The objective of my categories is to orient the student once and for all into religion as a topic of study.
The seven categories are:
- Prehistoric Religion
- Indigenous Religion
- Ancient Religion
- The Hindi Religions
- Religions of China
- The Abrahamic (or Revealed Religions, if you like)
- Modern Religion
It is very important to note that, in my system of categories, I ignore the claims made by any one religion. Many of the modern religions, for example, consider themselves to be a continuation of – or, often, a singularly orthodox expression of – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or one of the ancient religions.
In addition to this, the many varied sects of any one religion often exclude their close neighbors and count differences as a reason for endless categories from within a religion. The declarations made by any one religion are not considered in the categories that I am proposing.
The student can memorize these seven categories in an afternoon, and benefit from them throughout a lifetime of study.
In the academic pursuit of religious literacy, it quickly becomes evident that humanity has always been religious. Any honest study of religion must begin with Prehistoric Religion, Indigenous Religion, and the Religions of Antiquity. These are the first three categories of my seven categories of all religions and each category has a short description.
Prehistoric Religion refers to all religious practice of humanity evidenced in the archeological record, up through the end of the Neolithic period of any given culture.
Indigenous Religions are the multitude of world religions that are specific to a geography and race of a particular people. Indigenous Religion does not have a written tradition and there are thousands of living and extinct indigenous traditions.
I define the category of Ancient Religion as the many religions of the ancient world from 4000 B.C.E. to the fall of the Roman Empire. In addition to this, to help the student begin with clarity, we consider that all ancient religion is extinct. Later, the student can argue, if they are so inclined, that the religious practices of prehistory, of indigenous peoples, and of the people of antiquity are all part of religion today. Indeed, a few of the ancient religions are still very much alive today, and are arguably part of an unbroken tradition that has existed since their beginning.
But this inconsistency in my classifications is easily rectified in later study and the initial benefits of these first three categories are not affected by the exceptions. Many of our living religious traditions emerged from their own indigenous and ancient period, and it helps the student all the more to study the practices of the distant past in isolation when necessary.
The next three categories cover the better-known living traditions. These categories are the Hindi Religions, Chinese Religion, and the Abrahamic Religions and will aid in the most fundamental aspect of the student’s religious literacy.
The Hindi Religions are the four living traditions that originated in India and are based on the Hindi language and culture. These are Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
The history of China presents the student with myriad indigenous Chinese religions, such as the rise of Taoist systems, the rise of Confucianism, as well as the rise of other religious and political systems. When introducing oneself to religious studies, it is best to leave the prehistoric and indigenous practices of China to my first two categories and include only Taoism and Confucianism as the two religions of China.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three so-called ‘Revealed Religions’. It might be more prudent of the student to refer to these as the Abrahamic Religions, but neither of these titles is without fault.
My seventh and final category is Modern Religion. This, again, is a healthy cheat. A modern religion is any and all religion that has a founder, or foundation after the beginning of the nineteenth century. There are hundreds of modern religions and they have quite a bit more in common than just their late origins.
An interesting subset of Modern Religion might be American Religion, since a large percentage of modern religion originated in the United States.
These seven categories are a context in which the student can retain their growing knowledge of the diverse religions of the world. These represent a shortlist that is easy to remember, especially with the first three categories, and the final (seventh) category serving as a general archive for myriad traditions.
Although much of South American religion began after the traditional dates for antiquity, the religion of the Mayan, Aztec and other Southern and Central American civilizations are all covered in the study of Indigenous and Ancient Religion.
A few of our living traditions end up defying my arrangement, the most notable of which are the Druze, the Samaritans and the Mandeans. I regularly introduced my class to the Druze when offering the class on Islam, with the qualifying note that, while the Druze religion has its origins in Islamic culture, it is not considered by anyone to be part of Islam.
Also, my categories raise the question of when one might introduce the student to the Samaritan religion and the long-lived tradition of the Mandeans. But these living traditions are so closely related in origin to Judaism for the Samaritans and Christianity for the Mandeans that there is little room for confusion.