In this section, we elaborate on the theoretical, practical, and artistic value of studying religions. We begin with a brief discussion of Ninian Smart’s reasons for why it is important to study world religions. Then we proceed to an elaboration of the theoretical, practical, and artistic value of studying world religions.
Three Reasons for Studying World Religions
In his book The World’s Religions (1992,9), Ninian Smart identifies three reasons why it is important to understand the world’s religions. First, “they are a vital ingredient in the varied story of humankind’s various experiments in living.” The idea is that we need to understand religions if we want to have a better understanding of human civilization, for these religions are a vital component of how humans have lived their lives throughout the ages.
Second, “is the fact that in order to grasp the meanings and values of the plural cultures of today’s world, we need to know something of the worldviews which underlie them.” Meaning, the world’s religions contain the worldviews that underlie the different cultures of the present. Therefore if we want to understand the meanings and values of these cultures, or the practices and behaviors of people of different cultures, we need to understand the religions associated with these cultures. As Smart (1992, 9) remarks, “To understand the Middle East, you need to know something about Islam, not to mention Christianity and Judaism; and to understand Japan, you need some insight into Buddhism, Shinto, and the Confucian heritage.” And third, “we may as individuals be trying to form our own coherent and emotionally satisfying picture of reality, and it is always relevant to see the great ideas and practices of various important cultures and civilizations.” Meaning, the different religions of the world provide different models of spirituality from which we can learn or which we can eventually follow as we desire to improve our own spiritual lives.
The Theoretical, Practical, and Artistic Values
We can gather from the points of Smart that understanding the religions of the world has both theoretical and practical benefits. Theoretically, it provides us with a better picture of human civilization as religions are an integral component of the development of human civilization. This, among other things, enables us to understand current world events better. Furthermore, understanding religions helps us deal with fundamental questions about life such as those concerning our place in the universe, where we come from, the purpose of our existence, and how the world will end. We need to address these questions to appease our mind, and religions provide us answers to these questions. Practically then, understanding religions has two levels—we can call the first the interpersonal level of practicality, and the second the personal level of practicality.
On the interpersonal level, studying religions enables us to better deal or interact with people of different cultures. We get along with others better when we understand the bases of their worldviews and the attitudes that go with them. In studying the world’s religions, we gain insights into the religious and family traditions and the everyday lives of people of different cultures, which will enable us to better interact with them.This is especially important in light of the fact that we are now living in a globalized and multi-cultural world, wherein people of different nationalities can freely move from one country to another and interaction between people of different countries is easier (brought about in large part by the convenience of travelling and by the Internet). Thus if we are Christians and we are to deal or interact with Buddhists and Muslims, it would be good to know something about Buddhism and Islam. For instance, if we are hosting them in a gathering, we need to consider the kind of food that we will offer to them. We may also need to provide them a place where they can say their prayers at certain times during the day.
Still connected to the interpersonal level, studying the world’s religions also helps cultivate the attitude of tolerance and the appreciation of human differences among people. We can observe that at their most essential level, all religions promote world peace or universal harmony among humans; but why is it that religious differences are said to be a major cause of certain conflicts and wars? In addition to the fact that these conflicts and wars are usually due to the mixture of politics with religion, or the use of religion for political reasons (for the acquisition of earthly power and dominance), they are perhaps also due to a misunderstanding of the peculiarities or uniqueness of each religion. The case is similar to the fact that it is only when we have a deeper understanding of a certain person that we become more tolerant and appreciative of how he/she differs from us.
Second, on the personal level, studying the world’s religions will enable us to personally understand better the kind of spirituality that we would want to pursue. Such a study will help us in our own spiritual quest. This holds true even to those who are not inclined to involve themselves in traditional religions but have a strong interest in spirituality, for knowing the stories of other persons’ spiritual journey may provide them with valuable insights for their own spiritual journey.
In addition to these points identified by Smart regarding the value of studying world religions, we can add a point identified by Michael Molloy in his book Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change (2010, 28). Molloy said that studying world religions will help us cultivate a better appreciation for the arts. Different religious traditions provide us with some of the most beautiful works of art in the fields of painting, sculpture, music, dance, poetry, and architecture. Studying these religions will thus pave the way for discovering and appreciating these magnificent works of art.