A challenge from a reader who knows that for eight years I've taught a University of Texas course on major world religions: "Could you explain in a column how you do that in one term at a state university?"
Here goes. First, we start with what's basic: How is the universe/the earth/life/human life here? We then work through four questions: TC or ID? G or F? B or Q? C or L?
Question No. 1: TC or ID? The universe, the world, life, mankind: Everything came about through "time plus chance," to use Francis Schaeffer's term, or through intelligent design of some kind (old earth creationist, young earth creationist, "guided evolution," Hindu/Buddhist concepts, etc.). Less than 10 percent of people worldwide are atheists, according to adherents.com. Others see intelligence of some kind behind the universe and everything in it. (Of course, the majority could be wrong.)
Question No. 2: F or G? Is the intelligent design a product of an impersonal Force of some kind, as Hindus/Buddhists (20 percent of the world's population) believe, or is it the creation of a God with personality and the ability to communicate? Adherents.com estimates that 54 percent of the world's people adhere (many very loosely or quirkily) to one or the other of two popular understandings, Christianity or Islam.
(This means that close to three-fourths of human beings are connected in some way to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. The remaining non-atheists among the world's people tend to be loosely deistic, polytheistic or animistic.)
Question No. 3: For the 54 percent, B or Q? Maybe 2.1 billion people adhere in some way (often loosely) to the Bible, and 1.3 billion to Islam's Quran. It's vital in today's war-torn world to know the radically different conceptions of God and Allah that the two religions proffer. For example, Islam does cite Christ as one of 25 messengers from God, but that's very different from considering Him the fulcrum of history.
(My course also includes Judaism, even though the worldwide Jewish population is only about 15 million, merely a drop in the religious ocean -- but an enormously influential drop in the United States, where the Jewish population includes 13 percent of the U.S. Senate and 22 percent of the Supreme Court, not to mention Spielberg and Seinfeld.)
Question No. 4: C or L -- theologically conservative or theologically liberal? The simplest way to hash this out: Do you think that the scripture to which you are connected tells you the story by which you are to live your life, or does it give you some general principles from long ago that, given changed conditions, are probably no longer valid?
We look at Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox divisions in Christianity and Sunni/Shia/Sufi divides in Islam, but note that the C or L question cuts across and within groups. In Islam, for example, 85 percent of Muslims are Sunnis, but that doesn't tell you much about how they live; it's more important to find out whether they are Hanafi (the most liberal Sunni school of thought), Hanbali (the most conservative) or one of the two schools in between.
The key divide within broadly defined Christianity (note: the theological C/L divide is not the same as the political one) is whether the biblical accounts are historically accurate or mythical. Paul, the apostle, wrote that "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and we are of all people most to be pitied." Positions on issues such as abortion also depend on whether we read the Bible as God's special book, or as an old book with some relevant thoughts and some we can ignore, as we choose.
TC or ID? G or F? B, Q or S? C or L? After a course that spends only three weeks on each major religion, barely scratching the surface, students will still be confused by the hundreds of different brands on sale along the aisles of our religious supermarket, but at least they'll know the basic food groups.