The Religions of Man

Rating: +

Huston Smith

The Religions of Man is a survey of seven of the world's major religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. This survey does not purport to extensively compare these religions, nor does it attempt to make any judgments of their truth or their flaws. Rather, it offers largely independent descriptions of the origins and major beliefs and practices of these religions. These descriptions focus on the fundamentals of each religion. The variations of their observances, such as between different denominations of the faith, are only given in broad strokes, if at all, and focus on what types of questions cause the major divisions.

With this approach, this book is mostly useful as a starting point in learning about religions. However, I think it accomplishes this task very well. Each religion was presented first by placing it in a historical setting and giving the facts that have been established about its formation. Its major tenants are then presented, and its interactions with other religions and its internal tensions are only presented briefly in closing. Modern variations on the religions was not discussed at all.

This was not a dry book, though. While declining to compare and judge the religions he discusses, Smith does describe them relative to a single individual, rather than relative to a society or a religious body as a whole. When discussing specific beliefs, Smith does provide motivation for the belief through a discussion of the personal, social, or political issues that the belief sought to resolve. In the end, each religion is described primarily in the context of its impact on an individual life.

It is hard for me to judge exactly how unbiased Smith's presentations are, only being personally familiar with Christianity and Judaism already. His focus on the individual and their relationship with their faith may be more appropriate for some religions than others. However, Smith does state at the start that his intended audience is a western audience, which makes this presentation style seem appropriate, if not necessary, to me. I will say that if Smith has an agenda behind his method of presentation, it appears to be a desire for people to see all religions as legitimate spiritual pursuits.

Published in 1986, this book is now out of print, having been superceded by The World's Religions, a significantly rewritten, newer version of this book by the same author. Having already owned and read The Religions of Man, I suspect it would not be worthwhile for me to read the newer version, but based on the quality of this book, I would be comfortable suggesting its successor to someone interested in getting a balanced overview of these religions. A '+'.


Review written June 2001.


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