Today is release day for 12 Major World Religions, so I'm celebrating it with a quick, self-interviewed question-and-answer session. Enjoy!
What was the writing process like?
Since the book was intended to provide a comparative approach, my research for each religious system was built around several categories—beginnings, historical timeline, major figures, major tenets, etc. Those sections are where I started with each religion. Other sidebars and different details developed from there as I studied and read. As for sources, I spent a lot of time between academic or anthropological books about the religion (like Mary Boyce’s valuable works on Zoroastrianism, for instance) and those written by leading voices within the religion (like Pickthall’s The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an).
Is it hard to write an unbiased book about religion when you come from a Christian background?
Not as hard as you might think. It would be arrogant to pretend that I didn’t have some biases going in, though I worked to limit them. I definitely am more familiar with the tenets and teachings of Christianity than any of the other faiths I wrote about. I’m also more familiar with Christianity’s more negative or problematic aspects, too. So I think those balance out. But I want it to be clear that, despite my background, this is not a “Christian book about world religions.” I try to keep as secular a perspective as possible and approached every religion, including Christianity, from a neutral viewpoint.
What religion was the most interesting to you?
Sikhism, without a doubt. After spending hours writing about a religion, I would sit down at dinner and share a little about that faith with my wife and two teenage kids. I found myself talking most passionately about this misunderstood Indian faith which focuses on equality, hospitality, and inclusiveness. You've seen Sikhs before, especially if you've taken a cab in a large city like LA or New York—they wear turbans and have a long history of persecution, at the hands of Muslims and Hindus in India and even from Americans in the days after 9/11. There are so many things I found inspiring about Sikhism.
What religion surprised you most in your research?
Zoroastrianism, again without a doubt. I had some familiarity with this ancient and influential faith from previous books (including this one), but the more I've dug into its teachings, the more I see its similarities with elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The doctrinal overlap between these faiths are controversial in a lot of circles—it has to do with how you date the development of Zoroastrianism compared to the Babylonian Exile—but they are fascinating to consider.
Which religion did you like the least?
I'm not answering that. :)
What are some random religious beliefs that now interest you?
In no particular order, here are things I still find myself telling people about: towers of silence (Zoroastrianism), the Sikh principle of seva (Sikhism), naked Digambara monks (Jainism), the Muslim appreciation of Jesus as the prophet Isa ibn Maryam (Islam), the idea of work as worship (Baha’i), and Tibetan prayer flags (Buddhism). In fact, my wife and I recently hung Tibetan prayer flags on our back porch because 1) they look cool and 2) I like the symbolism.