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World Religions

  ‘World’ religions (also known as ‘universal’ religions) are so called because they claim to possess universally valid truths and/or experience of a deity or deities who demand the obedience of all humankind. The term ‘world’ also distinguishes them from tribal religion, which is restricted to a particular family, tribe or society originally living in an area sacred to it. Nonetheless, the majority of the adherents of world religions are born into their faith, not converted to it, and some so-called world religions have become so identified with the patriotic aspirations of particular minorities that it is unthinkable to convert across that line. Shinto, for example, is so strongly identified with the Japanese nation that it is questionable whether a non-Japanese would adopt it.

All world religions have gone through phases of mission and evangelism, though this may occur less for religious reasons than because political leaders see the advantages of expanding a faith community, and exploit its claims to increase their power. (The Crusades are a notorious example of this, but doubtless rulers and leaders who used methods of forcible conversion, such as Philip II of Spain, would declare themselves convinced of the rectitude of their conduct.) World religions are never really ‘dormant’: revival can break out unexpectedly and lead to startling expansion, as in the case of Islam in the last decades of the 20th century, a major contrast to its position a hundred years ago. In some world religions, for example, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, propagating the faith, or evangelism, is an imperative written into their ‘constitution’, as it were.

All world religions possess sacred scriptures, though these do not hold the same degree of authority in each faith. Except for Hinduism, each religion has an identifiable founder, who by his life and teaching laid down a pattern for his followers to emulate, and whose transparent holiness is thought to give his followers access to the divine beyond and within themselves. World religions can be divided into two categories according to whether this ‘enlightenment’ is attained by divine grace through faith (as in Christianity), or as a result of the believer\'s personal efforts (as in Buddhism); one can also see the two responses in a single faith community, for instance in Hinduism.

Since each world religion has a different set of perceptions of the human predicament and the way to salvation, comparisons are difficult, but sometimes it seems that certain religions (for example Hinduism) emphasize more who God is, and others (for instance Christianity) what God does. This distinction is underlined by the fact that the religions where God is creator and intervenes in history (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) are also ‘religions of the book’ with a scriptural tradition which describes these acts. Buddhism and Hinduism, by contrast, are seen as ‘mystical’ religions where meditation and mysticism predominate. All world religions have strong ethical traditions, though this is often not recognized by adherents of other faiths, and all have inspired sophisticated philosophical systems, art, drama and music.

The growth of international travel, trade and political alliances on the one hand, and migration and settlement on the other, has greatly increased the amount of contact between members of the different world religions. This has not only demanded changes of the migrating religion (especially in Hinduism and Islam) but has challenged claims to exclusive truth. Multi-faith worship is no longer uncommon but generally it is a question of one community inviting members of another to share special occasions. The challenge of religious pluralism is one of the most acute theological problems today. EMJ

Further reading Ronald M. Green, Religion and Moral Reason; , Geoffrey Parrinder, Encountering the World\'s Religions; , Ninian Smart, The World\'s Great Religions.



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