The World Religions Paradigm

Author: Luke Burns

This page published on: 30/10/2020

Last modified: 30/10/2020

When the category of religion is used to describe 'world religions', it is often in a way that turns multiple diverse traditions, philosophies, and practices, into one single entity for the sake of simplicity.




When the category of religion is used to describe ‘world religions’, it is often in a way that turns multiple diverse traditions, philosophies, and practices, into one single entity for the sake of simplicity.

A good example of this is Hinduism, which is a label coined by the British to describe the religion of the Indian people.

The hidden diversity of Hinduism

Hinduism did not exist in the language of the Indian peoples (in fact there are many languages in use on the Indian subcontinent); it was a label applied by British observers.

There are many different religious traditions in India that are viewed as subdivisions within Hinduism, but this shared definition does not mean that all Hindus believe the same things or practice in the same way.

Of course, Hinduism (as a category) has been in use for so long now that many Hindus are perfectly happy using it to describe their religious affiliation, but not all feel the same way, and it is a good example of the sort of effect that using alien terminology can have when describing a culture other than one's own. The scope for misunderstanding is wide, and it is easy to make mistakes that have repercussions for hundreds of years.

Recognising difference

The issue remains that it is far too easy to talk about ‘religion X’ as though it is one single group of people, who all believe the same things and act the same way – but this is clearly not true.

In Europe and North America, most people have grown up with exposure to the differences between Christian denominations (certainly the differences between Catholic and Protestant forms of worship). This nuanced understanding is less widespread when it comes to traditions that are not native to one’s culture, or with which one has less experience.

In other words, the less you know about a religious tradition, the easier it is to make generalisations and assumptions. If we take these generalisations to be fact, then we’re in dangerous territory.

Who makes the cut?

In addition to smoothing over subtle differences within a religious tradition, the designation of something as a ‘World Religion’ is also often used to restrict what counts as a religion. Many people have inherited a list of the ‘big players’ like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism.

However, this approach ignores a vast range of religious systems, especially indigenous traditions.

It ignores, and encourages others to ignore, many vibrant and diverse expressions of human religiosity.

Religion or religions?

As a remedy for this singular approach to constructing religions, some scholars have argued that it is more appropriate to talk about religion in the plural: Hinduisms, Buddhisms, Christianities.

In 1963 Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote, “I seriously suggest that terms such as Christianity, Buddhism, and the like must be dropped, as clearly untenable once challenged”. He argued that the world had Buddhists but not Buddhism, Christians but not Christianity, and so forth. Smith suggested the word “religion” be dropped as well, claiming that monolithic terms such as “religion,” “Christianity,” “Hinduism” obscure the dynamic and personal quality of religious traditions.

Urubshurow, 2008, p. xix

Writing in Buddhisms: An Introduction, John Strong makes a similar argument, and suggests the use of the split singular/plural formation Buddhism/s. He points out that there are many points at which Buddhist traditions converge, yet these are also sites of contested meaning and disagreement.

It is sometimes said that one of the things that holds Buddhism/s together is the fact that, either explicitly or implicitly, Buddhists all turn to the “three refuges” or “triple gem” of the tradition: the Buddha, his Teaching (called the Dharma), and his community (called the Saṃgha). At the same time, however, it must be recognized that the Buddha, Dharma, and Saṃgha can mean different things to different Buddhists, so that while the three refuges may unite Buddhists everywhere, they also divide them.

Strong, 2015, p. 18

This convention reminds us that what we are looking at is a diverse group of traditions and practices that do not necessarily agree with each other - one only has to look at the differences between denominations of Christianity to understand that a single label is not sufficient.

Many Eucharists

As an example, we could look at the differences between a Protestant and Eastern Orthodox ceremony known as the Eucharist.

To begin with, let’s look at the original passage in the Book of Luke, one of the core Christian texts that describe the life of Jesus:

After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

Luke 22:17-20 (

I’ve added the emphasis to the line where Jesus specifically instructs his followers to perform the act of eating and drinking in remembrance.

Now let’s look at a description of the modern sacrament as celebrated by the Orthodox Church in America:

The first action of the liturgy is the gathering in common. The baptized and confirmed gather in one place. After the common prayer of the Church called the Great Litany in which petitions are made for all of the essential elements of life, biblical psalms are sung and the Word of God is presented to the faithful. Here the emphasis is on the epistle, the gospel and the sermon.

Then follows the offering of the bread and the wine as the offering of ourselves and our world to God in Christ. We ask God to accept us and our gifts (the bread and wine) as we love one another and confess the Orthodox faith, the Nicene Creed which we, or our sponsors for us, proclaimed at our baptism.

We then offer up ourselves and our gifts to God in Christ in remembrance of all that He has done for us: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection of the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the sitting on the right hand of God the father, and the second and glorious coming again.

We then call the Holy Spirit “to come upon us and upon our gifts” and to make them the Body and Blood of Christ and to give us the experience of the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus we receive back our gifts of bread and wine as the gift of Holy Communion with God the Father through Christ and the Spirit.

Finally we depart in peace to bear witness in the world to the Kingdom of God which has been given to us, calling all men into this unity with God and each other in Him.

The Orthodox celebrate this Mystery of the Kingdom of God, the Divine Liturgy on each Lord’s Day as well as on feasts and special occasions. It is the living experience of what all Christianity, and indeed all of life, is really about.

Finally, let’s look at how the Eucharist is celebrated by a Protestant church, in this case Barnstaple Baptist Church, in Devon, UK:

Our celebration is simple and straightforward. We take it at Sunday services twice a month. We take Communion because Jesus indicated that we should do it in order to remember Him (see: 1 Corinthians 11:23-36).

The Communion involves each Believer taking and eating a small piece of bread from a shared loaf. The bread symbolises and represents the body of the Lord Jesus Christ which He gave in the sacrifice of crucifixion for us.

The Communion also involves each Believer taking and drinking from a glass of wine or juice. The wine symbolises and represents the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ which He shed in the sacrifice of crucifixion for us.

By submitting to crucifixion Jesus procured for us the forgiveness and the cleansing of our sins and the salvation which gives us new life in His Holy Spirit.

In taking the Communion together we keep ourselves ever mindful of what Jesus has done for us. Unlike some churches, we do not believe that prayers over the bread and the wine change (or transubstantiate) them into the actual flesh and the actual blood of Jesus. We believe they are to be understood as symbols.

Although there are some key features in common with both services (eating the bread, drinking the wine), there are some interesting differences in how these acts are presented. For the Orthodox Church, the eating and drinking happen almost immediately, followed by a series of ritual actions designed to indicate surrender to God, remembrance of Jesus, and petition to receive ‘the gift of Holy Communion’. There is a sense that something mysterious and powerful is taking place, and that the bread and wine act as doorways into a deeper and more spiritual relationship with God.

In contrast, the Baptist Church uses the scriptural passage to provide the context and rationale behind the ceremony, and the act is rooted in remembrance, there is no sense that the bread and wine take on any spiritual power in and of themselves – the ritual is for the purpose of remembering the life of Jesus, in the way that is instructed in the Gospel.

This is just one example of the internal diversity within religions. When we talk about ‘Christianity’, what we are really doing is taking the most obvious features from a number of different traditions and individuals, and creating a merged version that might be applicable to every Christian, but this approach not only misses out on crucial detail, it is so frequently wrong or misleading that it does very little to advance our understanding.

More important than understanding what each ‘religion’ teaches, or what a ‘typical religious adherent’ believes or does, is to approach each individual as a fresh and unique example of lived religion – to expect and look for a vast universe of religions, grounded in human experience and complexity.

The urge to generalise can definitely be of service, and there is often as much that unites different traditions as divides them, but we must be careful in how much we allow ourselves to blend out the differences for the sake of making blanket statements about entire religious groups.


  • Strong, J. (2015) Buddhisms: An Introduction, London, Oneworld Publications.
  • Urubshurow, V.K. (2008) Introducing World Religions, Oxon, Routledge.

Further reading

This podcast from The Religious Studies Project discusses the World Religions Paradigm:

This article from Suzanne Owen dives into the topic in detail:

Image credits

Image by Barbara Mack from Pixabay