Persistent predictions of the virtually certain demise of religion continue to run afoul of the facts. During the decade since the first edition of this volume appeared, religion and spirituality have only become more influential forces in the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe. Unfortunately, the perdurance and expansion of distinct faith communities has too often perpetuated age-old divisions rather than fostering unity within the larger human community. As a result, the need for adherents of the many and varied traditions and sub-communities of faith to pursue actively more accurate knowledge of the belief systems of others has risen dramatically.

New and ongoing regional and global geo-political realignments present increasingly daunting challenges. Our collective need for greater appreciation of the cultures of West, South and East Asia demands deeper understanding of the ancient systems of faith and values that remain integral to those cultures. Even in “officially” secularist societies, such as those of China and Russia, the pulse of historic religious energies still animates and motivates millions of people. The role of the signature wisdom at the heart of the faith traditions remains a key to understanding the shared humanity that unites us far more than our distinctive creeds divide us.

A word about the scope, orientation, and overall content of this book is in order here. Its title is both deceptively simple and outrageously presumptuous on the face of it. It purports to reduce an enormously complex, ancient and virtually universal human phenomenon to a set of brief packets of highly selective information, and implies that one can compare approaches to those discrete topics across a broad range of social, cultural, philosophical, and ethical contexts. And as for the choice of what qualifies here as “religious traditions,” the reader will understandably ask why these specific traditions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Shinto? Indeed, are not Buddhism and Confucianism as often identified as “philosophies” rather than “religious faith” traditions? And why only these, to the exclusion of several other structurally similar traditions perhaps less widely known, but arguably of great significance in the history of human thought - such as Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Baha’i traditions? Why not include the “archaic” or “ancient” wellsprings of speculation on eternal verities such as the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Graeco-Roman roots of religion, or the deeply rooted Wiccan, Druid and various “nature-oriented” systems? And what of the widespread but not so obviously “organized” religious heritages of the “first nations” or “indigenous peoples,” which have surely embraced huge numbers of people across the globe?

I have no truly satisfying answers to these and other questions, but here are the principles of selection operative here. Limitation of space in a “general interest” volume such as this is a major concern. Second, the traditions to which I have been able to devote most attention over years of study are several of the more “structured” traditions, still current and growing, and representative of major cultural, ethnic, and geopolitical swaths of humankind. I would very much have liked to be able to give adequate attention to Native American traditions, for example, but they are in fact many and subtly varied and beyond my own academic scope. Perhaps the best example of a recent unified approach to an “indigenous” cluster of religious beliefs and practice that has in addition gained truly global reach is Stephen Prothero’s chapter on “Yoru-ba Religion” in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010). He offers an intriguing description of how the originally Nigerian traditions have morphed into a significant component of popular traditions in a surprising array of current cultural contexts. Readers will also find a useful selection of “case studies” on a broader array of “indigenous” traditions in Christopher Partridge (ed.), Introduction to World Religions (Fortress, 2005), part three.

One unfortunate development in perceptions of religion in our world since the original publication of The Handy Religion Answer Book is the increasing acceptance of the belief that “religious” justifications of violence somehow present a greater threat in the long term than do campaigns or ideologies of violence based on avowedly secular, ethnic, political or economic motives. In reality, however, it is not religion, or some gruesome distortion of it, that constitutes the most intractable problem in this regard. It is the fundamental human tendency to resort to violence long before we have tried other options adequately. We human beings have given evidence of abundantly poor judgment and impatience in millennia of bad behavior. In the process we have, sadly, shown not the slightest embarrassment about blaming our choices on our versions of supreme beings—deities who turn out to be every bit as petty and vindictive as we are. If “God” by any of dozens of names is what the great faith traditions claim God is, violence in God’s name is unthinkable. Alas, our most prevalent images of “God” are degraded versions of the highest values manifest in the foundational insights of the great faith traditions.

Background and Methodological Considerations

However any of us feels personally about religion, it remains a powerful and pervasive force in our world. To dismiss religion as so much superstition and delusional thinking is to brush aside one of the most important features of the human condition: what people believe, and why they believe it, profoundly influence the way they act. Religious beliefs and cultural assumptions are often so intimately intertwined that it is rarely, if ever, possible to disentangle them. It is possible, for the sake of clarity and to promote further discussion, to provide a general outline of major themes in history, belief, structure, and practice. But it is essential to keep in mind that any study of a phenomenon so complex and broad begins from a particular point of view, makes certain working assumptions, and must inevitably indulge in the luxury of sweeping generalizations.

A word about my own perspective on the practice and study of religion will be useful here. Raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, I began my professional study of religion after completing undergraduate work in Philosophy and Classical Languages. Graduate study toward an M.A. in Biblical Languages and Literature focused on the critical examination of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Since finishing a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies in 1978, I have been teaching courses on Islam and other non-Christian religious traditions to undergraduate and graduate students. I remain an adherent of Roman Catholicism, but I work from the conviction that it is my professional responsibility to ask hard critical questions about the nature and function of religion — beginning with my own. One might legitimately ask whether my Roman Catholic background might lead me to compare other traditions using my own as some sort of standard. My answer is that I have sought to set up categories of comparability that privilege no tradition in particular, drawing from a broad spectrum of religious studies concepts, and in no instance do I engage in the comparative evaluation of truth claims. Whether or not I have achieved an appropriate balance, others must decide.

Another personal conviction, based on over forty years of studying and teaching the history of religions, has had a particularly formative influence on my approach to the subject at hand. It is this: I am persuaded that, as the great traditions teach in so many ways, there is an “absolute truth” that is somehow accessible to human beings honestly in quest of it. But I am equally convinced that human beings are by definition incapable of possessing that truth either exhaustively, so that any person or group can claim to have it fully, or exclusively, so that the world divides itself neatly between the “we” who own the truth and the “they” who are simply out of luck. Any such view both inflates human capabilities and reduces transcendent realities to pocket-size trinkets. This does not mean that I am one of those intellectually indecisive people called “relativists,” who believe either that all religious traditions are the same or that one is as good as another. I do believe, however, that God, or Ultimate Reality, is so much greater than any religious tradition, or all put together, can claim to master and dispense; and that each individual who seeks with a sincere heart the center and goal of his or her life will be led to it. Meanwhile, one of the noblest and most useful tasks we can commit ourselves to is a greater understanding of how and why other people believe as they do. I believe, perhaps naively but nonetheless firmly, that the world is richer for its religious pluralism, and that it would also be safer if the quest for mutual understanding of that diversity were a higher priority.

I begin with a number of assumptions about religion — that is, aspects of the subject that a book like this will not and could not, without expanding to many volumes, begin to address. In addition to the assertions with which I opened this introduction, here are several other “givens,” naturally arguable and open to debate, on which this book builds. One is that it can be misleading to try to reduce any of the world’s major religious traditions to a handful of questions and answers. But it can also be very helpful to do so occasionally, so long as one keeps in mind that these tidbits of information are offered as an invitation to dig deeper.

Another assumption is that because religion is so susceptible to misunderstanding and caricature, specialists in religious studies have a responsibility to devise balanced approaches to the subject. It is my hope that foregrounding my own biases and limitations will assist the reader in evaluating the approach in these pages. Misinformation about religious beliefs and practices, especially those of “other” people, abounds and has a way of perpetuating itself. This broad survey attempts to provide solid, basic information in the hope that readers will be encouraged to pursue particular aspects of this enormous subject and fill in for themselves the kind of historical context a book this size cannot provide.

This revised The Handy Religion Answer Book is organized in three parts. It first devotes a chapter each to the three traditions of Middle Eastern origin, namely, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Next to be covered are the two largest traditions of south Asian origin, Hinduism and Buddhism; the final chapters deal with three traditions of east Asian origin: China’s Daoism and popular traditions, Confucianism together with imperial traditions, and Japan’s Shinto. Each of the chapters organizes the material in seven subsections: origins and history; religious beliefs; signs and symbols; membership, community and diversity; leadership, authority, and organization; holidays and regular observances; and customs and rituals. In order to facilitate comparison, many of the questions are phrased generically rather than specifically, so that readers will hear echoes of questions posed in other sections. Other questions are concept-specific, especially where the issues at hand are already widely mentioned in popular media and thus readily recognizable.

Finally, these religious traditions all represent vast and complex developments over many centuries and in countless cultural contexts. Reducing them, as I have here, to fifty or sixty pages apiece means barely scratching the surface to offer the merest hint of their richness. This volume’s modest goal is to provide the kind of solid, basic information upon which interested readers might build a broader and deeper understanding of these world-treasures through further investigation.

New in This Edition

First, at the suggestion of students and a number of readers, I have replaced the original general introduction to “Religion Studies” with a glossary of religious studies terminology for easy reference. Second, also as a result of reader suggestions, I have generally streamlined the coverage, by combining some questions on similar topics and making space for new material by removing questions on such matters of marginally “religious” import as religious education, conversion in traditions for which that is of little or no importance, creedal or doctrinal questions of minor significance in some traditions. Clearer organization also dictated that I move material from the former rather amorphous category “Powers and Personalities” into more appropriate places in other major categories. This streamlining and restructuring also makes for better flow and more logical order of individual topics.

Third, I have added questions on various topics, including religion and violence and important sub-organizations claiming affiliation with the major faith communities.

Fourth, a number of new sidebars and appendices include: glossaries of technical terms for each tradition; timelines for each tradition within the respective chapters as well as a global blended timeline in the back of this book (as in the first edition); summaries of major sub-groups and organizations, such as Buddhist lineages, for example; maps showing the general coverage areas for each of the major families of faith traditions.

Finally, a “For Further Reading” section provides a selection of some of the many fine publications that have appeared on the major traditions in the past decade or so.

A Note on Pronunciations: Basic Pronunciation Hints for Chinese Terms

The Handy Religion Answer Book makes use of the pinyin transliteration system, rather than the Wade-Giles, since the pinyin is rapidly replacing the older method. Consonants are generally pronounced as they appear, with several exceptions. An “x” sounds close to “sh”; “q” sounds like “ch” as in “cheek”; “z” is like a “dz”; “c” before a vowel is like a “tz.”

Hints for Pronouncing Japanese Words

Consonants are pronounced very much as they appear. Vowels are always “long” (e.g., a = “ah,” e = “ay,” i = “ee,” o = “oh,” u = “oo.”) Two items that are difficult for many people are these: the letters “ky” and “ry” followed by a vowel (kyo, ryu) are pronounced as a single syllable, so Tokyo is not To-kee-o, but To-kyo. When the letter “i” comes after “sh” and before “t” or “k,” as in the company name Matsushita or the name of the Sumo champion Konishiki, the “i” is elided. So, Matsush’ta and Konish’ki. Similarly, a “u” between an “s” and another consonant (like “s,” “t” or “k”) is often elided, as in the name of the important Tokyo shrine, Yasukuni, pronounced Yas’kuni.

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