Looking for titles to learn beginner world religions
January 2, 2012 5:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm very interested in world religions. I have picked up a few titles but I find them extremely difficult I am hoping people here can recommend some starter titles. I am a masters degree educator. I know very little on this subject and I seem to get it twisted quickly. Please recommend titles to start reading to build upon.

Just looking for a few less complicated titles to give me an overview of world religions. I have a goal of being more well rounded in my education on lesser known subjects. I am open to all suggestions. I just want to try to be more well rounded in less common subjects. Thank you!
posted by femmme to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Huston Smith's the World's Religions was easy enough to understand. Probably overly simplistic, but maybe a good start.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 5:50 PM on January 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

Seconding Huston Smith
posted by KingEdRa at 5:52 PM on January 2, 2012

Isms: Understanding Religions
posted by box at 6:19 PM on January 2, 2012

I am rather fond of The Joy of Sects by Peter Occhiogrosso.
posted by munchingzombie at 6:45 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to the above, Daniel Boorstin has a history of how the west has tried to understand man's place in the world, called The Seekers.

You might want some books that give an impression of what various believers faith is like. I am thinking of books like CS Lewis Mere Christianity. Eli Wiesel put together several collections of Hasidic Folktales and commentary, here is one: Souls on Fire. Maybe Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs. T. K. V. Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga.
posted by shothotbot at 6:48 PM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I teach a college intro course out of Experiencing the World's Religions. I've found a double-handful of factual errors, and of course a lot of stuff is elided for an intro survey text, but it's very readable, the bibliographies are good (for further reading), and students tell me they like it (not just during the class, but sometimes they'll e-mail me a few years later and say, "Whoa, I just used this [thing I learned from our textbook] in real life and everyone was impressed I knew about it!") and that it helps them get a fairly decent grasp on the general outlines of the topic.

Most professors use a companion text of primary sources (holy books) to teach from it.

One thing I notice about this text (students sometimes comment on it too) is that the chapters are all roughly the same length, so Christianity and Islam get the same length treatment as, say, Shinto. In the theology, art, etc., sections this is fine, but in the sections talking about the modern shape of a particular religion, very large religions with a lot of "denominations" get rather short shrift; my students end up still confused on different flavors of Christianity and have a hard time following the twists and turns of 20th-century Islam (both of which I cover in lectures). You can certainly supplement it.

I also supplement this text with required visits to various religions' services in the local area, which I recommend for you too. Everywhere locally has been very welcoming to my students, and when they happen to call ahead to check on timing, they often end up with a host/guide and/or a chat with the religious leader after services, where they learn even more. Also one super-constant of religions seems to be food after services. They get fed a lot.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:50 PM on January 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh is a quick and easy read that gave me a firm grasp of Buddhism.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 7:09 PM on January 2, 2012

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary
posted by TestamentToGrace at 10:23 PM on January 2, 2012

You want the Very Short Introductions.

That pointer goes to the religion section but the series also includes short overviews that will help you round out your education in virtually any scholastic field.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:01 AM on January 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick. It's not strictly about religion, but volume I has a brief discussion of the Mesopotamian origins of Judaism, volume II has a very nice look at Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity in their historical contexts, and volume III does the same with Islam (although I don't know enough about Islam to judge his interpretation there).
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:45 AM on January 3, 2012

Seconding Experiencing the World's Religions for all the reasons McGee mentioned. One suggestion, though - the link above goes to a copy costing over $70. Try this product page for some lower cost options (new from $3, used from $0.01).

I also like Gonick's Cartoon History series, though keep in mind that he's mainly concerned with historical sweep & context and not much about theology. His satirical treatment of the various religions and their key figures can be amusing or offensive, depending on how one feels about the religion in question.

Finally, the DK Eyewitness series has some visually attractive, very brief summaries - including Religion - and single volumes on individual religions.
posted by mark7570 at 7:45 AM on January 3, 2012

I find Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions very useful, and you can get a used copy for a few bucks.
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on January 3, 2012

Robert A.F. Thurman has some mighty fine introductory lectures on Buddhism. On DVD. I got a 2 disc set on Tibet and Buddhism from the library a few months ago. He's engaging if you are interested sufficiently but these are pretty academic style lectures, I'll warn. In 2 sittings you'll learn tons and get a grip on the core concepts/context/history of one major world religion. I was also pleased that he was very un-New Agey.
posted by MrFish at 8:54 AM on January 3, 2012

I've used Oxtoby's book to teach intro level survey courses (Western & Eastern traditions)

I un-recommend Karen Armstrong, unless you are interested in doing primary research on modern ecumenical/spiritual efforts.
posted by ServSci at 10:06 AM on January 3, 2012

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