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In which religion did the golden rule originate?
When is Buddha's birthday celebrated?
What is the world's most widely practiced religion?
The answers to these questions and many more can be found in One World, Many Religions, a superb new book by Mary Pope Osborne. Osborne's writing is lucid and informative-full of dignity and respect, managing to strike just the right tone without talking down to young readers or going over their heads.
My own work as a fact-checker makes me fully appreciate the scope of her achievement. I was once assigned to fact-check a high school social studies book containing what I came to call "The Jesus Chapter," an historical account of the years before and after Christ's birth. After finding many mistakes and noting a litany of debatable points, I was struck by the near impossibility of writing a clear, objective, accurate account of any religious topic for a general audience.
Osborne has done just that. Whether you're an atheist, Muslim, Baptist, or anything else, my guess is you'll find the volume not only interesting, but fair to all, with neither biases nor judgments. Osborne majored in the study of religion in college and has traveled a great deal in the middle East, India, and Nepal so "this was always a subject I was fascinated in." Her keen interest and research are coupled with her respect for the religions covered. She has also visited a lot of schools around the U.S. and been impressed with two facts: our children know very little about religion, their own and that of others, and right now living in our own country are many people who practice different faiths. "There is no way that our children can fully understand world history, current events, philosophy, psychology, or art without knowing the basic teaching and beliefs of the world's major religions." When Osborne approached her publisher Knopf about the project, she discovered they had been thinking of publishing a book for children on religion.
One World, Many Religions is a large book in both size and substance, ideal for families, schools, or public libraries. Ostensibly for middle-grade students (ages 9-14 are the targeted audience), adults will also find the discussion a helpful refresher course or a good introduction.
Osborne's text is complemented by gorgeous photos of National Geographic style and caliber. Leaf through the pages and you're apt to be drawn in by such shots as a Burmese boy having his head shaved before he enters a monastery; the contortions of a Hindu practicing yoga; Jewish children dressed in costumes on Purim; or a Mennonite girl seated at a service in Pennsylvania. More than mere decoration, though, these photographs put a human face to a multitude of philosophies.
Osborne summarizes the world's seven major religions in individual chapters: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Each discussion includes a brief introduction, an account of the religion's history and major beliefs, and a description of practices and holidays.
Great care has been taken in every aspect of production, from writing and illustrations to layout and design. Rounding out the title is end matter that includes a helpful glossary, a world map showing in which countries various faiths predominate, a timeline, and a bibliography.
Perhaps most fascinating are chapters devoted to religions that are least familiar to most of us. Osborne's introduction to Hinduism is a prime example of her superb writing:
"In the countries of India and Nepal, the sights and sounds of Hinduism are everywhere-from colorful roadside shrines to the constant tinkling of temple bells. Hinduism is not only the major religion in these countries, it is also a way of life that determines what kind of jobs people have, what friends they associate with, what foods they eat, and whom they marry."
In just a few words the author paints not only a vibrant portrait of a culture but the flavor of societies where religion strictly defines every detail of daily life. The chapter on Buddhism explains how this religion grew out of Hinduism roots, how the two differ, and how Buddhists have divided themselves into many subgroups. Written by someone less talented than Osborne, the discussion would be a jumble; in One World, the distinctions are clear.
Osborne believes that in order to sustain our democracy, we have to understand our differences and celebrate them. The book enumerates such fundamental beliefs as the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. She always includes facts sure to tantalize young readers. For instance, she notes:
"Zen can seem like a puzzling religion. Zen monks sometimes ask their students odd questions, such as 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' A riddle like this is called a koan. It is supposed to help students think and see things in a new way."
One World, Many Religions is likely to leave its young audience wanting to know more. Such stimulation is at the heart of tolerance. As Osborne notes, since the beginning of time, people have been wondering how the world began, why we are here, and what happens after we die.
"This is a book of facts and knowledge, but it is also a book of wonders," she says. "My greatest wish is that it will help readers marvel over the diversity, beauty, and order in the world."
1. The golden rule originated with Confucius, but most religions have adopted their own version.
2. Buddha's birthday is celebrated on the first full moon of May.
3. Christianity has the most followers of the world's religions.
Reviewed by Alice Cary.