Religion is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics and a philosophy of life. Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature.

The word ‘religion’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘faith’ or ‘belief system’, but religion differs from private belief in that it has a social aspect. Many religions have organized behaviours, clergy, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural), and/or scriptures. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a God or Goddess, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, initiations, funerary services, meditation, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture. However, there are examples of religions for which some or many of these aspects of structure, belief, or practices are absent.

Major World Religions

The information provided below is intended to provide a short introduction to the major world religions as defined classically. Each description has been kept very short so that it is easy to read straight through all of them and get a general impression of the diversity of spiritual paths humanity takes to live the kind of life God wants. As a result, a great many things have been omitted.

No omissions are intentional and readers are encouraged to consult other resources as well as books for more in-depth information.

Hinduism: Hinduism is generally regarded as the world’s oldest organized religion. It consists of “thousands of different religious groups that have evolved in India since 1500 BCE.” Because of the wide variety of Hindu traditions, freedom of belief and practice are notable features of Hinduism.

 Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic religions. They recognize a single deity and view other Gods and Goddesses as manifestations or aspects of that supreme God. Henotheistic and polytheistic religions have traditionally been among the world’s most religiously tolerant faiths. As a result, India has traditionally been one of the most religiously tolerant in the world.

The origins of Hinduism can be traced to the Indus Valley Civilization sometime between 4000 and 2500 BCE. Though believed by many to be a polytheistic religion, the basis of Hinduism is the belief in the unity of everything. This totality is called Brahman. The purpose of life is to realize that we are part of God and by doing so we can leave this plane of existence and rejoin with God. This enlightenment can only be achieved by going through cycles of birth, life and death known as samsara. One’s progress towards enlightenment is measured by his karma. This is the accumulation of all one’s good and bad deeds and this determines the person’s next reincarnation. Selfless acts and thoughts as well as devotion to God help one to be reborn at a higher level. Bad acts and thoughts will cause one to be born at a lower level, as a person or even an animal.

Hindus follow a strict caste system which determines the standing of each person. The caste one is born into is the result of the karma from his previous life. Only members of the highest caste, the Brahmins, may perform the Hindu religious rituals and hold positions of authority within the temples.

Sacred books of Hinduism: Bhagavad-Gita, Upanishads and Rig Veda.

Judaism: Judaism is an Abrahamic religion – a faith which recognizes Abraham as a Patriarch. Others include Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith. Although Jews comprise only about 0.2% of the human race, Jewish influence on the world has been vast – far more than their numbers would indicate.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i faith all originated with a divine covenant between the God of the ancient Israelites and Abraham around 2000 BCE. The next leader of the Israelites, Moses, led his people out of captivity in Egypt and received the Law from God. Joshua later led them into the Promised Land where Samuel established the Israelite kingdom with Saul as its first king. King David established Jerusalem and King Solomon built the first temple there. In 70 CE the temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered throughout the world until 1948 when the state of Israel was formed.

Jews believe in one creator who alone is to be worshipped as absolute ruler of the universe. He monitors people’s activities and rewards good deeds and punishes the evil. The Torah was revealed to Moses by God and cannot be changed though God does communicate with the Jewish people through prophets. Jews believe in the inherent goodness of the world and its inhabitants as creations of God and do not require a saviour to save them from original sin. They believe that they are God’s chosen people and that the Messiah will arrive in the future, gather them into Israel, there will be a general resurrection of the dead, and the Jerusalem Temple destroyed in 70 CE will be rebuilt.

Sacred books of Judaism: Torah, Tanach and Talmud.

Zoroastrianism: Zoroastrianism was founded by Zarathustra (Zoroaster) in Persia which followed an aboriginal polytheistic religion at the time. He preached what may have been the first monotheism with a single supreme god, Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrians believe in the dualism of good and evil as both a cosmic one between Ahura Mazda and an evil spirit of violence and death, Angra Mainyu, or as an ethical dualism within the human consciousness. The Zoroastrian holy book is called the Avesta which includes the teachings of Zarathustra written in a series of five hymns called the Gathas. They are abstract sacred poetry directed towards the worship of the One God, understanding of righteousness and cosmic order, promotion of social justice, and individual choice between good and evil. The rest of the Avesta was written at a later date and deals with rituals, practice of worship and other traditions of the faith.

Zoroastrians worship through prayers and symbolic ceremonies that are conducted before a sacred fire which symbolizes their God. They dedicate their lives to a three-fold path represented by their motto: “Good thoughts, good words, and good deeds”. The faith does not generally accept converts but this is disputed by some members.

Sacred book of Zoroastrianism: Avesta.

Buddhism: Buddhism currently has about 376 million followers and is generally listed as the world’s fourth largest religion after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. It was founded in Northern India by Siddhartha Gautama (circa 563 to 460 BC) and has spread into much of the Far East. It is making major inroads into North America.

Buddhism developed out of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who, in 535 BC, reached enlightenment and assumed the title Buddha. He promoted The Middle Way’ as the path to enlightenment rather than the extremes of mortification of the flesh or hedonism. Long after his death the Buddha’s teachings were written down. This collection is called the Tripitaka. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that one must go through cycles of birth, life and death. After many such cycles, if a person releases their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana. In general, Buddhists do not believe in any type of God, the need for a saviour, prayer, or eternal life after death. However, since the time of the Buddha, Buddhism has integrated many regional religious rituals, beliefs and customs into it as it has spread throughout Asia, so that this generalization is no longer true for all Buddhists. This has occurred with little conflict due to the philosophical nature of Buddhism.

Sacred book of Buddhism: The Tripitaka (consisting of the Vinayak, the Sutras and the Abhidharma).

Shinto: Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion. Starting about 500 BC (or earlier) it was originally “an amorphous mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship, and shamanism.” Its name was derived from the Chinese words “shin tad” (“The Way of the Kami) in the 8th Century CE. At that time:

The Yamato dynasty consolidated its rule over most of Japan. Divine origins were ascribed to the imperial family. Shinto established itself as an official religion of Japan, along with Buddhism.

The complete separation of Japanese religion from politics did not occur until just after World War II. The Emperor was forced by the American army to renounce his divinity at that time. Unlike most other religions, Shinto has no real founder, no written scriptures, no body of religious law, and only a very loosely-organized priesthood.

Shinto is closely tied to nature, which recognizes the existence of various “Kami”, nature deities. The first two deities, Izanagi and Izanami, gave birth to the Japanese islands and their children became the deities of the various Japanese clans. One of their daughters, Amaterasu (Sun Goddess), is the ancestress of the Imperial Family and is regarded as the chief deity. All the Kami are benign and serve only to sustain and protect. They are not seen as separate from humanity due to sin because humanity is “Kami’s Child”. Followers of Shinto desire peace and believe that all human life is sacred. They revere “musuhi”, the Kami’s creative and harmonizing powers, and aspire to have “makoto”, sincerity or true heart. Morality is based upon that which is of benefit to the group. There are “Four Affirmations” in Shinto:

  • Tradition and family: the family is the main mechanism by which traditions are preserved.
  • Love of nature: nature is sacred and natural objects are to be worshipped as sacred spirits.
  • Physical cleanliness: they must take baths, wash their hands and rinse their mouth often.

“Matsuri”: festival which honours the spirits.
Sacred books of Shinto: Kojiki, Nohon Shoki.
Confucianism: Confucianism is an Eastern religion/philosophy. Although it is more accurately referred to as a philosophy, books on world religions inevitably include it with other religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism.

It originated in China but has spread to Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. Most people who adhere to the teachings of Confucius follow Chinese traditional religion, which is a blending of Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and traditional local practices and beliefs.

K’ung Fu Tzu (Confucius) was born in 551 BC in the state of Lu in China. He travelled throughout China giving advice and teachings to its rulers. His teachings and writings dealt with individual morality and ethics, and the proper exercise of political power. He stressed the following values:

  • Li: ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc.
  • Hsiao: love among family members
  • Yi: righteousness
  • Xin: honesty and trustworthiness
  • Jen: benevolence towards others; the highest Confucian virtue
  • Chung: loyalty to the state, etc.

Unlike most religions, Confucianism is primarily an ethical system with rituals at important times during one’s lifetime. The most important periods recognized in the Confucian tradition are birth, reaching maturity, marriage and death.

Sacred Book of Confucianism: Lun Yu.

Jainism: Jainism traces its roots to a succession of 24 Jinas (those who overcome, or conqueror) in ancient East India. The first Jina is traditionally believed to have been a giant who lived 8.4 million years ago. The most recent and last Jina was Vardhamana (a.k.a. Mahavira, “The Great Hero”). He was born circa 550 BC and was the founder of the Jain community. He attained enlightenment after 134 years of deprivation. In 467 BC, he committed the act of salekhana which is fasting to death. Each Jina has “conquered love and hate, pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion, and has thereby freed ‘his’ soul from the karmas obscuring knowledge perception, truth and ability.”

Jainism contains many elements that are somewhat similar to parts of Hinduism and Buddhism. The world’s almost 4 million Jains are almost entirely located in India. There are about 1,410 in Canada (1991 census).

Sacred Books of Jainism: Siddhanta, Pakrit.

Taoism: Taoism was founded by Lao-Tse, a contemporary of Confucius in China. Taoism began as a combination of psychology and philosophy which Lao-Tse hoped would help end the constant feudal warfare and other conflicts of his time. His writings, the Tao-te-Ching, describe the nature of life, the way to peace and how a ruler should lead his life. Taoism became a religion in 440 CE when it was adopted as a state religion.

Tao, roughly translated as ‘path’, is a force which flows through all life and is the first cause of everything. The goal of everyone is to become one with the Tao. Tai Chi, a technique of exercise using slow deliberate movements, is used to balance the flow of energy or chi” within the body. People should develop virtue and seek compassion, moderation and humility. One should plan any action in advance and achieve it through minimal action. Yin (dark side) and Yang flight side) symbolize pairs of opposites which are seen through the universe, such as good and evil, light and dark, male and female. The impact of human civilization upsets the balance of Yin and Yang. Taoists believe that people are by nature good and that one should be kind to others simply because such treatment will probably be reciprocated.

Sacred Book of Taoism: Tao-te-Ching.

Christianity: The history of Christianity concerns the Christian religion, its followers and the Church with its various denominations, from the first century to the present. Christianity was founded in the 1st century in the Levant region of the Middle East by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth who they believed to be the Christ or chosen one of God. The founders of Christianity included those who had been disciples of Jesus such as Peter, Matthew, James and John, as well as others who may never have met him but were either influenced by accounts of his teachings such as the Gospel writers Mark and Luke, or described having mystical revelations of his divine nature, such as Paul of Tarsus who actively encouraged the founding of Christian communities or “churches” after his conversion.

Christianity spread initially from Jerusalem throughout the Near East, into places such as Syria, Assyria, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Jordan and Egypt. In the 4th century it was successively adopted as the state religion by Armenia in 301, Georgia in 319, Aksumite Empire in 325 and then the Roman Empire in 380. It became common to all of Europe in the Middle Ages and expanded throughout the world during Europe’s Age of Exploration from the Renaissance onwards to become the world’s largest religion. Throughout its history, Christianity has weathered persecutions, schisms and theological disputes that have resulted in many distinct churches. The largest branches of Christianity are the Catholic, Eastern, Anglican and Protestant churches.

Since Christianity and Judaism share the same history up to the time of Jesus Christ, they are very similar in many of their core beliefs. There are two primary differences. One is that Christians believe in original sin and that Jesus died in our place to save us from that sin. The other is that Jesus was fully human and fully God and as the Son of God is part of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, His Son and the Holy Spirit. All Christians believe in heaven and that those who sincerely repent their sins before God will be saved and join Him in heaven. Belief in hell and Satan varies among groups and individuals.

There are a multitude of forms of Christianity which have developed either because of disagreements on dogma, adaptation to different cultures, or simply personal taste. For this reason, there can be a great difference between the various forms of Christianity they may seem like different religions to some people.

Sacred Book of Christianity: The Bible.

Islam: Islam was founded in 622 CE by Muhammad the Prophet in Makah (also spelled Mecca). Though it is the youngest of the world’s great religions, Muslims do not view it as a new religion. They believe that it is the same faith taught by the prophets, Abraham, David, Moses and Jesus. The role of Muhammad as the last prophet was to formalize and clarify the faith and purify it by removing ideas which were added in error. The two sacred texts of Islam are the Qur’an, which are the words of Allah ‘the One True God’ as given to Muhammad, and the Hadith, which is a collection of Muhammad’s sayings. The duties of all Muslims are known as the Five Pillars of Islam and are:

  1. Recite the shahadah at least once.
  2. Perform the salat (prayer) 5 times a day while facing the Kaaba in Makah.
  3. Donate regularly to charity via the zakat, a 2.5% charity tax, and through additional donations to the needy.
  4. Fast during the month of Ramadan, the month that Muhammad received the Qur’an from Allah.
  5. Make pilgrimage to Makah at least once in life, if economically and physically possible.

Muslims follow a strict monotheism with one creator who is just, omnipotent and merciful. They also believe in Satan who drives people to sin, and that all unbelievers and sinners will spend eternity in Hell. Muslims who sincerely repent and submit to God will return to a state of sinlessness and go to Paradise after death. Alcohol, drugs and gambling should be avoided and they reject racism. They respect the earlier prophets, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but regard die concept of the divinity of Jesus as blasphemous and do not believe that he was executed on the cross.

Sacred Books of Islam: The Quran and The Hadith.

Sikhism: The Sikh faith was founded by Shri Guru Nanak Dev Ji in the Punjab area, now Pakistan. He began preaching the way to enlightenment and God after receiving a vision. After his death a series of nine Gurus (regarded as reincarnations of Guru Nanak) led the movement until 1708. At this time these functions passed to the Panth and the holy text. This text, the Shri Guru Granth Sahib, was compiled by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. It consists of hymns and writings of the first 10 Gurus, along with texts from different Muslim and Hindu saints. The holy text is considered the 11th and final Guru.

Sikhs believe in a single formless God with many names, who can be known through meditation. Sikhs pray many times each day and are prohibited from worshipping idols or icons. They believe in samsara, karma and reincarnation as Hindus do but reject the caste system. They believe that everyone has equal status in the eyes of God. During the 18th century, there were a number of attempts to prepare an accurate portrayal of Sikh customs. Sikh scholars and theologians started in 1931 to prepare the Reht Maryada – the Sikh code of conduct and conventions. This has successfully achieved a high level of uniformity in the religious and social practices of Sikhism throughout the world. It contains 27 articles. Article 1 defines who is a Sikh:

“Any human being who faithfully believes in:

  • One Immortal Being,
  • Ten Gurus, from Guru Nanak Dev to Guru Gobind Singh,
  • The Guru Granth Sahib,
  • The utterances and teachings of the ten Gurus and
  • The baptism bequeathed by the tenth Guru, and who does not owe allegiance to any other religion, is a Sikh.”

Sacred Book of Sikhism: Shri Guru Granth Sahib.

Baha’i: The Baha’i Faith is the youngest of the world’s main religions. It was founded in Iran during die mid- 19th century by Siyyid ‘Ali-Muhammad (1819-1850 CE). He assumed the title Babb (“the Gate”) and prophesied the future arrival of “One greater than Himself.”

The asymmetrical five pointed star is the official symbol of the Baha’i Faith; it was taken from an unidentified tablet in the Babb’s handwriting. The nine-pointed star symbol is an alternate and commonly used symbol.

One of the Babb’s followers, Mirza Husayn-‘Ali-i-Nuri (1817-1892), announced that he was the manifestation predicted by the Bab. He assumed the title Baha’ullah (“glory of God”). His teachings on world peace, democracy, civil rights, equal rights for women, the acceptance of scientific discoveries, etc. were decades ahead of his time.

Baha’is believes in a single God who has repeatedly sent prophets into the world through whom he has revealed the Word of God”. Prophets include Adam, Krishna, Buddha, Yeshua of Nazareth (Jesus), Mohammed, The Babb and Baha’ullah.

The Baha’i faith is still looked upon by many Muslims as a breakaway sect of Islam. Baha’is is heavily persecuted in some countries, particularly Iran.

Sacred Book of Baha’i Faith: Alkitab Alaqdas.