The World’s Religions by Ninian Smart

Religion is an extremely complex social and cultural phenomenon. No simple definition can capture its manifold nature. Rich, simple, consoling, disturbing, unifying, divisive, colourful, austere, prayerful, practical, doctrinal, mystical, peaceful, militaristic, solitary, communitarian, supernatural, worldly. It has all of these (often contradictory) aspects. The very briefest attempt to get a conceptual handle on the phenomenon can be found at this link In short, it is as variable as the multifarious forms of human life and culture that are found across the entire globe.

The difficulty is that it is in the name of religion that some of the worst atrocities have been, and are being, committed. In our times, in a globalised world, conflict and atrocity are what we seem to hear about every day. Because humans are a pack animal, most religions have their origins in the formation of group/tribal identity. In binding one group together around an enforced ideology, cohesion is gained at the expense of excluding and vilifying other human groups. Each group asserts that its god is the only ‘true’ god and that they are in receipt of the only ‘true’ revelation.

Cultural anthropologists say there as many as 18,000 named gods in human culture. (Why Do Humans Keep Inventing Gods to Worship? | Psychology Today United Kingdom) Naturally, these gods are all either false or fictional except the one you happen to believe in yourself. Competing groups on this account have to be converted or exterminated. This has applied to divisions within the main faith groupings as well as between them. The inevitable result is conflict and brutality. In the past it led to crusades, pogroms, genocide, burnings at the stake and so many similar unspeakable horrors. Today we have jet aircraft flown into tall buildings, maniacs with kalashnikovs, kidnapping, slavery and suicide bombers. The nightmare is now that a religious believer in the afterlife gets hold of a nuclear weapon. His conviction will be so absolute and his spirit so generous that he’ll take us all into the afterlife with him.

The first step in overcoming this desperate tragedy of human existence is to acknowledge the variety of religious faith in the world. Second is to accept that unfamiliar people uphold their beliefs with sincerity. Third is to try and achieve some level of understanding and compassion. Fourth is to go for dialogue and mutual toleration. So far, so idealistic. Happily, there are many fine published works which educate us in comparative religion.

Ninian Smart’s ( The World’s Religions is one such. Smart looks at the world’s religions in terms of world history, and as constantly developing systems of belief. Part I traces the development of religions as they have evolved from the traditions of the ancient world. Part II examines the changes to faiths and cultures following the Renaissance and the voyages of conquest and discovery, and asks how, why, and with what effect religions have been refashioned over the ages up to the present. Religions are described through their symbols, rituals, followers, architecture and art. Generously accompanied by references, statistics, maps and pictures the text illuminates the wellsprings and life of each religion in turn. This edition of 1998 is a thorough revision of the original text which highlights recent developments, such as the spread of Islam, African-American and Hispanic-American religious experience, and women priests.

For your journey into comparative religion with Ninian Smart enquire at your local library or consult for full bibliographic detail.

To pursue an interest in comparative religion the locus classicus is The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) ( by William James

Move on to the much admired On the Long Search (1979) ( by Ronald Eyre, based on a 13 part BBC documentary about world religion from 1977.

Your anthology ready to hand should be Roger Eastman’s excellent The Ways of Religion (1999) ( Eastman surveys all the major religious traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and African religions – as well as covering Zen Buddhism and the religious experience in America. He allows each tradition to speak in its own voice, excerpting passages from its scriptures, prophets, and distinguished authors.

For a recent scholarly treatment reach for Moojan Momen’s Understanding Religion (2008) ( This draws from all major religious traditions in the world, as well as a variety of non-religious disciplines such as psychology, philosophy and sociology. It is a thematic presentation of the role of religion in society, covering everything from art and history to theology and the World Wide Web.

Many people around the world have come to the conclusion that mutual respect and toleration are the only ways out of our desperate situation. ‘Ecumenism’, a movement among Christian churches aiming at greater cooperation and possible unity, is over a 100 years old. (

There is even a 20 year old website ( which has been promoting toleration. Thing is – it’s that painful concession one has to make. The cherished conviction that one’s own belief system is exclusively the road to salvation – that’s what has to be given up. Otherwise the only mutuality we’ll enjoy will be something talked about in the Cold War – Mutually Assured Destruction.


612 pages in Cambridge University Press

First published 1989

ISBN  978-0521637480

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Professor Ninian Smart

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