on January 1, 2000
A fine volume featuring extensive articles on many religious practices, artifacts, art, beliefs, and theologians. Notable are the extended articles for major religions ranging from African religions to Taoism. The text is richly illustrated.
It makes, however, the mistake of defining religions by their official doctrine only. Though there are numerous photos of people worshipping, some of the articles take only the work of theologians seriously. Living institutions are often treated as mere relics of the past rather than as contemporary expressions of belief.
I was also disappointed by the section on Mythology, which only treats dead religions and these not very well, preferring to discuss the way Myth is studied rather than providing specific details and cross-references. Where it covers these old traditions in depth, (and only the ones which are prominent in Western intellectual thought, alas!) it fails to flesh out the tales of the gods and goddesses or to provide a handy reference to different pantheons.
It often fails on the side of "neutrality" by failing to present skeptical perspectives on religion. (There isn't even an article on Skepticism, which is, in this century, as important a movement as Iconoclasm was in the 8th and 9th centuries). Secular humanism also receives short shrift.
The owner of this volume who bears these failures in mind will nonetheless find it useful. There's a fascinating section on New Religions, an extensive bibliography, and many fine, brief articles on the many facets of religion. It is worth having this among your general reference books.
on October 1, 2007
I bought this encyclopedia several years ago, and have used it fairly frequently. I have invariably found it to lead me deeper and deeper into the book, as the entries are also interlinked very nicely.
The entries are arranged in alphabetical order. Major entries are structured like chapters and are often devoted to a major faith. The book is very well illustrated, and has been printed on excellent paper. The cloth-spine binding itself is superb, and I have not had any problems with it over the last five years.
The entries are not very lengthy, but do give sufficient details for someone who is starting to get interested in understanding about other faiths. The book doesn't have an index, but is well-cross-referenced. There is a table of contents listing the major faiths.
A word about the background of the contributors: Ms.Wendy Doniger, the Consulting Editor, is a scholar who is highly influential and respected in US for her understanding of Hinduism. She is also embroiled in a controversy with Hindus in America over the way she and her school interpret Hinduism. Mr. Jeffrey Kripal is another such scholar - one of his books (Kali's Child) was withdrawn from circulation by the Indian publisher after objections arose in US and India. All the other contributors are from the West, except two from Columbia University, who appear to be of Indian origin.
This naturally gives rise to a charge of bias or lack of understanding on of part of scholars. I also noticed this in some places while reading about Hinduism. However, this does not seem to be deliberate slant, but may be due to the background and cultural differences of the scholars. In fact, I found the treatment of non-Western religions in this encyclopedia to be more accurate and balanced than that in the World Book Encyclopedia, which often reads like a missionary text.
All in all, an excellent buy. However, you should use it for general information only, and stop short of using it as an authentic interpretation of non-Western faiths (or Western faith, for that matter).
on December 22, 2007
I was looking for a book that contains a decent overview of many religions, possibly in dictionary form. My husband and I routinely run across religions we don't know much about, and want to learn more about their origins, history and general beliefs. I was pleasantly surprised to find this awesome textbook. Unlike many that I found during my search, it does more than gloss over lesser-known religions, and it's more in-depth than the several thin but colorfully illustrated books that are widely available. I was pleased to find this gently used, hardcover copy - couldn't find any new. It contains tons of information in a dictionary format, which makes it easy to quickly find what you're looking for. I know it'll be on our shelf for years to come.