Religious Studies

Articles

On Grading Religions

John Hicka1 and H. G. Wooda1

a1 H. G. Wood, Professor of Theology, University of Birmingham and Danforth Professor of Religion, Claremont Graduate School, California

The idea of grading religions and placing them in an order of merit is to some repugnant, as involving a pretence to a divine perspective, whilst to others it seems entirely natural and proper, at least to the extent of their confidently assessing their own religion more highly than all others. We shall have to consider precisely what it is that might be graded, and in what respects and by what criteria. But if we think for a moment of the entire range of religious phenomena, no one is going to maintain that they are all on the same level of value or validity. Indeed the most significant religious figures, the founders and reformers of great traditions, have invariably been deeply critical of some of the religious ideas and practices around them. Thus Gautama rejected the idea of the eternal atman or soul, which was integral to the religious thought of India in his time; the great Hebrew prophets criticised mere outward observances and sacrifices, proclaiming that what the Lord requires is to ‘let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5: 24); Jesus, in the same tradition, attacked the formalism and insincerity of some of the religious leaders of his own time who ‘tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God’ (Luke 11: 42); Muhammad rejected the polytheism of his contemporary Arabian society; Guru Nanak in India and Martin Luther in Europe attacked much in the accumulated traditions into which they were born; and so on. Thus some kind of assessing of religious phenomena seems to be a corollary of deep religious seriousness and openness to the divine.