I had often wished for an improved system of categories when I began my study of the world religions. The categories offered were frequently unhelpful due to oversimplification, or they were difficult to remember, or simply excluded some religions all together.
Several groupings were based upon philosophical or theological analysis and, apart from being difficult to memorize, were mired in polemic. Some systems of categorizing religion betray a Judeo-Christian point of departure, while others make an attempt at unraveling religion based on the claims and values of the religions themselves. This last point was always the most muddling.
It is confusing, as well, that researchers occasionally add schools of philosophy as examples of religion. I had even found one book in the private library of an Indian Jesuit priest in Chennai (then Madras) that listed Marxism among the world religions. It is also suggested from time to time that an individual’s atheism is potentially another kind of religion. This pretzel logic does the student no good and, indeed, betrays a reluctance to pursue the subject in the first place.
To be fair, arranging the world’s religions into a system of categories defies the clean distinctions sought by encyclopedists. But what is needed for the student of religion at the outset of their studies is a short list that enables easy memory, without being misleading.
My categories allow the student to remember and distinguish the major living traditions and preserve for future study any and all religion, extinct or otherwise.
I will present my categories in the second part of this post.