The phrase “World Religions” came into use when the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. Representation at the Parliament was not comprehensive. Naturally, Christians dominated the meeting, and Jews were represented. Muslims were represented by a single American Muslim. The enormously diverse traditions of India were represented by a single teacher, while three teachers represented the arguably more homogenous strains of Buddhist thought. The indigenous religions of the Americas and Africa were not represented. Nevertheless, since the convening of the Parliament, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism have been commonly identified as World Religions. They are sometimes called the “Big Seven” in Religious Studies textbooks, and many generalizations about religion have been derived from them.
Increasingly, scholars are questioning that characterization. For one thing, it is based on questionable criteria regarding what makes the Big Seven count as World Religions. It can’t be because they are followed by huge numbers of people; Judaism ranks far behind Shinto and Sikhism in that regard, and they aren’t considered World Religions. Judaism could be counted as a World Religion because it is foundational to the two most widely followed religions in the world – Christianity and Islam – but if that were the criterion then Zoroastrianism should count too, because of its influence on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. If we think of World Religions as those practiced by people in diverse regions around the world, then why are Confucianism and Taoism included? More importantly, though, “World Religions” seems to imply that all communities have something identifiable as religion, just as all communities have language. (In fact, language was exactly the counterpart that Muller used when he began the scholarly study of religion. He borrowed the phrase “He who knows one, knows none” from the study of languages.) Viewing religion in this way can make people more tolerant of other religions, although it is just as common for people to believe that their religion -alone among all the world’s religions – is superior. Either way, the idea that what we think of as religion in our own culture has a counterpart in all other cultures is problematic in the view of many contemporary scholars.
Among the problems with the idea that all societies have religions is that it assumes, at the very least, that things or aspects of life categorized as “religious” can be distinguished from those that fall outside that category. That is, it assumes that there are aspects of life that are not involved in religion. Actually, however, this compartmentalization of religion is not found in all societies today, and was not found anywhere before 1500. Many languages do not even have a word equivalent to our word “religion,” nor is such a word found in either the Bible or the Qur’an. And no indigenous tribe in the Americas, for example, talks about “religion” as something distinct from the rest of life.
According to many historians, the concept religion was first used in Europe in the 1500s as a way to distinguish between the domain of church authority and that of civil authorities. Religion was contrasted with politics by kings and emperors who wanted to command some of the loyalty and service that people devoted to bishops and the Pope. To build nation-states, for example, kings and emperors wanted a monopoly on the legitimate use of force or violence, and that required that church leaders give up their authority to create armies, as they had done in the Crusades. Eventually, kings and emperors demanded complete control over things involved in “this world” – the secular world (from the Latin saeculum, referring to things that exist in ordinary time). They wanted to create and enforce laws, collect taxes, and regulate trade, in addition to waging wars. They therefore wanted church officials to limit their activities to those things dealing with the “other” world – the eternal world. They wanted them to stay out of power politics and limit themselves to things like interpreting scripture, formulating doctrines, and conducting rituals. These would come to be characterized as “holy” or “sacred” and, for Christians, they became the proper sphere of religion.
But the word “religion” was not new in the 1500s. Ancient and medieval Western societies used the Latin term religio; it referred to the virtue of carrying out all one’s social obligations – to family, neighbors, rulers, and God. To have religio was to be responsible in all areas of life. When religio came into English as religion around 1200, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, it acquired a different meaning: “a state of life bound by monastic vows.” Christians would then write of “the religions” of the Benedictine monks and the Franciscan and Dominican friars. (Cavanaugh, 2009:64) Now the meaning of the term was shifting again: to mean just those aspects of life governed by church authorities.
To maximize their power, kings and emperors crafted agreements like the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which established the principle Cuius regio, eius religio – a Latin phrase meaning that a ruler’s religion would be the religion of the people he ruled. Such attempts to take power away from church leaders were never completely successful, as church authorities held on to considerable “political” power for centuries. Until 1870 the Pope retained the power of an absolute monarch in the Papal States of the Italian peninsula – an area twice the size of Massachusetts – as he still does today in the much smaller state called Vatican City. But the new idea of religion as something distinct from politics had taken root.
As European Christians colonized Asia and Africa, they applied “religion” with this new meaning to the societies there and, in the process, created new concepts like “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” “Confucianism,” and “Taoism.” They categorized these, along with hundreds of smaller traditions, as species within the genus religion, just as lion (panthera leo) and tiger (panthera tigris) are species within the genus panthera. As scholars have been saying since Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s landmark 1962 book The Meaning and End of Religion, imposing this European concept of religion on non-European cultures distorts what people in the rest of the world do and think. Before the British colonized India, for example, the people there had no concept “religion” and no concept “Hinduism.” There was no word “Hindu” in classical India, and no one spoke of “Hinduism” until the 1800s.
Cavanaugh, W. (2009) The Myth of Religious Violence, Oxford University Press, New York.
Crossman, A. (online) Sociology of Religion. https://www.thoughtco.com/sociology-of-religion-3026286 (accessed October 16, 2018).
Smart, N. ( 1999) Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs, Scribner, New York.
Smith, W.C. (1962) The Meaning and End of Religion, Fortress, Minneapolis MN.
Masuzawa, T. (2005) The invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Morreall, J. and Sonn, T. (2011) The Religion Toolkit: A Complete Guide to Religious Studies, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester.
Prothero, S. (2010) God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter, HarperCollins, New York.
Teiser, S. (1996) The spirits of Chinese religion, in Religions of China in Practice (ed D. Lopez), Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Whitehouse, H. (2004) Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission, AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.