Six Major World Religions, Origins & Beliefs

Like other social institutions, religion shows marked variation according to time and place. Let us look at several ways in which religion has changed over the course of history. Early hunters and gatherers practiced animism, the belief that elements of the natural world are conscious life forms that affect humanity.

Animists view forests, oceans, mountains, and even the wind as spiritual forces. Many Native American societies are animistic, which explains their reverence for the natural environment.

Belief in a single divine power responsible for creating the world began with pastoral and horticultural societies, which first appeared 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The conception of God as a “shepherd” arose because Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all began among pastoral peoples.

The Industrial Revolution introduced a growing emphasis on science. More and more, people looked to doctors and scientists for the knowledge and comfort they used to get from priests. But as Durkheim predicted almost a century ago, religion persists in industrial societies because science is powerless to address issues of ultimate meaning in human life.

In other words, learning how the world works is a matter for scientists, but why we and the rest of the universe exist at all is a question of faith. Some of the world religions out of a great number of religions are mentioned here.

Christianity is the most widespread religion with 2 billion followers, one-third of the world’s people. Most Christians live in Europe or the Americas; more than 80 percent of the people in the United States and Canada identify with Christianity. As shown in Global Map 19–1, people who think of themselves as Christian represent a large share of the population in many world regions, with the notable exceptions of northern Africa and Asia.

European colonization spread Christianity throughout much of the world over the past 500 years. Its dominance in the West is shown by the fact that our calendar numbers years from the birth of Jesus Christ. As noted earlier, Christianity began as a cult, drawing elements from Judaism, a much older religion. Like many cults, Christianity was built on the personal charisma of a leader, Jesus of Nazareth, who preached a message of personal salvation.

Jesus did not directly challenge the political power of his day, the Roman Empire, telling his followers to “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. But his message was a revolutionary one, all the same, promising that faith and love would triumph over sin and death.

Christianity is one example of monotheism, a belief in a single divine power. This new religion was quite different from the Roman Empire’s traditional polytheism, a belief in many gods. Yet Christianity views the Supreme Being as a sacred Trinity: God the Creator; Jesus Christ, Son of God and Redeemer; and the Holy Spirit, a Christian’s
personal experience of God’s presence.

The claim that Jesus was divine rests on accounts of his final days on Earth. Brought to trial as a threat to established political leaders, Jesus was tried in Jerusalem and sentenced to death by crucifixion, a common means of execution at the time. This explains why the cross became a sacred Christian symbol. According to Christian belief, three days after his execution, Jesus rose from the dead, revealing that he was the Son of God.

Jesus’ followers, especially his twelve closest associates, known as the apostles, spread Christianity throughout the Mediterranean region. At first, the Roman Empire persecuted Christians. But by the fourth century, the empire had adopted Christianity as a state church, the official religion of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire. Christianity took various forms, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, based in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

Islam has about 1.6 billion followers, which is almost one-fourth of humanity. Followers of Islam are called Muslims. A majority of people in the Middle East are Muslims, so we tend to associate Islam with Arabs in that region of the world. In addition, large concentrations of Muslims are found in western Asia in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and the southern republics of the former Soviet Union.

Because Muslims have a birthrate that is twice the rate for non-Muslims, it is possible that Islam could become the world’s dominant religion by the end of this century. Islam is the word of God as revealed to Muhammad, who was born in the city of Mecca. To Muslims, Muhammad is a Prophet, not a divine being as Jesus is to Christians.

The text of the Qur’an (Koran), which is sacred to Muslims, is the word of Allah (Arabic for “God”) as transmitted through Muhammad, Allah’s messenger. In Arabic, the word Islam means both “submission” and “peace,” and the Qur’an urges submission to Allah as the path to inner peace.

Muslims express this personal devotion in a ritual of prayers five times each day. Although divisions arose among Muslims, all accept the Five Pillars of Islam: (1)recognizing Allah as the one, true God and Muhammad as God’s messenger; (2) ritual prayer; (3) giving alms to the poor; (4) fasting during the month of Ramadan; and (5) making a pilgrimage at least once in one’s life to the Sacred House of Allah in Mecca.

Like Christianity, Islam holds people accountable to God for their deeds on Earth. Those who live obediently will be rewarded in heaven, and evildoers will suffer unending punishment.

In terms of numbers, Judaism’s 15 million followers worldwide make it something less than a world religion. Jews make up a majority of the population in only one country—Israel. But Judaism has special importance to the United States because the largest concentration of Jews is found in North America.

Jews look to the past as a source of guidance in the present and for the future. Judaism has deep historical roots that extend 4,000 years before the birth of Christ to the ancient societies of Mesopotamia. At this time, Jews were animistic, but this belief changed after Jacob—grandson of Abraham, the earliest great ancestor—led his people to Egypt.

Jews survived centuries of slavery in Egypt. In the thirteenth century B.C.E., Moses, the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, was called by God to lead the Jews from bondage. This exodus from Egypt is remembered by Jews today in the annual ritual of Passover.

After their liberation, the Jews became monotheistic, recognizing a single, all-powerful God. A distinctive concept of Judaism is the covenant, a special relationship with God by which the Jews became God’s “chosen people.” The covenant implies a duty to observe God’s law, especially the Ten Commandments as revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Jews regard the Old Testament of the Bible as both a record of their history and a statement of the obligations of Jewish life.

Of special importance are the Bible’s first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), called the Torah (a word meaning “teaching” and law”). In contrast to Christianity’s central concern with personal salvation, Judaism emphasizes moral behavior in this world.

Judaism has three main denominations. Orthodox Jews strictly observe traditional beliefs and practices, wear traditional dress, segregate men and women at religious services, and eat only kosher foods (prepared precisely as prescribed in the Torah). Whatever the denomination, Jews share a cultural history of oppression as a result of prejudice and discrimination.

The collective memory of centuries of slavery in Egypt, conquest by Rome, and persecution in Europe have shaped the Jewish identity. Jewish immigration to the United States began in the mid-1600s. The early immigrants who prospered were assimilated into largely Christian communities. But as great numbers entered the country at the end of the nineteenth century, prejudice and discrimination against Jews—commonly termed anti-Semitism— increased.

Before and during World War II, anti-Semitism reached a vicious peak as the Nazi regime in Germany systematically annihilated 6 million Jews. Today, the social standing of Jews is well above average.

Hinduism is the oldest of all the world religions, originating in the Indus River valley about 4,500 years ago. Hinduism envisions God as a universal moral force rather than a specific entity.

For this reason, Hinduism—like other Eastern religions, as you will see shortly—is sometimes described as an “ethical religion.” Hindu beliefs and practices vary widely, but all Hindus believe that they have moral responsibilities, called dharma. Dharma, for example, calls people to observe the traditional caste system. Another Hindu principle, karma, involves a belief in the spiritual progress of the human soul.

To a Hindu, each action has spiritual consequences, and proper living results in moral development. Karma works through reincarnation, a cycle of death and rebirth by which a person is born into a spiritual state corresponding to the moral quality of a previous life.

Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism recognizes no ultimate judgment at the hands of a supreme god. But in the ongoing cycle of rebirth, it may be said that people get what they deserve. For those who reach moksha, the state of spiritual perfection, the soul has no further need to be reborn.

Hindus connect to the moral force through their private meditation and rituals, which vary from village to village across the vast nation of India. Many also participate in public events, such as the Kumbh Mela, which every twelve years brings some 20 million pilgrims to bathe in the purifying waters of the sacred Ganges River.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the rich culture of India gave rise to Buddhism. Today, some 380 million people, or 6 percent of humanity, are Buddhists, and almost all live in Asia. Buddhists are a majority of the population in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Japan.

Buddhism is also widespread in India and the People’s Republic of China. Buddhism has much in common with Hinduism: It recognizes no god of judgment, sees each daily action as having spiritual consequences, and believes in reincarnation.

But like Christianity, Buddhism has origins in the life of one person. Siddhartha Gautama was born to a high-caste family in Nepal in 563 B.C.E. Even as a young man, he was deeply spiritual. At the age of twenty-nine, he experienced a personal transformation, which led him to years of travel and meditation.

By the end of this journey, he achieved what Buddhists describe as bodhi or enlightenment. By gaining an understanding of the essence of life, Gautama became the Buddha.

Drawn by his personal charisma, followers spread the Buddha’s teachings—the dhamma—across India. In the third century B.C.E., India’s ruler became a Buddhist and sent missionaries throughout Asia, transforming Buddhism into a world religion. Buddhists believe that much of life in this world involves suffering.

This idea is rooted in the Buddha’s own travels in a very poor society. But, the Buddha claimed, that the solution to suffering is not seeking worldly wealth and power.

From about 200 B.C.E. until the beginning of the twentieth century, Confucianism was a state church—the official religion of China. After the 1949 revolution, the Communist government of the new People’s Republic of China repressed all religious expression. But even today, hundreds of millions of Chinese are still influenced by Confucianism.

China is still home to Confucian thought, although Chinese immigration has spread this religion to other nations in Southeast Asia. Only a small number of people who follow Confucius live in North America. Confucius, whose Chinese name was K’ung Fu-Tzu, lived between 551 and 479 B.C.E.

Like the Buddha, Confucius was deeply moved by people’s suffering. The Buddha’s response was sect-like—a spiritual withdrawal from the world. Confucius took a more churchlike approach, instructing his followers to engage the world according to a code of moral conduct. In the same way that Hinduism became part of the Indian way of life, Confucianism became linked to the traditional culture of China.

A central idea of Confucianism is Jen, meaning “humaneness.” In practice, this means that we must always place moral principles above our self-interest, looking to tradition for guidance on how to live. In the family, Confucius taught, that each of us must be loyal and considerate. For their part, families must remember their duties toward the larger community.

In this model, layers of moral obligation unite society as a whole. Of all world religions, Confucianism stands out as lacking a clear sense of the sacred. Perhaps Durkheim would have said that Confucian￾ism is the celebration of the sacred character of society itself. Others might call Confucianism less a religion than a model of disciplined living. However you look at it, Confucianism shares with religion a body of beliefs and practices through which its followers seek moral goodness and social harmony.

Share This Post:


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *