Teach me about religion.
April 23, 2010 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn about various religions—scriptures, beliefs, everything.

My main goal is to read most holy books. Obviously, there's the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran, but is there a Hebrew/English Torah I can get? An Arabic/English Quran? Surely the Bible wasn't in modern English at first; can I read it side-by-side with the original text?

I also know that, for example, the Torah isn't the only book in the Jewish canon. What else is there? Are there different translations? What's the best? I'd be interested in the same thing regarding Islam, if there's more than just the Quran.

Past these Big Three, what should I read regarding Buddhism, Shintoism, Catholicism (and other forms of Christianity), Scientology? I'd prefer whatever people who practice these religions would read as opposed to an outsider's explanation, and I'd like to avoid religious criticism.

Any books I could get about various ancient beliefs would also be interesting, especially if such a book could draw a link between, say, the Greek gods and a more modern religion.

Finally, books on the cultures of various religions would be a great supplement to this, I think. What would go well for each religion?

Any religion I've not named that warrants a look, I'm interested in.

I know this is broad, but I'm looking to cover as much material as possible. Thanks, MeFi!
posted by reductiondesign to Religion & Philosophy (31 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Arabic-English Qur'an.
posted by proj at 12:08 PM on April 23, 2010

Hinduism- The Bhagavad Gita

Buddhism- The Dhammapada

Of course, there are many, many more books on each religion, but, these are good starting places.
posted by Hanuman1960 at 12:18 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might be looking for interlinear glosses of these books; here are versions of the old and new testament. This sort of version is useful because in addition to the original text, they include transliterations (since these texts are in non-Latin alphabets) and word-by-word translations.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:24 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The go-to source for Catholic belief is the Catholic Encyclopedia.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:26 PM on April 23, 2010

Well, you should definitely read Lao Zi (tao te ching) and Confucius (analects). With Buddhism, these three are the major eastern religions.

For Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita.

The best overview of Greek mythology is probably Edith Hamilton.

L. Ron Hubbard for the Scientology stuff, natch.

The Book of Mormon.

Science and Health by Mary Baker Eddy is the foundation of Christian Science.

For Catholicism beyond the Bible, check out Aquinas or St. Augustine.

As far as other supplementary material, the Oxford History of the Christian Church is really pretty great. I also recommend Diana Eck's A New Religious America, which is a great overview of several religions.

See also: A List of Religious Texts.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:27 PM on April 23, 2010

The Tanakh is composed of the Torah (teachings), Nevi'im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings)—hence TaNaKh. You can get copies at booksellers and, of course, Amazon.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:27 PM on April 23, 2010

They aren't exactly holy texts, but you should consider looking into various Christian statements of faith. Various traditions have, at various times, consolidated their theological positions into canonical documents for later reference.

Major examples include:

- The Augsburg Confession (Lutheranism)

- The Three Forms of Unity (Continental Calvinism)

- The Westminster Confession of Faith (Presbyterianism)

- The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catholicism [duh])

- The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church (Methodism [also duh])

- The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (Anglicanism)

Two rather notable exceptions: Eastern Orthodoxy and modern Evangelicalism.

I'm having trouble coming up with a similar document for the former, and I think this is due to the fact that 1) it's the Christian tradition about which I know the least, and 2) English has never been the dominant, nor even a particularly influental language in that tradition. It's one of the more ethnically insular traditions.

With respect to modern, mainstream Evangelicalism... these groups have a pronounced tendency to write their own "creedal" documents--most of which can be reproduced on a postcard--if they have them at all. As a result, there's just not much to read, and they're usually pretty uninteresting.

Then there's what are generally referred to as the "ecumenical" creeds, which all orthodox Christians (i.e. all those who fall within the historical majority) believe: The Nicene Creed and the The Chalcedonian Creed.

I'd argue that the Talmud is the equivalent in Judaism, but I'm not sure whether other religious have similar practices, at least not that are available in English. I'd certainly be interested to find out.
posted by valkyryn at 12:29 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Science and Health is the core non-biblical text of the Church of Christ, Scientist.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:30 PM on April 23, 2010

For Catholicism, in addition to the Bible, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:33 PM on April 23, 2010

In regard to (Theravada) Buddhism, the Pali Canon is massive. So big that much of it remains untranslated, and opinion is divided as to how good the translations are of the bits that have been done.

I heartily recommend 'In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon'. There is a little bit of commentary at the start of each section, but only to give context. It summarises the main tenets of Buddhism using the actual texts from the canon.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 12:33 PM on April 23, 2010

The Tipitaka (Pali ti, "three," + pitaka, "baskets"), or Pali canon, is the collection of primary Pali language texts which form the doctrinal foundation of Theravada Buddhism.

Mahāyāna sutras are a broad genre of Buddhist scriptures, believed in the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition to be original teachings of the Buddha. The Theravāda and other early Buddhist schools believe that they are later compositions, not taught by the Buddha.

Also from Buddhism, there's the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), but I don't know how canonical that is since I am not a Tibetan Buddhist.
posted by desjardins at 12:34 PM on April 23, 2010

I've enjoyed Red Pine's translations of The Heart Sutra and The Diamond Sutra. Both have extensive commentary and explication. He's also translated Bodhidharma and Hui-neng (in case you're interested in Zen).
posted by The Mouthchew at 12:34 PM on April 23, 2010

Speaking only for Judiaism, accomplishing your goal could take your lifetime. Plenty of Jews have devoted their entire existence to Torah study. To get started, I'd strongly recommend a course on basic biblical Hebrew, as well as one on the basic texts of Judiaism,
posted by bearwife at 12:34 PM on April 23, 2010

Surely the Bible wasn't in modern English at first; can I read it side-by-side with the original text?

According to "Misquoting Jesus", the Bible doesn't really have an agreed on original text. So, "no, not really" would be the answer.

You might want to borrow MJ and read the first chapter or two to get an idea of the Bible's history and what the life cycle of ancient texts was like.
posted by chairface at 12:36 PM on April 23, 2010

in mormonism there are a few texts you could read.

there is, of course the book of mormon. there's also the pearl of great price and the docterine and covenents. if you want to go shorter than that, there's the articles of faith
posted by nadawi at 12:44 PM on April 23, 2010

Tao te Ching Important for taoism (both the philosophy and the religion) and later played a roll in Chan (then eventually Zen) Buddhism.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 12:47 PM on April 23, 2010

Surely the Bible wasn't in modern English at first; can I read it side-by-side with the original text?

"The" Bible is sort of a misnomer. Students at the seminary I attended got to the point where they'd reflexively ask, "Whose Bible?" It also is not a cohesive document and was written/edited/co-opted from other religions over a period of centuries. There are also words known as hapax legomena that cannot be translated to English because they appear only once in the document, so there's no point of comparison to help suss out a meaning.

Books that might be helpful:

What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies
Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms
Westminster Dictionary of Theologians

posted by runningwithscissors at 12:50 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

you might want to read a basic "intro to world religions" type of textbook or something, just to get some background.

Hinduism has other major texts - The Vedas go back to 1500BCE, most famous among them probably the Rig Veda. Then the Upanishads are dated to around 800BCE. The Mahabharata is the epic tale of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part. There is a pretty cool movie made of this one.

Buddhism also has a lot of different texts - there are generally considered to be three main branches of Buddhism, and they consider different texts important... I remember there are a lot of sutras - the Diamond sutra, the pure land sutra...

Actually, this website probably has a lot of what you're looking for, though it isn't always well organized. I'd recommend finding a book to introduce you to history and context of the various religions before diving in though.

Obviously, there's the Bible, the Torah, and the Quran

Remember the Bible essentially absorbed the Torah as "the old testament" so those aren't really two different books... Judaism has a lot of its own commentary, and there are things like the Kabbalah, but the stories are the same ones Christians adopted.
posted by mdn at 12:54 PM on April 23, 2010

Quaker faith & practice. - Advices and Queries would be a very brief summary of Quakerism. Unusually for a group associated with Christianity, there are no creeds, certainly in liberal/universalist quakerism.

Feel free to substitute ‘spirit’ or ‘schmoopy’ for ‘God’ or ‘that of God’ in the text, depending on your preferred theisticity.
posted by scruss at 12:55 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Adi Granth is the holy text of the Sikhs.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:02 PM on April 23, 2010

For learning about Baha'i, I'd recommend Esselmont's Baha'u'llah and the New Era.

The Baha'i holy texts are many and honestly, mostly pretty dry reading. The Kitab-i-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book) and the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf are probably where you want to start. The KiA is regarded as The Book, while ESW deals with the emerging Baha'i movement and it's interconnections to Islam, like how Jesus was born and lived among Jewish peoples.
posted by unixrat at 1:08 PM on April 23, 2010

The Internet Sacred Text Archive is a great online resource for learning about different religions. They have thousands of religious texts and books on religion available on their site.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:10 PM on April 23, 2010

There are a lot of good suggestions here. I'd add that it is important not to confuse the scriptures of a religious tradition with the beliefs of a "typical" practitioner. Non-canonical texts are often far more influential, and liturgies even more so. Scripture, theology, etc. tend to have a greater influence on religious professionals (priests, ministers, monks, rabbis, etc.) than on laypeople. For instance, you'll probably learn a lot more about what was important to a lay Catholic European in the fourteenth century by reading the Golden Legend or the Divine Comedy than by reading the Bible or Aquinas's Summa Theologica.

A good introduction to the history of religion that does not overemphasize belief is Ninian Smart, The World's Religions, which also has a useful bibliography. An accessible but important theoretical work is Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion. J. Z. Smith's works, for instance To Take Place, are less immediately accessible to non-experts but they are subtle and provocative.

I would avoid a couple of books that are often found in the Religion section of a typical bookstore: Peter Occhiogrosso's The Joy of Sects, and Huston Smith, The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions.

By the way, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, J. Z. Smith, and Huston Smith are not related. What is it about religious studies and Smiths?
posted by brianogilvie at 1:13 PM on April 23, 2010

It's important to realize that in many religious, holy texts are of marginal importance. Self-professed Taoists/Buddhists will have almost never read any.
posted by phrontist at 1:41 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

brianogilvie, out of curiosity, why would you avoid the Huston Smith book?
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:28 PM on April 23, 2010

The Threefold Lotus Sutra was the first Mahayana text and is held sacred by Nichiren and Tendai Buddhism, two of the largest sects in Japan. Nichiren Buddhism is based around a mantra praising the book itself (Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo). It's also a great piece of literature, and a pretty entertaining read if you can get through all the endless names of various buddhas and boddhisattvas and wheel rolling kings and demons etc.

I'd also recommend Buddhism for Today and A Guide to the Threefold Lotus Sutra by Nikkyo Niwano as companion texts.
posted by domographer at 2:28 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Funnily enough, I'm teaching a class about the Jewish component of this very question just next week.

The JPS Translation of the Jewish scripture (linked above) is pretty much the industry standard; it's the one that @milestogo and @runningwithscissors both linked to. But if the translation issues are what's interesting to you, you can look at the versions Everett Fox, Robert Alter, or Richard Elliott Friedman. Fox and Alter do their best to capture the nuance and wordplay of the original Hebrew; Friedman's book takes the added step of color-coding the Torah text in order to illustrate the different authorial sources combined in the final redacted text.

And yep, @bearwife is right. You could spend a lifetime studying the Jewish Bible and the layers of commentary (including the Talmud) that have become encrusted upon it over the centuries. But that should encourage you, not discourage you. It can yield great fun, rigorous intellectual exercise, and deep spiritual fulfillment. Enjoy!
posted by AngerBoy at 2:43 PM on April 23, 2010

Catholicism for Dummies is a very faithful representation of the Catholic faith. Fr. John Hardon's books on world religions is a classic work from a Catholic perspective.
posted by keith0718 at 3:15 PM on April 23, 2010

A very good place to start is with Huston Smith's The World's Religions (formerly called The Religions of Man before he revised and updated it back in the 90's).

It's quick and easy read, and gives you all the basic info you need to know (historical origins, sacred texts, cultural lifestyle, etc.). What is especiaally nice is that Smith takes the time a nd care to make sure he presents a fair and accurate summary of each religion.
posted by KingEdRa at 5:53 PM on April 23, 2010

I'd like to second the idea of reading introductions as perhaps more helpful than reading scriptures. Reading XYZ-ism's ancient holy book may not really tell you anything about what modern XYZists believe or even what ancient XYZists believed--those books have been getting interpreted for ages and are notoriously weird, and, moreover, lots of important stuff, like the "scripts" for ceremonies, directions for when to do them or what they mean, or calendars for holidays, are probably not in them. The original books won't address in direct ways issues that arose later in the history of religions (think about the various controversies within Christianity or Islam over time), even though those issues can become extremely important for those within the religion. They may give you an idea of what XYZ's founder (or whoever wrote the book) was aiming for, and if you're interested in that, awesome. But you may come away with a very distorted picture of what's going on inside the head of actual XYZ-ism leaders or followers, because the text isn't the same as the religion. Even the creeds that valkyryn helpfully linked to above will be difficult to really wrap your head around unless you spend time reading about where they came from and what the background for their various polemical statements was--and even then I bet there's a lot of variation for how authoritative they are for the XYZ group down the street from you, in theory or in practice.

Also, those above have been right to point out that "The Bible" as a monolithic thing with a single text or list of books isn't quite the right idea. BUT the Greek and Hebrew texts accepted by the various groups aren't so wildly distinct that you should throw out the idea of taking a look at texts in the original languages. If you want to read a particular group's accepted version of the text in the original language (as distinct from a translation), you can acquire that. And there are also "Critical Texts" that list variations in the different manuscripts we have and indicate which passages aren't generally agreed to be "original." It's really hard for us to know things about works that were written a long time ago, but a huge amount of work has been done to try, so if you're interested, look into it! Any introductory, secular book on the bible written in the past few decades would probably give you a good summary of what various scholars think and what the traditional views have been.

Oh, and as far as ancient religion goes, you can read until your eyes glaze over in Jane Harrison's classic Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (Google Books), which is certainly out of date but also very interesting and important for later work in the field. She is VERY interested in the kind of things that I said above scriptures don't really tell you: what people did and what they believed about what they were doing. The first couple pages of the introduction says what I was trying to say in my first paragraph far better than I've said it.
posted by rustcellar at 1:58 PM on April 27, 2010

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