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The Religions of Man Paperback – January 2, 2013
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About the Author
Huston Cummings Smith born on May 31, 1919 in China where his parents were Methodist Religious Missionaries. He spent the first 17 years of his life in China. Upon reaching the United States to continue his eduction at Central Methodist College, he soon drifted away and took up other religions. He even experimented with drugs, meeting Timothy Leary in the process. I first met him in Berkeley while I was a student at the University of California at Berkeley. Ofter the course of many years, Huston Smith traveled widely especially to India and tried just about every major religion and most of the minor ones, including even drug based religions of the American Indians based on peyote. Most of his early life was spent in the various branches of Hinduism, studying under different swamis. All this made him an expert in just about every religion. A TV station that evolved into the Public Broadcasting System asked him to give a television series on the world's religions. His director reminded him repeatedly to keep his lectures exciting and attention grabbing. “This is not a classroom where you have a captive audience”, he said. “If you lose their attention for thirty seconds they will switch channels and you won't get them back. So, make your points if you must – you're a professor so you have to make your points. But illustrate them immediately, with an example, something that will connect them to things your audience can relate to.” Huston Smith believed that this is the key to this book's success. There are other, perhaps technically better, books out there, but none have enjoyed the wide spread popularity of this book.
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I purchased the very first edition for my husband, who then used the book to choose a religion for himself. It is very clear from reading this book that Huston Smith's only agenda is to create better understanding within his reader of the diverse faiths that exist.
The World's Religions, however, manages to be just the right fit. It's written in an interesting tone and covers most of the important aspects of every religion. More importantly, it discusses them with a structure that makes them easier to comprehend and you leave the book having understood rather than browsed through.
I am an Indian and I was naturally curious about his treatment of religions that have an Indian origin. Authors who do not belong to the culture they are writing about sometimes fail to do justice to their topic in the eyes those who belong to that culture. Smith's treatment of Hinduism and Buddhism is, however, surprisingly concise and good. While, occasionaly, he does tend to offer opinions instead of facts but the style of writing makes it easy to distinguish one from the other.
His treatment of the religions I was unfamiliar with, Christianity, Judaism and Islam among others was also satisfactory in that it gives one a very good overview and is just thorough enough for one to realize which aspects would be interesting enough for further reading.
Be careful, however, that this is more an introduction to the principals and the ideas behind every religion and is NOT an account of either their historical origins and development or their current status and challenges. The only gripe I had from the book was it's lack of pointers to resources where I could pursue those lines of study. Most of the sources he points to are, like his own work, works on ideas behind religions.
Highly recommended for a general reader who wants to have a broad understanding of the major religions.
When I took a class on Islam as part of my undergraduate degree, the professor recommended this text, 'The Religions of Man', as short but good overview of the world's major religions generally, and I have always appreciated that recommendation. After a brief introduction, entitled 'Points of Departure', Smith looks at the major religions in turn in the following order: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. This is not an alphabetical ordering, nor geographic or chronological ordering. As Smith realised this book would be mostly read in the West, he put Christianity last, not as a slight, nor as a last-shall-be-first, but rather to develop a sensitivity in the text to other religions without the explicit Christian framework dictating the text.
There are several things which this text is NOT, as Smith explains in the introductory chapter. It is not intended as an historical overview of the religions, although that certainly comes into the discussion. It is not intended as a complete or rounded view of the religions - simply exploring the different denominations of Christianity could fill far more pages than this book in whole. Smith has been selective. Drawing from the best features that demonstrate the best values of each religion, he draws together an essay on each. However, this is not a comparative religions text, either. There are few comparisons and contrasts made throughout, permitting each religion to stand on its own merits.
Huston Smith sees the twentieth century in history not as a period that will be remembered for wars or nuclear weapons or Communism and Nazism, but rather as 'the time in which all the peoples of the world first had to take one another seriously.' Looking at the religions of the world and taking them seriously in their own right is an important step, as the religions of the people tend to be more enduring than politics, nation-states, and even ethnicity and general culture.
This book is accessible and written to the level of beginning undergraduates, relatively free of jargon, with terms defined when they are used, and concepts clearly explained. For each section on the major religions, there are suggestions for further reading, although these may now be somewhat out of date. Originally published in 1958, based on a television series Huston Smith conducted on the major religions of the world, it has been updated occasionally with reprinting.
Smith attempts to present the religions as living faiths rather than dry academic subjects. In many respects, he succeeds in this task, which is one of the primary reason the book remains in print and in demand after decades of use.