There are no ‘World Religions’!

Christian mission often finds itself up against ‘world religions’. We have been told, since year dot (when we were toddlers), that there is a set of eleven or so ‘world religions’, of which Christianity is one. Those who told us this, didn’t seem to have any qualms about its truth.

When we believe the above, we see mission as doing our bit for Christianity, against other ‘world religions’. When we look in the bookshops, we find lots of books on the shelves telling us about those other religions. We think that is helpful, because if we can understand them better, that should help us to convince them that Christianity is ‘better’. At the same time we wonder – if there are so many world religions; then how can we be sure that ‘ours’ is the best?

I don’t know if it has ever struck you, that descriptions of other ‘world religions’ sound similar to the way in which we describe the Christian faith? They have doctrines, practices, beliefs, rituals, temples (like churches), priests, laity, prayer, and often holy books (like the bible). There are reasons why world religions seem to parallel Christianity.

Before about 1900, scholars recognised only four religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and ‘the others’. Why then, by 1920 or so, were there 11 world religions? Where did they come from?

Protestants from Europe were, in the 19th Century, exploring more and more of the world. When they visited Asia especially (which is where nearly all of the non-Abrahamic religions come from), they tried to understand the ways of life of the people they met. They did so, by drawing comparisons with what was familiar at home: everyone-else’s ways of life were interpreted in relation these explorers’ own Protestant Christian faith!

For example: Westerners found ancient writings that talked about someone called Buddha. They brought the scripts back to Europe. They translated them into European languages. The available vocabulary and terms they drew upon were Protestant-Christian. As a result, when Buddhist texts were translated into (say) English, they seemed to be very Christian. There were some disgruntled Christians in Europe at the time. Some of those disgruntled Christians set up Buddhism, that was designed by Western scholars to look like another version of Christianity on the basis of ancient texts that no one else at the time was reading, in opposition to Christianity. They said ‘look, here’s another religion that is very ancient and might be better than Christianity’, while pointing at what they had just designed to look like Christianity! Later, people from ‘Buddhist countries’ latched onto the same idea, and re-interpreted some of what they were doing in the light of the work of Western Christian scholars.

Islam was a bit different. When Western scholars learned that many people were confessing to follow teachings of Muhammed, they thought that Islam must therefore also be a ‘religion’. As soon as it was called a ‘religion,’ it was assumed to be ‘like-Christianity’. This misleading assumption of Christian-likeness of Islam continues today.

Descriptions of ‘world-religions’ that we read about are all inventions modelled on Christianity. That is why they seem to offer ‘competition’ to Christian belief. When missionaries try to convert people from ‘other religions’ based on this understanding, they end-up shadow boxing! The way to find out how other people really live and believe, is by approaching them using their own language. Then you might find them much more ready to hear about Jesus.


Photo by Kevin Bluer on Unsplash

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Jim Harries

Jim Harries

Jim Harries (PhD Theology, University of Birmingham, Professor of religion at Global University) teaches the bible in Western Kenya using the Luo and Swahili languages. His focus is on work with indigenous churches. He also works with orthodox and other mission churches. Many articles and books written by Jim can be found here. Having lived in East Africa since 1988, Jim promotes the practice of vulnerable mission. Jim has been a visiting scholar at Christian universities in the USA, Canada, UK and Germany.
Jim Harries

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