Why on earth would anyone write yet another introduction to world religions and produce a open educational resources website to go with it? In the course of writing the book and working on the websiteI have asked myself this question many times. The reasons is, however, fairly simple. I was dissatisfied with existing Religious Studies texts which tend to be rather antiseptic works written on the basis of a 1960’s Star Trek form of cultural relativism that is frankly dull. Like Captain Kirk and his crew, their authors appear to feel mandated to observe religious traditions without offering criticisms of any except Christianity. Such an approach attempts to present “the facts” as neutrally as possible, but it fails to stimulate discussion or challenge the prejudices of students about real issues. Therefore, this book attempts to go beyond mere description to introduce students to the type of controversy that I believe lies at the heart of all healthy academic pursuits.
This website and the associated book follows the example of Rodney Stark’s one time best selling Sociology (1992) which presents theories and issues in the context of real academic disputes. It also takes its cue from Walter Kaufmann’s equally stimulating Religion in Four Dimensions (1976). The rationale behind this approach is to draw students into the study of religion and religions by addressing issues that capture their imaginations.
When my Concise Dictionary of Religion first appeared in 1993, various reviewers praised it for its objectivity. Nevertheless, some reviewers worried that it was “opinionated.” William M. Johnston saw the logic of my approach as a teaching technique when he wrote, “More than most reference book writers, Hexham fans controversy … this introduction to persons and concepts sparkles, particularly in classroom use. No other glossary combines range, incisiveness and outspokenness so dexterously … This glossary shows how a reference work can voice dissent without sacrificing rigor.”
I believe that while individuals who belong to different religions may be good people, religious teachings may be evil. Therefore, papering over controversial issues simply opens the door for critics like Christopher Hitchens, the author of God is not Great (2007), and groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation who fault scholars of religion for their lack of common sense. One may strongly disagree with Hitchens and his colleagues, such as Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins the author of The God Delusion (2006), who together form a group of highly critical writers promoting what is often called the “new atheism,” (see Wired Magazine, 14:11, November 2006). But one cannot deny that they make some interesting points.
From experience I know that students are far more likely to take an issue seriously and become fascinated by a topic if they are presented with different opinions that challenge their way of thinking or the work of other academics. Bland approaches produce bland students. Therefore, when I present controversial topics or points of view that are normally ignored by introductory texts, I am not necessarily presenting my own views. What I am doing on this website and in the book is presenting ideas and arguments that I believe will stimulate debate and draw students into serious discussions about the study of religion. For more information about how I think about these topics please read the book's introduction from which what I have said so far is taken.
From what has been said it should be clear that Understanding World Religions is an academic website devoted to the study of religion and religions. It is designed to help students understand and appreciate historic religious traditions as well as new religious movements. The aim is to encourage the study of the great religions traditions. These include Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and various Indian traditions such as those of the Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. African religions, which are almost totally ignored by most religious studies textbooks, and courses are included as one of the great religious traditions of the world. Other features will include sections on secularism and rationalist traditions as well as one on what many scholars identify as “political religions.” New religions and new religious movements, which are often called “sects,” or “cults,” such as the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unification Church, are also to be included. Two major perspectives inform the selection of material on the site:
First, as a professor of Religious Studies, and student of Ninian Smart, I believe that "understanding precedes criticism." Therefore, every effort is made to represent various religions as accurately as possible. In other words when someone belonging to a particular religion, group, cult, sect, new or contemporary religious movement, reads anything I write about their religion they ought to be able to recognize their own movement in my description. Consequently, when I add links to the Understanding World Religions Website I look for other sites which show a similar approach and clearly identify sites which do not, i.e. those that set out to criticize other religions without necessarily attempting a fair presentation of the views of their followers. Further, I believe that the quest for truth is an important academic enterprise to which all scholars ought to be committed.
Here the question of objectivity is important. Contrary to many academics today, I believe that striving for objectivity is an important goal. No one is entirely objective. We all have our biases, but bias must be distinguished from prejudice. A bias informs a person's outlook on the basis of their birth, education, and life experience. It cannot be escaped, but it can be spelt out so that others are able make allowance for any distortion the bias creates. A prejudice involves an unquestioned commitment to one's own viewpoint as the only possible viewpoint, the refusal to consider that one might be wrong, and a disrespect for other viewpoints. We all have biases, but we need not be prejudiced. Therefore, objectivity remains the elusive goal of all academic activity.
To this end I follow the example of social anthropologists, like my wife Karla Poewe. They have a tradition of writing autobiographical accounts, or publishing their fieldnotes, to allow readers of their academic works to understand the circumstances surrounding their research and decided for themselves what biasis, or indeed prejudices, are at play. This is an excellent idea which I believe ought to be followed by all academics working in interpretive fields like History or Religious Studies. Therefore, I have always followed the practice of publishing my cv and list of publications as well as making other information about myself available when appropriate. To this end I have started a personal Blog. You can also see what else I have published and/or read my academic c.v.
A second perspective that informs both the book and website is that they are written for people with Christian backgrounds. This is not to say that the readers need be Christian to appreciate them. Rather, I assume that the majority of readers grew up in a culture deeply influenced by the Christian tradition and history. Therefore, I write for people who have some familiarity with Christianity even if they are not practicing Christians.
At the same time, in the interest of helping others evaluate my work, in needs to be said that I am a Christian, to be more exact I am an Anglican evangelical, who believes in the truth of historic Christianity. This also means that as a Christian, I believe that truth is important and that Christians, like academics, have a duty to seek truth wherever it may be found. Therefore, as a Christian scholar, I attempt to understand before offering a Christian perspective on religious beliefs other than my own.
Because there is a growing prejudice against Christians, and anyone who identifies as one today, it is perhaps worth saying something about my background. I am one of the few evangelical Christian scholars who lives and works in both the secular academic community and Christian community. Currently I am Full Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary which is a secular institution. I am also Adjunct Professor of World Christianity at Liverpool Hope University which is one of the few Christian universities within the British State higher education system. More can be found out about me in:
Ulrich van der Heyden, and Andreas Feldtkeller. Border Crossings : Explorations of an Interdisciplinary Historian: Festschrift for Irving Hexham, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 2008, which contains 26 English and 6 German essays. You can also look at my rather incomplete autobiographical blogs.
To cut a long story short, I was born in Whitehaven, Cumberland, England, and spent my childhood in various parts of the north of England. I left school at 15 to serve a six-year apprenticeship in gas fitting. After its completion I worked as a manager and later lecturer in gas technology for the North Western Gas Board in Manchester, England.
When I was eighteen years old I experienced an evangelical conversion through the open air preaching of Val Grieve and the Cheadle Parish Church youth group. Contact with this active evangelical Anglican Church radically changed my life since none of the people I worked with made any pretense of being Christian. Shortly, after my conversion, Billy Graham came to Manchester and I participated in the Greater Manchester Crusade (1961). My attempt to interest a manager in attending the meetings led him to recommend that the Gas Board send me on an apprentice exchange to Berlin, Germany, organized by the Manchester Industrial Captaincy. This experience brought me face to face with both communism and non-evangelical forms of Christianity. As a result I started reading Christian apologetics.
My search for solutions to the intellectual problems I encountered led me to contact Clark Pinnock, who was a junior lecturer at Manchester University. Through Clark I was introduced to Francis Schaeffer and the L’Abri Fellowship. Encouraged by both Pinnock and Schaeffer, I entered the University of Lancaster in 1967 to read for a degree in Religious Studies which both of them saw as an emerging crisis area for Christians.
From Lancaster I went to Bristol University where I wrote his M.A. thesis on New Age thought in Glastonbury (1971). This was the first British thesis on new religious movements and the first on the New Age in Europe or North America. My Ph.D. (1975) dealt with the origins of the ideology of apartheid and the relationship between Calvinism and Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa. From then I began my academic career teaching first at Bishop Lonsdale College, Derby, England, Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. Canada, the University of Manitoba, and finally the University of Calgary where I work today
Finally, it should be noted that unlike many secular colleagues and others I do not believe that all religions or religious beliefs and practices are necessarily good. Nor do I think that scholars have a duty to embrace something just because someone sincerely believes it to be true. The duty of both the academic and the Christian is to raise critical questions and to continually seek fuller understanding. When such questions and understanding leads us to the conclusion that members of a religious group hold beliefs which are dangerous to others, or even evil, as in the case of certain new religions in Germany during the 1930's, then it is our duty say so loud and clear.
Irving Hexham, B.A. (Hons), M.A., PhD., FRAI, FRHistS
Professor, University of Calgary