In the past several months, the study of comparative religion has moved from the abstract and intellectual to the everyday and intensely personal. No longer limited to classrooms and academics, interest in the topic has spread to ordinary people seeking to understand mass murder, suicide, wars and escalating violence, and how creeds and convictions are involved. The questions come up in the workplace, at the Y, in coffee shops, Sunday school classes and book groups: "What do they really believe?" "How does their religion compare with mine?"
Hungry readers are seeking information and perspectives in language they can trust and understand. Publishers know books that explain the world's religions, analyze interfaith conflicts and promote communication between adherents to different faiths are more important than ever, and the category is changing and subdividing to keep up. "I think the old vision of world religions being 'out there' and not in my own backyard has been forever subverted now," says Harper San Francisco publisher Stephen Hanselman. Religion scholars with a high public profile have been taxed by demands in recent months to provide explanations and solutions. "We need so many more people who are able to communicate to the American public," says Harper author and Harvard religion professor Diana Eck (A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation, 2001), calling on fellow researchers to stop just writing for and talking to themselves.
The Need for Compassion
For Eck, along with fellow HSF author Huston Smith and Knopf's Karen Armstrong, life since September 11 has become a blur of interviews and speeches. Speaking with PW from her London home, Armstrong says, "Basically, it's stopped all my work. I've been swept into a kind of media whirl instead of writing." The author of books such as A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Knopf cloth, 1993; Ballantine paper, 1994) and The Battle for God (Knopf cloth, 2000; Ballantine paper, 2001) says that at the time of the attacks she was supposed to fly to the U.S. to be in residence at Harvard for "a nice little sabbatical" and to work on her next book. She eventually got to Harvard, to stay for a month in Lowell House, where Eck is housemaster. But she didn't set foot in a single library. Time magazine immediately asked her to write a piece, and then Beliefnet.com got hold of her, as did various radio programs. She wrote articles for GQ and ModernMaturity magazines, publications that don't normally include much in the way of religion.
Readers literally rushed into U.S. bookstores and grabbed her works off the shelves, she says. "That's largely because a lot of the books I had already written were right on the subject. I've been writing for years about Islam, largely because I'd been so concerned and worried about the ignorance about Islam that is so prevalent in the West." Armstrong's Islam: A Short History (Modern Library) was published in 2000, but became a U.S. bestseller last fall and has remained on many lists ever since.
Having lost six months or so of writing time, during which she was invited to speak with U.S. legislators and before the United Nations General Assembly, Armstrong is only now resuming work on two books for Knopf. One is a memoir of her life beginning with the period when she was a Catholic nun in the 1960s. The other, with the working title The Great Transformation, focuses on the Axial Age, from 800 to 300 B.C., when the great religions came into being. "We still need this book," Armstrong says. "The chief discovery of the Axial Age was the discovery of compassion as a central virtue."
Confirming Religion Matters
Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief was published by HSF in 2000 and released in paperback in January. He wrote it intending to show why religion matters for the good. But after September 11, he looked at the title and flinched, he says. "I could just hear people out there saying 'Of course it matters. It matters for the bad. It does bad things.'"
His main task since has been to defend the original intent of his work, which did devote three pages to acknowledging various sins, excesses and shameful events of religion. But as both a religion authority and a Christian believer, he thinks it is important that "we not let this event and terrorism cause us to throw out the baby with the bath, because on balance I remain persuaded that religion does more good than harm." Smith, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., has been arguing that before a variety of audiences, speaking to church groups, to interfaith dialogue groups, on PBS and at the first California Institute of Integral Studies speakers series named for him. He says all his free time for reading now goes to the issue of terrorism and the U.S. response to it: "I'm on top, I feel, of the basic material, but I have to supplement that with books and journals and papers on the way Islam figures in the present controversy."
Smith, who will be 83 in May, thought Why Religion Matters would be his last book. But after the attacks, HSF persuaded him to publish the Islam chapter from his classic The World's Religions in October as a 100-page paperback, Islam: A Concise Introduction. Smith was given only two days to write the book's new introduction then, he says, but has had more time to work on a revised version he now has ready for a second printing.
In spite of recent events, Smith still knows where he stands on religion's benefits. "Millions of individuals begin their days as I do, namely with 15 minutes or so of Bible reading, prayer, meditation, trying to reach down into the secret parts of the self where the switches are thrown between hope and despair, courage and defeat," Smith says. "The down side, the shadow side of religion is definitely there and has to be faced up to, absolutely, clearly." But he says it would be a "serious mistake" for America and the rest of the world to give the negative aspects more attention than is deserved.
We Must Know More
When Diana Eck was on tour last summer for A New Religious America--her survey of growing U.S. pluralism that will come out in paperback in June--readers still were surprised to learn there were so many Muslims in America and that Sikhs were going to court to fight for their rights. Now, she says, "I don't have to convince people that the subject matter in my book is important."
Eck has been swamped with requests to speak at churches, to service clubs, in big civic forums and in smalltown venues. "I think it is a phenomenal thing," Eck says. "We simply need to know more about the world we live in and about our own country." She wrote for the paperback a new preface about the period since September 11 but says of the book, "It's amazing how much it really stands in light of what we know and need to know." In January, Columbia University Press published a second edition of the CD-ROM On Common Ground: World Religions in America, edited by Eck and a product of the Pluralism Project she directs at Harvard; it was first published in 1997.
Eck is encouraged to note a "kind of sea change in outreach" between people of different faiths following the attacks. Thousands of Americans have mailed condolences to the family of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the Sikh who was shot to death September 15 outside his Mesa, Ariz., convenience store, in what authorities said was a hate crime. More Americans have heard from their Muslim and Sikh neighbors in the past few months than in the past 35 years. But there also was a wave of hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs that was unprecedented, she says. People are frightened of what might happen next, and an undercurrent of racial profiling disturbs her. Eck says religion scholars must make sure "that we are not simply writing things for a small audience of our colleagues" but speaking, talking and writing in ways that educate the general public.
Comparative Religion 101
In Duluth, Minn., Anita Zager of Northern Lights Books & Gifts says an initial surge of interest in comparative religion books post- September 11 has subsided somewhat as readers concentrate on learning about Islam. But Armstrong's overview books continue to be strong sellers and have been selected recently by local book groups. "The challenge is to find something that is easily accessible for the average reader," says Zager. "Sometimes Karen Armstrong can be a little academic, I think, for most reading groups." She says her customers reach for known writers in seeking to understand the recent crisis. "I don't think they were ready to jump in with some new author they hadn't heard of before, to explain to them in an objective way the current issues. I think they would be a little more cautious about the instant-book phenomenon."
Barnes & Noble's corporate offices declined to discuss trends and sales, but buyers at independent stores in California and North Carolina echo Zager's experience--that at the moment more readers are building and broadening their knowledge of Islam than buying world religion books. Karen Pennington, inventory director for Kepler's Books & Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., says from September to mid-February the store sold 194 copies of Armstrong's The Battle for God and 60 of Smith's Islam, while the Islam-Middle East section had jumped to 12 turns per year. "Our customer base just wanted to get their hands on well-written, well-researched books," says Pennington. Sherri Smith, a buyer at The Little Professor in Charlotte, N.C., says the Koran and Armstrong's Islam: A Short History sold well among adult readers, peaking in December, but little changed with comparative religion titles. Now, Smith says, general inspirational and daily meditation books once again drive the religion section.
The trusted-name theory bears out on Amazon.com's bestseller list for comparative religion, where top spots are filled by two Huston Smith books: The World's Religions, which updated and revised his Religions of Man, first published in 1958 by Harper & Row; and The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions, published by HarperCollins in 1994 and in paperback by HSF the next year. Other perennials include Armstrong's The History of God, as well as The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers and Betty Sue Flowers (Doubleday cloth, 1988; Anchor paper, 1991).
Another strong seller on Amazon is a 1997 Alpha Books paperback, The Complete Idiot's Guide to World Religions by Boston-based writer Brandon Toropov and Father Luke Buckles, who teaches at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, Calif. That theme of simplifying the complex continues in 2002, first in January with the North Star paperback The Glory of God's Religions: A Beginner's Guide to Exploring the Beauty by Peter J. Caprioglio and McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing's Teach Yourself World Faiths, A New Edition, by Paul Oliver. In July, AMG Publishers will bring out the paperback World Religions Made Simple by Mark Water, and in August comes Adams Media's paperback The Everything World's Religions Book (Everything Series) by Robert Pollock.
Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs in America (Oxford Univ. Press Children's Books, Jan.) by Gurinder Singh Mann, Paul David Numrich and Raymond B. Williams is the 15th in Oxford's Religion in American Life series. Nancy Toff, editorial director for young adult books, says the core market is high schools, but the books really are for general adult readers. Jon Butler, professor of American religion at Yale, proposed the series, in which leading scholars cover religion's role in U.S. history. Toff says, "You can't study American history without studying American religion."
Toff tells PW comparative religion books and reference works have always done well for Oxford, but current interest is definitely up. The topic gets to the heart of how people live their lives and get along with each other in the United States, she says, and it's not going to go away. Oxford's 2002 releases that could be considered straight comparisons of faiths include World Religions Today (Jan.) by John L. Esposito, Todd Lewis and Darrell J. Fasching and Sacrificing the Self: Perspectives on Martyrdom and Religion (Feb.), edited by Margaret Cormack.
January saw the release from Ashgate Publishing of Religious Diversity by David Basinger, which in particular examines Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism. In April Continuum will publish Death, Ritual and Belief by Douglas J. Davies, which examines various funeral rites and beliefs about the afterlife from major world religions and local traditions. The Supreme Being provides subject matter for God: A Brief History (DK, May) by John Bowker. New reference books include The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions (Cambridge Univ. Press, Jan.), a comprehensive survey edited by John Bowker.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
Books that find the interface between religions and seek to build bridges will become more essential, says Helen Coward, Oneworld's sales and marketing director. One such book, Martin Forward's Interreligious Dialogue: A Short Introduction, released in December, is outperforming her expectations. Forward, who also wrote the Oneworld December release Religion: A Beginner's Guide, teaches religious studies at Aurora University in Illinois and is executive director of its Center for Faith and Action.
Coward says world religion books maintain consistently high sales at Oneworld, where the religion line's mission is to promote understanding among faith communities. But Buddhism books continue to be the bestsellers, along with books on Sufism, Rumi, mysticism and Kahlil Gibran. Accessible introductions to Islam specifically increased in sales after September 11. In October, Oneworld will reprint The Palestine-Israeli Conflict: A Beginner's Guide (2001) by Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Dawoud El-Alami. Both authors teach at the University of Wales, Lampeter, where Rabbi Cohn-Sherbok is a professor of Judaism and El-Alami, a Palestinian, lectures on Islamic studies. Coward says publishers' main task is to sustain readers' interest in religious pluralism by exploring what religions have in common. One example would be Oneworld's God: A Guide for the Perplexed (Apr.) by Keith Ward, which Coward considers to be a work of popular philosophy.
Jewish-Christian intersections and divergences come under examination in two February releases. Theological Book Service's Ethics in the Shadow of the Holocaust: Christian and Jewish Perspectives, edited by Judith H. Banki and John Pawlikowski, is part of the Bernardin Center Series. Westview Press has a paperback edition of Christianity in Jewish Terms (cloth, 2000), a Jewish theological response to improvement in relations with Christians, edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Sandmel and Michael Signer. In March comes Israel and the Church: Two Voices for the Same God by Jacques Doukhan (Hendrickson).
The pressing topic of Christian-Muslim interaction finds one historic angle in Between Cross and Crescent: Christian and Muslim Perspectives on Malcolm and Martin (Univ. Press of Florida, Mar.) by Lewis V. Baldwin and Amiri YaSin Al-Hadid. When the time comes for healing, one resource might be Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation (Templeton Foundation Press, cloth, 2001; paper, Feb.), edited by Rodney Peterson and Raymond G. Helmick. Desmond Mpilo Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop and Nobel prize-winner who was at the center of efforts to heal post-apartheid South Africa, wrote the foreword.
Finding Unity in Diversity
Christian books tend to examine other faiths in terms of mission opportunities, says Pam Brown, v-p of marketing and sales at Chalice Press, but she sees a new wave that recognizes that other religious practices are valid and share some roots and traditions. Chalice, an imprint of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) publishing house Christian Board of Publications, describes its readers as "thinking, caring Christians" who emphasize "unity in diversity and a critical/rational approach to biblical/theological matters."
Brown says sales jumped in recent months for Chalice's 1999 paperback Living Traditions of the Bible: Scriptures in Jewish, Christian and Muslim Practice, edited by James E. Bowley. The Vatican even ordered copies. "It seems there's a lot more interest in not just looking at the Christian faith but beyond," she notes. More readers seem to be becoming comparative scholars themselves, and Brown believes that builds respect among religions. Chalice always has been concerned with ecumenism and multiculturalism. Its new and forthcoming books include How to Be an Open-Minded Christian Without Losing Your Faith (Apr.) by Jan G. Linn; Sacred Acts, Holy Change: Faithful Diversity and Practical Transformation (Feb.) by Eric H. F. Law; and The Vision of the Ecumenical Movement and How It Has Been Impoverished by Its Friends (Aug.) by Michael Kinnamon.
Tolerance is the approach in the Thomas Nelson paperback Why So Many Gods? (Apr.), by Tim Baker, which describes for teenagers more than 100 religions, worldviews and occult practices from a Christian viewpoint. Christians looking for books that explain other beliefs in a pro-Christianity context can find Christian Faith and Religious Diversity (Fortress, Mar.) by John B. Cobb Jr.; Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (W Publishing Group, cloth, 2000; paper, Mar.) by Ravi Zacharias; and Bruce & Stan's Guide to World Religions & Spiritual Beliefs (Harvest House, July) by Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz.
Women scholars from major traditions explain and reflect on their religions in Through Her Eyes: Women's Perspectives on World Religions by McGill University religion professors Arvind Sharma and Katherine K. Young; the Westview Press paperback is due out next January.
Sir John Marks Templeton, who funds the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, assembles teachings from a wide array of belief systems in the paperback Wisdom From World Religions: Pathways Toward Heaven on Earth (Templeton Foundation Press, Apr.). Richard Cimino and Don Lattin discuss how Americans pick and choose from among a spectrum of spiritual offerings in Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium, which Jossey-Bass published in hardcover in 1998 and in paperback this month.
From Suffering, Solutions
With recent events, questions emerged about the nature of religion itself, whether it is a force for good or evil, says HSF publisher Hanselman. The secularist point of view only wants to see tribalism and the narrowing of traditions, he says, but as Huston Smith has appreciated all along, something on a higher level does provide answers. So people are reading now, and with practical motives. And once people get past the reaction of blaming religion, Hanselman says, "The answer for the future lies in pluralism and dialogue, and the ability of each tradition to sharpen and inform the other traditions." He expects books that explain the current dynamics and how religion can supply solutions will become more important.
Charles Kimball, chairman of Wake Forest University's religion department, is writing When Religion Becomes Evil, which Hanselman describes as covering six typologies inherent in corruptions of the major religions. The book will show that while no tradition is immune, every tradition can overcome and combat these corruptions.
Former Catholic nun Armstrong defines herself today as a "freelance monotheist" who "draws nourishment" from Christianity, Judaism and Islam and says she encounters many people who feel the same way. She thinks folks dipping into and out of various faiths has become a modern phenomenon, and with good reason: "There's a profound similarity that inspires all religions."
Armstrong will conduct courses on Islam for two months this summer at the Chautauqua Institute in New York. She says more needs to be written about what links the great religions, instead of what divides them. "I think that the awful and tragic and terrifying events of September 11 could be used positively if it leads first of all to greater understanding of other faiths," she says. "The experience of suffering can help us to understand the suffering of others. And that's the seedbed of compassion."