Religion can be defined as a set of firmly-held beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and man’s place in it. Most religions are centered on a belief in a divine presence, usually described as the Creator, although distinctions exist among various religious denominations regarding the role that divine presence plays in our daily lives. Monotheistic religions, mainly Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all believe that a single God created the universe and has communicated His will through a series of prophets and messengers. Other religions, including Hindu, believe that multiple deities exist and assume various forms here on Earth. Muslim adherents of Sufism are rejected by orthodox variations like Wahhabism and Salafists, as Sufis believe that followers can attain a connection to God in life through acts of devotion, while most Muslims believe that only in death can the path to Heaven be secured.
There are many more variations of religion throughout the world and throughout history. The major point is that billions of people around the world believe in one religion or another. The degree to which each individual or family adheres to strict dictates with respect to religious laws and customs varies extremely widely, but the fundamental belief in one or more Gods is the common connection. For example, Muslims are expected to pray to God five times a day. Whether all Muslims actually adhere to that practice is unknown, but whether they pray once a day or five times a day, they all share common beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and relationship of man to God. Orthodox Jews maintain strict dietary practices in accordance with Biblical mandates, especially those set forth in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus. Reform Jews, on the other hand, hold to a much more liberal view of religion that worships the same God, but eschews or finds unnecessary the strict interpretation of the Bible to which the Orthodox are committed. Within Christianity, there is a multitude of interpretations and practices, the most noteworthy, of course, being the division of Christianity between Catholicism and Protestantism – the outcome of the Reformation.
The purpose of this discussion of the differences within religion is to illuminate the vast expanse of beliefs and the enormous variation among billions of people with respect to the role religion plays in their lives. The Church as an all-encompassing institution provides individuals and families not just a building in which to worship, but an important social structure in which to form a community. Many families’ daily lives are tightly woven into the fabric of their community or neighborhood house of worship. Catholics who attend regular Mass, Muslims who make the five-times-a-day trek to a nearby mosque (and mosques are supposed to be built within walking distance of all Muslim communities), and Jews who observe the Sabbath by eschewing technology and walking to Friday evening services are all connected through their shared devotion while connecting to each other through church, synagogue, or mosque-sponsored “extracurricular” activities that build stronger relationships beyond the more formal process of worshipping in a tabernacle.
Religion, beyond its obvious theological implications, provides a unifying means for tying otherwise diverse and unrelated peoples together for a common purpose. The belief in God is the base upon which organized religion builds communities. Individual commitment varies, but shared identification in a particular denomination or sect unites followers. How that commitment is manifested outside of the house of worship is where the more controversial aspects of religion come into play. Churches, synagogues and mosques that emphasize charitable activities, and most do, play a constructive role in society. Clergy who exploit their pulpits for the purpose of denouncing and demonizing other faiths, however, represent the negative side to religion – in effect, the “holier than thou” syndrome responsible for incalculable suffering throughout history – and it is that side of religion that results in wars and genocidal campaigns intended to rid the world of nonbelievers.