My dear Christian friend has been giving me religious-themed books as gifts for years, not so much as a tool to convert me but more as a friendly nudge in my ongoing spiritual journey. His latest present, decidedly in more neutral territory, is A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions by John Dickson, an Aussie Christian minister and religious historian who has written more than a dozen books.
Having read more pro-Christianity and anti-Christianity literature than most sane people, I found this book to be an excellent and insightful experience that achieves its central aim — to educate people about the world’s five major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism (even though Sikhism, as I shockingly discovered, is actually more widely practiced than Judaism).
It would be natural, of course, to be sceptical of a Christian writer setting out to “introduce” readers to a book about four other religions, though unlike the furore sparked by Reza Aslan’s Zealot a couple of years ago, Dickson’s book barely caused a ripple when it was first released in 2004. Like Aslan, however, Dickson is a bonda fide historian with the credentials to back it up (he’s an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University), AND he tries really really hard to maintain a neutral stance in this book. If anything, he could be criticised as too cautious in his approach, as he sometimes goes overboard in defending himself to forthcoming doubters about his Christian background.
On the whole, however, Dickson does an enviable job of laying out the history and fundamental beliefs of the five major religions with fairness and respect. He starts with Hinduism because it’s the oldest, and ends the youngest of the five, Islam, which he spends perhaps a little too much time in defending — though to be fair, the defense needs to be placed in context because the book was written in the aftermath of 9/11.
The ideas and terms, especially those in Buddhism, are sometimes difficult to grasp, though for the most part they are described as simply as possible. The book is, after all, merely an “introduction” (it’s only about 240 pages), so those interested in any particular religion are encouraged to conduct further research. Most helpful is the summary section at the end of each chapter, where Dickson would boil everything about the religion down to a couple of pages of bullet points. A great cheat sheet for anyone doing an exam on the religions.
Another strength of the book is that it is not, at least on its face, proselytizing any religion in particular. Each religion is given roughly equal treatment, with the focus being on what the converts believe about their religion as opposed to whether the religion itself stands up to historical scrutiny. The message Dickson sends in the book, as summarised in a rather unnecessary final chapter, is that religions are not “all the same,” and that each religion deserves to be respected on its own merits. For me personally, I found the tone of the final chapter a little condescending, as though readers can’t make up their own minds from reading the rest of the book, but perhaps it might strike a chord with some of the agnostics out there.
The subtle way Dickson promotes Christianity in this book is by making readers read between the lines (and look, it wouldn’t be fair for a Christian minister to not even try, even if it’s subconsciously). By contrasting the religions against each other, Dickson highlights the unique nature of Christianity in that it is the religion with the most “witnesses” and the most down-to-earth foundation, and that the Bible is probably the “reliable” religious text of the big five religions. When pitted against Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism look airy-fairy, Judaism seems archaic, and Islam is just all based on the words of a single man. There are lots of fundamental questions about all religions, but when framed in this way, Christianity appears to have the least. It doesn’t necessarily make Christianity a “truer” religion, but the book at least sows a couple seeds in that field.
I don’t want to suggest that this book is not balanced because it is — and much more so than I had anticipated. I’d recommend it to anyone with an open mind about religion and wanting to learn about the basics of the big five. It hasn’t turned me into a religious expert, but at least I now have a better grasp of general knowledge stuff like the differences in the central beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists and the ideological split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.