Educated People Need To Understand Religious Worldviews

It isn’t very often that I find myself emphatically agreeing with a theologian, but that is precisely what happened when I read the following passages. These are huge chunks cited from Walter Capps. who unfortunately doesn’t provide adequate footnoting himself, but I am sure that if you want to find the sources for these quotations I could help you out.

Here we go:

“John Hick […] has pointedly expressed what many others have suspected all along: that a person’s religious preferences are heavily influenced by personal biographical circumstances. Hick stated it plainly: “in the great majority of cases, the religion in which a person believes and to which he adheres depends upon where he was born.” He explains:

If someone is born to Muslim parents in Egypt or Pakistan, that person is very likely to be a Muslim; if to Buddhist parents in Sri Lanka or Burma, that person is very likely to be a Buddhist; if to Hindu parents in India, that person is very likely to be a Hindu; if to Christian parents in Europe or the Americas, that person is very likely to be a Christian.

The rule Hick proposed, applies in about 98 or 99 percent of the cases: “Whether one is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Hindu – or, for that matter, a Marxist or a Maoist – nearly always depends on the part of the world in which one happens to have been born.”

Given the power of this fact, Hick believed it essential that for devotees of one religious tradition to become familiar with the teachings and practices of other traditions.”

Capps, W.H., 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, Minneapolis: Fortress Press. pp. 267-8.

Capps then continues, stating his own position:

Are all religions true? Some have answered emphatically. Some have responded decisively. And some, if not most, have sought reasonable accommodation. Does the question belong to religious studies? No, if a yes answer means that religious studies is there to adjudicate the answer. Yes, if it is the work of religious studies to make the questions that are asked about religion intelligible.”

However, this need for familiarity with the religious (and non-religious) practices and worldviews of “other” people is not just limited to religious adherents, or religious studies scholars, but is important for everyone! Capps goes on to summarise the position of Ninian Smart, a scholar who I generally endeavour to emulate. For  Smart,

“if human beings are going to live in harmony with one another, they must understand each other’s distinctive orientations to life, their worldviews, that is, “the systems of belief which mobilise their feelings and wills.” Thus, “a main part” of the academic study of religion, in Smart’s view, is “worldview analysis”, which he explains as “the attempt to describe and understand human worldviews, especially those that have had widespread influence.” Within the list of these Smart includes not only the major religious traditions of the world, but also ideological orientations like Marxism and philosophical orientations like Platonism. The same is indispensable for the student of religion, of course. But Smarty affirms that its indispensability reaches much further: “An educated person should know about and have a feel for many things, but perhaps the most important is to have an understanding of some of the chief worldviews which have shaped, and are now shaping human culture and action.”

Capps, W.H., 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 310



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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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