The horrific events of September 11, 2001 forever
shattered the illusion that the only religion which
matters is our own. When the hijacked airliners flew
into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a
lonely Pennsylvania hillside that morning, the world
realized with chilling clarity that the religious
imaginations of people in far away lands now mattered
Some sort of understanding of the world’s great
religious traditions is now essential to our political
security, perhaps even to our own survival. We need
to understand, roughly at least, what other people
believe and why they act the way they do, if nothing
else to defend ourselves from future attacks.
Comparative religions is no longer an academic
In our world today, we watch the spectacle of nuclear-
armed India and Pakistan, divided fiercely by religion
as well as other issues, facing off over the “line of
control” in Kashmir. We see the continuation of the
centuries-old conflict between Protestants and Roman
Catholics in Ireland. We see a religious element in the
standoff between Israelis and Arabs in the Middle
East. And around the periphery of the world,
countless fires are fueled at least in part by religious
extremism. Understanding what’s going on may hold
one very important key to the future. We see all too
plainly the results of failing to understand.
To begin with, we need to define the word “religion.”
One dictionary definition is:
Belief in a superhuman being or beings, esp. a
personal God, controlling the universe and entitled to
worship; the feelings, effects on conduct, and the
practices resulting from such a belief; a system of
faith, doctrine, and worship.
While that definition seems well and good, it does
convey a Western, theistic bias. Religion, as practiced
among human beings today, does not necessarily
imply belief in God or gods. Theravada Buddhism,
practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, does
quite well without a god, for instance. We need to
broaden the definition to understand it better.
The word “religion” itself derives in part from a Latin
word, religare, meaning “to bind.” Perhaps we should
move back in the direction of the Latin definition.
Religion is something that binds us – to ourselves, our
family, our social group, our world, our universe. It
binds the way we behave, the way we worship, the way
we understand. Using a simpler, non-theistic
definition, we see that all human beings are religious,
in a sense. All human beings are bound to others. All
human beings are bound to particular ways of seeing
themselves and the universe they inhabit. All human
beings are bound by certain ethical standards,
however unethical they may seem to others.
Religion is our most basic orientation in life. We have
a basic orientation, a basic way of seeing, feeling,
acting, and understanding, whether we are aware of it
or not. To be human is to be religious. Admittedly,
this complicates our understanding at first. Some
people pride themselves on being members of one
particular religion. Yet the practical, binding religion
they practice may bear only a slight resemblance to
the formal religion they claim. Others may be equally
proudly non-religious. Yet that defiant non-religion or
irreligion easily falls within our definition of religion as
Seeing religion as a human being’s basic orientation
to life both complicates and simplifies. It complicates
to the extent that it blurs the lines between religions,
as outlined above. It simplifies in that it focuses on
what humans truly believe and practice, not merely on
what they say they believe and practice.
How to Understand
Studying “other” religions raises inherent questions.
Many of us come to such a study with very strong
religious convictions of our own. Those convictions
may cause us from the start to see the other traditions
as totally alien, as demonic, as the enemy. We may
study simply in order to find weaknesses in the enemy’
s armor, the better to defeat him in the future.
While such approaches are probably inevitable, they
probably will not lead us to a better understanding. In
our religious universe, there may well be only one
Master. Yet in the flesh and blood world around us,
there are many masters, many ways, all of which have
some sincere adherents. Some of those may have
important lessons to teach us, even as we may have
lessons to teach them.
I prefer an approach that will acknowledge our own
religious convictions, not abandon who and what we
are, yet will still keep an open mind toward the beliefs
and practices of others. As we study the world’s
religions, we will find much that fascinates us. We will
also probably find much that repels us. If we’re
honest, though, we have to admit the same thing
about our own religion as well.
It’s impossible, of course, to fully explain great
religious traditions in the limited space we have here.
What I hope to accomplish is provide a thumbnail
description of each. Such descriptions leave an
incredible amount of information out. Hopefully, they
offer enough information to form a springboard to a
rough understanding. If they awaken an interest in a
fascinating topic and inspire further study, so much
I describe in this work Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese
Religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Certainly,
that list is not exhaustive. I have left many out. Yet
these religious traditions, in my opinion, exert the
greatest influence in our world today.
I also include a brief study of a religious perspective I
call Consumerism – the predominant social pattern of
the contemporary West. Some would not consider this
a religion at all. After all, it has no gods . . . or
perhaps too many gods to name. But this lifestyle
does bind its adherents along the lines of the ancient
Latin definition of religion. It exerts an enormous
influence on the world. It is syncretic, in that it absorbs
elements of many other religious perspectives. In
many places, this consumerist Western religion
triggers the conflicts raging between the other
traditions in the world today.
All Rights Reserved
|"Thank you so much, John, for
the copy of Flames of Faith. It
surprises me how hard it is to
find concise comparative
descriptions of the basic
philosophical foundations of
the major religions.
Descriptions of history and
festivals are a dime a dozen.
But I really do appreciate
having your straightforward
explanations of core beliefs."
Kathryn Barnard Held, Ph D
from an email to the author
|Flames of Faith
A Thumbnail Guide to World Religions
by John Cunyus
|Readers Say . . .