Book review: 'What Do You Believe?' DK Publishing, 96 pp, $16.99.
As a recent New York Times article observed, a growing number of parents are raising their children outside a church or synagogue. How to teach them about beliefs?
One answer is What Do You Believe?, a colorful, remarkably lucid introduction to religion. This slim, storybook-size book handily digests the history, beliefs and practices of the world's major religions -- and some of the minor ones -- into simple terms.
With its big graphics, bright colors and picture-book format, What Do You Believe? is clearly aimed at preteens. But it's much better than that. It's a brisk but systematic work that combines a survey on religion, comparative religion, history of religion and even philosophy of religion. All in less than a hundred pages.
There's a breathtaking timeline starting not in the Middle East, as so many such books do, but in Europe with cave art from 15,000 B.C.E. The book also mentions prehistoric burial mounds and stone circles, then moves to the more familiar Sumerians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indus Valley Civilizations and others.
A nice, big, double-spread chart compares six major religions -- Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism -- for their numbers, beliefs and practices. Included are main scriptures, main festivals and how many gods are worshiped.
More double-spreads go a bit more into each religion: its start, its key concepts, its main branches. You'll also learn about four main types of yoga; the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; the Torah and worship and acts of kindness as the heart of Judaism; how Sufism is not a separate branch of Islam, but can inform the other two main branches; and how Sikhs stress good deeds and devotion to God over rituals. The book even has a Campus Crusade-style diagram on how Jesus bridged the gap between God and humanity.
Other units scan "Native Religions," including those of native Americans, northern tribes and Australian Aborigines; East Asian religions, such as Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism; and "New Religious Movements" like Cao Dai, Christian Science, Krishna Consciousness and Scientology. This section is elastic, though; it includes the Mormon church, which began back in 1830.
And there's still more: closer looks at holy books, an explanation of prayer, a glimpse at rituals and festivals, distinct clothes and hairstyles, ethics of food and fasting, etcetera.
Even departures from organized religion have their say. A look at "Modern Spirituality" notes that it borrows practices from Eastern religions, but not their main beliefs and structures. And a surprisingly sophisticated unit on atheism notes subtle shades, like agnosticism and secularism. The book also notes that Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism don't require belief in a deity.
The section on philosophy probes the Big Questions, including what God is like, what is ultimate truth, why do bad things happen, and why do religions preach peace, then fight over it. In the latter case, the lucid answer is that some in every religion care about others, while some care more about their beliefs. The book scrupulously draws a line between fundamentalists -- those who simply want to spread their teachings -- and extremists, who use violence and terror to draw attention to their religion.
Especially impressive is how the book gets down to basics with questions like "What is a Religion?" For this answer, it calls on the late religion professor Ninian Smart, who developed a seven-part definition involving ritual, ethics, experience and the like. The book even neatly defines faith as "to have great trust in something or someone."
One might say this book is colorful to a fault. It has so many big pictures, graphics and clashing colors that each page spread assaults the eye.
More basic, the book asks "What is a Religion?" on page 20 -- after its gallop through religious history. If the question is important to ask, shouldn't it be asked at the start?
And there's at least one spelling gaffe, where the book says, "God is both transcendent (beyond the world) and imminent (inside us)." They meant, of course, "immanent," i.e., indwelling.
But those are fairly minor flaws for the feat of orderly clarity that is this book. The biggest surprise is that it doesn't list one author, just editors and designers. Someone deserves the credit for masterminding this.
James D. Davis