In May 1997 a few people on the internet listserver Irfan, both Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í, discussed the appropriateness of including the Bahá'í Faith in the socio-religious classification of "New Religious Movement," NRM. The ten more useful of those postings, by Denis MacEoin, Seena Fazel, Robert Stockman, Juan Cole, Will C. van den Hoonaard, Stephen Friberg, and Ismael Velasco are included here. I have edited them slightly to remove some comments unrelated to the discussion and to proofread. All authors have approved this compilation.
The first two letters, from Denis MacEoin, discuss the nature of "New Religious Movements" versus "World Religions" and claims that the Bahá'í Faith is being disingenuous in claiming to be a "world religion." The third, from Seena Fazel, offers a contrary interpretation, claiming that by other criteria the Faith is a "world religion." Fourth, MacEoin responds to Fazel's objection. Fifth, Robert Stockman summarizes his own interpretation of the term "New Religious Movement." Following these are some related letters from a later discussion on the listserver H-Bahá'í.-J.W.
Since [another academic] and I have coincidentally just agreed to start a thread on this very subject, let me come in here with a few remarks. As many of you will know, I have been arguing for years that it is more accurate to describe the Bahá'í faith as a New Religious Movement than a World Religion (especially "a world religion on a par with Christianity, Islam, etc."). I'll start the ball rolling with a citation from a recent discussion with [another academic].
[The other academic] said:
As to Stephen Lambden's recommendation that you call the Bahá' i Faith a world religion, at what point will you reconsider? At the centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, there were 37 chaplains pastoral associates) selected to minister to the spiritual needs of the Olympic athletes. These chaplains were chosen to represent six world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá'í Faith. Over time, your refusal to recognize the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion may, in retrospect, underscore this tendency towards tendentiousness in your work.
To which I replied:
As far as the world religion bit goes, I really won't back down on this. The reason things like the Olympic Games chaplains happen is that the Bahá'ís have done a great PR job in convincing people that they are a world religion. But in what way does Bahá'í fit with Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism? Numbers? There are at most 5 million Bahá'ís in the world (and probably a very great deal fewer). That puts them on a par with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons, and way out of the league of the rest. Time around? 153 years at most, if you include Babism. Again, not in that league. Influence on civilization? About as insignificant as it gets. Nation states adhering to that belief? Zero. To include Bahá'ísm as one of the world's 6 world religions is nonsense and very special pleading. There are no objective grounds for it. Bahá'ís would like to be members of a world religion, but that doesn't make it so.
End of that correspondence.
Let's take it a little further. Peter [Smith] is right to say that people like Eileen Barker don't treat Bahá'í as a NRM, because it ain't that new. But That doesn't mean I'm wrong to describe it as such. For one thing, I think sociologists have got themselves in something of a twist here, often using 1945 as a cut-off point before which there was nothing called a New Religious Movement. Now, there are reasons for working on that basis: the post-WWII period saw a remarkable burgeoning of NRMs. But that leaves us with the problem of what to do about earlier religious movements which do not comfortably fit the church, sect, denomination, brotherhood, gemeinschaft, or world faith categories. There are anomalies too: why is ISKCON treated as a NRM, when it might be more accurately classified as a sect of Hinduism? And why, for that matter, is Mormonism usually treated as a sect of Christianity, when it might qualify as a NRM? And so on.
I think some sociologists have had their judgement skewed by the cult factor. Books by people like Beckford on Cult Controversies (an excellent book, by the way) have tended to create a situation in which the public at large talk of cults, but sociologists talk of NRMs. In other words, NRM is a posh way of describing a cult. And cults tend to generate controversy. Since Bahá'ísm isn't seen as cultish or controversial, it gets declassified. That's another grave error. Bahá'ísm is extraordinarily controversial in Muslim countries, where it is treated exactly like a cult (sinister, operating through cells, brainwashing young people, etc. etc.). Just because Western sociologists still have a focus on Europe and America doesn't mean that perceptions from further afield can not be illuminating.
Having said all that, the debate about Bahá'í being a NRM or not is one that deserves to be carried on in wider circles. It's not the one I'm concentrating on here. In other words, while I do insist that it is nonsense to call the BF a world religion in any real sense, I don't insist on calling it a NRM. My problem is finding a more useful term. Certainly, it isn't a sect, church, or denomination. Unless somebody can come up with a better classification, NRM will have to serve. In any case, if we compare Bahá'í with some of the movements that are now regularly classed as NRMs, the resemblances are often striking. The Unification Church and Bahá'í have some extraordinary similarities, down to the style of their pamphlets and books, and the themes they express (world brotherhood, oneness of religions, etc.).
And I'm not sure Peter is altogether right when he says Bahá'ísm does not have the same features as other new movements. As I've just said, the resemblances to the Moonies are not minor. Everything depends on what you choose to emphasize and what ignore. There is no single type of NRM. There's a good summary of different typologies in the early pages of Roy Wallis's The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life. It's not so much a case of fitting Bahá'ísm into one category or another, as seeing common features between it in different phases and other movements. That is particularly true when one brings in some of the other eastern religions that moved to the West in the late 19th C, early 20th C. Of course there are big differences between Bahá'ísm and, say, the Children of God.
I don't mean to push this element too far. I've always stressed that I think Bahá'ísm is the NRM most likely to develop into something more significant in the next fifty years or so (though the time-scale is pure guesswork), and that is because it does have features that make it more genuinely universalist in scope.
Just to reiterate. I'm not being deliberately churlish when I argue against Bahá'ísm being a world religion. There are no formal requirements for entry into the world religion club, but a quick glance at all existing member suggests certain common elements: you should be old (at least 1500 years), you should be the faith of at least one nation state, and preferably a great deal more, you should have created at least one major civilization, you should have a well-developed tradition (scriptures, commentaries, possibly a well-elaborated legal system with books of law, theological schools, philosophical schools, seminaries, etc.), you may be widespread (but need not be), and you should have a well-developed sense of dual tradition (i.e. versions of the 'orthodox' faith existing alongside folk belief in certain regions). The Bahá'í faith doesn't qualify at all. Even the widespread bit does not, frankly, impress me. It has been artificially generated through planned missionary enterprise, something quite common to a lot of modern religions like the UC, Mormonism, and Jehovah's Witnesses. The Brahma Kumaris movement has over 3000 centres worldwide, close links to the United Nations, a world headquarters, a Global Vision peace project backed by the UN, etc. Yet it only has about 250,000 members. Soka Gakkai, on the other hand, has about 16,000,000 members, branches in 115 countries, an international campaign for peace, a consultative role with the UN, and has only been going since 1930 (but really since 1945). Nowadays, becoming global isn't really that difficult.
I have, let me add, never denied that the status of the Bahá'í Faith in the eyes of believers is that of a world faith. But the idea that Bahá'ísm stands on a par with Christianity etc. is a theological formulation based on the idea that Bahá' Allah is the latest of God's prophets, not an academic calculation based on membership numbers or real social significance. It is precisely because Bahá'ís carry out a sort of deception in this respect that I feel compelled to counter the world religion pose. For example, does anyone know what percentage of the participants or audiences at the Olympic Games were Bahá'ís? I should think it was very few indeed. In which case, why should the Bahá'ís need chaplains more than, say, Sikhs or Transcendental Meditators (4,000,000 worldwide) or devotees of Santeria or Vodoun or Candoble, or lots of other groups? Merely, I imagine, because it's a status thing, and can be put in volumes of the Bahá'í World (or in pamphlets etc.) in order to impress people and enable the self-fulfilling prophecy to go a stage further.
To clarify further. For those of you coming very late to me and my controversies, my use of the term Bahá'ísm is an attempt to introduce to the widest possible use what I see as a neutral term. There is no reason to see it as pejorative, since analogues such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, or, increasingly, Mormonism are value-free. Bahá'í Faith, particularly with a capital 'F' is the official name for the religion, and should only be used in contexts where this is appropriate. This doesn't prevent use of Bahá'í faith, Bahá'í religion, and so on, but it does help avoid the awkwardness of always one phrase.
That makes me wonder if anyone knows what prompted the UHJ in 1966 to change the official name from Bahá'í World Faith to Bahá'í Faith. I seem to remember that the official explanation was that it avoided any confusion as to whether there was more than one BF: but on reflection that seems a very weak reason. Was something else going on then?
Sorry this has become a bit muddled. But it's an interesting topic and worth getting views on.
To my knowledge, the only NRM with a self-perception similar to that of Bahá'í is the Unification Church. Its followers see Moon's mission as that of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, they think in terms of the fulfillment of earlier revelations, and so on. In practical terms, they are way behind the Bahá'ís in respect of numbers and influence (except in certain areas), although they are much better known by reason of their controversial reputation. Jehovah's Witnesses are, as is well known, wedded to a millenarian vision, with Jesus coming to transform the world into an earthly paradise which members will inhabit. This inhibits the idea of growth to become a universal faith (nor would the idea appeal in itself).
Just to follow that thought: I recommend reading Cantwell Smith's book, The Meaning and End of Religion. He talks about the growth of self-awareness among religions (Islam being, he argues, the first example of a religion that developed a sense of its self from the beginning, setting itself consciously in a line of revelation from Abraham on. The Bahá'í faith has this characteristic even more strongly, emerging from an Islamic context in its first phase. The later recognition of faiths like Buddhism or American Indian religion takes place in a different context, that of late 19th-Century/early 20th-Century consciousness of the idea of 'world religions'. (Islam thinks of revelations and, typically, of only divinely-revealed religions, with others as false, but modern Western conceptions encourage a wider acceptance of religions because they happen to be international or dominant.) That's why Bahá'ísm is the first religion to consciously see itself as a 'world faith' - it just wouldn't have made much sense before the 18th century, and really before the late 19th. If the BF had emerged in, say, the late Safavid period, it would almost certainly have developed as a small, heterodox group confined to the Middle East (and maybe Iran); appearing when it did (a theologian would say, when God decreed) it was able to transform its vision of prophecy fulfillment and the coming of God's latest prophet into a more pragmatic claim to be the latest and only uncorrupted world faith.
To follow that thought just a touch more. Religions which see themselves as exclusive vehicles for salvation will not see 'world religions' in a positive light. To a fundamentalist Christian (or Mormon, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.), Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. are all false faiths, the work of Satan, traps for the unwary etc. Given that understanding, it would never be their ambition to become that latest world faith.
This is why Bahá'ísm is interesting, and why I have always felt it has a better chance of long-term success than most other movements.
Brahma Kumaris sees itself as a spiritualizing movement rather than a world faith, although its origins are millenarian, and a millenarian theme runs through its Indian centres. It's always possible that at some point this millenarian strand could catch on in the West and provide an impetus for a wider missionary enterprise.
Mormons have a vision much closer to that of the Bahá'ís. They talk of a new prophet, a new dispensation, the coming of the Kingdom of God, setting up God's Kingdom through the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, preaching God's Word to all nations, and even becoming a world religion. They quote (interestingly) Tolstoy as saying: 'If Mormonism is able to endure, unmodified, until it reaches the third and fourth generations, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known.' In quoting prophecies, they argue for very similar results to those predicted by the Bahá'ís: "Where then is the kingdom to which Daniel refers? It will not come all at once, but, founded by God and not by man, though it had a small beginning, it is destined to fill the whole earth."
Soka Gakkai is very popular, but it sees itself as a form of Buddhism rather than a new faith. Its influence within Japan is, of course, considerable, mainly through its political wing, Komei to (up to 1970), but that's very nation-specific.
What interests me is the number of groups emphasizing world peace, links with the UN, and so forth. I presume that Bahá'ís would see this as a token of growing peace awareness, building towards the Lesser Peace. I'd be very interested to know whether Bahá'í commitment to these issues has exercised an influence on these groups, or whether the whole thing is a broad expression of a general pattern. There's a research opportunity there!
The problem with this debate is that there are no agreed definitions in the sociology of religion of the term 'world religion', and some question the usefulness of the term 'world religion' altogether (the latter is Margit Warburg's view when I spoke to her about precisely this issue).
When I looked into some of the literature (summarised in my brief paper in JBS 6.1.1994), one of the few sociologists that suggested criteria was Peter Clarke:
Thus I would view those religions of wide geographical distribution but confined to a single ethnic group, such as Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism, not as world religions but dispersed ethnic religions.
Theological characteristics are also relevant. In an article by Timothy Fitzgerald ("Hinduism and the 'world religion' fallacy" in Religion 1990), he argues that there is "one crucial qualification" for a religion to become a world religion - "it must develop a universal message, a doctrine of salvation that is sufficiently transparent to be potentially available to adherents in a variety of cultural contexts". This ties in with the second criteria above - it is what enables a religion to emancipate itself from its socio-cultural origins.
I am not aware of any sociologists of religion that use chronology, nation states, civilizations, legal systems, or membership as criteria for world religion status.
As for NRMs, Denis MacEoin is right to point out some of the problems with definitions. Beckford in ER clearly states that it refers to a number of separate innovations that appeared in the 1960s in the West. Barker uses the Second World War as a starting point. Clarke also states 1945 for Europe, America and Japan, but earlier in Africa.
However the sociological characteristics of NRMs seem to be agreed by the specialists in the field. There are three necessary conditions:
Thus it is not surprising that none of the prominent sociologists of religion in the field of NRMs (Barker, Beckford, Wilson, Clarke, and Wallis) have included the Bahá'í Faith as an NRM in any of their published work. (And Melton does not call it a cult.)
My own approach is a flexible one - the Bahá'í Faith can be called an NRM in some parts of the world, e.g. Eastern Europe since 1989, but not in others, e.g. Iran, India, Malaysia, Egypt, Western Europe and North America. From living there for a bit, it looked like an NRM in the Gambia from 1950-57, but gradually changed so that when I was there in 1992, it was more like a small world religion (which is how it was treated by the government and church).
Seena is perfectly right to say that a lack of agreed definitions causes problems in this area. Interestingly enough, Peter Clarke, one of the only sociologists/scholars of religion to provide an attempt at definition, would not take up my suggestion to include Bahá'í in his co-edited book The World's Religions (Routledge 1988). That volume (which was later broken into several discrete smaller volumes, published separately) ran to very nearly 1000 pages of solid text, making it probably the largest single work on the subject ever published, and containing some extraordinary refinements that allowed authors to treat in detail some previously obscure areas. As I remember it, Peter [Clarke] simply felt Bahá'í was too insignificant to merit coverage. I happen to think he was wrong in that assessment, but the fact that he (and, presumably, his co-editors) saw it that way is not unimportant.
I am not aware of any sociologists of religion that use chronology, nation states, civilizations, legal systems, or membership as criteria for world religion status.
Let's look at these a different way. They are undoubtedly common features of all the major world faiths. If we restrict ourselves to Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, then most of those features appear in all of them. If we're being very strict about it, then only Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity have all the features. But Hinduism gets in there because it has for a long time been the faith of a sub-continent, has been a massive influence on Indian (and some near-Indian) civilization, has a defined canon of scripture, schools of thought, etc. Judaism has played an important role in western civilization, is still experiencing a period of expansion (mainly in the form of Haredi movements), and so on. All these religions have a richness and texture that is missing from newer, thinner religions. I include Bahá'ísm in the latter, not because I don't think it stands out (I'll come to that in a moment), but because it really is lacking in the common features and in the richness that characterizes a very developed faith (where are Bahá'í theology, Bahá'í philosophy, literature, art, ritual, music, scholarship, mysticism, etc. ?). It is a thin religion, even if it has important and interesting features. The decision to embark on writing a Bahá'í encyclopaedia was, in my opinion, extremely premature (and the fact that the project was hijacked by fundamentalists is suggestive - that couldn't have happened to the Encyclopaedia Judaica or the Encyclopaedia of Islam, for example, simply because a much wider tradition of scholarship exists).
While we're on thinness: Seena's reference to 'tribes, ethnic groups' and so on is similar to the problem I've previously referred to about membership numbers, or the number of languages receiving Bahá'í literature. There may be high figures, but in most cases we're looking at a very thin range. How many of these tribes etc. are a strong presence within the Bahá'í community? In some cases a whole tribe may belong, in others one or two members. And I have real concerns about multiple allegiance.
All I'm trying to say here is that it's vital to create some sort of clarity in this situation. To say that the Bahá'í religion is a world faith on a par with Islam etc. is, whatever the arguments used to justify it, a nonsense on too many levels. If I could extract an admission of that from a few Bahá'ís I'd feel we were getting somewhere.
To admit that would allow us to look more carefully at where it should go. I've placed it among NRMs because I haven't found a better place. I agree that the Bahá'í faith doesn't fulfill some of the criteria for a NRM, like the three features noted by Seena
Likewise with first-generation membership. There are already second- and third-generation members for sever al NRMs. And its worth saying that a lot of today's Bahá'ís are first- and second-generation (perhaps Peter Smith has some idea of the percentage). The generational depth of the Bahá'í community is not great, and in a context where there is no developed Bahá'í culture affiliation must be regarded as unstable. (What is the current status of some earlier areas of major growth like Uganda, Vietnam, or the southern United States?)
Finally, the socio-economic and age range isn't valid across all NRMs, and won't be true as they develop.
The mistake here is to see such movements as static, rather than in state of development. I consider Bahá'ísm to be the most developed NRM, and believe that some others will follow it.
Nevertheless, Seena's comments do fit in with some of the things I've said over the past few days. What we seem to need is a better system of classification which allows us to do justice to a sensible number of groups without distorting any one of them too much. I agree that Bahá'ísm isn't entirely happy within the NRM setting. One solution there is to expand the use of NRM to cover a larger range of movements, like Mormonism. Another may be to break down religions into world faiths (Islam, Christianity, Buddhism); major ethnic faiths ( Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism; Daoism; Confucianism; Shintoism); minor ethnic faiths (Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Vodoun, Candoble, Santeria); minor global religions (Bahá'ísm, Mormonism); Sects; and New Religious Movements.
I'm not sure if that works very well, but it looks a bit better than anything looser.
Incidentally, the book edited by Clarke et al. referred to above is far from being the only book on world religions that does not include Bahá'í. I'd guess a good majority of general studies either don't include Bahá'í or mention it in passing. The few that do give it prominence are anomalies. Is that itself an indication that Bahá'í self-perception is out of step with wider perceptions, both academic and public?
Just looking over Peter [Smith]'s recent posting, I'd say he is saying something very similar to what I have suggested above, when he typifies Bahá'ísm as a 'small-scale world religion or religious movement.' Perhaps he'd like to comment.
I largely agree with Denis about this world religion/new religious movement debate. The category "world religion" I had always assumed had been invented by Bahá'ís, and I am a bit surprised to hear some sociologists have used the term. It's very hard to define usefully. Nowadays almost all large religions are "world" religions in some sense, there being Japanese in Latin America, for example, whose Shinto ideas may be expressed in Spanish. Mass migration has mixed and spread the existing religions greatly.
As for "New Religious Movement," I have seen various chronological definitions offered. While some define a NRM as a religion starting after World War Two, others recognize many 19th century NRMs, like Mormonism. Chronological definitions of the term underline the difficulty of defining "New Religious Movement"; in many ways you can define it as something some people are too polite to call a cult! Considering the global nature of post-World War Two society, many NRMs are also incipient or small world religions as well. Consider the Moonies in the capital cities of Africa. The Unification Church is trying very hard to be a world religion in the same sense the Bahá'í Faith is trying; and while they have many fewer members, they also have more money, and a good number of scholars of their own with PhDs who teach at North American universities.
-- Rob Stockman
I have the pleasure of agreeing with my colleagues ... and ... that the Bahá'í faith may be considered a world religion.
It seems to me, however, that such a proposition depends very much upon how the term is defined. There are some in religious studies who would deny the usefulness of the term "world religion" altogether, seeing it as an Orientalist privileging of a few traditions with a strong textual underpinning that slights equally vigorous and important traditions such as African religion, which remained largely oral. I personally think the term is useful, and that objections to it can be met by showing how there are many different types of world religion.
Said Amir Arjomand in his Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam, p. 1, says, "Twelver Shi'ism, as a branch of Islam, can be fruitfully considered a "world religion" as conceptualized by Weber--that is, as an autonomous intellectual patter or belief system, which is embodied in meaningful social action and enfolded in sentiments."
N. Ross Reat and Edmund Perry, A world theology: the central spiritual reality of humankind (Cambridge University Press, 1991) also argue that there are ways of defining the term 'world religion' so as to include phenomena such as the Bahá'í faith, Sikhism, Taoism, and so on. They think that orientation toward a transcendent reality, the existence of particular sacred narrative, myth and symbology, and a missionary sensibility or at least a sense of mission among humankind, are all important factors to the definition. Because they stress a desire to convert others and a universal mission, Reat and Perry include the Bahá'í faith among the world religions, but exclude Hinduism!
It has in fact been argued that the Bahá'í faith is not a world religion in the sense of deserving an objective place among the great world faiths that include Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. Those following Karl Jaspers have noted that of these traditions all but Islam originated or were classically formulated in the period 600 B.C. to the first century A.D. I suppose from a Jasperian point of view one could talk about the Long Axial Age 600 B.C.-622 A.D. so as to include Islam. During this millennium, the old pagan, polytheistic religious systems gradually began to be supplanted by "prophetic" religions. Obviously, the Bahá'í faith does not fit in with what might be called the Axial world religions, or the Classical Large World Religions. They typically are old, and with the exception of Judaism and Zoroastrianism have hundreds of millions (if not a billion and more) followers. Alongside these large, civilizational phenomena may be set traditions that developed in the Axial Age but which did not garner really large numbers of adherents, for all their importance in world religious history--Jainism, Taoism, Manichaeanism, and so forth. (Zoroastrianism is significant in being now tiny but having once been the major religion of Iran and some neighboring regions such as Armenia).
If we combined Weber and Reat and Perry, and attempted to build on Jaspers, I think we may posit the existence of a new set of small, relatively recent world religions that have emerged in the early modern and modern periods--Sikhism, Mormonism, the Bahá'í faith, the Ahmadiyyah, and some others. Several of these are post-Islamic in the sense of having emerged in a milieu that was Muslim or highly influenced by Islam. Their number of adherents ranges from a few million to about 20 million, and none dates from before the sixteenth century.
Of course, it is the goal of the new, small world religions to become established and large. Sikhism (about 20 mn.), Mormonism (9 mn.), and the Ahmadiyyah (10 mn.) all appear to be doing better numerically than the Bahá'ís, who claim around 5 mn. (a number I personally think inflated). In Western Europe, countries such as Holland, Spain, Belgium and others have Bahá'í communities of only a few hundred or at most thousand. These are just not significant, and in a Western European context it would be absurd to see the Bahá'í faith as somehow having the same standing as Christianity, Judaism or Islam (Indeed, there are almost certainly more Hindus and Buddhists in most Western European countries than Bahá'ís). It remains to be seen which of these new world religions can make the jump to 100 million members in the next century or two.
I think the category of a second axial age and the emergence of a new set of religions in the era of modernity helps make sense of the current situation. It provides a way of talking about world religions that does not attempt to put a small, new faith on exactly the same footing as a huge old one. Note that it also distinguishes the older, 19th century traditions from the New Religious Movements of the '60s, and so accords with my own feeling that the Unification Church, Rajneeshism, the Divine Light Mission, the Society for Krishna Consciousness and other phenomena new on the American scene should be seen as analytically distinct. (On the other hand, I think some of the new world religions reacted to the '60s and '70s in ways analogous to the New Religious Movements).
I don't believe that "recognition" is particularly important in deciding what is a world religion. The Bahá'ís were chosen to consult with the World Bank as part of a long-term process that will also bring in the Sikhs and Taoists (in whose company the World Bank announcement put the Bahá'ís).
Both the latter groups are much larger than the Bahá'ís (and even just in North America claim comparable numbers). I think it is wonderful that the World Bank, which for too long was fixated on per capita income figures, is beginning to take spiritual values more seriously, and obviously the Bahá'í scriptures offer very powerful spiritual insights for modernity and postmodernity. But deciding what is and is not a world religion can't be done on such contingent grounds.
University of Michigan Ê
'systems' of motifs, symbols, cognitive strategies, [and] definitions . . . that manage to be adopted over a widely diverse and variegated linguistic, cultural and geographic domain [that define and represent] distinctive and coherent world[s] or universe[s] of discourse."
can create a central body of belief which is not tied to a particular cultural expression. [It can] translate itself into widely different cultural contexts without losing a distinguishing identity.This, he writes, is what differentiates world religions from local cults, ethnic religions, and tribal religions.