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Beliefs that Changed the World: The History and Ideas of the Great Religions

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Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
May 2017
Fred's Rating: 
John Bowker
Total Pages: 
Quercus Publishing

John Bowker is an emeritus professor of Gresham College. London. He has been a Fellow and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. A well-known broadcaster on religions, he published more than 40 books. This was a Christmas gift. (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

Although I bought the paperback edition, I give here the Kindle edition website since it skips no pages:

The home page has a very brief summary (click ‘Read more'). Then use the Amazon preview’s option to ‘Look inside’ and scroll down to the 3-pp Contents. For the seven major and long-lived religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, India, Buddhism, China, and Japan – each of these seven begin with a few pages of overview. You should note the various sections for each of these seven major topics. These sections range in number from four (for Japan) to as many as many as eleven (for India). Note that India has so many sections since India has such diversity, not just which god or goddesses is the main one for a Hindu but also for the Hindu splinter groups of Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs. Buddhism could have had more sections than John Bowker lists. And Japan has a greater variety, depending on the emperor or the shogun (name of military leader when the military ruled Japan).

The Kindle edition ends after the first 11 pages of his 16-pp Introduction. I select below some of the excluded 5 pages. But first I give a quote from the last page of the Introduction, but in the reverse order – that is, first what this book covers, then what it does not cover:

“The purpose of this book is not to make judgements about the truth or value of particular beliefs: there is an account of what those judgements are and of how they might be made in my recent book, ‘Why Religions Matter.’ The purpose is too offer, much more simply, a first step towards understanding of the most important of those beliefs and to indicate how they came into being and what changes they have made in their long histories.”

“For the same reason of length, this book has not been able to look at all the many different ways in which religious beliefs have been expressed, as, for example, in art, architecture and systems of government – not because these things are unimportant, but because it is not possible to fit an ocean in a thimble!”

For me, since I am most familiar with the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions, I was surprised at how much John Bowker was able to include – by focusing on the major aspects of these three. I felt the same about Buddhism, where I knew of other groups than those he listed. But for the nations India, China, and Japan, I learned some new things about these three regions, especially how their religions adjusted to so very many versions as well as their histories during different eras and rulers. Overall, I am impressed at how the author was able to say so much in the length limitation he imposed upon himself. He was not repetitive but sometimes referred the reader back to a previous religion. He did this most often for the three Asian nations. This was a very enjoyable book to read!

In his last chapter – Conclusion and Further Reading – he summarizes in eleven pages some of the general features of religions. (The last three pages give further readings, including many of his books.) Since most informed people came to realize that religious beliefs were held by all people in all human-inhabited continents – from the early hunter-gatherers, through herding and agriculture to industry and specialized training and on into today’s world. John Bowker takes this for granted in his conclusion.

“…religions emerged as organized systems to code, protect and transmit information that successive generations of people have come to regard as particularly important. That information is not confined to words. Much of it is expressed non-verbally in actions, gestures, signs, symbols, music, dance, rituals and the like.

“The result has been that religions are organized systems in which some particular beliefs are endorsed and encouraged, while others are discouraged ad forbidden. Religions are protected circles in which people are likely to hold and share beliefs and practices. …”

“Religions thus established the limits of a life that can evoke approval and the predication of ‘good.’ They established the codes of behavior, as well as sanctions and endorsements to enforce them. And they have worked. For millennia religions have been the social context in which individuals have lived their lives successfully, where success is measured basically in terms of survival and replication, and socially in terms of approvable. Success, in this context, is certainly not being measured in terms of individual freedom. …” He gives examples from Islam.

“So the protected circles of religion may have either centralized or diffuse authority, but in either case they maintain and monitor boundaries.” [They may be literal (law codes) or metaphorical (either highly or loosely) defined.] For examples, he compared the Amish with the Bauls. I had never heard of the Bauls, derived from the Sahajita, who were derived from the Buddhist Siddhas who emphasized the central importance of ‘sahaja.’ “Sahaja is the absolute truth, which can be found from within the body.” It is a synonym for Nirvana. When the tide of Buddhism went out to India, the Bauls merged with Hindus but did not become identical with them – but they kept to their own ‘loose’ boundaries of seeking within oneself. About the Bauls, John Bowker goes on to say: “In that way of internalization, beliefs that change the world can change the worlds in which they live. Do they change them ‘for better or worse’? In this book it it seems obvious that they do both – harm, yes; but also immense good.” He doesn’t say what the harm is, but I have a thought about it – if all people would isolate themselves in seeking Nirvana, then humanity would soon vanish from the earth.

Near the end of this last chapter, he raises the profound question of how ‘to seek peace and ensue it’ (I Peter 3.13)? “How do we make a start in doing that? In a book of this kind, covering so many religious beliefs and so much history, it is not possible to provide a bibliography, but many of my books, listed below, contain bibliographies. It may be helpful that some of them were written to provide a first step in understanding religions.” After this ending come the 3-pp of Further Reading – so we are on our own in trying to answer the profound question. John Bowker provides only partial help in his Further Reading.

Perhaps that is all anyone can do. I do not favor this ending, but I still rate this book at four stars.

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