To understand the way people act toward each other, both as individuals and as societies, it is often helpful to understand the religious underpinnings that inform their beliefs and actions. The belongingness that arises from identifying with a religious group has shaped societies and political actions throughout human history. Of world religions today, Christianity and Islam both have roots in the monotheistic beliefs of Judaism. These three major world religions, however, disagree strongly on core tenets of their faiths. Hinduism and Buddhism are other major world religions that are often more tolerant of other beliefs. There are many other belief systems in the world today, ranging from those that see the spiritual in everything around them to those that deny the existence of a higher power or do not believe that such existence can ever be proved. Social scientists study the similarities and differences among major world religions in order to better understand how these belief systems affect societies, cultures, and interactions with others of different beliefs.
Religions are institutional systems grounded in the belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers considered to have created and to govern the universe. One's faith informs not only one's personal belief system, but also one's actions in the world. Religions often inform one's ethical and moral belief systems and how one interacts with other people or the greater environment. For many people, religious identity (or lack thereof) also increases one's feelings of association and belongingness within a group composed of other adherents to the same beliefs. This belongingness not only fulfills a basic human need, but also has political and social ramifications. For example, in the United States in the early twenty-first century, the conservative Christian right has become a significant voting bloc that may influence politicians and governments to create and enforce laws that conform to their religious beliefs. This belongingness can lead to an "us-them" mentality between different groups, resulting in political sanctions, terrorism, and wars.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are only three of a large variety of religions and sects that can be found around the world. In general, most countries have dominant religions. One is more likely than not to encounter dissenting or alternative views when discussing religion. There is a great range of religious diversity across the planet not only based on belief systems but also regarding the number of adherents, ranging in the billions for Christianity and Islam to the fewer than a million for Unitarian Universalism and Scientology. Figure 1 summarizes the percentage of adherents to various religions across the globe.
The following sections briefly discuss some of the major belief systems and representative religions within each group. There are, of course, other religions in the world. The following discussions are not meant to be a comprehensive review, but to give the reader the salient points that differentiate religions.
Major Monotheistic Religions
Three of the major religions of the world are monotheistic (i.e., believe in one god) and trace their roots back to the patriarch Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although there are commonalities between these religions, they are typically better defined by their differences. Far from being minor (as may appear at first glance to an outsider), to a great extent, these differences define the identities of these groups and have served as the basis for conflicts and wars.
Judaism is the earliest of these three religions. This monotheistic religion traces its roots to the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. The spiritual and ethical principles of Judaism are embodied primarily in the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament by some Christians) and the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinic writings that form the basis of religious authority for orthodox Jews.
Although the story of humanity as described in the Hebrew Bible goes back further, the history of Judaism arguably traces back to God's promise to the ancient patriarch Abram (later called Abraham) that he would make of him the father of many nations. The Hebrews called God "YHWH," a name that they did not pronounce out of respect to the supreme being. YHWH's promise to Abraham included his descendents, Isaac, Jacob, and subsequently all the Jews. One of Jacob's sons, Joseph, was subsequently sold into slavery in Egypt, where he rose to power under the pharaoh. During a time of famine, Joseph's 11 brothers came to Egypt in search of food, were reunited with their brother, and stayed. According to the narrative in the Hebrew Bible, their descendents, the Israelites, were eventually enslaved by the Egyptians and then led to freedom by Moses following a series of plagues and the death of the firstborn children of the Egyptians. Jews still commemorate this landmark event by the celebration of Passover.
In the twelfth century CE, Moses Maimonides condensed the beliefs of Judaism into a creed. Observant Jews live according to the tenets of the Hebrew Bible as well as the doctrines of the Talmud, a body of rabbinical law tradition. Judaism can be further broken down into several subcategories, including Orthodox, Ultraorthodox, Reformed, and Conservative Judaism.
One of the sticking points between Judaism and the other two major monotheistic religions is the concept of the messiah. The Hebrew term messiah basically means "the anointed one" (christos, or Christ, in Greek). This ever-anticipated figure in Judaism is expected to bring salvation for God's people (i.e., the Jews) and usher in the Kingdom of God. It is at this point that Christianity and Judaism differ. In its beginnings in the first century CE, Christianity was considered a sect of Judaism that differed from the main body of adherents by their belief that Jesus was not only the expected messiah, or Christ, but also the son of God. Because of this major doctrinal difference, Christians in the first century systematically distanced themselves from the Jews to become a new religion. The belief that Jesus was the expected messiah who came in fulfillment of prophecy, of course, was and is considered heresy by the Jews.
According to the Apostles' Creed, which is still cited by many Christians as a fundamental doctrinal statement, Christians believe in "God the Father Almighty," creator of both heaven and earth. At this point, both Judaism and Christianity agree. It is at the next statement, however, that these two major monotheistic religions diverge. The Apostles' Creed goes on to say that Jesus Christ is God's only son and was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Summarizing the story of the Gospels, the creed goes on to say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. After his death, the creed states that Jesus descended into hell, rose from the dead on the third day, and ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the creator, God the Father, and will judge both the living and the dead. Due to various internal disagreements over the past 2,000 years, Christianity can be further broken down into the Eastern (or Orthodox) Church and the Western Church, comprising the Roman Catholic Church and numerous Protestant denominations.
It is on the doctrine of the person and substance of Jesus Christ that Christians and Jews differ. Both religions are monotheistic. However, rather than merely believing in God the Creator, Christians believe in the Trinity, or the Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit believed to be "three persons in one." In addition, Christians believe that the New Testament is a revelation from God and that it carries as much weight as the Hebrew Bible, a view Jews do not hold. However, based on the teachings of the Christian New Testament itself, most Christians believe that there will be no further body of revelation from God. It is at this point at which the teachings of Islam deviate from those of Christianity.
Islam is also a monotheistic religion tracing its roots back to Abraham. As a religion, Islam was founded around 600 CE. The spiritual and ethical principles of Islam are embodied primarily in the Quran. Muslims (the adherents of Islam) believe in Allah to be the sole deity and Mohammad his last and chief prophet. Although believing in the historical Jesus of the...
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