the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
A religion is a shared, organized system of belief. There is no specific content that must be present in a religion; for example, many religions have a doctrine on a god or gods, but some do not. In general, though, religions serve two main functions: cosmology and ethics. Cosmology tells us how the universe works, and ethics tell us how to behave in that universe. And again, many religions serve both of these functions, but others do not.
A major distinction exists, especially in a historical sense, between universal and national religions. A universal religion is intended for everyone; the conviction of universal truth typically leads to proselytization. A national religion is confined, in practice or intention, to a single nation, often serving as an important part of national identity, and won’t proselytize. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are all universal; Judaism, Shinto, and, in the present day, Hinduism are all national.
Some religions, notably Hinduism and Chinese religion, are pluralist, meaning that they incorporate multiple traditions at once. A typical feature of pluralist systems is that they have an unusual openness to new traditions; once a pluralist tradition is established, it is abnormally compatible with religious traditions it might encounter in the future.
Syncretism is the (deliberate) creation of a new religion drawing in part from at least one existing religion. The point of syncretism, whether explicit or not, is the conversion of believers of the existing religion by employing familiar themes, symbols, and rituals. Most of the large conventional religions, including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, are syncretistic, as are newer systems like Mormonism, Bahá’ism, and Sikhism. With the notable exception of paganism, religious traditions that are targeted by syncretic religions are never supplanted, despite the syncretists intentions.
Scriptures are written texts, generally in a standard form, maintained by a religious community, taken to represent key beliefs of the religion, and often attributed to a founder or founders. Many religions are based on scriptures, but all religions are based on non-scriptural traditions, even those also based partially on scriptures. And individual believers typically do not produce their own direct interpretations of scripture and traditions, but subscribe to interpretations of specific communities, being guided by family, clerics, and other community members. For this reason, it is futile and even mistaken to engage in arguments about which beliefs are or are not a part of any religion, with reference for example to scripture. The controversy over, say, homosexuality in Christianity or jihad in Islam cannot be settled by reference to their scriptures; there clearly are many people who believe that Christianity and Islam dictate specific beliefs on these topics, and so, for those people, they do.
Clerics (or collectively, clergy) are individuals who serve religious communities as interpreters of religious traditions, and guides to behavior. Clerics, like scripture, function as authorities for specific communities and traditions. It is customary for communities to rely on clerics to determine what they “believe”, given the arcana often associated with religious traditions. In cases of clerical or scriptural authority, a belief system effectively includes some specific beliefs articulable by ordinary believers, but also a provision for belief in “whatever the clergy or scripture says”.
The largest conventional religions in the world are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese religion. In practice, the largest single belief system in the world is probably materialism — the basic assumptions and conclusions nearly everyone makes about the routine functioning of the world, as codified in modern science. Scientists are the clerics of materialism, individual authorities to whom believers turn for specifics to complete their own “beliefs”.
Christianity, by far the world’s largest conventional religion, originated as a reform movement within Judaism, and was probably not originally intended to become more than that. Its central figure, more likely than not to be legendary, is Jesus (ישוע « Ješūac ») from the town of Nazareth (נצרת « Nasərat »). Eventually it would be claimed that he was the Jewish Messiah (משיח « mešīah », “anointed”), whose Greek equivalent was ‘Christ’ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ « k‛ristos »), and further, the son of God, or God itself. Christianity owes its advance primarily to two figures: Saul of Tarsus (שאול התרסי « Šaɔūl ha-Tarsī »), better known as Paul (ΠΑΥΛΟΣ « Paulos »), who transformed Christianity from an intra-Jewish (and thus nationally-oriented) movement to a universal religion, and Constantine (CAIVS FLAVIVS VALERIVS AVRELIVS CONSTANTINVS), the Roman emperor most responsible for Christianity’s official embrace in the empire. The Christian scriptures include the Jewish scriptures (the “Old Testament”) and its own (the “New Testament”). The split in the early church, between East and West, simply reflected the cultural and political split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empire, the former centered on Constantinople and using Greek as a lingua franca, the latter centered on Rome and using Latin. A later split in Western Christianity, between Catholicism and Protestantism, was largely over church governance.
Islam (الاسلام « ɔal-Ɔislām »), literally “submission” (to God), was founded in Arabia by Muhammad (محمد ابن عبدالله ابن عبد المطلب « Muham:ad ɔibn Cabdɔullah ɔibn Cabd ɔul-Mut:alib »). Muhammad is the only reliably-historical founder of any of the major religions, partially because he is so much more recent, and partially because, due to his military and political power, he was well-attested by non-followers during his own lifetime. Islam’s holy book is the Quran (القرآن « ɔal-Qurɔān »), though the traditions associated with Muhammad, the hadith (حديث « hadīţ »), are also influential. Early in the history of Islam, sects emerged based on differences not over doctrine, but the successor to Muhammad, between those who believed it could be any eminent Muslim, and those who believed it must be a descendant. The former are today’s Sunnis (سنيون « Sun:īūn »), the latter today’s Shiites (شيعيون « Šīcīūn »).
Hinduism (हिन्दू धर्म « Hindū D‛arma » / सनातन धर्म « Sanātana D‛arma ») is, by name and largely in spirit, just the religion of India (हिन्द- « Hind- »); whatever the Indians believe has been Hinduism. Hinduism is decidedly pluralist, and while new, separate religions have emerged (Buddhism) or arrived (Islam) whose believers hold themselves apart from Hindus, the Hindus themselves are diverse, and accepting of many different traditions and interpretations within Hinduism. The three main god figures are the Creator, Brahma (ब्रह्मा « Brahmā »), the Preserver, Vishnu (विष्णु « Visnu »), and the Destroyer, Shiva (शिव « Śiva »). The latter two, along with Shakti (शक्ति « Śakti », also a creation god), are the basis of the three dominant sects, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, though these are not viewed by practitioners as incompatible traditions.
Buddhism emerged in the Indo-Gangetic Plain and clearly from the cultural milieu of Hinduism. It was supposedly founded by Siddhartha Gautama (सिद्धार्थ गौतम « Sidd‛ārt‛a Gĺtama »), known as the Buddha, enlightened one (बुद्ध « budd‛a »), and in its original form remains among the more philosophical and abstract of major religions, revolving around the Four Noble Truths and following the Noble Eightfold Path. Buddhism is practiced in two major forms, Theravada (थेरवाद « T‛ēravāda »), which is more conservative doctrinally, and Mahayana (महायान « Mahājāna »), a more-accessible tradition which has largely deified Siddhartha. Mahayana exists primarily in the Taoist Buddhism of Sino-Asia, and is also practiced as Lamaism in Tibet and Mongolia.
Chinese religion is an amalgam of four elements: folk beliefs, Confucianism, Taoism, and Taoist Buddhism. Based on inherent qualities and their adaptation in a Chinese context, any individual can follow all four, and most do, to varying degrees. The folk beliefs are the oldest element; they consist of various pagan and animist beliefs, along with ancestor worship. The others (the “Three Teachings”) can all be tied to religious reform movements, texts, and founders (all at least somewhat legendary), and all three have been at times in Chinese history distinct and favored religions. Confucianism, attributed to Confucius (孔子 « K‛uŋ214 C
The oldest traditions, poorly represented today, are the similar paganism and animism. Paganism, generally speaking, is nature worship, and animism is the identification of spirits in familiar objects and places. Paganism is most familiar to Westerners through Greco-Roman mythology, but had versions worldwide. Paganism is the main exception to the rule that syncretism doesn’t work. Both Christianity and Islam effectively incorporated local paganisms and then supplanted them. (Christmas, for example, is based on the winter solstice festival, known in English as Yule, and the Christmas tree was a pagan symbol. Mecca was originally a site of pagan pilgrimage; the Kaaba (كعبة « kacbaḧ »), towards which Muslims pray, was a pagan artifact, built around a meteorite.) Animism is still practiced in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, but faces heavy pressure from Islam in the north and east, and from various Christian sects under the influence of European colonialism.
© O.T. FORD
Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford