What counts as 'world religions' and how do we engage or promote this category in the academic study of religion. Join James Cox and David G. Robertson as they unpack this category.

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About this episode

There can’t be many listeners who haven’t come into contact with the “World Religions” paradigm, either through the podcast or in their own undergraduate studies. The idea that we can classify religious traditions into a hierarchical schema goes back to the earliest days of anthropology and sociology. Although, C. P. Tiele defined “World Religions” as those which had spread outside of their original cultural context, today the term is taken to mean the “Big Five” — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Frequently this is complimented by Indigenous Religions and New Religious Movements. Yet despite the fact that this approach originated in the Victorian era under the influence of colonialism, it is still the dominant framework in pedagogical approaches to the study of religions.

Yet this categorisation assumes a number of problematic criteria. Most obviously, it favours “traditions”, and especially those which have straddled more than one ethnicity. Secondly, there’s an implicit weighting towards religions with books, temples, founders and other things which can be easily quantised – and perhaps not coincidentally, like Christianity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it assumes that “religion” is a thing which can be recognised and catalogued, and not a term which is mostly concerned with the exercise of power, as scholars such as Chidester, Asad and McCutcheon have argued. Is the World Religions paradigm, then, as Max Müller argued, simply how “the vast domain of religion must be parcelled out”? Or, as Terry Thomas put it, is it less a case of “know thy enemy” as “know thy trading partner”? To discuss this important issue, we were delighted to invite back Professor James Cox.

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