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World Religions


WORLD RELIGIONS . There are three overlapping yet divergent senses in which the term world religions is commonly used today. In its broadest sense, it is shorthand for the "religions of the world," that is, any religion that currently exists or formerly existed somewhere in the world. The emphasis, however, tends to be on extant religions rather than those that flourished in the past, and in this connotation another often favored synonym is "living religions" or "living faiths." In the second, somewhat more restrictive and evaluative sense, only a certain number of religions is meant: usually, "the major religions of the world," meaning the type of religions that can claim to have played a distinct and significant role in the historical process of a nation or a region, or the type of religions that purportedly have had universal aspirations and an appeal that transcends the limits of a particular locality or ethnic group. Thirdly, especially when the term appears in the context of an academic curriculum, course title, book title, and so on, world religions is often adopted expressly to signal that the subject matter covered therein is not limited to Christianity, the Biblical tradition, or the so-called Judeo-Christian perspective, but is inclusive of all or many other religions. Whichever sense of the term is meant, it is far more frequently used in the plural form than in the singular. In fact, the cardinal presupposition underlying the concept of world religions is the multiplicity of religion; it is predicated on the idea that religion is a genus comprising many species, and that Christianity, for example, is but one of them. This idea, though a truism nowadays, is distinctly modern, if not to say altogether unprecedented in the history of the West.

Although regularly mentioned in scholarly tracts as well as in nonscholarly media, world religions is not a technical term. There has been little critical discussion of the concept or its history; nor is there an established definition agreed upon by religion specialists. The term itself originated in certain academic contexts of the nineteenth century, and it was indeed a matter of considerable scholarly debate among European scientists and theologians then, but those arguments are now largely forgotten and further obscured by contemporary usage, which appears to take little account of past concerns. It is therefore best to understand that the meaning of this term at present is largely determined by conventional practice rather than by any scholarly consensus or rigorous analytic considerations. At the same time, the notion of world religions can be shown to have a complex historical relation to some earlier conceptual schemes for delineating the variety of religious traditions, schemes that it presumably has replaced.

Until the early decades of the nineteenth century, a well-established convention going back to the Middle Ages had been to divide the world population into four groups: Christians, Jews, Muammadans (as Muslims were commonly called then), and, finally, those others who were attached to countless varieties of idolatry (also called pagans, heathens, or polytheists). This four-part classification implied, however, not a recognition of four distinct religions as we think of them now, but a division of the world's nations into, first, the correctly faithful believers in the true and only God (i.e., Christians of various sorts), then two major groups with errant or heretical opinions and attitudes toward God (Jews and Muammadans), and then the rest, who were altogether ignorant of God and therefore paid inappropriate reverence to various substitute objects, or idols. In effect, in this frame of mind, there was only one religionthe true oneand others were various ways of straying from it. The plurality of religions presupposed by the concept of world religions, therefore, came as a sea change in the way in which Europeans thought about themselvesunderstood first and foremost as Christendomand about their relation to the rest of the world.

Origin and Early Uses of the Term

The coinage of the term world religion in German, Weltreligion was probably not unrelated to the advent of similar terms, such as world history (Weltgeschichte, a concept especially associated with G. W. F. Hegel) and world literature (Weltliteratur, associated with Goethe), which began to circulate in the early nineteenth century. Whatever this relation may have been, there is little doubt that the term originated in German. In summarizing the nineteenth-century controversy over the notion of world religions, the Dutch historian of religion P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye, in his Manual of the Science of Religion (1891, p. 54), credibly notes that the word was first introduced by Johann Sebastian von Drey in 1827. A prominent German Catholic theologian and cofounding editor of the Tübingen Theological Quarterly, Drey in that year published in this journal a two-part article entitled "Von der Landesreligion und der Weltreligion" (loosely translated, "on the religion of a country and the religion of the world"), wherein he argued that the Christian Church, in its true catholicity, was an institution pertaining to what was universally human, and as such it differed fundamentally from the cult of any particular nation. In effect, world religion was the term he applied uniquely and exclusively to Christianity (Christentum ), in contradistinction from all the indigenous religions of Europe and elsewhere, roundly called paganism or heathenism (Heidentum ). What is significant here, therefore, is not only the appearance of the termalbeit in the singularbut also the pairing of world religion with its presumed other, Landesreligion, or, literally, "religion of the land," meaning "religion of a country," or more commonly, "national religion."

Half a century later, this pairing of terms was to acquire further significance in the context of a debate among certain Dutch and German scholars. The debate had to do with the distinction between two supposedly different types of religion: purportedly "universalistic" religions on the one hand and religions that were said to be ethnically, nationally, or racially particular on the other. Meanwhile, the most pertinent development in the intervening decades was the European "discovery" of Buddhism. As Philip Almond has shown in The British Discovery of Buddhism (1988), it was only in the course of the nineteenth century that Europeans came to believe that: (1) that certain traditions of ritual practice and cultic observance, philosophic systems, legends, and clerical institutions found in various parts of Asia actually constituted a single religion; (2) the essential identity of these greatly divergent and diffuse phenomena could be traced back to a particular historical moment and location in northern India, indeed, to a specific historical personage who lived several centuries before Jesus of Nazareth; and (3) the successful dissemination of this religion in Asia was such that it either rivaled or possibly surpassed Christianity in the size of its adherents. Among the ramifications of this understanding of Buddhism as a distinct religion was a sudden awareness that there was another religion in some way comparable to Christianity. Like Christianity, which grew out of an older religion unique to the ancient Israelites, it was thought that Buddhism grew out of Hinduism (more commonly called Brahmanism then), the quintessential religion of India. Buddhism, too, supposedly began as a reform movement initiated by an extraordinary but historical figure, Gautama, bearing a moral message and spiritual appeal to all humanity. Like Christianity, it was also observed, Buddhism disappeared eventually from the land of its origin but spread swiftly beyond national, ethnic, and regional boundaries, not to mention among people of different social strata. In effect, European scholars came to recognize in Buddhism a second world religion, though this did not necessarily lead them to relinquish the claim for the unique and absolute superiority of Christianity.

The discovery of Buddhism was among the most important achievements of the European scholarship on India, which had gained momentum since Sir William Jones's celebrated pronouncements in 1786 suggesting the affinityand hence the likely commonality of originbetween the classical languages of India and of Europe. This was to be the basis of the idea of the Indo-European (or Aryan) language family, a group of related languages purportedly characterized and distinguished from other groups by the purity of their grammatical form (i.e., inflection). This idea helped redefine Europeanness, aligning Europe with ancient India and Persia, while separating it from the Semitic (those who spoke languages allegedly marred by "imperfect inflection," exemplified by Arabic and Hebrew), as well as from all the restthat is, the speakers of the noninflectional (or agglutinative) languages of Asia and Africa. In the course of the nineteenth century these groupings of languages became increasingly understood not only in the linguistic sense, but also in an ethnic and, finally, a racial sense. In view of the newly emergent idea of Aryan Europe and, concomitantly, the possible ancestral relation to the "noble race" ("Arya") of ancient India, the recognition of Buddhism as a world religion had implications far beyond the technical question of how to classify religions of the world.

The question of religious versus racial identity was brought into even sharper focus by a related notionalso based on the new understanding of language groupsthat Christianity, insofar as it began as one of the numerous Jewish sects, is Semitic in its historical origin, no less so than Islam and Judaism. This notion was at once intriguing and disturbing to many nineteenth-century Europeans who considered themselves Aryan yet claimed Christianity as their own, so much so that various theories were advanced implying that Christianity was only incidentally and tangentially related to the religion of the ancient Israelites. Some argued that Christianity grew not so much out of ancient Judaism as out of Panhellenismthat is, the widespread Greek culture of the Mediterranean world in late antiquity (for example, Emile Burnouf, La Science des religions: Sa méthode et ses limites, 2nd edition, 1872). Others propounded a theory of the Indian origin of Christianity (Louis Jacolliot, La Bible dans l'Inde: Vie de Iezeus Christna, 1869) or even went so far as to suggest that Christianity began in a community of Buddhist missionaries residing in Egypt (Arthur Lillie, Buddhism in Christendom, or, Jesus, the Essene, 1887).

Although these enormously popular nineteenth-century speculations have been largely discredited by mainstream scholarship, it is important to remember that such efforts to Hellenize and Aryanize Christianity and to separate it from its presumed Semitic parentage was not unrelated to the new recognition of Buddhism as a world religion, and, moreover, to the understanding that Buddhism was an Aryan religion in its essential beginning, though now extant only among the non-Aryan nations of eastern Asia in its various corrupted forms. At the same time, Islamthe powerful domain of an alien religion well known to European Christians for centuriescame to be increasingly represented as the religion of the Arabs, therefore, as a quintessentially Semitic religion. This opinionwhich formed the basis of the argument that it was not a world religionwas held by some prominent scholars, despite the widely acknowledged fact that the great majority of Muslims, then as now, were not Arabs.

These newly emergent trends of thought were largely implicit, and yet essential to the scholarly debate about world religions that took place in the 1870s and 1880s. The scholars who engaged in this debate appear to have been uniformly of the opinion that Buddhism, in addition to Christianity, was a world religion, thus differing in their conception of the term from that of Drey half a century earlier. The controversy was above all over the status of Islam. Some scholars counted, as a matter of course, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam as world religions (presumably on the grounds that all three were major religions, each with a transnational spread, thus de facto demonstrating their "universalistic" aspirations and capabilities); other scholars, however, strenuously maintained that Islam was not a world religion but instead quintessentially a national religion specific to the Arabs, that it was adopted by non-Arabs only for extraneous political reasons or because it was imposed upon them by force (see Kuenen, 1882; Pfleiderer, 1907). These contentious arguments led some others to question the cogency of distinguishing world religions from national religions in the first place, and to mitigate the earlier claims for the scientific usefulness of these categories (see Rauwenhoff, 1885; Tiele, 1885; Jastrow, 1901).

There was no clear resolution to the debate in the end; rather, it appears that the matter was decided by default. For, by the early decades of the twentieth century, when the use of the term world religions in the plural became well established, it was simply taken for granted that Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam were world religions. Ernst Troeltsch, for example, in his essay entitled "The Place of Christianity among the World Religions" (1923), named all three as world religions without any explanation. More fundamentally, the demarcation between world religions and national religions was effectively undermined, as the latter category dropped out of use entirely.

Perhaps no one was more instrumental in making this turn definitive and authoritative than Max Weber. In the last decade of his life, he undertook an ambitious multivolume project under the general title The Economic Ethic of the World Religions (Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen ), which remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1920. As can be discerned from his introductory essay of the same name, originally published independently in 1915, he treated world religions strictly as a conventional nomenclature referring to the major religions of the world, and he included Hinduism and Confucianism in the list; in addition, he found it necessary to consider in the same context "Ancient Judaism," though he stopped short of naming it a bona fide world religion. Weber was of the opinion that any numerically substantial or otherwise significant religion was of interest precisely because of its uniquely characteristic ethos, each specific to the history and culture of a particular people. Put differently, all of those Weber called "world religions" were, in his view, what nineteenth-century scholars called "national religions."

Adaptation of the Term in English

The use of the term world religions in English most probably began with its appearance in C. P. Tiele's article "Religions," published in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1885). This was a rather literal translation of the term wereldgodsdiensten from his native Dutch; for, until then and sometime thereafter, the usual translation of wereldgodsdiensten and Weltreligionen was either "universal religions" or, as Tiele himself sometimes preferred, "universalistic religions." Although the nineteenth-century Dutch and German scholarly debate over the notion of world religions did not extend to the English-speaking world, it was known among the scholars (Jastrow, 1901, pp. 122123), and perhaps more importantly, a parallel distinction between what continental European scholars called "national religions" and "world religions" had been drawn under different names. To cite two of the most prominent examples, the renowned Christian socialist and progressive Anglican Frederick Denison Maurice published his Boyle Lectures under the title The Religions of the World and Their Relations to Christianity (1847). He argued that, although all religions purported to unite and encompass all humankind in their aspiration to rise above the merely human, only Christianity actually achieved this goal, and that all other "religions of the world" were but melancholy testimonies to the impossibility of fulfilling their ideals on their own terms. In short, in his view, Christianity alone accounted for the whole, and was therefore universal, while all other religions were limited and particularistic. A second example is from across the Atlantic: the distinguished Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke of Boston published a series of articles in 1868issued in 1871 in a single volume as Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology and reprinted many timeswhere he drew the same distinction between the truly universal religion, which he termed "catholic religion," namely Christianity, and all the rest, which he called "ethnic religions."

It was in this sense of "universal religion" that the term world religion, in the singular, first came to be used by certain Anglophone theologians toward the end of the nineteenth century. John Henry Barrowsan American Presbyterian minister who served as the president of the World Parliament of Religions in 1893lectured in India under the title "Christianity, the World-Religion" (1897), signaling his conviction that Christianity alone was the truly universal religion. Similarly, William Fairfield Warrenthe occupant of arguably the first chair of comparative religion at an American university and later president of Boston Universitygave the same appellation to Christianity when he wrote The Religions of the World and the World-Religion (1892). Far from being a synonym for "religions of the world," then, for these authors, world-religion (in both cases hyphenated) signified one unique religion, their own, which, in their opinion, happened to be universally viable. In effect, they viewed the contrast between Christianity and all other religions as Maurice and Clarke had, and at the same time, their usage of the term world-religion was consistent with Drey's original sense of Weltreligion.

It is difficult to determine with certainty how this exclusivist or Christian supremacist connotation of world-religion came to be displaced or overridden by the other pluralistic use of the term assumed by Tiele and others, or, for that matter, how the novel theory originating in the scientific discourse of continental Europesuggesting, specifically, that Buddhism at least should be regarded as a world religion in addition to Christianitywas first received in the English-speaking world generally. As it happened in the German-speaking world, the claim for the "uniquely universal" status of Christianity eventually became less pronounced in the notion of world religion(s), while the other, seemingly indifferent sense of the term, comprising any numerically significant religions, eventually prevailed.

It was during the decades between the two world wars that the use of the term world religions, as well as the standard list of about a dozen religions so designated, became conventional. What is remarkable about this turn of events is, first, the relatively precipitous establishment of the convention, and secondly, its unchallenged stability to this day. It is also striking that the rhetorical emphasis shifted, suddenly turning to what was regarded as current, alive, and immediately present, whereas during the nineteenth century all of the non-Christian religionswith the conspicuous and ever troublesome exception of Islamwere represented as bygone religions, as fossil-like remnants of "ancient," "archaic," "defunct," or "past" religions that had been superceded by the coming of Christ.

Since the beginning of the early twentieth century, then, there has been a list of world religions that could be called standard or customary, albeit with some individual variationssome addition, subtraction, further division, or merging. The typical list almost invariably includes Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism; it also frequently identifies Confucianism, Daoism, and Shintō (at times grouped together as "Chinese and Japanese religions" or "East Asian religions"), as well as Parsiism (or Zoroastrianism), Jainism, and Sikhism.

In addition to these purportedly major religions, a typical world religions textbook or curriculum often includes discussion of traditions that are supposedly minor in scale, numbers, or world-historical significance. In earlier times, these minor traditions were often referred to as "savage" or "primitive" religions, though nowadays these appellations are generally avoided and variously replaced by "primal," "preliterate," "tribal," or even "basic" religions. The content of the category, under whatever name, has remained more or less constant; it refers to those cultic practices, mythic lore, and cosmologies that fall outside of the above-named major religions. Such small-scale religions are recognized generically as a type, and examples of this type are said to be found in profusion, particularly in Africa, the Americas, the Pacific islands, Oceania, Central and Southeast Asia, and other pockets of indigenous tribal life. Within this group, individual cases and examples are specified by their geographical location or by certain subcategories coined by European scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, such as shamanism and animism. Whether these minor traditions en masse are treated as part of world religions or as constituting a category in addition to world religions depends on whether a given author defines the term world religions as "all religions of the world" or as "major religions." In any case, the supplementary status of "the rest" seems inevitably to have remained anomalous and problematic, thereby threatening the symmetry and stability of each classification system, whether it be the fourth category (idolaters) in the traditional system, that of national religions in the nineteenth-century scientific system, or the generic category of tribal religions among world religions in the system in use at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

See Also

Comparative Religion; Study of Religion.


There has been little scholarly discussion or critical examination of the idea of world religions. Regarding the ideological implications of applying this concept to a specific geographical location, Timothy Fitzgerald considers the case of India in "Hinduism and the World Religion Fallacy," Religion 20 (1990): 101118. Russell T. McCutcheon critiques an aspect of the current pedagogic practice of religious studies, as predicated on the notion of world religions, in Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (New York, 1997). For an overall history of the idea of world religions, see Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago, 2005).

It is important to consider this history in relation to the formation of the concept of religion(s) more generally, and for this purpose particularly informative are two articles by Jonathan Z. Smith, "Religion, Religions, Religious," in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor, pp. 269284 (Chicago, 1998), and "Classification," in Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun and Russell T. McCutcheon, pp. 3544 (London, 2000).

Historically, F. Max Müller has been regarded by many scholars as the progenitor of the science of religion and of the modern scholarly classification of religions, as delineated in his Introduction to the Science of Religion (London, 1873); it is all the more notable, then, that Müller expressly avoided engaging in the debate concerning the notion of world religions and that he never made use of the term. For critical discussions by his contemporaries of the category of world religions and systems of classification, the following texts may be consulted: C. P. Tiele, Geschiedenis van den Godsdienst tot aan de heerschappij der Wereldgodsdiensten (Leiden, 1876), translated by J. Estlin Carpenter as Outlines of the History of Religion to the Spread of the Universal Religions (London, 1877), as well as Tiele's entry, "Religions," in the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Edinburgh, 1885); Abraham Kuenen, Volksgodsdienst en Wereldgodsdienst (1882), translated by P. H. Wicksteed as National Religions and Universal Religions (London, 1882); L. W. E. Rauwenhoff, "Wereldgodsdiensten" (in Dutch), Theologisch Tijdschrift 19 (1885): 133; P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye, Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte, vol. 1 (Freiburg, Germany, 1887), translated by Beatrice S. Colyer-Furgusson as Manual of the Science of Religion (London, 1891); Maurice Vernes, L'Histoire des religions; son espirit, sa méthode, et ses divisions, son enseignement en France et à l'etranger (Paris, 1887); Morris Jastrow Jr., The Study of Religion (New York, 1901); and Otto Pfleiderer, Religion und Religionen (Munich, 1906), translated by Daniel A. Huebsch as Religion and Historic Faiths (New York, 1907).

Regarding the earliest examples of texts employing the modern notion of world religions (though not necessarily adopting the term) and exhibiting more or less the same list of religions as is encountered today, the following were among the most renowned and authoritative: George Foot Moore, History of Religions, 2 vols. (New York, 19131919); Robert Ernest Hume, The World's Living Religions: An Historical Sketch (New York, 1924); and John Clark Archer, Faiths Men Live By (New York, 1934). Whereas nineteenth-century books, pamphlets, and lectures on the subject of world religions were often intended for future Christian missionaries and for others likewise seeking a confirmation of Christian superiority in comparison to other religions, the texts just mentioned are meant expressly for liberal arts college students and for the general public. In this connection, also noteworthy is what appears to be the first correspondence course in world religions and an early instance of a university extension enterprise based in Chicago. The textbook for the coursetwelve monthly issues containing essays by prominent scholars, including Müller (Oxford), Jastrow (Pennsylvania), and Chantepie de la Saussaye (Amsterdam), among others, and edited by Edmund Buckleyis entitled Universal Religion: A Course of Lessons, Historical and Scientific, on the Various Faiths of the World (Chicago, 1897).

The earliest books that mention world religions in the titlein English and in the contemporary sense of the termare Charles Samuel Braden's Modern Tendencies in World Religions (New York, 1933) and Modern Trends in World-Religions, edited by A. Eustace Haydon (Chicago, 1934).

Meanwhile, the extant portion of Max Weber's unfinished project, Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen (literally, The Economic Ethic of the World Religions ), was published posthumously as Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, 3 vols. (Tübingen, Germany, 1921). The introductory essay by the same name as the overall project had been previously published independently in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (1915); it has been translated as "The Social Psychology of the World Religions" and included in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited and translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York, 1946), pp. 267301. Weber's most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons (New York, 1930), constitutes but a segment of this massive project, as do three other monograph-length works by him that were separately published in English: The Religion of China, translated by Hans H. Gerth (New York, 1951); Ancient Judaism, translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale (New York, 1952); and The Religion of India, translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale (New York, 1958).

The subject of world religions in general gained much popularity in the English-speaking world in the second half of the twentieth century. In the decades following World War II, curricula for the secular study of religions proliferated, particularly in American colleges and universities. Concurrently, there appeared a number of texts that came to have enduring influence and that have undergone many reprints and revised editions. Those include The Religions of Man by Huston Smith (1st ed., New York, 1958); The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, edited by R. C. Zaehner (New York, 1959); The Religious Experience of Mankind by Ninian Smart (1st ed., New York, 1969); and Religions of the World by E. Geoffrey Parrinder (New York, 1971).

Tomoko Masuzawa (2005)

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