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Did You Know?

Religions: Did You Know?

Religion is at the heart our relationships: with other cultures and nations, within our communities and families, and within our own hearts. The deepest questions of life and death cannot be solved like a mathematics problem. Some of the deepest questions that we ask as human beings are religious questions: “Why do I exist?” “What is the purpose of life?” “Where did human beings come from?” “What happens after I die?” Maybe you have wondered about these questions yourself.

In this module, you will learn about religions around the world—basic beliefs, common understandings and areas of differences. You’ll be challenged to examine and articulate your own beliefs. After you complete this module, you will have had some practice listening to people who have religious beliefs different from your own and some ideas about how to reach across that divide. You’ll be an agent of friendship, understanding and peace!


“Most of us know perfectly well what religion is—until someone asks us to define it.”
–St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian writer living from 354-430 A.D.

Why is defining religion such a challenge?

Religion is born out of our different cultures and expressed in diverse ways. We grow up with it, in it and because of it—in our families, our communities, our cultures. We experience religion within us (subjectively) and around us (communally), and because it is contextual and particular, it is difficult to define universally.

Religions involve basic beliefs about the world, ethical values, social relationships, attitudes toward nature. How we are taught about these beliefs depends on where we live and what those around us believe. Those beliefs shape how we view the world, how we understand life and death, how we are to relate to others. Religions, then, is the expression of the cultural context of how and where a person’s identity and relationship to the world is formed. Religion is learned through our own contexts: our families, our cultures, the sacred texts to which we are exposed.

Religious ideas, practices and ways of making sense of life, change as communities change and as history unfolds over time. Basic tenets or affirmations may ground and structure religious belief and experience, however, many religions do adapt to new cultural realities. For example, the role of women in society has changed in many communities around the world. Religious traditions, such as Christianity, has only recently—within the last 50 years—started ordaining women on a broad scale to professional service. Some religious traditions are more open to adapting to cultural shifts than others. The Massai tradition in Kenya affirms: “It takes one day to destroy a house; to build a new house will take months and perhaps years. If we abandon our way of life to construct a new one, it will take thousands of years.”

As we try and understand religions, we take ideas from various traditions and try and make sense of them for our lives today. Learning about religion can help us discover ourselves: our beliefs, our fears, our dreams and our goals. As we learn about religion, we open ourselves to a world outside of ourselves. A Sufi story illustrates this process:

“Tell us what you got from enlightenment,” the seeker said, “Did you become divine?”
“No, not divine,” the holy one said.
“Did you become a saint?”
“Oh dear, no,” the holy one said.
“Then what did you become?” the seeker asked.
And the holy one answered, “I became awake.”

Becoming awake to our world and the wisdom of world religions is one of the greatest, and most challenging, tasks in life.

A few common affirmations can be made about religion:

Basic Facts

  1. Religion is expressed and experienced differently, depending on a person’s culture.
  2. Religion helps us make sense of the world around us—our existence, relationship with others, suffering, purposes for living and what happens after we die.
  3. There is no universal religion that reaches across all cultures in exactly the same way. But there are commonalities and basic affirmations among all religions.
  4. Some religions are monothestic, (belief in one god—Islam, Judaism, Christianity and others) and some are polythesitic (belief in many gods or deities—Hinduism, traditional religions and others).
  5. Most religions have sacred writings, or holy books, that guide their followers: The Torah (Jewish), the Bible (Christian), the Qu’ran (Islam), the Bhagavad-Gita (Hinduism), Tao Te Ching (Taoism) The Four Noble Truths (Buddhism).
  6. Most, but not all, religions affirm a higher, absolute or supreme power. This power is sometimes called Allah (Islam), God (Christianity), Yawheh (Jewish) or other names. Traditional religions, Buddhism and several other religions do not claim a god-being as the ultimate source of wisdom or creation, but rather draw upon the spirit of wisdom within us or within the earth to guide us.
  7. Worship is a common aspect of many religions. It can be a way to pay respect and honor to a god, to gain inspiration and strength for daily life, and to pray in gratitude or on behalf of another person.
  8. Religious traditions have different names for places of worship, including mosque (Islam), church, cathedral or chapel (Christianity), synagogue (Judaism), temple (Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism). Some religions consider nature as spiritual entities.
  9. How to live a meaningful life on earth is the focus of many religions. Oral and written teachings guide believers’ behavior to reach the goals of a particular religion.
  10. Each religion teaches how to be the best, or most faithful, person we can be. Religious traditions provide instruction, inspiration and examples of how to be faithful.
  11. Ceremonies, holidays and rituals accompany many religious traditions. Christmas for Christians (the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the one believed to save the world from sin), Hannukuh for Jews (an eight-day festival of lights commemorating the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC), and Ramadan for Muslims (a time to abstain from food, drink, and other physical needs during the daylight hours in order to purify the soul, refocus attention on God, and practice self-sacrifice) are three examples of religious holidays.
  12. Most religions and spiritual traditions have a primary principle, or saying, of compassion toward others. Examples: Islam: None of you is a believer until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself. Christianity: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Hinduism: This is the sum of all duty: do nothing to others which, if it were done to you, would cause you pain. Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.
  13. Most religious traditions have stories that explain how they believe the world came into being. Christian, Jewish and Muslim and some other traditional religions believe that a supreme being created the world out of nothing, or out of chaos. Other traditions, such as some Native American traditions from North America, believe that mother earth gives birth to other forms of live who eventually find their place on the earth.
  14. Christianity is the world religion with the most followers: 2,116,909,552 (including 1,117,759,185 Roman Catholics, 372,586,395 Protestants, 221,746,920 Orthodox, and 81,865,869 Anglicans).
  15. Christianity began in the Middle East in and around current day Israel and Palestine and is centered on the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Bible is the main religious text for Christians and teaches love of neighbor, love of self and pathways to eternal life beyond physical death through belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
  16. Islam has 1,282,780,149 followers and began in present day Saudi Arabia when God appeared with a special revelation to the prophet Muhammad, who lived from 570 CE to 632 CE in Mecca (or Makkah). The Qu’ran is the main religious text for Muslims and teaches how to observe proper worship of Allah and how to live righteously in the world.
  17. Hinduism has 856,690,863 followers and is an ancient religion that began in present day India around 4000 BC -2000BC. It is a weaving of diverse traditions with no single founder and asserts that our souls transmigrates from one body to another at death (reincarnation), and that the law of karma determines one’s destiny both in this life and the next.
  18. Buddhism has 381,610,979 followers and is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of ancient traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha who was born in approximately 560 BCE in current day Nepal. Buddhism teaches methods for understanding oneself and for being in the world by practicing loving kindness and compassion for oneself and others while doing no harm. A primary text is the Buddha’s “The Four Nobles Truths,” stating that – 1. Life means suffering – 2. The origin of suffering is attachment – 3. The cessation of suffering is attainable – 4. The path to the cessation of suffering.
  19. Sikhism, with 25,139,912 followers, is a fast-growing religion founded in the 15th Century in the Punjab region of India and is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak Dev Ji and ten successive Sikh Gurus. Sikhs believe in one god and in the equality of all people regardless of social standing, gender or race.
  20. Judaism has 15,156,500 adherents whose faith is usually affirmed in one of the following subgroups: Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed, Reconstructionist, and Humanistic. While beliefs and requirements of each group differ, all groups affirm that there is one creator God, that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were revealed to Moses by God, and that an anointed one (Messiah) will come to earth to save the world from sin. The roots of Judaism began with the covenant established between God and Abraham around 1800 BCE.
  21. Agnosticism, meaning “without knowledge,” asserts that that the existence of deity, or god, is not verifiable. Atheism, meaning “without God,” is the belief that there is no deity.
  22. About 50 Bibles are sold every minute. It is the world’s best-selling book. Some 1 billion copies of Bibles have been sold.
  23. It is believed that Islam is the fastest growing religion on earth, due to high conversion (particularly where Islam has traditionally been a minority religion) and birth rates. In the United States, nearly 80 percent of the more than 1,200 mosques have been built in the past 12 years. The Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow by nearly 60% in the next 20 years, from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030. The Huffington Post reports that on a global level, the Muslim population is expected to grow by 35 % within the next 20 years — twice the rate of the world’s non-Muslim population.
  24. The U.S.-Based Pew Research Center survey of religious knowledge, indicated that, at 20.9% correct answers, atheists and agnostics outperformed evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants on questions about core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions. Jews and Mormons were close behind, averaging 20.5% and 20.3% correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16% correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7%.
  25. “Religious tolerance” is accepting other religious beliefs while not denying one’s own beliefs. When people accept others’ religious beliefs, they are affirming that other beliefs are valid, even if they do not necessarily share those beliefs themselves.


“Dear Parents.” By ShakeState, a “Tolerance PSA (Public Service Announcement). The influence of parents on what their children believe is significant. Listen to these young people help their parents understand this.
Credit: Wikimedia
Caption:  Religious symbols of 16 major religions
Credit: Wikimedia Caption: Religious symbols of 16 major religions
Credit:  Jesslee Cruizon
Caption:  A man praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine
Credit: Jesslee Cruizon Caption: A man praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine
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