What’s the difference between a guardian angel and a guardian deity?
Where did Soka Gakki come from?
When is a cathedral not a basilica?
And who says the human potential movement is a religion?
Trivia buffs intrigued by such questions might find the new Dictionary of Religion (HarperCollins) hard to put down.
Here are 1,154 pages of religious history and biography, psychology and sociology condensed to bite-size pieces.
“We wanted to cover as much as we could about all the religions of the world, to help people think of the subject more broadly,” says William Scott Green, the book’s associate editor. It took more than 200 editors and contributors two years just to agree on the book’s list of topics.
From the beginning, Green and editor in chief Jonathan Z. Smith saw the dictionary as a reference tool for teachers, college and high school students. But it turns out to be for anyone, from the academic to the curious wanting to know that:
Christians believe guardian angels watch over them, while Buddhists believe guardian deities do.
Soka Gakki, rooted in Buddhism, is the largest new religion in Japan, as part of a religious revival now under way.
“Basilica” is an architectural term for a prominent church with three aisles, a wide nave and high windows. “Cathedral” refers to the principal church in its region. (A few cathedrals hold the honorary title of basilica.)
Some entries in the dictionary define movements so new that scholars could not rely on existing research to define them.
“A lot of the stuff on the new religions of Japan and Latin America is not book learning,” Green says. “It is from scholars out in the field, doing their own research.”
Some terms don’t seem to fit the book’s theme of faith traditions.
Is the human potential movement a religion, for example? Green’s dictionary defines it as “self-realization” and the “release of human creativity.” Yoga, meditation and holistic medicine are among its symbols. For cross-references, see “est.”
Other scholars might argue that it belongs in a dictionary of psychology, not religion. But Green contends, “The study of religion involves history, anthropology, sociology and psychology. … Religion is the systematic exploration of a distinctive category that shapes American life. Was Marxism, psychoanalysis, Nazism, a religion? Scholars will question all of these terms.”
The major faith traditions of the world - Christianity, Judaism and Islam - get extended coverage in this book.
One of the longest entries is Hinduism, India’s predominant religion. It fills 29 pages.
Under “Chinese religion,” Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism are defined in a 22-page section.
An essay on new religions, with cross-references to individual countries, is one of the book’s major contributions.
The entry under “New Age” explains that it is not a new movement. The term has been part of occult and spiritualist groups since the 1800s.
Consciously or not, the dictionary reflects a growing trend on college and university campuses. Green, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester in New York, says religion courses are vastly oversubscribed.
Courses in Islam, Asian religions and the Bible, as well as crossover courses such as medical ethics, draw at least 100 students, he says. As a major field of study, religion is replacing business, American studies and feminism, all leaders during the past decade.
“We’ve seen a 400 percent growth in the study of religion during the past five years,” he says.
“Religion is systematically ignored as a subject to study in the public school curriculum,” Green says. “Kids generally come out having learned nothing about it except that they’d better not talk about it because it could get them in trouble.”
Today’s college students are more accepting of cultural and religious differences than their parents were, he finds.
“These kids have been shaped by a kind of pluralism their parents never knew,” Green says.
“In my class we have Buddhists, Muslims, evangelical Christians, religious and secular Jews. Their own heritage matters to them, but they don’t fear differences. They want to understand people unlike themselves,” he says.
“We now live in a world where diversity is the foundation,” Green says. “We need to respect religious people, just as political scientists need to respect voters.”