The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions by Huston Smith is the second edition of his book The Religions of Man, which was originally published in 1958 following the success of an early American public television series which Smith hosted. The title was changed to avoid the sexism of the previous one, and the new edition was published in 1991. An illustrated, abridged edition, The Illustrated World's Religions, was released in 1995, and the unabridged book was reissued with a new foreword for its fortieth anniversary in 1998. Between these various editions, the book has sold over two million copies, and the sections on Islam and Buddhism have recently been excerpted and expanded as Islam: A Concise Introduction and Buddhism: A Concise Introduction.
Smith's book contains ten chapters: a "Point of Departure," chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and "The Primal Religions," and "A Final Examination." "Point of Departure," situated at the very beginning of the book, describes what we can expect to read within it, noting three descriptions of the book's goals. First, it is a book that seeks to embrace the world, introducing us to concepts from around the globe in an age when travel and communication with those who believe in the truth of the concepts is easier than ever before. Secondly, it is a book that, in Smith's words, "takes religion seriously," focusing on central ideas and not the sometimes violent or sexual applications of these ideas. Finally, it is a book that attempts to communicate clearly the ideas it discusses, so that a lay person can truly understand, if only to a limited degree, what is likely to be strange and foreign thinking.
As a result of these decisions as to content, The World's Religions focuses primarily on the ideas and meanings of religions. Although Smith includes some history, it is merely a foundation on which to explain concepts; although he describes some methods of worship, they are merely illustrations of the thinking behind them. Each chapter of the book describes the values, teachings, dogma, and even imagery of the religion in question. The chapter on Hinduism, for instance, focuses on the question of "what people want," a central concept of the religion, and describes the various paths that Hinduism sets out for achieving one's goals, while the chapter on Judaism concerns itself with the religion's search for meaning and includes sections entitled "Meaning in God" and "Meaning in Suffering," among others. The concluding chapter, "A Final Examination," is more or less what it sounds like; it consists of short essays on the relations between religions and the wisdom we can gain from an understanding of religions.
We are about to begin a voyage in space and time and eternity. The places will often be distant, the times remote, the themes beyond space and time altogether. We shall have to use words that are foreign—Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic. We shall try to describe states of consciousness that words can only hint at. We shall use logic to try to corner insights that laugh at our attempt. And ultimately, we shall fail; being ourselves of a different cast of mind, we shall never quite understand the religions that are not our own. But if we take those religions seriously, we need not fail miserably.
—Huston Smith, The World's Religions
The World's Religions by Huston Smith