Intro to World Religions
It’s certainly no easy task, when some experts can’t agree on the religions that fit the definition, or even the definition itself.
by Brendan Bense
April 11, 2019
When we say the word religion, what comes to mind? There have been many attempts in recent academic history to define, quantify, and categorize religions as a whole and within sects and factions. It’s certainly no easy task, when some experts can’t agree on the religions that fit the definition, or even the definition itself. For some, religion is a set of beliefs that govern the way people live and act. This definition might be a bit broad and lacking, however. Wouldn’t sports and jobs and entertainment be considered religion using this thinking? Would atheists and agnostics be considered part of religion, even though they don’t have a belief in a higher power? If we refined our definition of religion to a set of beliefs devoted to a deity and an authoritative text, some popular religions like Buddhism and Confucianism may disqualify themselves.
This is not a question we’re likely to answer today, but we’re going to put that aside to talk about some of the more famous and influential beliefs and practices that shape(d) our world today in some fashion. But we brought up this question of what religion is to help you think critically about digesting information on religion. Some practices are regionally- and culturally-specific, yet all deserve equal respect (regardless of if you believe in them or not). This guide will serve as a primer to the most popular religions of the world. Note there are many other religions out there, and if they didn’t make the list that’s OK! We hope with time to fill out our decks with even more religious studies. These are meant to spark your interest in learning more!
Jesus founded what we now call Christianity sometime before his death near the year 33 AD. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem by about six miles. Adherents believe that Jesus sacrificed himself for mankind’s sins. Christianity and the Bible, which was composed years after Jesus’s crucifixion by Roman authorities, focuses on the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christianity is an example of a monotheistic religion, belief in one god. It is also an Abrahamic religion, which claim descendance from and reverence to the figure Abraham.
Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with 33% of the population identifying as Christian in some capacity. The place of worship for Christians is called a church. There are many sects of Christianity, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism, among others, which all span nearly every inhabited continent. The most recognized symbol of Christianity is the Latin Cross.
Muhammad the Prophet, born in Mecca in the year 570 AD, grew up in the Quraysh tribe on the Arabian Peninsula. He is considered by Muslims to be the founder of Islam, and the final prophet of God (Allah). Muhammad began preaching Islam, or submission to God, in 610 AD, after revelations of God’s word by the angel Gabriel. His verbatim recitations of God’s word are found in the Qur’an, the central text to Islam. Islam is another example of an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion. By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, most of the Arabian peninsula had converted to Islam.
Islam is the second-largest and fastest-growing religion, at 24% of the world’s population. The place of worship for Muslims is called a mosque. The two main sects of Islam are Sunni and Shi’ah, whose schism deviates from a dispute of succession after Muhammad’s death. Though there is no official symbol for Islam, a star and crescent has become popular following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Green is also a common symbol for Islam.
Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, originating in Israel more than 3,000 years ago. Judaism is considered one of the earliest Abrahamic, monotheistic religions still alive today. Many believe Moses to be the founder of Judaism; the law of God as revealed to Moses is called the Torah.
Jewish centers for worship are called synagogues, and the emblem of the Jewish people is the Star of David, also found on the flag of Israel. There are a few main sects of Judaism, including Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Judaism. There have been many shifts in Jewish populations, especially in the twentieth century, due to war, pogroms, forced conversions, persecution, and expulsion from countries. Most Jews today therefore live in either Israel or the United States and Canada.
The primary religion of India, Hinduism is an ancient set of beliefs and practices that date back thousands of years. It may be difficult to categorize Hinduism, as the beliefs vary widely, though there are a few common threads that intertwine. Hindus for the most part believe in: reincarnation, a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that humans are subject to; dharma, the role adherents play in the universe to achieve harmony; and karma, the sum of these roles that decide one’s future existence. Liberation from the cycle of reincarnation is called moksha. Hinduism is the first religion on our list that is polytheistic, or belief in more than one god.
Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world, and the third largest at 15%. Some practices of Hinduism date back more than 4,000 years ago. Denominations of Hinduism focus on worshipping one or a few gods in particular. The main sects are: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. The most commonly recognized symbol in Hinduism is the Om, a chant found in some types of worship.
Before Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism sometime after 560-480 BCE, he was a prince in India. After being sheltered his whole life, he set out on a quest to attain nirvana and earned the title Buddha, or Enlightened One. Buddhism centers on four noble truths: suffering exists in the world, suffering comes from desire and attachment, stopping suffering arises from stopping desire and attachment, and one may free themselves from desire by following the eight noble practices. Buddhists also believe in reincarnation.
Buddhists comprise around 7% of the world’s population, and most adherents are found in Asia. There is no central text in Buddhism as in other religions. The two main sects of Buddhism are Mahayana and Theravada. The Dharmachakra, or dharma wheel, represents Buddhism and the eightfold path to enlightenment.
Daoism is an ancient religion and philosophical tradition of China, dating back to the time of its founder, Laozi, perhaps in the 6th or 4th Century BCE. Laozi, literally meaning old master, penned the authoritative Dao De Jing, which became the central text. Dao can often be translated as the way or the path. Daoists focus on harmony with nature, and a common metaphor used to explain Daoism is the movement of water. Some common Daoist rituals includes meditation, fortune-telling, and tai chi.
Approximately 13% of the Chinese population claims loose association with Daoist practices. The modern symbol of Daoism is the yin yang. Daoists worship in temples, and most Daoists currently live in China. The two largest sects of Daoism are Quanzhen and Zhengyi.
In a similar vein to Greek mythology, Norse religion holds persistent and notable popularity in pop culture, and has seen a resurgence in the form of contemporary Germanic Paganism. Old Norse is polytheistic, and was practiced by the people of Scandinavia sometime between 800 and 1300 AD. Before the Latin alphabet and Christianity was introduced to the region, practitioners relied on runes.
Old Norse focuses on the pantheon of Odin, Thor, Frigg, and many other gods and goddesses, and their stories as they interact with humans of Midgard. A popular story in Old Norse revolves around Ragnarok, an apocalypse tale involving the death of gods and the symbolic rebirth of the world. The symbol for Old Norse is usually the world tree Yggdrasil, which holds up the realms of living beings. There are likely fewer than 20,000 practitioners globally.