Though I didn’t take IB World Religions, as it wasn’t offered at my school, I did take a compulsory additional religion class, which was run by a teacher that taught IB World Religions at another IB school. Also, I will be taking Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford, which includes an introductory study of the major religions.
Realise the significance of World Religions
Even though it may only be offered at SL, World Religions seems to be a course for the committed - it is a course that attempts to summarise centuries of rituals, texts, and most dearly-held belief systems of the major religious traditions. It seems, therefore, that you should realise that you will only cover a fraction of each tradition. However, you should also understand that even studying this small fragment is significant, as religions have influenced the implicit cultural assumptions of each culture, such that politics, art, and society would be unrecognisable without the traditions that have shaped them.
It is also important that we recognise the profound level of religious illiteracy in our communities, as centuries of culture and tradition at the very least, are being ignored and misunderstood, leading to implicit tensions if not outright conflict. Without some knowledge of religion, it would be difficult to fully appreciate the greatest literary works of all time, and outright impossible to comprehend the political situation in Syria, Israel, and the United States in any depth. The claims of these religious traditions of ultimate meaning and truth are important to explore for our own personal belief system, which makes World Religions both relevant - relevant to understanding politics, history, and art, but also significant - to each individual, as we strive for truth, beauty, and meaning.
Read the texts
Though we do learn that the emphasis on the textual side of religious traditions is very much a Western, even Christian, bias, I think actually reading some of the sacred texts of the religious traditions serves to remove a veil from these traditions. Of course, the most obvious benefit to reading the scriptures of the 5 traditions your teacher assigns you to study is that Paper 1 is based entirely around these scriptures, so exposing yourself to the scriptures is very important to do well in your exams. Indeed, this will also help to perform well in Paper 2, in which you are asked to examine each religious tradition in depth.
Fundamentally reading these sacred texts, though, will ensure that you are well acquainted with each tradition, so that the veil of the unfamiliar - or the veil of what you hear only from the media - will be lifted, and you can finally see what these religions themselves hold dear. So I would encourage you to read the Qu’ran, the Dhamapadda, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Bible etc, - not just relying on the excerpts your teacher picks out for you or the excerpts in your practice exams - rather, try to look at the most central text in each tradition (of course, if you have the time, by all means, read also the Hadith, or the Summa Theologica or the Talmud), so that you have a clear understanding of how insiders might view their religious tradition.
Religionist vs. Reductionist
Recognising your own biases is very important when studying religious traditions in any depth. I think that often, especially when starting to study religion for the first time, we tend to have a “reductionist” bias. In other words, we tend to try and reduce religions to their component parts, attempting to primarily assess their historical, political, or economic impact. This seems to be the case when we discuss other religions - we tend to forget that religions are belief systems and experiences as much as they are ideas and ways of social grouping. I think when we look as outsiders, we tend to have this slightly reductionist bias. On the other extreme, when we think about our own religions, from an insider’s perspective, perhaps, we might tend to think more about our own religious experiences, leaning more towards the “religionist” perspective.
In the end, I think the IB syllabus is strong, as you are required to think both in terms of the impact of each religious tradition, and in terms of the experiences that inherently drive them.
“God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World” by Professor Stephen Prothero (Boston University) is brilliant introductory reading to the IB course, as it gives a brief overview of 8 world religions, Islam, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoruba Religion, Judaism, and Daoism (I have bolded the religions used in the IB syllabus, which also has Jainism, Baha’i, and Sikhism). This book seems to have influenced the IB syllabus, as the IB introduction to each religion (assessed in Paper 1) seems to follow Prothero’s approach of Problem, Solution, Technique, Exemplars (For each religion, the IB syllabus asks, “What is the human condition?” (Problem), “Where are we going?” (Solution), and “How do we get there?” (Solution & Exemplars)).
Prothero claims his main intention in his book is to explain each religion to inform the public, especially considering the significance of each religious tradition on the world. Despite the significant impact of religions, it is quite clear that most people are religiously illiterate - unable to even explain the fundamental beliefs of different religious traditions. I think most IB students will sympathise with Prothero’s view that this is a deep tragedy, and profoundly discomforting. Mere tolerance is not enough for IB students - appreciation is what is required. However, another major argument he makes at the beginning of the book is that all religions do NOT preach the same thing, as many scholars of religion have claimed, but that each religion has its own beauty. He is also very happy to point out anything he doesn’t like about each religious tradition, perhaps suggesting his vision of what a scholar of religion should do more of.
For the IB student, I think his approach to religion is profoundly relevant in TOK, for Religious Knowledge Systems, as it tells us how knowledge is used in RKS - a topic that is often not covered at all, I hear, in some IB schools because of the apparent controversy or disinterest by students. Furthermore, his introductions to these religions are concise, so it is a brilliant tool to prepare for Paper 1 and 2, in which the key messages of each religion are tested.