Religion: A Field Guide

(Note: if you have come directly to this page from the internet, click here for the complete resource. Those wanting information on the major world religions and the number of adherents of those religions may go directly to this page.)

Japanese sacred bridge

"Every man should follow his own religion . . . .  As a mother, in nursing her sick children, gives rice and curry to one, and sago arrowroot to another and bread and butter to a third, so the Lord has laid out different paths for different men suitable to their natures. . . .  People of this age care for the essence of everything.  They will accept the essentials of religion and not the non-essentials (that is, the rituals, ceremonials, dogmas and creeds) ."

—Sri Ramakrishna

"The great use of the gods is that they interpret the human heart to us, and help us, while we conceive them, to discover our inmost ambition and, while we emulate them, to pursue it."

—George Santayana
Reason in Religion

General studies of world religion

The serious study of any religion requires a careful reading of its primary texts, preferably in the original language. This, however, is an ideal that few can approach. Almost without exception, the sacred scriptures of the world are cryptic and difficult for the novice to make much sense of. Moreover, everyone will find one or the other of the religions to be of greater interest, but won't know initially where to begin. What's needed, then, is an accessible overview. General studies aim to meet this need, conveying the basic tenets—or beliefs—of each religion at a high level.

Possibly the single best general study of world religion is Huston Smith's fascinating The World's Religions (available in a richly illustrated edition). Smith has the enviable and all-important ability to enter into the world view of each of the religions he discusses and to unerringly identify its motivating concerns and unique contributions. Furthermore, he manages to do this in a minimum of space, and without inspiring a moment of boredom. Smith also provides suggestions for further reading at the end of each chapter.

If, after reading Smith, the reader is motivated to go on to further studies, he will find an overview of the principal sacred texts in Rufus C. Camphausen's "The Divine Library." The scope is considerably wider than Smith's study, including, for example, Mesopotamian and Egyptian belief systems. Camphausen provides a timeline that places the scriptures in their historical context, and goes on to describe each in greater depth. He also provides lists of the principal translations of each in English. A deficiency is that the book doesn't organize the texts by religion well enough to allow the reader to readily grasp the place of each. This could have been remedied with a few charts. Nevertheless, this is an extremely handy reference for the student of world religion.


Popularizations of Ecumenism and Individual Major Religions

Popularizations of the major religions may be a better way to continue than going directly to the sacred texts.

Our preference is for works that are written by authors who are clear and accessible, yet authoritative, and who are sympathetic to the religion being explained, but who stop short of being aggressively evangelical. Nevertheless, they should take into account common objections and misunderstandings, and make the strongest possible case on behalf of the religion in question. These are difficult standards to maintain simultaneously, and not all of the works recommended below can satisfy them. The point or points at which they fall short of this ideal are noted.



Forgotten Truth, Huston Smith

Smith attempts here to distill the valid core of the world's religious wisdom and contrasts this with scientific materialism, which, in Smith's view, is nearly synonymous with "modernity." "what sets us against modernity," says Smith, "is its determination, scientistically derived, to reverse [religious] tradition's premise and explain the more in terms of the less. . . .we noted the inevitable though subtle consequence of this reversal: the more becomes lessened by the etiology. Now, at the book's close, we focus on this consequence itself and say that what sets us against modernity is its demeaning of the human potential." Though full of good material, Smith's book often lapses into speculation for which there is very little satisfactory evidence.


"Were the naturalistic foundations and bearings of religion grasped, the religious element in life would emerge from the throes of the crisis in religion.  Religion would then be found to have its natural place in every aspect of human experience that is concerned with estimate of possibilities, with emotional stir by possibilities as yet unrealized, and with all action in behalf of their realization."

—John Dewey
A Common Faith

Though not a religion in the conventional sense, Humanism is an extremely influential and important belief-system. This link provides a concise overview.




Of the major world religions, Confucianism offers the most to those inclined to a humanistic or rationalistic perspective. The founding figure, Confucius, was himself a humanist and rationalist, and there is little of a supernatural or speculative nature to be found in his writing, or that of his followers. Yet neither do we find a dry or detached approach to life here. What we find instead is an abundance of sensible, practical wisdom, and perceptive insights into human nature and human relationships. The orientation of Confucianism is that of moderate, conscientious, and pragmatic idealism, well-tempered with a deep understanding of human weakness, selfishness, and aggressiveness. The world of the the Confucian is one in which people work, raise families, contend with an all too often corrupt society, nuture their health and understanding, and do their best, in modest ways, to make the world a better place to live.

The single best introduction to Confucianism can be found in the appropriate chapter of Huston Smith's The World's Religions.

Because of the considerable merit and importance of Confucianism we are reviewing five books, as follows:

Confucius in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern

A brisk, rather humorous, and not especially reverent introduction to Confucian thought. A good book to turn to for a quick introduction, but intentionally rather superficial and therefore not a good book for the more serious student. (Interestingly, Smith covers more ground, in greater depth, in less space.)

Some representative quotations from Confucius in 90 Minutes

Simple Confucianism
, C. Alexander & Anellen Simpkins

A little more depth than Strathern's book, but there's less insight here than one might expect from two professional psychologists with a serious interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, and it occasionally lapses into simplistic platitudes.  The book also includes some errors of scholarship. The Simpkins do, however, relate the philosophy of some of the martial arts to Confucianism, an approach not found elsewhere, and also attempt an update of Confucian thought in light of more contemporary views and psychological knowledge.

An Introduction to Confucianism, Xinzhong Yao

This is easily the best of the readily available books on Confucianism. Yao is the Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, and his book is scholarly, insightful, thorough, and up to date without being either dry or boring. His bibliography is the best I know of for those interested in further study. After reading Smith, this would be the single best place to come.

Some representative quotations from An Introduction to Confucianism.

The Analects of Confucius
, translated by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont

This is undoubtedly the best available English translation of The Analects, perhaps the primary work of Confucianism. It is also the most up to date of my knowledge, as it is based on the earliest known version of the book, which only became available in 1997. It includes the original Chinese, for the true scholar, and a most interesting introduction to Chinese thought and the problems of translation. No English-speaking Confucian should be without it.

The Philosophy of the I Ching, by Carol K. Anthony

Confucius was a student of the I Ching, and it is considered to be one of the classic Confucian texts. Originally a tool used in divination, it can be, and still is, consulted by many for insight into life's dilemmas. Ms. Anthony here provides an extremely interesting and provocative account of the philosophical underpinnings of the book, many of which have a strong flavor of Taoism. While Anthony's exposition is sometimes a bit more mystical than a rationalist such as myself would like, it's not offensively or aggressively so. Indeed, as used by Ms. Anthony, the I Ching could be viewed primarily as a tool for accessing the subconscious mind. More importantly, her study is packed with important insights into human psychology and relationships which will be of special value to women. Ms. Anthony has also written three other works concerning the I Ching which I have not yet read. This is probably the best place to come after reading Yao's book. It's very unfortunate that the book has no index.



Given the large number of adherents to Christianity, one might suppose that it presents a more logical argument on its own behalf, or one more in agreement with scientific fact, than the other world religions. However, for most the attraction of Christianity isn't grounded primarily either on logic or scientific evidence, but rather upon strong emotional appeal. Most varieties of Christianity offer a loving, personal God, one who stands ready to intervene in the affairs of everyday life, and to whom one may pray for guidance. For many Christians, this strong emotional appeal is good enough. But the best Christians have understood clearly that emotional appeal is never a sufficient reason to believe in anything (because this sort of appeal can be used to justify belief in anything whatsoever), and have tried to provide a coherent rationale for their beliefs. The Christian popularizer who comes closest to meeting the standards we've proposed above is probably C. S. Lewis. Lewis was intelligent and imaginative, and a gifted communicator who had a good grasp of the issues that lead many people to doubt the truth of Christianity. In his many books, he tried hard to meet those objections.

Lewis does an especially good job when addressing questions of morality, where he can be found making a very clearly reasoned and persuasive case; indeed, perhaps the best reason to read Lewis is because of the logical force of his argument on behalf of morality (see, for example, his exposition in "Mere Christianity"). Yet, strangely enough, when it suited his purposes, Lewis was quite willing to throw in the towel on both reason and evidence. The slippery issue here was his attitude toward "revelation." Because some varieties of Christianity claim to be "bearers of revelation," Lewis thought that we ought to be prepared to embrace in the church "an element that unbelievers will call irrational and believers will call supra-rational. There ought to be something in it opaque to our reason though not contrary to it. . . . If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion."

Readers who are prepared to incorporate in their system of belief things that are "opaque to our reason" will be well satisfied with Lewis. Those who are not, will not be satisfied. In either case, however, the choice that Lewis offers is not quite so simple as he here suggests.  It isn't a matter of a choice between revelation and "standards of prudence and convenience." A third option he didn't anticipate arose late in the course of the last century.

Lewis was a skilled evangelist, perhaps the most skilled of all, and he isn't apologetic about this. Make no mistake: he wants to convert you to Christianity.

[Other religions will be added here.]

On Faith, Revelation, and Reason

The relationship of reason to revelation has proven to be the sticking point on which religion has foundered for two millennia. We think religion is far too important to continue to founder, and that it's therefore about time that it stopped foundering. The solution that we offer follows. (See also the essay linked here.)  We begin with a few insights we believe to be reasonably secure.

1) We think that Smith's argument is right. The "more" cannot be explained entirely in terms of the "less"; indeed, what contemporary science very strongly suggest is that the less acquires many of its characteristics from the more. (For details, see our short essay on emergentism.) To put this another way, reductionistic materialism looks to be false.

2) It appears that belief in God can be neither proven nor disproven conclusively. (For more on this issue, see our review of Mortimer Adler's "How to Think About God" below. )

3) If there is a God, it is quite possible that we cannot entirely understand "his" nature or aims. This is on analogy with the observation that a dog cannot entirely understand the nature or aims of a human being; and that a lizard can hardly be said to have understanding at all, let alone an understanding of the nature and aims of a dog.

Now, in light of these observations, what follows? Revelation, faith, and the "loss of the self in Christ" that Lewis advocates? Or something else entirely?

The answer to these questions depends primarily on the answer to an antecedent question: why do questions about God matter in the first place?

In order to live meaningfully, human beings need, minimally, an understanding of two things: morality and life purpose. Many also turn to religion for an understanding of our relationship to the universe, particularly in two regards: first, they want to understand how there happens to even be a universe and, second, they want to understand the relationship of the self to that universe. This unpacks primarily into four further questions:

1) What is the self?

2) What is the nature of the universe?

3) Does the self have a "mission" with respect to the universe, or is it a kind of accidental by-product — or might it not have a "mission" whether or not it is an accidental by-product?

4) What is the ultimate fate of the self? Disappearance, or continuation on to something else?

These are all difficult questions, and there are essentially two approaches to resolving them. The first relies entirely on evidence and reason. The second relies entirely upon faith. We suggest the following approach: accept nothing on faith that can be determined by reason and evidence. In particular, accept nothing on faith that is in contradiction with reason and evidence. Do not, however, attempt to explain "the more in terms of the less." The best evidence suggests strongly that there is far more to the universe than reductionistic materialism will acknowledge.

On this basis, a fully rational, ecumenical religion could be advanced for the first time in history, one that is free to integrate the best insights of all of the religions, together with all of the insights offered by both philosophy and psychology. A religion of this nature would hold forth the promise of limitless further development, and the most advanced culture that humanity has yet known.

On The Existence and Nature of God

How to Think About God, by Mortimer Adler

Regardless of the religious orientation one ultimately chooses, questions about the existence and nature (if any) of God are almost certain to arise.  As we've noted before, questions of this nature have less relevance to morality and life purpose than is ordinarily assumed.  This is not, however, to say that the question is without interest and importance.

However, if we are to make enquiries of this nature then we will do best if we proceed within the bounds of reason.  (As was noted above, faith can be offered as a ground for belief in anything whatsoever.)  The great virtue of Mortimer Adler's book "How to Think About God" lies precisely in its aim to tell us what its title suggests; that is, he aims to help us to arrive at a coherent way of thinking about God.  And the thrust of this aim is to patiently insist that we think about God in rational terms.  Within such bounds, Adler offers an account of God's nature, and then a proof of God's existence which he believes shows that God's existence is more likely than it is not.  I should say that I wasn't persuaded; but, again, there is real value here in the way that Adler goes about making his case.  Whatever one's beliefs may be, his argument is interesting and thought-provoking.

A point that arises in the course of the book is this:  the God that Adler speaks of clearly is not the God of any of the great religious traditions.  He speaks of the possibility of a bridge, but stops short of offering one.  This suggests either that the religious traditions should amend their views in light of accounts such as that offered by Adler, or else engage thinkers such as Adler and offer a persuasive alternative account. 

In any case, this is a clear and concise work of philosophical theology that anyone seriously interested in questions about God will want to consult. 

(An essay on the structure of a fully rational religion will be offered here at a future time.)