Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations

Edited by Linda Woodhead et al. Routledge 2002.

Reviewed by Laurie Chisholm

This is an interesting survey of the situation of religion in the contemporary world. It has a variety of contributors and is edited by staff of the religious studies department of the University of Lancaster. It aims to be a textbook for students of religious studies but would interest a much wider readership. Far from showing a merely archival interest in the diversity of religious thinking in our historic past, it aims to point up the continuing role of religion. The approach is sociological rather than theological or philosophical; in other words, it explores the function of religion in the lives of individual and groups, rather than trying to distill doctrines or a particular essence from each religion. The book is intentionally international and tries to escape a centre of gravity focussed on Europe or the US.
Traditions and Transformations
The book is divided into two parts. The first, Traditions and Transformations, looks at major individual religious traditions. I especially appreciated the surveys of Hinduism and Buddhism. Already here, it is looking at the way each tradition has responded to modernity.
Themes and Trends
In part 2, Themes and Trends, the book takes an inter-religious look at each theme. Peter Berger, once a true believer in secularisation, but now a skeptic, argues that Europe is the exception rather than the rule, so that one shouldn’t generalise about secularisation from the European experience. Other articles look at religion in relation to globalization, politics, and women.
Paul Heelas argues that the movement is not from religious to secular but from religious to spiritual. The New Age movement is just one example of life-spiritualities that are emerging.
Even Pentecostal and charismatic movements can be regarded as modern. In them, personal conviction counts more than doctrine, the faith of ordinary members more than the teaching of the leaders. They address personal needs and have a therapeutic intent, especially in small groups that are often a feature. They still have a Christian frame of reference, but this has been detraditionalized.



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