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Most university Religion departments offer first year courses with titles such as “World Religions.” These usually present lectures about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three major Western Religions; and Hinduism and Buddhism, the principal religions of the East. Why are there only courses in these, and not others discussing the roughly 8000 religions said to flourish in the world today?

The term “world religions,” to be sure, refers to the fact that certain religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, though of specific ethnic origins, are now globally widespread. These are “missionary religions,” that is to say, religions which engage in proselytizing. Judaism and Hinduism, on the other hand, are ethnic, and while both also occasionally engage in missionary activity, this is very limited. However, because these five so-called “world religions” (inaccurately including Judaism and Hinduism) claim the overwhelming majority of the world population, they are appropriately the religions of choice in first-year, general courses offered by Religion departments.

In the past, many “comparative religions” textbooks had beginning chapters entitled “Primitive Religions” which dealt with the traditions of native peoples throughout the world under broad headings such as “totemism,” “animism,” “polytheism,”and “magic.” Sometimes all such religions were lumped into a single category labelled “Paganism.” These categories were based on the pioneer studies of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ethnologists such as E. B. Tylor and James George Frazer who were among those who invented these categories. The notion of “primitive” religion has been long since discarded, as have terms such as “primitive” itself, as well as “savage” and “barbarian.” These early terms were highly pejorative and were based on the racist bigotry of the times. They were also highly inaccurate, and reflected a superficial acquaintance with the religions concerned. Anyone who has attended a Dakota sun dance, has any acquaintance with Hopi kachinas, or has studied the Hawaiian creation myth called the Kumulipo discovers that such religions can be fully as profound and complex as Christianity or Hinduism. The deeper one penetrates into the depths of any one religious tradition, the more one is impressed by its subtlety and spirituality.

During the twentieth century, such discoveries by scholars specializing in the study of religion impressed them with the universality of religions. All faiths seemed to be ways to the center, paths to salvation which, at heart, were similar. Therefore, all religions were concerived to be “true” religions when properly understood. While this attitude of appreciation is enhanced today, scholars in more recent years once more tend to be impressed with the differences among the world religions, the uniqueness of each. As a consequence, the term “comparative religions” gave way a number of years ago to “the history of religions,” emphasizing the precise study of particular faiths based on close examination of their sacred texts and oral traditions.

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