I initially read this engaging and erudite book about the world’s predominant faiths many years ago, but I felt like a refresher, and, just like the first time around, I found myself humbled by the realisation of how much I didn’t know. In truth, it would probably take me a few more readings to fully absorb the dense layers of information presented here, but you’re still left with a decent understanding of the world’s main religions even if you can’t hold on to all the points.
When it comes to God and religion, while technically I was baptised in the tradition of Russian Orthodox faith, I’ve pretty much vacillated between being an on-the-fence agnostic and full-on atheist. I wouldn’t really describe myself as a spiritual person, either, unless you count the belief in transcendence found in great art as spiritual. But whatever your personal stance may be, you could never deny the tremendous significance that religion played throughout the millennia of human history, or the continuing yearning of humans to somehow connect with a higher spiritual realm.
Smith’s book sheds light on the teachings and traditions of (in the order of appearance) Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and features a special last chapter devoted to the tribal religions of the world. My personal list (in the order of increasing ignorance) would probably have run something like, Christianity – Judaism – Islam – Buddhism – Hinduism – Confucianism – Taoism. Though Eastern religions make for the biggest knowledge gap that the book helped fill for me, I felt that even the chapter on Christianity had something new and startling to offer.
In the preface, Smith carefully sets out what his book is and is not. He freely admits that it’s a view of religions as seen from the modern Western perspective. It is not comprehensive – with only so many pages to devote to each religion, it’s impossible to avoid a selective approach. Since Smith is primarily interested in the ideas and values rather than institutions or history, the historical facts and figures are kept to the minimum. You won’t learn in detail about the Protestant Reformation in the chapter on Christianity, for instance, or the divisions between Sunni and Shia Islam. Though there are still occasional bits of amusing trivia scattered throughout. For instance, when Prince Vladimir, the ruler of Kievan Rus, went shopping for a new religion to replace Slavic paganism, he supposedly gave Islam a pass because of its restrictions on alcohol. Imagine Russia without vodka.
Another honest warning is that the book doesn’t dwell on the dark and unsavoury side of religion – bloodshed and holy wars, persecution and witch hunts – and seeks instead to present the best that the different religions can offer to the humankind. To be frank, at times this desire to see the best can come off as irritatingly apologist, but there’s also no denying that Smith’s generous, enthusiastic and sympathetic approach is very appealing. You get the sense that he genuinely strives to give equal respect and attention to every religion, and extract its essence in the clearest and most accessible way. It’s not by any means a light reading, but The World’s Religions is never too dry or textbook-like, though I found its opening chapter on Hinduism probably the most challenging to absorb.