Student's guide to praying all over the world

Atlas of the World's Religions
April 21, 2000

It may be a little bold to turn religion into a coffee-table book, but Ninian Smart and his team of writers seem to have pulled it off. The glossy Atlas of the World's Religions is superbly presented with full-colour illustrations and maps on every page. It also boasts scholarly substance and can stake a claim to being a serious reference work. The book has the major advantage of being one of the first of its type. There are already many well-illustrated one-volume introductions to the world's religions, as well as atlases dealing with particular religions and regions. This volume, however, covers all the world's religious traditions. Given the close ties between religion and place, the format works well. Maps are used to good effect to depict the expansion and decline of world religions; the religious landscape of the world, continents and nations at particular moments in time; movements of ideas and peoples; and locations of important religious sites. Each chapter begins with a brief summary of the religion in question before going on to explore its main characteristics in the context of a broadly historical overview. Illustrations are well chosen and lengthy annotations allow useful digressions on particular topics. The volume contains a reference glossary of religious terms and concepts, a bibliography and a fully cross- referenced geographical index.

Another great strength of the book is its breadth of coverage. It has something to say about almost all the significant religions of human history (and, to a lesser extent, pre-history). It opens with two general sections, "Religion today" and "The historical geography of religion", before going on to deal with each of the main world religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as well as with religions in East Asia, the Pacific and Africa. There are also sections on the Ancient Near East and Europe and on indigenous religions. Each section has a different author (most are British academics), yet style and quality are consistent. The "area" chapters are particularly well done given the breadth of knowledge required, the difficulty of summary and the lack of previous models.

Despite these qualities, and despite its coffee-table format, the book is not wholly  à la mode - in academic terms at least. Rather than deriving from the current state of the discipline, its debts are in some ways to earlier forms of religious studies and (in textual content at least) to an existing stable of textbooks. Though it does not discuss method - an omission unfashionable in itself - the atlas adopts a broadly phenomenological approach by describing in as neutral and sympathetic a manner as possible the various strata of the religions it surveys. Going against the current grain of study, it has a tendency to view religion "from above" rather than "from below", often paying more attention to great figures, ideas and movements than to lived religion: women, for example, receive scant notice and most observations are presented in a gender-neutral fashion. While broader political contexts are often discussed, social and economic ones figure less prominently. Nor does the atlas make any serious attempt to theorise what it describes. In most instances the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions about major issues such as the nature and development of religion and the interaction of various traditions with (for example) western modernity and colonialism.

In short, the book's failure to follow fashion is marked by its concern with the macro rather than the micro. Bird's-eye views and meta-narratives are increasingly "out" in religious studies, while smaller-scale, more detailed studies of local and particular religious communities, texts and traditions are "in". In broader disciplinary terms, we are perhaps seeing something of a shift away from the humanities towards the social sciences. One of the driving forces behind this shift has been a wholly laudable concern to avoid elitism: the elitism of a scholarship concerned only with the doings of "great men"; of an unconsciously orientalist approach that characterised and judged "eastern" religions in western terms; of a method that generalised before engaging with the irreducible particularity of different cultures; of an academy that believed its own judgements and categories to be wholly neutral and objective. Yet in its failure simply to follow fashion the atlas serves as a reminder that much contemporary scholarship can itself appear elitist to those who are beginning study and who still require broad outlines, sweeping statements and clarity of expression. For such readers - the A-level student, the undergraduate, the general reader and the specialist in one tradition who wishes to know more about others - this volume will prove an excellent tool.

Linda Woodhead is senior lecturer in religious studies, University of Lancaster.

Atlas of the World's Religions

Editor - Ninian Smart
ISBN - 0 19 866235 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 240

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