Globalization and high-speed communication put twenty-first century people in contact with adherents to a wide variety of world religions, but usually, valuable knowledge of these other traditions is limited at best. On the one hand, religious stereotypes abound, hampering a serious exploration of unfamiliar philosophies and practices. On the other hand, the popular idea that all religions lead to the same God or the same moral life fails to account for the distinctive origins and radically different teachings found across the world’s many religions. Understanding World Religions presents religion as a complex and intriguing matrix of history, philosophy, culture, beliefs, and practices. Hexham believes that a certain degree of objectivity and critique is inherent in the study of religion, and he guides readers in responsible ways of carrying this out. Of particular importance is Hexham’s decision to explore African religions, which have frequently been absent from major religion texts. He surveys these in addition to varieties of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
|About the Contributor(s)||Irving Hexham
Irving Hexham is professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary and adjunct professor of World Christianity at Liverpool Hope University. He has published twenty-seven academic books, including The Concise Dictionary of Religion, Understanding Cults and New Religions, and Religion and Economic Thought, plus eighty major academic articles and chapters in books, numerous popular articles, and book reviews. Recently he completed a report for the United Nations’ refugee agency on religious conflict in Africa and another for the Canadian Government’s Department of Canadian Heritage on Religious Publications in Canada. He is listed in Who’s Who in Canada and various scholarly directories. In 2008, he was honored at the historic Humboldt University in Berlin with a Festschrift, Border Crossings: Explorations of an Interdisciplinary Historian (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag).
|Publish Date||Apr 7, 2011|
- Review by Christian
Hexham opens his book with a length section about the effect of biases—particularly those commonly held in the Western world—on religious studies textbooks. If he had followed up this criticism of other scholars with hundreds of pages in which his own bias bled through, then I would brand him hypocritical and be less inclined to accept what he says. However, this is not what he does; he clearly presents each major religion with as much of an unbiased nature as one could possibly have when talking about such a topic. Though it can be discerned that Hexham comes from a Christian perspective, he does not use his worldview to tear down opposing religions. Instead, he lays aside his own views and approaches the world’s major religions with an open mind that seeks to understand each religion precisely how a follower of that religion understands it.
Hexham’s greatest weakness is that he does not often follow what I would call a logical flow of thinking. That is not to say that his logic is flawed, but rather that the flow of his book can be a little bit disjointed. Though he discusses each religion in a basic format that goes from the history, to traditions, to a specific person within that religion, some of the later chapters muddle this flow. For example, in his section about Islam, Hexham discusses the history, then follows with the traditions and practices of Muslims. He then follows this up with another chapter on Muslim piety. This is an example of something that he does quite often. He covers something in one chapter and then goes back to something within that chapter and expounds upon that. Though this style may work for some, I found it to be confusing at parts. Yet, in the grand scheme of things, the book itself and its material really had very few weaknesses.
This book challenged me to conquer what I believe is the greatest barrier to peace—ignorance. We stereotype other people groups and religions and make assumptions based on those stereotypes, many if not all of which stem from ignorance. This book shoved my own ignorance in my face and forced me to take it on and defeat it. I learned many things that I did not know about other religions. If this knowledge was to stop at just the acquisition stage, it would be pointless. Once I apply it to my life, though, my previously-held stereotypes crumble away and my view of the world and the people in it is changed forever. This book helped facilitate such a change in my life and worldview.
Hexham has gone to great lengths in researching and acquiring a true understanding of each of the world’s major religions, and this hard work is very evident in this book. His strengths well-outweighed his weaknesses and he combined both knowledge and passion in a work of literature that offers a fresh perspective on an old subject. I would recommend this book to any and all, whether one knows nothing about world religions or think they know everything about world religions.
(Posted on 10/2/2016)