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The idea of world religion became a popular way of thinking about the diversity of the world’s religious traditions in the latter half of the 20th century. Religious communities were thought of as “world religions” if they were historic religious traditions with a worldwide or nearly worldwide presence/ distribution, regardless of their numbers. World religions were regarded as possessing a standardized scripture or set of scriptures (i.e., a sacred canon), a universal message, shared rituals, and a religious clergy. Though most religious traditions are, in fact, far too diverse internally to conform to any simple description, thinking about “world religions” using this template often forced them into a uniform mold.
Moreover, assumptions were made about the difference—an implied cultural superiority—that the major world religions possessed in contrast to nontextual, nonhistorical “traditional religions.” Some scholars have suggested that the following features distinguish world religions from traditional religions.
- World religions deal with larger, more abstract theological concerns about crucial topics such as salvation, the human problem and its remedy, and the nature of the Divine or governing grand principles, whereas traditional religions focus primarily on more immediate concerns, such as how to treat a snake bite, to find a marriage partner, to obtain success in a business venture, or to divine the whereabouts of a wrongdoer.
- World religions have formalized, standardized scriptures, whereas traditional religions are chiefly carried through oral tradition.
- World religions are more expansive, appealing to a wider range of people than traditional religions, which are usually confined to a particular locale, ethnicity, or small-scale people group.
None of these categories apply to all forms of the “major world religions” or to all aspects of the “traditional religions,” and it is important not to overplay the distinction between world and traditional religions. On the ground, where people live, work, are born, and die, religions are not experienced by the believer as neatly separated types, “world” and “traditional.” As such, these distinctions are, at best, heuristic categories (in the language of sociology, “ideal types”) and at worst, misleading stereotypes, since they do not capture all the nuances of lived religious experience.
The typical list of world religions includes Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Daoism (Taoism), Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with Daoism and Confucianism not only considered Chinese religions but philosophies as well. There are several ways in which these world religions have been compared and contrasted. One is by region, highlighting a religion’s place of origin and its expansion globally. Thus, there are the Middle Eastern (or Abrahamic) traditions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the South Asian (Indic) traditions (i.e., Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism), and the East Asian traditions (i.e., Daoism, Confucianism, and some forms of Buddhism). No world religion has emerged evenly around the world, but all have appeared in a specific time and place. Distinctions are also made between those religions that have a particular founder (e.g., Islam, Christianity) and those that do not (e.g., Hinduism).
The great sociologist of religion, Max Weber, referred to religions of universal salvation, such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Historically, the religions of universal salvation have expanded through the following means:
- Migration, where the numbers of adherents increase simply by the influx of religionists and births
- Trade contacts, whereby economic power, political force, and personal presence can merge to create a compelling arena for religious change
- Conversion, by which the message of the religion itself, always embedded in social, cultural, and psychological contexts, can attract new adherents, making such religious change a multifaceted process
- The use of violence, whereby the power of the state, empire, or other social congeries is employed to force the acceptance or repudiation of particular religions
Partly due to the universal vision of the world religions, these religions have helped stimulate and even guide processes of globalization and, thus, have transformed the world.
Another way of categorizing world religions is to identify them either as reform movements within earlier religious traditions or as a movement sui generis (alone in its own class) in nature. Some of the major world religions appeared as a result of reinterpreting major theological or doctrinal elements of earlier traditions. For instance, Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, and thus the founder of Buddhism, and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, were both members of the Kshatriya caste in India, but both led movements that became separate from Hinduism by redefining fundamental concepts that are common to all Indic traditions, such as karma, dharma, and moksha. Both Buddhism and Jainism were anti-Brahmanical movements in the Indian subcontinent and appealed to a wide number of people. Daoism and Confucianism, on the other hand, emerged as two of the most popular schools of Chinese philosophy during a time when China was experiencing significant social and economic change, a context in which six major schools of thought surfaced in an attempt to retrieve a sense of harmony that had been severely threatened during the Chinese Axial Age.
While the relationship between Daoism and Confucianism has been said to be complementary, with the Dao representing yang forces and Confucianism the yin side of the Dao, the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is more complex. Some argue that Christianity is continuous with Judaism, by affirming that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah (the Anointed One) promised and foretold in the Old Testament, while others see Jesus as the universal Christ, the beginning of a “new creation,” as the Apostle Paul suggested. Islam accepts the prior revelations of both Judaism and Christianity, with Muhammad being considered the final and seal of the prophets. While scholars of religions recognize the influence of Hinduism and Islam on Sikhism, most Sikhs today regard their tradition as being neither Hindu nor Muslim but rather a distinct religious tradition.
Yet another way to understand the world religions is to highlight the form and role of the deity they affirm, whether that ultimate being is a personal God, a distant God, or a formal Principle, Power, or Cosmic Law that is indescribable yet inequitably pervasive. This distinction gives rise to the popular demarcation between monotheistic and polytheistic religious traditions, which is another category that is much too simplistic to be analytically useful. The monotheistic traditions are said to be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which affirm the existence of one God, who created, sustains, and will ultimately judge humanity. The knowledge of that God varies according to tradition, but sacraments, rituals, prayers, and revealed sacred texts (e.g., the Torah, New Testament, and Qur’an) are believed to be carriers of God’s message. Even monotheistic traditions differ in terms of how they identify the distance between God and human beings. For instance, Christianity affirms that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, upholding the belief that in Christ the physical presence of God was present on earth. The Christian theological formulation is that God is at once transcendent, entirely distinct from all creation, and imminent, being with us in Jesus Christ. In comparison, Islam’s repudiation of anything that can be compared with or associated with God (i.e., Allah) serves as a crucial constraint and guide to the daily life of Muslims. The Arabic term shirk (i.e., “associationism”) refers to wrongful attempts by human beings to associate someone or something, even a person, ambition, or material item, with God, since God is so great that He cannot be compared, as expressed in the common Arabic Muslim slogan Allahu Akbar (“God is greater”). No image can represent God, and nothing can displace God. Yet Islam displays great variety on this topic, since Muslim mystics (i.e., Sufis) experience God as quite close, even as close as one’s jugular vein (Qur’an 50:16). Thus, even within the monotheistic traditions, there are multiple understandings of God and the location of God vis-à-vis creation.
The Hindu tradition is regarded as polytheistic, though beyond the multiplicity of images of gods, there is the Hindu notion that there is one single ground of being, and ultimate unity. Other nonmonotheistic traditions do not recognize a God, personal or otherwise, but instead acknowledge a Power or Cosmic Law within which individuals and communities need to live in order to have fruitful, healthy lives while maintaining social harmony and cosmic stability. In Daoism, Confucianism, and Theravada Buddhism, affirmation of creation by a personal being is less important than living according to the immensely powerful cosmic laws that determine one’s life in the present and future. Daoism and Confucianism are based on the Dao, a preexistent “way” or force that permeates all things and out of which all things are, in the language of Dao-te-Ching, “named.” That declaration means that the Dao is preexistent yet gave rise to all that is: “The unnamable is the eternal real [Dao]. Naming is the origin of all particular things” (Dao-te-Ching, 1). The extent to which one lives according to cosmic forces, such as the Dao of Chinese religious traditions or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, is the degree to which one lives well. Failure to live according to cosmic principles or truths can lead to all kinds of misery, including physical disease, social disharmonies, and even death. Some world religions are not organized exclusively around monotheistic notions of God or cosmic laws. For instance, while Hinduism recognizes a universal, indefinable divine essence (i.e., Brahman) that pervades all things and can only be known in the particular, it also affirms the existence of dharma (duty) law, which should guide a devotee’s life.
In the late-modern world it has become common to speak of “global religion” rather than “world religions,” indicating a crucial relationship between the world religious traditions and globalizing forces. The study of global religion attempts to answer such questions as these: How have the world religions made their way across the globe? Who or what are the carriers of the world religions? How have they changed by their engagement with local cultures? And how have cultures been changed by the world religions? For instance, how was early South Asian Buddhism reinterpreted when it was adopted by the peoples of East Asia (e.g., Korean, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhism)? How has Christianity been translated into forms meaningful to Nigerians or Mexicans? How have Chinese religious traditions been adapted in the North Atlantic region, where, for instance, there is a robust attraction to practicing tai chi chuan, employing feng shui, and decorating homes with Zen styles? Of course the North Atlantic connection to Chinese religions goes deeper than mere stylistic or culinary tastes, for there are burgeoning numbers of non-Asians who have adopted either in part or wholly Chinese religious perspectives, as exemplified by a contemporary discussion called “Boston Confucianism,” which argues that it is indeed possible to be Confucian without being Asian, just as it has been possible to be Muslim without being Arab, Buddhist without being Indian, Christian without being Western, or Jewish without being ethnically Jewish. Nevertheless in the global arena, the world religions have been employed to shore up ethnic identities, legitimating horrible atrocities against other religionists or enabling surprisingly great acts of benevolent humanitarianism and sacrificial compassion.
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