitt of the University of Missouri, Columbia; the venerable Huston Smith, Professor Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley; and Ewert Cousins of Fordham University, New York. Subsequently, many other scholars of indigenous traditions have joined in the discussion: Inés Talamantez, Mary McDonald, Charles Long, David Carrasco, Philip Arnold, and Diane Bell.