The World’s Living Religions

By Archie Baum

Archie Baum has been a professor of religions and metaphysics at state universities in theU.S.for decades and has authored some 20 books on same.  His “WLR” is a triumph of clarity, simplicity, open-mindedness, tolerance, respect and appreciation of all religions; and his confessed subconscious predilection for the faith in which he was raised, Christianity, and his latent respect for agnosticism, are impossible to detect in his unprejudiced analyses of myriad faiths.  He is never judgmental or angry; he grinds no axe; he does not preach.  In lucid, fast moving prose, he gives us an amazing amount of data regarding all, major religions, although he convincingly criticizes their weaknesses but with compassion.  He yearns for a World Religion but sees it only as a very distant possibility.

Baum notes that there are three great civilizations: Hindu, Chinese and European (Western).  The religions that dominate these are:  (1) Hinduism (80%) and Islam inIndia; (2) “The Three Truths” ofChina: Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism; (3) Zen, Jainism and Shintoism inJapan; and (4) Christianity and Judaism (with their Greek and Hebraic roots) in the West.  He classifies religions as either “low” or “high”; low religions (in the Western World) are those where men expect more than they have (and deserve); and high religions (in the Eastern/Asian World) are those where men want and expect nothing more than they have (“Yea-saying” the universe and their position in it).  “Open-mindedness,” he observes, “prevents one from being completely religious…The more ingenious and fantastic the stories of creation and revelation [which most faiths routinely claim], the more a learned man wonders…and is given reason to doubt…It may be better to say we do not know what we do not know…”  He notes that the Chinese (and to a lesser extent the Hindus) base their religion upon reasoned analysis, rather than upon anyone’s “word”. The Chinese are indifferent to deities. Judeao-Christians presuppose the correctness of their conclusions as to facts that cannot be known, based upon “revelations” and miracles which others claim to have experienced or witnessed.  Most take shortcuts by simply believing what they are told by others, including what is written in their scriptures and how their ministers tell them to interpret it.

Hindus claim Hinduism as the world’s oldest religion (possibly 3000+ BCE), which is too old to reliably date, especially as Hindus didn’t begin to document their faith in written form until c. 500 BCE.  As such, Westerners date it c. 500 BCE (roughly the time of Confucius, Buddha, and Socrates), which is clearly wrong, as Buddha was raised a Hindu.  Hinduism has spawned many other faiths: Buddhism, Zen, and Shintoism.  Hinduism is noted for its belief in rebirth and the four kinds of yoga: (1) karma-yoga (one’s thoughts and actions determine his standing); (2) raja-yoga (meditation); (3) jnana-yoga (knowledge-yoga, i.e., a C.S.-like “If you know the truth it will set you free,” and the truth is ultimate reality is permanent, eternal, and whatever happens to us on this earth has no real effect on our ultimate nature and soul);  (4) Bhakti-yoga (worship or devotion but without any specific form, thus spanning austerity/fasting/self-flagellation, chanting/singing hymns, pilgrimages, withdrawing the mind).

Buddhism embodies the rebirth and karma of Hinduism but adds celibacy, a monkish-life of begging and wandering, a bald head, a life of not working.  Buddha was the supreme agnostic, often refusing to express an opinion on many subjects (including the validity of the Hindu scriptures, deities of any form, etc.), hence he was branded a heretic by the Hindus.  He never wanted followers, refused to be deified by anyone and remained a dedicated stoic.  The Jains are very similar and perhaps even more ascetic in their denial of worldly pleasures.

Taoism comes from Tao (Nature or Mother Nature) and tao (man’s nature), and isChina’s most popular religion, followed by Confucianism and Buddhism.  Zen, while also an outgrowth of Hinduism, owes much to Taoism and Confucianism.  Taoism is a math and reason-based religion emanating from the teachings Lao Tzu (c. 600 BCE), a mentor and teacher of Confucius (c. 550 BCE).  Taoists believe that Nature and man’s nature are basically good; they give us Yang (creative energy, the male) and Yin (the receptive energy, the female) which overlap and become one another, serially.  The Taoist circle symbol contains a reverse “S” that is half black and half white, the “S” line and circle indicating the never broken stream of life and the endless cycles of everything.  It also uses lines, unbroken lines (–) to symbolize the male and broken lines (--) for the female.  Single, double and triple lines (either unbroken, broken or a mixture of each) to indicate the degree of Yang or Yin in the animate or inanimate subject.  Triple lines are called “trigrams”, of which there can be only eight possible combinations, and hexagrams (six lines), which are written as double trigrams, of which there can be only 64 combinations; these delineate the stages of the cycle of any  person, thing or event.

Confucius (c. 551-478 BCE) presents the same, basic Taoist philosophies to create scientific-mathematic prognostications. Confucius expanded Taoism into ethical, social and political philosophy, while Lao Tzu confined himself to Nature and man’s nature, or metaphysics.  Unlike the Hindus and Buddhists, who believe in rebirth, Taoists and Confucianists believe that death is final, and they remain agnostic as to deities.  Mencius (c. 370-290 BCE), the primary defender of Confucius, linked Tao, tao, Y&Y, the Five Elements (wood, etc.) and the cyclical processes and wisdom (li, Tao, tao, jen, trigrams/hexagrams & chih).  Confucius became increasingly popular inChina into the Renaissance and beyond, being dubbed “The Ultimate Sage” but never as a deity.  The Communists have done much to eradicate Confucianism (and all religions), and the teachings of Buddha, Judaism and Christianity have also made inroads.

Judaism is the oldest western religion (about 1900? BCE?), while Hindus claim their faith commenced 1000-2000 years earlier.  The Jews, like the Arabs, were a nomadic race, and they, like most, worshipped the forces of nature originally, for its life-giving qualities.  Thus, springs, rivers, mountains, the sun, wind, etc. were “gods”, and they gave these animistic forces names, the most common of which was “el” but “al”, “il”, “ol”, “ul” were also used.  Each town may have had its own god; the “el” was put at the beginning, the end or the middle of the person’s name (Dan-i-el, Michael, Immanuel, Bethel, Jezebel, Elizabeth, Elias, Elam, etc.).  So, the names identified the person’s town and his god.  Abraham (1900?) and Sarah had Isaac when Abraham was allegedly 100 years old.   A more edifying summary of Judaism and the history of the Jews can be found in The Torah, as translated and with commentary by Rabbi Sharfstein, which I also read and reviewed.   Similarly, his coverage of Christianity and Islam is better covered in other texts that I have reviewed.

His commentary on Augustine (354-430 AD), nonetheless, is fascinating.  He dubes Augustine (“A”) as “the formulator of Christian theology and the most influential theologian in history.  “A” attempted to defend, with logic, a literal reading of the much of the Bible and to justify Greek logic (reason) and Christian faith (based on man’s “free will”); e.g., man (Adam, Eve, the snake) disobeyed God and thus created the evil in the world.  A’s credibility collapses with his reliance on the likes of the Bible’s mythological allegories.  A concludes that only way to perfect knowledge (Greek) is to trust in God’s revelations, even though he can’t fully understand them (Christianity).  “A” argues that, while God is loving, he must punish some to demonstrate justice.  (How’s that?)  Basically, “A” wants the sheep to do what the shepherd/church asks.  St. Thomas Aquinas (1227-74) did much to codify the key principles of the R.C. Church (the Trinity, the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ’s request to Peter to found The Church, the concept of being “born again”, the Commandments of The Church as well as those of Moses).  Martin Luther (1483-1546) spawned Protestantism by renouncing the Pope and preaching “Back to the Bible”.  Lutheranism comprises some 80 million adherents in 2000, about one-third of all Protestants.  John Calvin (1509-64) continued Luther’s challenge of Roman doctrines; neither goodwill nor good deeds will save man, he argued; salvation depends on one’s willingness to suffer eternal damnation for the glory of God.  God’s will cannot be questioned.  (Why, then, did God give Man the power of reason?)  There were allegedly 40 million Calvinists in 2000 but organized into 100+ sects.  Presbyterians are apparently a mild form of Calvinists and are now divided into 11 sects themselves.  John Wesley (1703-91) founded Methodism to bring a more “emotional experience” to religion, developing the “born again” experience into a more elaborate affair.  He and his ministers became “circuit riders” and gave birth to roving evangelists that have prospered so much in the past 100 years.    George Fox (1624-91) founded the Quakers (Society of Friends), which urged people not to subscribe to the dogma of any church but communicate directly with God; they stress honesty, courtesy, reliability, non-violence (pacifism), etc.  There are roughly 200,000 of them in 2000.  The Unitarians, Ben Franklin’s church, regard Jesus as a great prophet but nothing more; the reject eternal damnation, the need to be “saved”, etc.  Some Unitarians don’t believe in any god, and some of same have become Humanists, a loosely knit group, and there are several hundred thousand of these.  The Baptists, now 40 million strong, claim roots to John The Baptist, but they became organized in the 1600’s; they’re more a less a blend of all of the others.  Christian Science was formed by Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) and holds that evil is unreal, that man is one with God (Hindulike) and, as such, is perfect, and, by fully accepting that fact, can heal themselves without medicine.  There were several thousand branches in 45 countries with an unknown number of followers.  The Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day saints) was organized in 1830 by Joseph Smith, who had “visions” at age 14 (some say conversations with God who spoke to him via a salamander).  They have Quakerlike principles by believe in assisting their dead ancestors to gain salavation through prayers and posthumous baptism; they abstain from alcohol, coffee, etc., and some have multiple wives.  They tithe and young Mormons do two years of missionary work to convert “heathens” around the world.  They claim about 2 million members.  Ecumenical Movements have divided Christianity into multitudes of sects, which some see as threatening the very existence of Christianity itself.  “Intellectualism” (modern science and technology) has become a more respected source of wisdom than ancient scripture by many.  The Ecumenical churches are fighting back.

The author does an amazing job, considering his daunting task, but he tackles too broad a subject; he thus surface skates in  numerous areas.  Still, the book offers considerable data and is still worth a the time that it demands.