Different world religions are confessing God. But how do these world religions relate to God? Do they all relate to the same God? In this article, we shall look at five world religions and their relationship with God.
Why study World Religions?
The world contains a variety of scriptures, prophets, holy cities, and spiritual traditions. There are probably as many reasons to study the religions of the world as there are believers and seekers, doubters and devotees. One reason might be to bring greater understanding to a planet dangerously divided by competing claims of faith. Religious violence and persecution have escalated to the point where the United Nations now reports that almost half of the armed conflicts raging on the earth at any moment are holy wars. This has led some international experts to predict that the major threats to peace in the post-cold war era will come from the clash of religious orthodoxies. If we are to achieve peace, it is critical to come to a deeper appreciation of people whose folkways and faith-ways differ from our own.
Another reason to study world religions might be to learn to relate respectfully to others within our heterogeneous communities. The days when North Americans could be comfortably classified according to Will Herberg’s typology of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew are long gone (if such a time ever actually existed). Our next-door neighbors and children’s classmates are increasingly likely to be Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu, and we risk becoming parochial in outlook unless we deliberately extend our horizons to embrace the diversity that characterizes our society.
Population and where they Live: 1.6 billion, making up 23% of all people worldwide. Although the population of the Middle East and North Africa are 93% Muslim, these regions only represent 20% of the worldwide Muslim population. The Asia-Pacific region—due to its dense population—is home to 9.9 million Muslims. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. 3.48 million Muslims are living in North America. In 2015 there were 50 Muslim-majority nations.
Growth Rate: Expected to increase from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.8 billion in 2050
Year Founded: 622 A.D.
Holy Books: Qur’an and Hadith
Significant Figures: Muhammed Ali – Professional boxer; Malala Yousafzai – Pakistani schoolgirl who opposed the Taliban’s stance on female education; Janet Jackson – Singer, songwriter, and actress
View of Jesus: Islam viewed Jesus as aProphet
Islam is a monotheistic religion founded by their Prophet—Muhammad—in the seventh century. Muslims believe the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad to reveal the words of Allah. These revelations are documented in the Qur’an. The framework of the Islamic faith includes five tenets that must be upheld to enter paradise—Heaven.
1. Shahada: the testimony of faith
2. Salat: prayer rituals occurring five times a day
3. Sawm: A month-long fast known as Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. They are not allowed to eat or drink from dawn to sunset.
4. Zakat: 2.5% of income is required to be given to the poor once a year
5. Hajj: If possible, Muslims are to take a pilgrimage to Mecca—located in Saudi Arabia—at least once in their lives.
There are two primary sects of Islam—Sunni and Shia. The division between these groups formed due to differing views of leadership succession after Muhammad’s death. Sunni Muslims (90% of all Muslims) believe that those in the lineage of the first four caliphs—Muhammad’s successors—are rightful religious leaders. In contrast, Shia Muslims believe that only those in the lineage of the fourth caliph—Ali—are worthy successors of Muhammad.
Muslims repudiate polytheism and idolatry, called Shirk, and reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus. In Islam, God is beyond all comprehension, and Muslims are not expected to visualize God (Nigosian, 2004). Muslims believe that the creation of everything in the universe was brought into being by God’s sheer command, “‘Be’ and so it is,” and that the purpose of existence is to worship God.
Founder: Unknown (it does not have a single founder)
Population and where they live: TheHindu faithoriginated in Pakistan. Although Hinduism is the third largest world religion, its breadth is confined to one primary region of the world—South Asia. This region includes countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. India is home to the largest percentage of all Hindus (94%), followed by Nepal (2%) and Bhutan (1%). More than 2.25 million Hindus reside in North America. 1 billion, comprising 15% of the world’s population
Growth Rate: Expected to increase from 1 billion in 2010 to 1.4 billion in 2050
Year Founded: Unknown, but Hindu writings dating back to 1500 B.C.
Holy Books: The Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Puranas
Significant Figures: Mahatma Gandhi – non-violent leader of the Indian independence movement Julia Roberts – American actress Amartya Sen – Indian economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1988
View of Jesus: The Hindus see Christ as the incarnation of their supreme god, Brahmin, hence, in Hindu, Jesus is not the messiah or savior.
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with over 330 million gods and goddesses and one supreme and the impersonal god known as Brahmin. Originating in modern-day Pakistan, this faith system is based on reincarnation and a caste system. Hindus do not seek salvation but desire to be released from their karmic debt to end the cycle of rebirth. This is called moshka and is accomplished through works, devotion, and knowledge.
Brahmins: Priests, academics
Kshatriyas: Soldiers, king-warrior class
Vaishyas: merchants, farmers, laborers, craftspeople
Sudras: commoners, peasants, servants
Harijahns: the “untouchables”
Karma—a system of cause and effect—weighs into where a person ranks in the caste system … determining the blessings and comfort they experience throughout life. An individual’s good and bad actions influence where they rank and what form they reincarnate into—spanning from insects to people. Although this system of karmic consequences was abolished in 1948, great social implications remain since people are considered responsible for their lots in life.
In general, Hinduism considers God not just as the Supreme All-powerful Gigantic One, who commands humanity to tread the way He/She/It says, but also a personal God Whom the individual can worship out of love and not necessarily out of fear. The fear brings one only up to a certain point and beyond that, it repels, but love takes through to the point. Devotion or bhakti as often referred to is a very key concept in Hinduism, even for the philosophically inclined ones. While the shashtras – be it Vedas, Agamas, purANas – describe the Glory of God, one finds an abundance of stotras that praise God in love.
The Isavasya Upanishad says that the whole Universe is pervaded by Isvara or God, who is both within and without it. He is moving and the unmoving, He is far and near, He is within all these and without all these.
The Kena Upanishad says that the Supreme Reality is beyond the perception of the senses and the mind because the senses and the mind can visualize and conceive only the objects, while Reality is the Supreme Subject, the very precondition of all sensation, thinking, understanding, etc. No one can behold God because He is the beholder of all things.
The Kathopanishad has it that God is the Root of this Tree of world existence. The realization of God is regarded as the Supreme blessedness or Shreyas, as apart from Preyas or temporal experience of satisfaction.
Founder: Gautama Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama
Population and where they live: Buddhism was founded in India and is the fourth largest world religion. Due to its Asian roots, close to 99% of all Buddhists live in the regions of East, South, and Southeast Asia. China has the largest percentage of Buddhists (50%), followed by Thailand (13%), Japan (9%), and Myanmar (8%). There are 2.8 million Buddhists who call North America home. 488 million, reflecting 7.1% of the global population (Klein, 1995).
Growth Rate: Expected to decrease from 488 million in 2010 to 486 million in 2050.
Year Founded: 5th century B.C.
Holy Books: The Sutras (Sayings of Buddha) and the Tripitaka (Teachings of Buddha)
Significant Figures: Dalai Lama – Tibetan monk; Tiger Woods – Professional golfer; Hank Johnson – U.S. Congressman from Georgia
View of Jesus: The Buddha faith sees Christ as an Enlightened Master rather than a savior or messiah.
“To avoid all evil. To do good. To purify one’s mind. This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.” Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) left his life of luxury as Indian royalty in search of truth and meaning. After six years of yoga, asceticism, deprivation, and days spent meditating under a tree, Buddha claimed to find enlightenment. The results of his experiment formed Buddhism. Although founded without belief in a higher power, a majority of Buddhists now worship Buddha as a god and believe in his Four Noble Truths.
1. Dukkha: to live is to suffer
2. Samudaya: suffering is caused by desire
3. Nirodha: one can eliminate suffering by eliminating all attachments
4. Magga: This is achieved by following the Noble Eightfold Path—having the right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.
Generally, we use the term ‘God’ to designate a supreme power, who is the creator of the entire universe and the chief law-giver for humans. The God or Almighty is considered to be concerned with the welfare of His creations and the ‘moksha’ or salvation for those who follow His dictates. Different religions and sects follow God differently by different names, but as far as Buddhism is concerned, it has a different perception of Him. Therefore, instead of believing in God, the Buddhists believe in humanity. They believe that each human being is precious and important and all have the potential to develop into a Buddha – a perfect human being by replacing hatred, anger, spite, and jealousy with love, patience, generosity, and kindness.
Founder: Prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster).
Place Founded and Population: Founded in Iran, Zoroastrianism spread from central Asia to Iran around the ninth century B.C.E., where it was propagated by priests called the magi or mobeds. Scholars are equally divergent about the birthplace of Zoroaster. They suggest such locations as eastern Iran, Azerbaijan (south of the Caspian Sea), Balkh (the capital of Bactria, in present-day Afghanistan), Chorasmia, and Sogdia (in present-day Tajikistan), or near the Aral Sea (in present-day Kazakhstan) (Ford, 1996).
Year Founded: Was founded as early as 1400 to 1200 B.C.E.
Death Ritual: If someone dies then their corpse is moved to the Tower of Silence. The tower is organized into three concentric circles, one for men, one for women, and one for children. The corpse is in the center stripped naked. They then wait for the vultures to come, and tear the body pieces until there is nothing but bone left. After the bones have been dried by the sun they are pushed into a well, and then four days late it is believed that the departed soul reaches the next world and appears before God to be judged (Armstrong, 1993).
Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds: Zoroastrianism revolves around three basic tenets- Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds.
Belief in a Supreme and Universal God. They believe Ahura Mazda is the ultimate, omniscient, and omnipotent god. He protects the good from evil.
Belief in the duality of existence. They believe that the world is a constant battleground between good and evil and that even though good will eventually triumph, humans still have a responsibility to stay away from evil.
Believe in the divinity of creation. Zoroastrians believe that the world, both the visible and the invisible one was made from Ahura Mazda’s own body, and we, therefore, have a responsibility to keep it pure.
Belief in the spiritual nature of the world and human beings. Zoroastrians believe that God created spiritual entities and beings before manifesting their counterparts in the material plane (Smith, 1991).
Zoroastrians do believe in one God, Ahura Mazda, meaning Wise Lord. They believe He created the world. The truth was revealed through His prophet Zoroaster, who is not worshipped but is followed as his directed path of truth and righteousness. Hence, Zoroastrians relate to God through the Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord.
Founder: Moses was the main founder of Judaism, but Jews can trace their history back as far as Abraham.
Founding Date: Judaism originated in the Middle East over 3500 years ago. Judaism has about 13 million followers throughout the world, mostly in the USA and Israel. Approximately 270,100 people in the UK said that their religious identity was Jewish.
Holy Books: The most holy Jewish book is the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) which was revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago. The Torah, together with the Talmud (commentary on the Torah), gives the Jewish people rules for everyday life. Observing these rules is central to the Jewish religion.
Jews believe that there is only one God. Jews believe they have a special agreement or covenant with God. In exchange for all the good that God has done for them, Jewish people keep God’s laws and try to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives. Judaism is a faith of action and Jews believe people should be judged not so much on what they believe as on the way they live their faith – by how much they contribute to the overall holiness of the world (Waskow, 1982).
Worship: Jews worship in Synagogues. A Jewish Religious leader is called a Rabbi (literally ‘teacher’)
Shabbat (The Sabbath): The family and community are very important within Jewish life. The most important day of the week is Shabbat (the Sabbath). It is the day on which Jews remember the seventh day of creation on which God rested. On Shabbat Jews stop working and make time for God and family life.
The Jewish God is not merely a philosophical concept, a final cause that explains the existence of the universe. Rather, the Jewish God is a personal God, the true hero of the biblical stories, and a guide and mentor. In the Bible, God has one proper name and a host of other appellations.
Most of classical Judaism views God as a personal god, meaning that humans can have a relationship with God and vice versa. Much of the midrash and many prayers in the siddur portray God as caring about humanity in much the same way that humans care about God. Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon wrote that “God, as conceived by Judaism, is not only the First Cause, the Creative Power, and the World Reason, but also the living and loving Father of Men. He is not only cosmic but also personal. According to traditional Judaism, people’s actions cannot affect God positively or negatively (Levinas, 1990).
Religious liberals have a long history of interest in other spiritual traditions. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson were among the first of their contemporaries to inquire into the sacred writings of Asia. The Unitarian author Lydia Maria Child wrote one of the earliest histories of the world’s religions—The Progress of Religious Ideas Through Successive Ages, published in 1855—scandalizing many of her readers with the suggestion that Christianity had no monopoly on divine truth. That perspective is typical of our movement and continues to inform us. It is the premise behind this study guide.
Our Unitarian Universalist principles observe that our faith draws from many sources, including “that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit, and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” I hope that this study guide will help others, in some small way, to glimpse that wondrous mystery, in all its manifold disguises. Religion is different for different people and cultures. Some religion is so much a part of the culture of a given people that it is not so much a formal religion, but simply the spiritual aspects of that culture or group – the spiritual traditions which help define it.
Among all these religions, Christianity remains the only faith on which the founder died for the sake of His followers, and also lives in His followers.
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Boucher, Sandy. Opening the Lotus: A Woman’s Guide to Buddhism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
Eck, Diana. Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
Ford, James Ishmael. This Very Moment: A Brief Introduction to Buddhism and Zen for Unitarian Universalists. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1996.
Gross, Rita M. Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.
Klein, Anne Carolyn. Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Sean Hand Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Novak, Philip. The World’s Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions. San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1994.
Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1991.
Waskow, Arthur. Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.