The study of world religions has a troubled history.

In early modern Europe, explorers, missionaries, and colonial agents returned from their exploits with startling observations about non-European people. Many of the earliest accounts commented on the apparent absence of religion in the Americas, Australia, Asia, and Africa. In his Mundus Novus (1504–05), the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci claimed to have found a people without religious beliefs, practices, or institutions: “Beyond the fact that they have no church, no religion, and are not idolaters, what can I say?” Farther south, and a few decades later (1553), the Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León reported that the indigenous people of the northern Andes “observ[e] no religion at all, as we understand it, nor is there any house of worship to be found.” Similar reports of people without religion made their way to Europe from the Pacific Islands, Australia, and Africa.

It was not long, however, before Europeans began to “discover” religion among non-European people. Accounts of religious beliefs and practices proliferated. Back in Europe, scholars gathered these accounts and began to arrange taxonomies of the religious beliefs and practices of the world. The earliest taxonomies identified four religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and paganism. As more and more information reached Europe about Asian religions and the indigenous traditions around the globe, the fourth category expanded and, eventually, divided to include such religions as “Boudhism,” “Hindooism,” and “Confucianism.” In creating and refining these taxonomies, the goal of scholars was to turn the study of religion into a science.

Taxonomies of world religions were often mapped onto developmental histories of human civilization, with religions hierarchically ordered from the most primitive to the most advanced. The terms of comparison were based on Christian assumptions about what religion was. Not surprisingly, Christianity came out looking like the purest example of religious expression. Imagine if botanists derived the definition of fruit from their knowledge of apples, and then applied that definition to all the other fruit they came across. A kiwi might taste good, but it makes for a bad apple.

The effects of all of this were significant. The raw data for the comparative study of religion in Europe came from the observations of travelers, missionaries, and colonialists, many of whom viewed indigenous people as less civilized than themselves. Europeans’ initial assumption that non-European people lacked religion, followed by their claim that the other world religions were inferior forms, supported these biases and gave pseudo-scientific cover to European imperialism.

This history is well documented in the work of David Chidester, Tomoko Masuzawa, Jonathan Z. Smith, and other historians of religion. As a result, many contemporary scholars of religion are cautious about the idea of “world religions.” As Masuzawa argued in her influential book The Invention of World Religions, Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (2005), the legacy of this history haunts the term “world religion,” which seems to presume that people’s radically diverse beliefs and practices are different instances of the same universal thing. Nevertheless, the need for understanding those beliefs and practices seems as urgent as ever.

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Enter The Norton Anthology of World Religions, which aims to let “six major, living, international religions speak to readers in their own words.” This new anthology contains more than a thousand primary texts from Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with extensive background information provided by accessible introductions, annotations, glossaries, pictures, maps, and timelines. Like many of the other anthologies in the W. W. Norton & Company library, the Norton Anthology of World Religions is designed for use in a college classroom but is likely to become a valuable resource for readers of all sorts.

Unlike the religious taxonomies and encyclopedias of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, the Norton Anthology of World Religions makes no claim to comprehensiveness. Such traditions as Sikhism, Jainism, Shinto, and indigenous African and American religions are recognized but not anthologized here. Nor does the anthology define “religion”—or any one of the six traditions represented in it. In a masterful introduction to the anthology, the general editor Jack Miles (the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of God: A Biography) explains:

A good many scholars of religion decline to define the essence of religion itself but do not find themselves inhibited by that abstention from saying a great deal of interest about one religious tradition or another. Rather than monolithically name at the outset the one feature that establishes the category religion before discussing the particular religion that interests them, they make the usually silent assumption that the full range of beliefs and practices that have conventionally been thought of as religious is vast and that each religion must be allowed to do as it does, assembling its subsets from the vast, never-to-be-fully-enumerated roster of world religious practices. Having made that assumption, the scholars take a deep breath and go on to talk about what they want to talk about.

We must, Miles insists, “begin where we are, with the language available to us.”

While Miles, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, situates the anthology in the complicated history of the comparative study of religion, he notes that its goal is not to define, categorize, or compare these six traditions. Readers looking for pithy characterizations of these religions will not find them. The anthology’s goal is to present the variety of practices within and among them, and “to present through texts how this variety has developed and how the past continues to shape the present.” The diversity of the texts and traditions included in the anthology strain universal theories and definitions of religion. “The texts gathered here,” Miles writes, “constitute the empirical evidence that any such theory [of religion] must cope with.”

Miles is joined by six section editors: David Biale (Judaism), Lawrence S. Cunningham (Christianity), Wendy Doniger (Hinduism), Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Buddhism), Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Islam), and James Robson (Daoism). The section editors have included texts that range from the foundational to the heretical. In the Christianity section, for example, readers will find familiar texts from the Bible and church fathers. Together with the prophets, apostles, and saints, however, are a mass of poets and mystics, rationalists and Romantics, even skeptics. There are apocryphal gospels. There are literary texts—from the Canterbury Tales to Emily Dickinson’s poems—nestled into the context of the religious tradition that shaped and informed them. There is Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian.” There are arguments for non-violence alongside Reinhold Niebuhr’s theological argument against Christian pacifism. Although the section introductions and headnotes contextualize the texts, it is left up to the reader to draw her own conclusions about what constitutes the tradition. (The editor of this section, Lawrence S. Cunningham, wrote Commonweal’s Religion Booknotes column for more than twenty years.)

Doniger’s introduction to the Hinduism section makes this non-essentialism explicit. She suggests that readers ought to think of Hinduism as a cluster of belief, practices, and traditions. “Not every Hindu will believe in all the ideas or follow all the practices, but each Hindu will adhere to some combination of them, as a non-Hindu would not.” Doniger’s picture of Hinduism is what she calls a Zen diagram, “a Venn diagram that has no central ring”:

Among the many advantages of the cluster approach is the fact that it does not endorse any single authoritative view of what Hinduism is; it allows them all. The diversity of the tradition, however, as well as the sheer mass of available texts, means that any anthology of Hinduism will involve a selection so drastic as to be inevitably subjective, though not necessarily arbitrary.

Doniger presents a collection of texts that ranges from the Upanishads, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita to the modern poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and A. K. Ramanujan. Her Zen diagram of Hinduism may be provocative—as when an excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which imagines the special powers of the children born in a hopeful India at the moment of its independence from the British Empire, is followed by the Hindu nationalist Purushottam Nagesh Oak’s “attempt to rewrite Indian history in support of an anti-Muslim agenda” in Taj Mahal: The True Story.

The Daoism section is remarkable for other reasons. While two foundational pre-Daoist texts, the Daode jing (“The Scripture of the Way and Its Virtue”) and the Zhuangzi (“Book of Master Zhuang”), have been available and widely read outside China for centuries, the vast majority of Daoism’s eleven hundred canonical texts were unavailable, even to scholars in China. Following the 1926 reprinting of a copy of the 1445 Ming Dynasty canon, these texts made their way to scholars in China and around the world. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Daoist practice is now recovering from more than a century of repression. The Norton Anthology of World Religions presents the most extensive collection of canonical Daoist texts available to nonspecialists. Robson, the section editor, also includes a range of texts that show how ideas about Daoism have been reflected and refracted in Western imaginations, from George Harrison’s “The Inner Light” to RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan’s The Wu-Tang Manual.

The other three sections—on Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam—share this wide range. Once again, these religions’ foundational texts are matched with centuries’ worth of interpretation, application, and argumentation over what those early texts mean in a changing world. An image in the Judaism section captures this approach. Four photographs of Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem are placed side by side. The first shows Israeli soldiers at the Wall at the end of the Six Day War, “embodying the intersection of secular nationalism and religious memory.” The second shows an Orthodox man holding his cell phone against the Wall, transmitting a prayer from afar. The third shows members of Women of the Wall, defying restrictions against women wearing prayer shawls and reading from the Torah at the Wall. The fourth is an early twentieth-century photograph of men and women praying together. Here, as elsewhere, the section editors are intent on displaying the diversity and disagreement internal to each tradition and, in the process, dislodging readers’ assumptions about what these religions are about.

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The texts in each section are presented chronologically. Beyond the chronological order, each editor has organized the texts at his or her discretion. There are no unifying themes. That decision was consistent with Miles’s insistence that there would be no preliminary definition of religion or assumptions about what these religions have in common. He writes that “the only assumptions made are that the most populous and influential of the world’s religions are here to stay, that they reward study best when speaking to you in their own words, and that their contemporary words make best sense when heard against the panoramic background of the worlds they have remembered and preserved from their storied pasts.”

Generally, this is a good approach. Occasionally, it is frustrating. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many of these traditions have grappled with similar issues—often in conversation with or response to one another. King’s non-violent resistance to racial domination was influenced by Gandhi’s idea of satyagraha. In the Hinduism section, the headnote for Gandhi’s essay “The Gospel of Selfless Action” mentions his admiration for Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You and the Qu’ran in translation, but the reader has to work to make these connections. An index of themes that cut across traditions would make their work easier.

Moreover, while the Judaism and Islam sections group texts that address women’s engagement with and critique of these traditions, the Christianity section does not. Nor does it include any of the most influential feminist, womanist, or mujerista contributions to modern Christian thought and practice. This is another place where the discretion of the section editors may leave readers scratching their heads.

Nevertheless, The Norton Anthology of World Religions is a bold and important work. It is likely to launch new debates about world religions. To teachers and students, believers and skeptics alike, it offers texts that will illuminate, challenge, and provoke. It gathers the voices—small and still, clamorous, harmonious, cacophonous—and asks its readers to listen.

Take a deep breath. Let’s begin.

Published in the June 1, 2015 issue: 

Molly Farneth is assistant professor of religion at Haverford College. Her book Hegel’s Social Ethics will be published by Princeton University Press in summer 2017.

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