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When assessing any encyclopedia or dictionary of religions, the first term to read is the authors or editors definition of religion. The definition will provide insight not only into the inclusion and exclusion of certain religions, but will reflect the philosophical background and bias of the author. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Mircea Eliade the entry for Religion begins by stating that the very idea of distinguishing religion as separate from the remainder of life is primarily a Western concern. Gerald Benedict, a comparative religious philosophy scholar, lays the framework for his dictionary when he writes that religion is "a notoriously difficult term to define with any kind of precision." As a corollary, this dictionary is expansive in scope and is written for scholars, students and the casual reference seeker. As a single source of information on various world religions and secular faiths, this guide's features include all major belief systems, cults, religious and philosophical figures, secular faiths and philosophical movements, a general bibliography of works consulted, and most importantly a chronology of religious figures and events.
Entries are alphabetically arranged by term and each entry contains cross-references leading to words most frequently found in the lexicon of these systems, indicating how the word is used and understood. For example, the entry on UFO Cults includes references to Atherius Society, Chen Tao, Heaven's Gate, and Raelianism. Illustrations are limited, but included where necessary. For example, a figure of the Sri Yantra -- a configuration of nine interlacing triangles surrounding the central point -- accompanies the entry on Sacred Geometry. Of particular strength is the aforementioned chronology, providing a historical overview of the development of religious traditions and the historical event that precipitated them. The timeline begins in 40,000 BCE with the possible migration of Aborigines from Southeast Asia to the conclusion of the Mayan Calendar in 2012.
The guide's only weakness comes from the brevity of each entry -- many of which are little more than a paragraph or two long. Whereas a student utilizing the guide for quick reference may be satisfied with the topical overview, the serious scholar may yearn for more. Nevertheless, the range of entries more than makes up for the lack of depth.
Although many of the entries (Christianity, Buddhism) will be well known to the average student of religions, the addition of secular faiths and mystical cults (Krewes, Jombala Cult) should stimulate the desire of the reader to learn more about the complex, evolving, and multi-faceted nature of religion.
The Encyclopedia of Religion. Mircea Eliade, ed. New York, Macmillan, 1987.
© 2008 Joshua Finnell
Joshua Finnell is a reference librarian and assistant professor of library science at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In 2006, he received his Masters of Liberal Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis with his thesis entitled, Heavy Metal Religion: Holy Sh*t or Authentic Fake.