This RSP Remix answers the question "What is the world religions paradigm?" with an abridged version of our 2013 interview with James Cox.

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A transcript for this episode is available below

About this episode

What is the world religions paradigm? In this RSP Remix, David McConeghy presents an abridged version of David Robertson’s 2013 interview with James Cox. Cox explains how the world religions paradigm came to be the dominant model for teaching undergraduates comparative religion, and he offers an introduction to a few of the strongest critique of this model. These critiques include the paradigm’s essentialism as well as its emergence as a tool of colonialism and imperialism. Reducing the original episode to 20 minutes presents a great opportunity for this conversation to be employed in more classrooms. If you would like to see other RSP Remixes on specific topics or questions, reach out to us on our social media accounts and let us know!

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The World Religions Paradigm: An RSP Remix [transcript]

The World Religions Paradigm: An RSP Remix

Presented by David McConeghy (22 November 2021)

Includes clips from the following previous episodes:
– “The World Religions Paradigm”, featuring James L. Cox interviewed by David G. Robertson

Transcribed by Jacob Noblett

Audio and transcript available at:


World Religions Paradigm, Essentialism, Colonialism, Imperialism, world religions, Study of Religion

David McConeghy (DM)  00:00

For many students, the only college course about religion that they will take is a survey course called Religions of the World, or maybe World Religions. For instructors, one of the questions about designing and teaching courses like these is: how do we define the world religions? What makes them worldly? What counts as religion? What kind of model is it that we can use to talk about religions that may appear in vastly different contexts around the world? 

DM  00:36

In our second season of The Religious Studies Project back in 2013, we interviewed James Cox, who walked listeners through what the World Religions Paradigm is and some of the ways in which it has been challenged by scholars working within religious studies as insufficient to describe the complexity and diversity of religions around the world. Scholars today recognize that the World Religions Paradigm, the lens through which we see religions around the world, and by which we decide what counts is religion, is a product of colonialism and a product of imperialism. Then we need to understand the context out of which this model appeared. 

DM  1:24

Today’s episode is a remix, a cut of the initial episode of David Robertson speaking with James Cox about the World Religions Paradigm, and we’ve reduced the length of that conversation from 50 minutes down to a manageable 20. We hope that this allows for greater use of this object in the classroom, and we thank you for listening today.

David Robertson (DR)  1:50

So, a big subject. I think as usual, we should start with asking the simple question: “What is the World Religions Paradigm?”

James Cox (JC)  2:00

Well, thanks, David. Obviously, a paradigm is a model or a pattern for anything at all, like an architectural design. So, the World Religions Paradigm is a pattern or model for how religions have been categorized, classified, studied, and taught; probably in the main and the Western universities to begin with, and then spread to other parts of the world, including Africa. 

JC  2:28

The idea of the World Religions Paradigm is that we can classify or categorize religions, according to their main beliefs, their main historical development, their scriptures, their founders; and put them into sort of one general or generic category. Classically, the world religions have been identified as religions of geographical areas, so Asia, North America, Europe, South America, Africa, and so on. These have then been put into the main categories of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, sometimes Zoroastrianism (in Britain, it’s very common), Sikhism is one of the main big six religions as they call it. Chinese religions, Taoism, Confucianism; so, when I first started teaching world religions, these are the categories that are used. 

JC  3:37

Now the problem that we have with the World Religions Paradigm is that it conveys to students that these religions or these classifications are self-contained, sometimes stagnant, quite discrete one from the other, and very much intellectually presented. So normally, in textbooks to deal with world religions, there will be a system or a section which deals with the historical background of the development of these religions. You might have what happened in the early Indian period, when the development of the so-called “Dravidians“ in the South were sort of affected by the Aryans. Also, how the development of this term “Hinduism,” which has to do with the Indus Valley, came about. 

JC  4:34

The problem with this is that when I taught world religions, using the textbooks, what we used to do, for example, with Hinduism, was to say things like “well, the main thing about Hinduism is contained, for example, in the idea of the Brahman/Atman unity.” So we said to students, “Hindus believe that there’s this great world spirit called Brahma, which is beyond our comprehension, and yet it is located inside the deepest part of the human being called the Atman, or the self. The individual self and the universal self are united in the Brahman/Atman.” We taught this as Hinduism. Now, I suspect, if you go to almost any place in India, and go on the ground to a temple and say, “yes, the Brahman/Atman unity is what your religion is about;” they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

DR  5:32

They might argue with the term “religion,” and even the term “Hinduism.”

JC  5:37

Well, absolutely. The point is that you have these “isms” that have been developed, and we teach them or have taught them, many of the textbooks have the same way, taught them according to these rather Westernized, intellectual elitist ideas. Now, if you take the idea that these religions are discrete, that is, separate from one another, they can be classified in terms that follow certain descriptions derived largely from a Western Christian interpretation, and we can see how they developed. 

JC  6:22

What is the belief? What are the main beliefs of these religions? Usually, then there are questions about their beliefs about God. How do they conceive the ultimate? Then, there are questions about how they practice this in terms of their authoritative sources, and usually there will be scriptural traditions. Traditions that have scriptures and doctrines or beliefs, then, sometimes but not always, founders were important. Then, you get into certain things like rituals, but those presented less significance, I think, than the main historical founders, doctrines, scriptures. 

JC  7:09

I’m speaking here, of course, stereotypically about the way religions tend to be studied under the World Religions Paradigm. We have these main religions that are identified and are somehow discrete from one another. They are defined in terms of concerns that are typically Western, Christianized ways of looking at religion, and then imposed as if students and scholars and other people in the general public, that this is what we mean by the terms “religion” and “world religions.” The other thing about the term “world religions” suggests also, and I think this is a point that’s made by Jonathan Z. Smith in his book Map Is Not Territory, that the dominant idea of religions being defined by Western concerns relates to issues of power. This means that the religions which interacted with Western religions became those of concern to Western scholars.

DR  8:19

You mentioned the colonial context with the third of what Terry Thomas called the “mixed motives” behind the World Religions Paradigm, the theological context. We’ve touched on that already, when you talked about how we defined these world religions in terms of founders, beliefs, gods and philosophical systems. Maybe you could elaborate slightly on the kind of theological presuppositions that came into the model.

JC  8:51

Yes. What often is referred to with respect to the theological interpretation is a term bantered around called “essentialism.” It’s an idea based on a kind of liberal theological perspective. It was liberal theologians who were interpreting comparative religion like Teal for example. What we have with the idea is that there is some universal core, some sort of transcendental source which all human beings somehow tap into and express in various localized, culturally relevant ways. The idea of many, as Tomoko Masuzawa says in her book, The Invention of World Religions, that many of her students in North America still to this day go into studies of religion courses because they believe that they’re just various ways up the mountain, where it’s all to the very same end and from the same source. 

JC  10:03

The idea of world religions as it’s often interpreted by certain liberal, theologically-inclined scholars, even if they’re religious scholars like [Mircea] Eliade, who has the idea of the sacred, the unknown and unknowable, which he got from Rudolf Otto, who was a theologian. You have the idea that there’s this core, this essence, this source of religion. What we do then, when we study religions, is study the way in which it manifests itself and makes itself known in all sorts of different ways. If I studied, for example, an African religion in Zimbabwe on this model, I would be studying the way in which this localized culture was tapping into the common source of all religiosity experienced by humans everywhere, and that is, in some senses, a veiled surreptitious theology. 

JC  11:06

Now, for example, let me just refer to Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in is book, The Meaning and End of Religion, which was published, I think, first in 1963, or ‘62, criticized the term “religion.” He thought it was a reified, objectified, impersonal term which grew out of the Western Enlightenment, and invented by Western thinkers who wanted to create this thing called religion, into which, as we developed in the 19th and early 20th century, you can fit all the various religions of the world. His argument was that at the core of what we now call “religion,” is personal faith, piety, devotion, or some sort of experiential element. 

JC  12:05

This has now been taken out by the increasing objectification and intellectual studies of religion, to reify it. It is an object. We study not Hindus, or people who live in India who practice and experience religion in certain ways. We study Hinduism, not people who live in China or in parts of Southeast Asia and so on, who might practice variations of what we mean by Buddhism. We study Buddhism, and perhaps you’re different forms of it, like Mahayana or Theravada, but you study it as an object. Cantwell Smith was trying to critique this notion, that you had religion and objectified religions and so on, by inserting the personal faith element into it, and the idea that we can somehow only understand religion if we can penetrate the personal faith of the adherent or the believer. 

JC  13:19

The problem, of course, for Cantwell Smith, as for anybody who studies religious experience, is penetrating it. Penetrating personal, private experience is very difficult, if not impossible to do. Cantwell Smith admitted this. Personal faith is entirely personal, but it manifests itself. We can see it, we can observe it, we can somehow describe it. Then, we can classify it according to descriptions that can be compared.

DR  13:57

So, what’s the relationship between the World Religions Paradigm and the establishment of religious studies as a discipline?

JC  14:05

The first religious studies department of its kind, as we know it today in the United Kingdom, was founded in Ibadan, Nigeria. In 1949, Geoffrey Parrinder, who became then the professor of comparative religion at King’s College in London, was one of the first lecturers in religious studies in Ibadan, Nigeria. What Parrinder did was to develop the idea of comparing various religions. He had a discussion or study of Africa’s three religions: Christianity, Islam, and ATR or African traditional religions; but he taught them in a way that is exactly what we mean by the World Religions Paradigm. 

JC  14:14

Islam is a religion. It’s discreet, self-contained, has its own history, its boundary scriptures, and so on. Christianity is the same, and African traditional religion. Notice, in the singular, is also taught in a way that examines things like its beliefs about gods or God, actually, God, the Supreme Being. Then, you have power, spirits, rituals, activities, even demons, evil spirits, and that sort of thing; witchcraft, all of which fall under these categories or classifications whereby we can compare and study. So it was a comparative study, indeed.

DR  15:33

To go back to Parrinder for a minute, the World Religions Paradigm was used in an apparently more benign way, in what you may call the post-colonial period, as our understanding of indigenous traditions improved. Would that be fair to say?

JC  15:55

Well, the post-colonial critique, for example, David Chidester, in his book Savage Systems, outlines the history of the study of religion in South Africa, and how religion became a tool for the oppressor. First, the African had no religion, because it was convenient, then to have no religion They didn’t have churches, they didn’t have scriptures, they didn’t have anything that they would call religion, in a Western Christian sense. 

JC  16:34

After that, then what’s quite interesting in Chidester’s critique, I think, is the awareness and the recognition amongst the South African colonialists that there really was religion, and this religion, then, and this also could be put to certain Christian African leaders, this religion could be accommodated into Christianity. It could be used, in a sense, as a tool to make those that had been colonized very much fitted into the whole concept of what it means to be a good citizen, respectable as a kind of participant in society. Once they are accommodated into Western ways and can be Christianized, or at least fitted into a Christian ethical framework is, in fact, very degrading to the indigenous people. 

JC  17:45

What we need to do in this case is to discover the values. What are the highest aspirations, and the best elements of these pre-Christian religions? What do we find? What do we find? We find they believe in a Supreme Being. They all believe in God, and this God is a creator god. This God, well, strangely resembles the Christian God. In this sense, the indigenous people have become acceptable. Yes, because they are not just like us, but close enough to us to be accepted by us. Then, all we need to do now is make a little shift from the pre-Christian religions, in order to make them somehow acceptable, and the values that they saw were very, very reminiscent of Christian values. 

JC  18:47

This is another way in which I got on the African example, but we could do this also in India. You have this same thing happening in other parts of the world, where the Christianization process is a process which has very much to do with colonial power and colonial imposition of a worldview which has already been existing. I think religion was used as an instrument of power as part of the post-colonial critique. We see it in some of Parrinder, or you see it operating in what seemed to be enormously docile and non-harmful, quite sympathetic ways. In a way, it’s the worst kind of treatment, because rather than saying we value your traditions in their own right, we only value them insofar as they conform to our values.

Citation Info:

McConeghy, David. 2021. “The World Religions Paradigm: An RSP Remix”, Featuring James L. Cox and David G. Robertson, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 22 November 2021. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 22 November 2021. Available at:

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