The idea of world religions became a popular way of thinking about the diversity of the world's religious traditions in the latter half of the 20th century. Religious communities were thought of as “world religions” if they were historic religious traditions with a worldwide or nearly worldwide presence/distribution, regardless of their numbers. World religions were regarded as possessing a standardized scripture or set of scriptures (i.e., a sacred canon), a universal message, shared rituals, and a religious clergy (Masuzawa, 2005).
Though most religious traditions are, in fact, far too diverse internally to conform to any simple description, thinking about “world religions” using this template often forced them into a uniform mold. Moreover, assumptions were made about the difference—an implied cultural superiority—that the major world religions possessed in contrast to nontextual, nonhistorical “traditional religions.” Some scholars have suggested that the following features distinguish world religions from traditional religions (Beyer, 2008).
1. World religions deal with larger, more abstract theological concerns about crucial topics such as salvation, the human problem and its remedy, and the nature of the Divine or governing grand principles, whereas traditional religions focus primarily on more immediate concerns, such as how to treat a snake bite, to find a marriage partner, to obtain success in a business venture, or to divine the whereabouts of a wrongdoer.
2. World religions have formalized, standardized scriptures, whereas traditional religions are chiefly carried through oral tradition.
3. World religions are more expansive, appealing to a wider range of people than traditional religions, which are usually confined to a particular locale, ethnicity, or small-scale people group.
None of these categories apply to all forms of the “major world religions” or to all aspects of the “traditional religions,” and it is important not to overplay the distinction between world and traditional religions. On the ground, where people live, work, are born, and die, religions are not experienced by the believer as neatly separated types, “world” and “traditional.” As such, these distinctions are, at best, heuristic categories (in the language of sociology, “ideal types”) and at worst, misleading stereotypes, since they do not capture all the nuances of lived religious experience.
The typical list of world religions includes Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Daoism (Taoism), Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with Daoism and Confucianism not only considered Chinese religions but philosophies as well. There are several ways in which these world religions have been compared and contrasted. One is by region, highlighting a religion's place of origin and its expansion globally. Thus, there are the Middle Eastern (or Abrahamic) traditions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), the South Asian (Indic) traditions (i.e., Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism), and the East Asian traditions (i.e., Daoism, Confucianism, and some forms of Buddhism). No world religion has emerged evenly around the world, but all have appeared in a specific time and place. Distinctions are also made between those religions that have a particular founder (e.g., Islam, Christianity) and those that do not (e.g., Hinduism) (Casanova, 2008).
The great sociologist of religion, Max Weber, referred to ...