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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


World Religion

The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions by Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology: Oxford University Press) is a reference for understanding world religious societies in their contemporary global diversity. Comprising 60 essays, the volume focuses on communities rather than beliefs, symbols, or rites. It is organized into six sections corresponding to the major living religious traditions: the Indic cultural region, the Buddhist/Confucian, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim regions, and the African cultural region. In each section an introductory essay discusses the social development of that religious tradition historically. The other essays cover the basic social facts, the community’s size, location, organizational and pilgrimage centers, authority figures, patterns of governance, major subgroups and schisms, as well as issues regarding boundary maintenance, political involvement, role in providing cultural identity, and encounters with modernity. Communities in the diaspora and at the periphery are covered, as well as the central geographic regions of the religious traditions. Thus, for example, Islamic communities in Asia and the United States are included along with Islamic societies in the Middle East. The contributors are leading scholars of world religions, many of whom are also members of the communities they study. The essays are written to be informative and accessible to the educated public, and to be respectful of the viewpoints of the communities analyzed.

The world's religions are becoming increasingly globalized. One can no longer equate particular faiths with corresponding geographic locations. Islam is as much a South or Southeast Asian religion as it is a Middle Eastern one. And Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, while it declines in Europe. In addition to these major pop­ulation shifts, small communities of adher­ents of every religion are scattered across the globe, where they mingle with and adapt to local cultures.

What are we to make of this new reli­gious world? The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions offers a comprehensive look at world religious societies in their contemporary global diversity. Compris­ing sixty essays, each by a leading schol­ar, the volume focuses on communities rather than beliefs, symbols, or rites. Communities in the diaspora and at the periphery are covered, as well as the cen­tral geographic regions of all the major living religious traditions. It is organized into eight sections covering the Indic, Buddhist/Confucian, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and African cultural regions, local religious societies, and essays on understanding global religions. In each section an introductory essay discusses the social development of that religious tradition historically. The other essays cover the basic social facts—the commu­nity's size, location, organizational and pilgrimage centers, authority figures, pat­terns of governance, major subgroups and schisms—as well as issues regarding boundary maintenance, political involve­ment, role in providing cultural identity, and encounters with modernity.

The world's religious communities are more diverse than ever before, and there is no other volume that covers the tremendous variety of faith communities discussed in this handbook. This volume will be indispensable to anyone interested in contemporary religion.

Excerpt from Editors Introduction: Maps can deceive. Several decades ago cartographers were fond of providing maps that allegedly demarcated the spatial locations of world religions. A great wash of red would stretch from Tibet to Japan, engulfing China, to show where Buddhism was. The Middle East would be tinted green for the terrain of Islam, a yellow India for Hinduism, an orange for African religion, while Christianity's color—often blue, I recall—was brightly emblazoned on Europe and the Western Hemi­sphere. Some of the more sophisticated maps would make a distinction between the light blue of Protestant Canada and the United States, and the dark blue of Catholic Latin America, but there was no question as to clarity of the demarcation. I imagined slipping across the border from a Buddhist red zone to an Islamic green one and suddenly encountering mosques where previously there had been only stupas, temples, and chanting monks.

It has never really been like that, of course. Although there are regions of the world that serve as dense centers of gravity for certain religious traditions, much of the world is less certain as to its religious identity, and always has been. Even Hindu India was a quarter Muslim before Pakistan was created, and even today 15 percent of the Indian population reveres Islam. Indonesia—the largest Muslim country on the planet—is the home of a rich Hindu culture in Bali and contains at Borabadur one of the world's most important ancient Buddhist shrines. China has such diverse religious strata, with most of its population simultaneously ac­cepting Confucian values, Taoist beliefs, and Buddhist worship practices, that most scholars prefer to speak of a multicultural "Chinese religion," rather than any of those three strands by itself. Much the same can be said about the religions of Korea and Japan. In the Western Hemisphere, Haitians are said to be 90 percent Roman Catholic and 90 percent followers of Vodou; needless to say, it is the same 90 percent. Jews, of course, are everywhere, and have been since biblical times.

Today it seems that almost everyone is everywhere. The city of Los Angeles, for instance, is the second largest Filipino city in the world. It is also the second largest Iranian city and the second largest Mexican one. In Southern California, Tibetan Buddhists do not hide in the mountains in monasteries. They drive Lexus SUVs to the studio lot for a photo shoot: some are rich, some are Caucasian, and some are among Hollywood's celebrities. In Beijing the Chinese government has to contend not only with new forms of Chinese religion, such as the Falun-Gong, but with dissident Chinese Muslims and Christians.

Scarcely any region in the globe today consists solely of members of a single strand of traditional religion. In an era of globalization the pace of cultural in­teraction and change has increased by seemingly exponential expansions of de­grees. So an accurate coloration of the religious world, even fifty years ago, would have to show dense areas of color here and there with enormous mixes and shadings of hues everywhere else. Moreover the map would have to be changed from time to time, perhaps even from decade to decade, and re-tinted as religions move and intertwine.

This fluid process of cultural interaction, expansion, synthesis, borrowing, and change has been going on from the earliest moments of recorded history. In fact, the most ancient epic to which we have access—the Gilgamesh Epic of ancient Sumeria some two thousand years before the time of Christ—tells the story of a great flood brought on by divine wrath, and a human who built an ark to escape it. It is a story retold within the context of the biblical book of Genesis and now respected by the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The historian of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, was fond of pointing out that even as ordinary an artifact as a string of prayer beads illustrates the interaction of religions: Smith speculated that the Roman Catholic idea of the rosary was bor­rowed from Muslims in Spain who were inspired by the prayerbeads of Buddhists in Central Asia, who in turn appropriated the idea from Brahmans in Hindu India. The expansion of Christianity from the Mediterranean world into Europe was a gradual one, involving "archipelagos of centrality in a sea of insouciance," as the historian Peter Brown described it. Along the way Christianity picked up many pre-Christian indigenous European cultural practices, including the idea of saints and the festival seasons of Christmas and Easter—the latter named for Eostre, the pagan goddess of spring.

Religion therefore has always been global, in the sense that religious com­munities and traditions have always maintained permeable boundaries. They have moved, shifted, and interacted with one another around the globe. If one thinks of religion as the cultural expression of a people's sense of ultimate significance,

it is understandable that these cultural elements would move as people have moved, and that they would interact and change over time just as people have. Though most religious traditions claim some ultimate anchors of truth that are unchangeable, it is indisputable that every tradition contains within it an enor­mous diversity of characteristics and myriad cultural elements gleaned from its neighbors.

All this is part of the globalization of religion. Religion is global in that it is related to the global transportation of peoples, and of ideas. There is also a third way that religion is global, which might be called the religion of globalization—in which forms of new religion emerge as expressions of new interactive cultures. In this volume we will consider all three kinds of religious globalization: diasporas, transnational religion, and the religion of plural societies.

This volume is intended to help expand our thinking about the way that religion is evolving in the emerging era of globalization and to provide a reliable handbook of its global diversity. Most studies of religion focus on single traditions, and even these studies often present the traditions as if they were discrete immutable entities that seldom change or interact with the cultures around them. Religions' own philosophical and theological understanding, however, has often been more sen­sitive to the existence of other religions. The writings of the early communities of both Islam and Sikhism contain appreciative comments about the various re­ligious cultures around them, and attempt to appropriate elements of these religions within their own theologies. Christian theologians in recent centuries have become increasingly aware of the necessity of positioning their own understand­ings of God within a multicultural context. The early nineteenth-century theo­logian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, posited true religion as transcending the dog­matic limitations of confessional faith. The nineteenth-century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkekaard, thought that a natural religiosity lay beneath the apparent diversity of religious traditions. Early in the twentieth century, F. S. C. Northrup wrote about the "meeting of East and West"; William Ernest Hocking imagined an evolved form of Christianity in a transforming interaction with other faiths in what he imagined to be the "coming world civilization"; and Arend van Leeuwen understood Christianity's role in world history as one of leading all religions into a global secularism that would transcend the cultural limitations of particular religious creeds. One of the last writings of the twentieth-century Protestant the­ologian, Paul Tillich, was devoted to Christianity's encounter with other faiths and the necessity of moving beyond a religious exclusivism. In the twenty-first century, the Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, proposed a global interfaith ethic to be endorsed by all the world's religious communities.

The field of comparative religion that developed in the twentieth century also contributed to the idea that a universal form of religion could link all faiths together. Although most comparative studies limited themselves to the objective analysis of the similarities and differences among religious traditions, some ven­tured into subjective speculation about the universal elements of religiosity. One of the mid-twentieth-century's best-known comparative religionists, Mircea Eliade, who studied the myths and rituals of ancient and arcane cultures, was sometimes accused of advocating the idea of an essential religion to be found at the heart of all mythic imagination. Joseph Campbell, relying on the psychological insights of Carl Jung, made explicit what he thought were religion's common archetypes. Huston Smith mined the ideas of the great religious traditions to discern a "pe­rennial philosophy" found within them all. And the Harvard scholar of compar­ative religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, proposed that a "world theology" could be fashioned that would eventually surmount the cultural limitations of particu­laristic faiths.

At the end of the twentieth century and in the first decade of the twenty-first, this somewhat cheery optimism faded, and the role of religion in global society was seen as not necessarily leading to harmony and spiritual union. The eruption of religious violence and strident forms of religious nationalism seemed to counter the unifying trend toward a global religion. The civilizing role that Arnold Toynbee, writing in the first part of the twentieth century, imagined that religion would contribute to world society, was in stark contrast to the image of religion in world society portrayed by Samuel Huntington, writing at the end of the century, when he envisaged religion's role in a clash of civilizations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, Huntington seemed more optimistic. In an essay cowritten with sociologist Peter Berger introducing essays in a project on "many globalizations," Huntington observed that despite the variety of cultural perceptions of globalization, religion and other forms of culture need not always be hostile to globalization and can play a positive role in it. Other sociologists of religion, including Martin Riesebrodt and Roland Robertson, have also observed that despite the role that religion has played in endorsing parochial movements in the last decades of the twentieth century it can also be a useful resource in creating a global civil society. I agree. On the one hand religion has often been a part of the ideology of antiglobal movements. But on the other hand, the absolutism of religious language and images can help people reach beyond the limitations of their narrow creedal affirmations to a wider sense of tolerance and global understanding.

One of the founders of the modern field of religious studies, Ninian Smart, presented a positive vision of religion's role in an increasingly global world. In an essay on the global future of religion written for this project and completed shortly before his death, Smart observed that religion was sometimes linked with violence in protests against global modernity. Writing eight months before the September n terrorist attacks, Smart prophesized that "weapons of mass destruction" might be used "for religious purposes" to destroy New York or other cities in what Smart said would be considered "the first major crime of the twenty-first century." But Smart also speculated on the emergence of a spiritual and ethical dimension of global civil society—a "global higher order" of civility—that would provide the cultural basis for international order and transnational regulations. This new form of religiosity Smart predicted would be "the coming global civilization."

What will become the global religion—and the religion of globalization—in the twenty-first century? This is one of the questions that lie behind the essays in this handbook. Their authors, some of this generation's most thoughtful social analysts of religion, have attempted to understand how religion has been altered by, and in turn is helping to shape, a globalized world. This handbook explores the variations of Christianities, Islams, Judaisms, Buddhisms, Hinduisms, and other religious traditions, and helps us understand how these traditions are shaped by their changing cultural contexts in various parts of the world. In each case a lead essay introduces the subject in a globalized context. Specific essays follow that explore the ways in which religious traditions are configured in specific geo­graphical and cultural milieus.

In this volume we have asked scholars who are close to the religious com­munities they study to describe how these communities have changed over time, how they have responded to the plural cultural contexts around them, and how they are shaped by the current forces of globalization and social change. The result is a series of essays that not only gives an up-to-date insight into the di­versity contained within the world's great religions but also provides a broad view of global religion in a new millennium. These essays show that, if the history of religion is a guide, we can expect religion's global future to be much like its global past. The religious imagination in a global era reaches out to encompass images and ideas that stretch beyond the limitations of particular and parochial affilia­tions to animate all levels of spiritual sensibility—its social vision and intimate individuality, its arresting particulars and expansive universals, its disturbing depths and soaring heights.

World Religions And Social Evolution Of The Old World Oikumene Civilizations: A Cross-cultural Perspective by Andrey Korotayev (Edwin Mellen Press) is a book of startling simplicity and depth that suggests an empirical solution to viewing the subjectivist/objectivist dilemmas in the social sciences and history.
It will have a profound effect on how comparison is done in the future in anthropology, and suggests an answer to why some anthropologists, starting with Geertz, are reluctant to suggest comparison as an adequate method.
The Murdockian comparative approach, up to Korotayev, had developed to the point where the nonindependence of cultures was well-recognized, and ways of taking the larger configurations of cultural systems into account had been reckoned to lie, in the latest iteration, along lines of high-order proto-linguistic communities.
Korotayev demonstrates the effects of breaking what might be seen as a ritual taboo of Murdockian comparison: Thou Shalt Not Code World Religion. By doing so, Korotayev releases the Murdockian spell that lingers over the comparative approach in anthropology, and goes on to demonstrate the powerful effects of world religious communities - dating from what Jaspers calls the 'Axial Age' (400-600BC) - on the preservation and differentiation of distinctive social and political structures in Eurasia.
His introduction and conclusion suggest that an objectivist natural history approach to human history, in which subjective factors are of local importance but fade out in terms of lasting effects over generations, is a valid approach to the 'pre-Axial' condition of human societies, while a subjectivist history of consciousness is a necessary complement to the 'post-Axial' condition.
Korotayev succeeds in placing these two complementary approaches in context and showing their linkages in terms of how subjective and religious factors play out in human history alongside objective factors such as demography and ecology, each informing the other. He shows how it is impossible to arrive at valid inferential results from comparative approaches without an integration of the two, a situation he aptly calls 'Galton's opportunity' for those are of century-old critiques of the comparative method.
The reader will be surprised at the depth of empirical comparative findings in this short book. Following Murray Leaf's Man, Mind and Science (1974) this work is a major contribution to repair of the material/ideational rift in anthropology.

World Religions, 5th edition by Warren Matthews (Wadsworth Publishing) Presenting both the histories and the prevalent worldviews of the major world religions, Matthews' WORLD RELIGIONS methodically introduces students to the richness and diversity of these traditions. The "Worldview" sections in particular make this textbook the most helpful textbook when it comes to comparative analyses of the religions. In these sections students can see how the different religions understand a common set of ten human concerns that are fundamental to all religions. Furthermore, this text combines insightful, engaging prose with maps, photographs, timelines, excerpts from sacred texts, and other helpful pedagogical aids, to employ a scholarly approach that neither shields students from current research nor encumbers them with it. Students are encouraged, individually and collectively, to pursue their own dialogues with the voices and nuances of these religions.

Matthews manages to condense much essential information about the world's major religions with the judicious use of graphs and illustrations, maps and charts to encapsulate each traditions unique point of view.  The textbook is useful especially if accompanied by apt selections of texts from the traditions themselves describing beliefs and practices.  This text is ideal for lower division courses where students are likely to complain about being overwhelmed with so much new information and unfamiliar ideas.  Still as anyone who teaches in the field is well aware, providing a survey course to the religions of the world is disingenuous at best.  Matthews is to be commended for his hubris and attempting to distillate the essential characteristics of the major world religions.

There are two possible weaknesses. One is that Matthews' writing style has succumbed to the current trend in college textbooks to simplify language to a very elementary level. While this is something that many of my students appreciate, it makes for prose that sometimes fails to hold the reader's attention.

A second possible weakness is Matthews' preference for breadth over depth. In today's market, it is necessary for textbook writers to include everything that might possibly be desired by any instructor at any school anywhere in the world, and this means that some topics are covered only superficially. All of Mahayana Buddhism gets less than a page of coverage, but short blurbs are devoted to several smaller Buddhist schools. There is a half-chapter on the religion of ancient Mesopotamia coupled with a half-chapter on Zoroastrianism. The chapters on Native American and traditional African religions survey such a wide range of religious traditions in such brevity that many of my students had problems keeping one conceptually distinct from the next. In fairness, Matthews does a pretty good job of summarizing general themes in the chapters that seem so broad and superficial.

My preference would be for a more thoughtful treatment of fewer topics, even if that meant supplementing Matthews with auxiliary readings

Excerpt: In the absence of first-hand exposure, older people today are likely to have spent most of their lifetime learning about world religions. Perhaps they began by reading National Geographic in school. Later they may have met some students from overseas in their college classes. Travel abroad may have come later, in military or business assignments. In retirement they may visit countries with religions and customs quite different from the ones that they have known. For millions of people in the United States, serious discussion of world religions has been primarily academic; few major religions have been present.

Younger people today, however, are more likely to learn about different reli­gions in their home communities. They have classmates and coworkers from other countries and other religions. Learning about other religions may be as natural as learning anything else in the community. The differences may require adjustment and conversations at home, but the diversity generally works out rather well. Aca­demics and people in the larger community sometimes overlook all the everyday opportunities for learning about others.

Civic life requires that members of the community learn about diversity of world religions. The belief that in the United States there is only one historical religion has not entirely vanished, but a large segment of the population con­cedes that no one religion has exclusive rights at the expense of other religions. People of the various religions in the United States seem to be able to agree that all citizens should honor morality and fairness, respect God, and help fellow hu­mans. Among the diverse religions there is likely to be a shared reservoir of good will that can be tapped for the good of humankind. Many religions have dealt with the same human problems for centuries. Eventually they may cooperate on solutions.

World Religions, Fifth Edition, addresses these opportunities by helping stu­dents learn the essential history and beliefs of the peoples of the world. Long dis­cussions have been shortened to essential information. The text concentrates on teaching important concepts and terms. Maps, charts, timelines, pictures, and highlighted blocks of information help students learn more easily. An Overview at the beginning of each chapter points out the themes of the religion. A Consider This box later in the chapter brings together the themes in a more comprehensive view.

The most important changes in the Fifth Edition include:

  • An Overview at the beginning of each chapter to preview religions of the chapter.

  • New Consider This boxes discussing the themes.

  • New religions introduced:

  • Baha'i

  • Church of Satan

  • Druids

  • Candomblé, Santeria, and Vodun

  • Church of Scientology

  • Theosophical Society

  • Family Federation for World Peace and Unification Wicca

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