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Why not ‘World Religions’?
Why not ‘World Religions’?

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A colour photograph of a group of people wearing white and holding flags while walking along a path.

In this short course, you have learned about how the idea of classifying religions like we classify plants and animals appealed to many Europeans during the colonial period. You have also heard how the idea that some of those religions could be classified as ‘World Religions’ reflected their biases that Europe was the pinnacle of civilisation, and Christianity the pinnacle of religion. Yet this was an oversimplification that misrepresented the majority of people, even as it allowed some to claim greater legitimacy on the global stage. As you have seen, the model prioritises belief over practices and identity, marginalises non-elite voices and irons out contestations within and between traditions, and the complexities of individual religious lives.

You have also explored some different ways in which we might think about religions. In so doing, you have also learned that abandoning the idea of World Religions does not mean that we have to deny anyone their voice, or ignore the role of religion in peoples’ lives around the world. Quite the opposite – by not forcing by not forcing beliefs, practices and identities into neat boxes, we allow them to speak for themselves, and in the process gain a much clearer understanding of the staggering complexity of ordinary religious lives.

Questions for discussion

  • How well does your religious identity fit the World Religions model? Are you a typical example of your World Religion, or not so much? In what ways? (Be honest – no judgements!)
  • Or, is your religion not included? Why do you think that is?
  • If you aren’t religious, are there things you do or believe that could be thought of as religious (e.g yoga, horoscopes, acupuncture, etc.)?
  • Now think about people you know well, like your parents or friends or siblings. How are their religious lives similar to yours, and how are they different?

Classroom activity

As a group, come up with a plan for a course called Introduction to Religion in the Modern World – without using the World Religions model! You can use the ideas listed above, or come up with something different of your own. Where do you start? What do you include? What questions do you ask?