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Major Religions Of The World

Bryn Groves

October 21st, 1992

The following is a list of the world's major religions, culled from various sources. Although they are not religions, I have included Atheism and Agnosticism as counterparts to the formal religions listed here.


The historic religion derived from the teaching and life of Jesus Christ (using the New Testament of the Bible as the guide). It was founded and grew up amid the vigorous currents and cross-currents of religious thought and practice in the Greco-Roman world of the 1st-century A.D. Arising as a sect within Judaism, it had behind it a long and complex religious development that culminated in the Hebrew prophetic movement and the deeply laid hope of the coming of the Messiah (the "anointed one"), who would establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. Christianity, in all its forms, is distinguished from other religions by the belief in the gospel of Christ.

The major divisions of Christianity are as follows:

Roman Catholicism

The largest Christian church in the world (more than 900 million followers), it claims direct historical descent from the church founded by the apostle Peter. The Pope in Rome is the spiritual leader of all Roman Catholics. He administers Church affairs through bishops and priests. Members accept the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Bible, as well as the Church's interpretations of these. God's grace is conveyed through sacraments, especially the Eucharist (or communion) that is celebrated at Mass, the regular service of worship. Redemption through Christ is professed as the sole method of salvation, which is necessary to ensure a place in Heaven after life on earth. Roman Catholics believe in the Holy Trinity, holding that there is only one God in 3 persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, who are distinct from and equal to one another.

Orthodox Eastern Church

The second largest Christian community in the world (more than 150 million followers), it split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. The followers of the Orthodox church are in fact members of many different denominations, including the Church of Greece, the Church of Cyprus, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox religion holds biblical Scripture and tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit as expressed in the consciousness of the entire Orthodox community, to be the source of Christian truth. It rejects doctrine developed by the Western churches, such as the infallibility of the Pope and the Immaculate Conception. In contrast to Roman Catholics, who hold that the Holy Ghost proceeds from God and Christ, the Orthodox believe it proceeds from God alone. Other Orthodox doctrines not subscribed to by Catholics are that Christ is the sole head of the Church, and that its authority resides within its members, "the totality of the people of God"; salvation is possible only through the Church, good works, and belief in Christ; and that Heaven and Hell are considered real places.

Coptic Church

A theological controversy in the 5th century led to the creation of the Coptic Church, the native Christian church of Egypt. While the Catholic Church held that Christ had 2 natures (human and divine), the Copts maintained that Christ had only a single divine nature. Labelled as heretics by the Church of Rome, they went their own way.


While there are many different divisions of Protestant faith, they are bound by both a belief in the gospel of Christ and a renouncement of Catholicism and it's more traditional teachings, as well as rule by the Pope. It is a Western counterpart to the Eastern Orthodox religion, which also split from Catholicism. All Protestant churches, as such, share certain historic tenets and attitudes: they regard the Bible as the word of God and the only source of revealed truth (as opposed to the Catholic reliance on tradition and the authority of the church); they hold to the principle of "private judgement" in the interpretation of the Scripture (as opposed to the Catholic dogma that only the church can interpret the Bible authoritatively); they subscribe to the principle involved in Luther's famous doctrine of "justification by faith" (as opposed to any reliance upon ceremonial observances as effective for salvation); and the church is simply the "fellowship of believers" or "the people of God" (as opposed to the idea of the church as an institution mediating salvation to its adherents through the recurring resentation of Christ's sacrifice).

The various Protestant faiths are:


A Protestant branch of Christianity with churches throughout the world that have the same form of worship as the Church of England (American adherents call their church the Episcopal Church). Anglicanism began in England after Henry VIII declared that the King, not the Pope, was the supreme head of the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury was made the head of the Church of England, which prepared its own prayer books (the "Book of Common Prayer"), and statement of doctrine (the 39 Articles). Sometimes called the "bridge Church", Anglicanism agrees with Catholicism on most issues, but like other Protestant groups, Anglicans reject the authority of the Pope. They believe the Bible represents the final statement of life and religion, but it is not always to be interpreted literally. In general, Episcopalians do not believe in a physical heaven or hell, and hold that God, after the Last Judgement, will re-create man with a "spiritual body".


The Baptists believe that only believers (and therefore not infants) may be baptized and that baptism must be administered through full immersion (rather than sprinkling). Baptists hold that the Bible is the supreme authority in every manner of faith, and seek to follow the New Testament as their only guide. Baptists also believe in a "gathered" church, where each church is organized congregationally - independent of all other Baptist churches. They affirm that Christ is the true head of each local church, which is therefore autonomous under him. They also put considerable emphasis on the Reformation doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers", giving prominent place to the laymen in the life of the church. They believe strongly in the separation of church and state, resisting any kind of government control of churches.


Founded by John Thomas in the USA, it claims to have returned to the beliefs and practices of the original disciples. They accept the Bible as infallible, and are particularly interested in the fulfillment of prophecy. They reject the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation (the idea that God became man in Christ, thus having both human and divine natures) and have no ordained ministry.

Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ)

Grew out of the work of Barton W. Stone - a revivalist who broke away from Presbyterianism in 1803 to form churches which claimed no other name than "Christian" - and Thomas Campbell, who departed from a very conservative Presbyterian body and organized his followers into the Christian Association of Washington in an attempt to restore the primitive apostolic pattern of faith. In 1832, these two factions merged to form the Christian Churches, or Disciples of Christ. Their attitude towards theology has been expressed historically in three familiar slogans: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." "In faith unity, in opinions liberty, in all things charity" "No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no law but love, no name but the divine." Christian Churches are missionary-minded and deeply interested in the ecumenical (the recovery of unity among churches) movement.

Christian Science

Christian Science is a system of spiritual healing and a religion based on the principles of Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), who, while suffering from an injury in 1866, experienced a remarkable recovery which she declared came about after reading how Jesus healed in the Gospel of St. Matthew. According to Eddy, belief in the truths of the Bible makes it possible to heal the sicknesses of the body. God is spirit, and humans created in his image are also spirit; matter does not exist, nor illness, except as an illusion; a person can overcome sickness if faith is strong enough. What others call "death", Christian Science refers to as "only an incident in the dream of mortality". Christian Science is a religion with no clergy -- services and church government are conducted by lay members.

Church of the Bretheren

Founded in Germany in 1708, uniting the influences of Pietism (which sought to complete Luther's reformation of doctrine with reformation of life, stressing personal regeneration and piety) and Anabaptism (which held that infant baptism is invalid). Bretheren tend to be conservative in life-style, but liberal in social outlook. They have traditionally rejected military service, and are active in relief, rehabilitation, and disaster reconstruction.

Churches of Christ

A group of autonomous churches which have separated from the Christian Churches. Believing that the Christian Churches were moving away from a rigorous New Testament Christianity (through such things as the use of the organ in public worship and the utilization of Sunday schools and missionary societies), the Churches of Christ requested to be listed separately in the federal religious census of 1906. Churches of Christ regard Jesus Christ as the founder, head, and saviour of the church. They contend that the Word of God is the seed of the church and that, when the Word is preached without any admixture of human opinions, it will produce Christians, or a church of Christ. These churches hold to a strict congregational independency, and have no general organization.


Pacifist Russian sect which appeared in the mid-eighteenth century. They called themselves the "People of God", or true Christians, but their opponents gave them the name "dukhobor" ("spirit-wrestlers"): those that fight the Holy Spirit. They accepted the name, but gave it a new meaning: those who fight with the Spirit dwelling in each person. They rejected doctrines such as the Incarnation (Jesus as the incarnation of God) and the Holy Trinity, believing that each generation has its own mortal Christ, a moral teacher. The only symbols of their faith are bread, salt and a water jug kept on the table in the centre of their meeting place. They are agrarian (farmers) and hold property in common.

Hutterite Brethren

Founded in 1528, they believe that true Christianity can be practiced only in communal living. Like the Mennonites, they originated as a branch of the Anabaptists, believe in common ownership of goods, and are pacifists.

Jehovah's Witnesses

The Witnesses believe that Christ became King of Heaven in 1914 and cast out Satan, thus beginning great troubles on Earth which will climax in the Battle of Armageddon and the destruction of Satan. They believe that exactly 144,000 people will go to heaven, but that the rest of humanity will live in a paradise on Earth. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that theirs is the only true faith and the only way to salvation. All members are ministers who proselytize their faith with door-to-door missionary work; members refuse service in the armed forces, will not salute national flags, or participate in government, will not accept blood transfusions, and discourage smoking, drinking, card-playing and dancing.


The Church of Jesus Christ on Earth by Prophet Simon Kimbangu - the most influential independent church in Africa. In 1918, Simon Kimbangu was said to have a visitation from Christ, telling him to spread His word. Kimbanguists believe that the Holy Spirit has come to them in a special way through the life of the twentieth century Zairean prophet.


The largest branch of the Protestant Church, growing out of the teachings of Martin Luther. The basic Lutheran principle is "justification through faith" - that man's faith in God, rather than man's good works, will bring about his salvation. Lutherans regard the Bible as their sole guide -- although they employ ordained ministers, they believe that every person is a priest and can approach God directly. In connection with the emphasis upon the real presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper (in, with, and under the bread and wine) as it was implied in Luther's doctrine of the omnipresence of Christ, Lutheran theology has always been marked by a sense of the in-dwelling of God in all life and of the nearness of Christ, the incarnate God, to all men of faith. Thus Lutherans tend to identify religious faith with love and providence.


Stemming from the 16th-century Anabaptists (who regarded infant baptism as invalid), Mennonites faithfully adhere to the principles of their forefathers, practice adult baptism, observe a strict Biblicist piety, reject the oath and use of violence, and strongly advocate the separation of church and state.

The Old Order Amish is a small conservative branch of the Mennonite faith which shuns worldly ways and modern innovation (education and technology). For the Amish, the church is a voluntary brotherhood of obedient Christians, following the narrow way of the New Testament, aided by mutual admonition and support. They permit elementary education, preferably with teachers of their faith, but reject schools of higher learning.


The name derives from the founders' desire to study religion "by rule and method" and follow the Bible interpreted by tradition and reason. Although Methodists accept the Trinity and practice baptism, they hold that individual love for God and individual religious experience mean more than formal doctrine. Salvation is achieved by a life of holiness, repentance, and faith, and is available to everyone. Most believe in judgement after death, in which the morally good are rewarded and the wicked punished.

Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)

Founded by Joseph Smith when he declared, in 1827, that a vision led him to dig up golden plates covered with sacred writings. Translated by him, they were published as "The Book of Mormon". Mormons believe in a purposeful universe in which humans have been placed to make themselves more like God by faith and works. They hold that God was once a man, and that humans, too, may one day become gods. They believe in the Trinity as three distinct personages, and they practice baptism. Missionary work is important (all male Mormons have to spend two years between the ages of 18 an 25 in spreading the faith), and abstinence from tea, coffee, and alcohol is considered important.


A group of independent religious bodies originating in the United States, the name derives from the doctrine that all Christians are to reproduce the experience of the original disciples on the first day of Pentecost following Christ's ascension. This involves being baptized in the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues, and faith healing. Services feature enthusiastic sermons and hymns.


The basis of the Presbyterian creed is the Westminster Confession (1644-1647), the most famous statement of English Calvanism. They believe that the Scriptures are "the only infallible rule of faith and practice". Its main features are the right of every member to share in the government of the local church (which is exercised through elected or approved elders); a single order in the Christian ministry, in which all ministers are of equal status; and the governing of the national church through a graded arrangement of ecclesiastical courts composed of equal numbers of ministers and laymen.

Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

Reliance is on the Inner Light (the voice of God's Holy Spirit experienced within each person) which, if followed, can lead to spiritual truth. The Quakers believed that the Scriptures were a true Word of God, but that revelation was not confined to them. They rejected the Calvanistic concept of man's total depravity, insisting that there is a seed of God in every soul. Emphasizing the inward nature of religion, the Quakers reacted against outward ceremonies. As such, meetings are characterized by quiet meditation without ritual or sermon. Quakers are active in peace, education, and social welfare movements; they refuse to bear arms or take oaths.

Seventh-Day Adventists

Its distinguishing feature is the observance of Saturday, rather than Sunday, as the Sabbath. Otherwise, it is orthodox Protestant and evangelical, baptizes by immersion, and operated on a modified congregational basis. They require a lifestyle of strict temperance.

Swedeborgianism (Church of New Jeruselam; New Church)

Based on the writings of the Swedish scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg, it teaches belief in progress in spirit worlds after death; in "correspon- dences" or affirmation of direct causes in the spiritual world for terrestrial events; in an elaborate allegorical method of interpreting scripture; and an unusual doctrine of the Trinity which holds that Christ is himself the one and only God, Father (as divine essence), Son, and Holy Spirit being embodied in him. Worship is simple, but dignified. Swedeborgians believe that the Bible, expressing the divine mind, in some sense *is* God; a gesture is made toward the open scriptures on the altar at certain points in the service when the name of God is mentioned.

Unitarian Universalist Association

Members profess no creed; strong social, ethical and humanitarian concerns are manifest in the search for religious truth through freedom of belief; theists, humanists and agnostics are accepted in religious fellowship; efforts are aimed at the creation of a worldwide interfaith religious community.

United Church of Christ

One of America's newer Protestant churches, formed the union of the Congregational Christian Churches (rooted in congregationalism, they believed that the true visible church is manifest in a local congregation rather than in lager units) and the Evangelical and Reformed Church (composed primarily of a previous union of German Lutherans and Calvanists). Their belief in the Bible is guided by the "Statement of Faith" (written in 1959). The church is organized by congregations, which are represented at a general synod that sets policy; infant baptism and communion are practiced. The majority of followers do not believe in the "virgin birth", holding that what Jesus taught and how he lived, rather than the manner of his birth, is of prime significance. While believing that death is not the end of life, members do not regard Heaven and Hell as places, but conditions of either eternal presence with or separation from God.


Stemming from the descendants of Judah in Judea, Judaism was founded by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is one of the oldest of the monotheistic (one God) religions, and both Christianity and Islam are based upon its principal beliefs. Judaism believes in a God, who is the creator of the universe and who leads His people, the Jews, by speaking through prophets. His word is revealed in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), especially in that part known as the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch). Jews believe that the human condition can be improved, that the letter and the spirit of the Torah must be followed, and that a Messiah will eventually bring the world to a state of paradise. The basic beliefs of Judaism are a love of learning; the worship of God out of love, not fear; and the performing of heartfelt good deeds without concern about rewards. Pork and shellfish are prohibited.

The main denominations of Judaism are:

Reform Judaism

Arose in the 19th century in response to the changing conditions of emancipated Jews in Germany. A doctrine of "progressive revelation" was adopted, maintaining only such traditional ceremonies as were meaningful to the modern Jew. The outward forms of religion are always changing, and the "spirit of the times" is also God's revelation.

Orthodox Judaism

In opposition to the newly-formed Reform Judaism, the Orthodox Judaic movement also was formed in the early 19th century. It views the Torah as derived from God, and therefore absolutely binding. It rejects the findings of higher criticism of the Bible, and upholds (as against the Reform Judaic rejection of these beliefs) the doctrines of the personal Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, and the ultimate restoration of the sacrificial service in the Jerusalem Temple. The worship service is conducted entirely in Hebrew, men and women sit in separate parts of the building, there is no instrumental music, head coverings and prayer shawls are worn by the men, and the service is usually of considerable length, since respect for the entirety of the accumulated tradition precludes any conscious process of selection.

Conservative Judaism

A modern interpretation of Judaism which tries to combine adherence to the traditional forms of the faith with concessions to modern conditions of life. It stands midway between Reform and Orthodox Judaism.


Religious movement in Judaism founded in Eastern Europe in the 18th century, Hasidism stresses joy in the worship of God and the mystical idea that the world of the senses is a veil concealing the essence of reality, which is the divine spark of holiness in everything. It thus exalts religious melody and dance. They are an ultra-orthodox form of Judaism that lives in isolation from the Gentile world, and maintains a strict commitment to the Law in every phase of life.


Founded by Mordecai Kaplan who stressed Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. It gives equal importance to religion, ethics, and culture.


An Ethiopian sect which bases its religious beliefs on the Bible and certain Apocryphal sources, accepting little of post-biblical Judaism, though rabbinic traditions are found within their literature.


Hinduism is a term used to broadly describe a vast array of sects to which most Indians belong. It has no particular ecclesiastical structure, nor set creed -- the emphasis is on the way of living, rather than on a way of thought. Hindu beliefs include the acceptance of the caste system, which ranks people from birth based on religious practice, employment, locale and tribal affiliation, among other categories. Society at large is classified into four groups (or castes), each created from a different part of Brahman, who pervades all reality: the Brahmans (priests and intellectuals), Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaisyas (farmers, artisans and merchants), and Sundras (peasants and labourers). Far beneath the four castes are the pariahs, or "untouchables". The goals of Hinduism are release from repeated reincarnation through the practice of yoga, adherence to Vedic scriptures, and devotion to a personal guru. Like the Buddhists, Hindus also believe in reincarnation -- that the soul takes up a new life when the individual dies. Whether it will be worse or better than the previous one depends upon "karma" (one's actions). Hindu hope is for release ("moksha") from this cycle.

Various deities are worshiped at shrines; the divine trinity, representing the cyclical nature of the universe, are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.

The main denominations of Hinduism are:

Vaishnavas (Vishnuism)

Followers of the Hindu god Vishnu, forming one of the main branches of Hinduism. Most Vaishnavas are especially devoted to one of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu, now usually to Rama or Krishna.


Members of that branch of Hinduism which looks on the god Shiva as ultimate and accepts him as the chief object of worship. They demand blood sacrifices and a religious attitude of childlike surrender, as opposed to an attitude of love and offerings of devotion given to the incarnations of Vishnu by his followers (Vaishnavas).

Shakti (or Sakti)

Shakti is the mother goddess and manifests herself in many different forms. Theologically, Shakti is conceived as the active, powerful component of the universe, while her husband Shiva (who holds the power of destruction) rests in deep contemplation. Thus, the cults of Shaivas and Shakti are closely related, and the demands (sacrifices, and religious attitude) are similar.

Arya Samaj

Hindu reform organization formed in 1875, it sought to revive Vedism (the ancient sacred language of the Hindus) and advocated the abolition of the caste system, since it maintained that the Vedas, which it held to be infallible, did not recognize caste. The society favoured mass education, the emancipation of women, and the remarriage of widows. It opposed child marriage and image-worship. Righteousness and service to humanity were recommended as guides to proper conduct.

Brahma Samaj

Dedicated to nonsectarian worship of the Eternal, the sect promulgated a reformed theistic Hinduism. Influenced by Christianity and Western ideas, the movement advocated abolition of the caste system and child marriage and favoured emancipation of women and remarriage of widows.

Hare Krishna (International Society for Krishna Consciousness; ISKON)

Derived from the Hindu sect of Vishnuism, it teaches that Krishna was the chief God who had revealed himself at one time as Vishnu (the reverse of Hindu teaching, where it is believed that Vishnu, the Supreme God, manifested himself at one time as Krishna). Krishnaism was one of the early attempts to make Hinduism appealing to the masses. While pure Hinduism's god is impersonal and unknowable, Krishnaism (and other sects) personalize god and promote worship of and interaction with the personalized aspects of god, such as Krishna.

According to the faith, salvation must be earned by performing a series of works. Shaven, yellow-robed devotees chant the mantra "Hare Krishna" as a way of reaching ecstatic union with God.


Grew out of the basic beliefs of Hinduism, but strongly rejected the Hindu caste system. Teaches that meditation and the practice of good religious and moral behaviour can lead to Nirvana, the state of enlightenment, although before achieving Nirvana one is subject to repeated lifetimes that are good or bad depending upon one's actions (karma). The doctrines of the Buddha describe temporal life as featuring "four noble truths": existence is a realm of suffering; desire, along with the belief in the importance of one's self, causes suffering; achievement of Nirvana ends suffering; and Nirvana is attained only by meditation and by following the path of righteousness in action, thought and attitude.

The three schools of Buddhism are:

Hinayana ("the lesser vehicle")

Emphasizes salvation by objective attainment. It teaches that each individual is responsible for his or her own salvation. It's only surviving sect is Theravada ("Way of the Elders") which adheres strictly to the Buddhist teachings and perceives the historical Buddha, Guatama, as the supreme teacher among men (as opposed to the Mahayana's view of Guatama as a deity).

Mahayana ("the greater vehicle")

Lays stress on universal salvation, saying that all beings are tied together. Much more lenient than the Hinanyana school of thought, it has produced a diversity of sects, including:

Jodo Shin Shu ("pure land true sect")

Japanese sect founded in 1224 by Shinran Shonin. Shinran taught that salvation is attained by mere repetition of the name "Amida", the Infinite (Buddha). In effect, death and Nirvana then become synonymous, resulting unconditionally from the grace of Bodhisattva (an Indian deity) who, out of compassion for the welfare of humanity, renounced supreme enlightenment.

Kegon Shu (Hua-yen)

Founded in China and based on the Yogacara school of Indian Buddhist idealism that taught that the entire objective world, composed of Buddha-essence, is a manifestation of the Buddha-mind.

Nichiren ("sun lotus")

A native Japanese phenomenon, it was founded in an age when Japan was ruled by feudal lords and adopted Buddhism to the Bushido warrior cult by teaching that a state and religion should be a unity. Distinctive to all the various sects of Nichiren Buddhism (as well as its off-shoots) is their common reverence for the Lotus Sutra as the supreme and sufficient Buddhist teaching, and the centrality of the Gohonzon ("worship object"): a mandala which inscribes the words of the Daimoku ("Hail to the wonderful truth of the Lotus Sutra").

Rissho Koseikai

Officially translated as "society for the establishment of righteousness and security of the country as preached by Saint Nichiren; interaction and harmony to completion", it is an off-shoot of Nichiren Buddhism, founded in 1938 by Nikkyo Niwano. Its doctrine draws not only from Nichiren, but from Hinayana Buddhism.

Shingon ("true or mystical word")

Japanese sect, whose doctrines include: the Ten Stages, from beastly man to the Great Illuminator, a belief in the Buddha-nature of Supreme Reality, of which the historical Guatama Buddha was a manifestation; the Two Elements, the passive (or mental) and the active (or material), reflecting Wisdom and Compassion; the Three Secrets - that everything possesses body, thought and speech. Meditation is stressed.

Soka Gakkai ("value creation society")

A lay movement that emerged at the turn of the century when religious freedom was introduced in Japan. Like Nichiren, from which it derives, it is intolerant of other movements and lays great stress on duty and morality. A special emphasis is placed on the creation of a "contented society".

Tendai (T'ien-t'ai)

Founded by Chih-i in China and based on doctrines brought from India about 400 A.D. Tendai advocates extreme tolerance of "The Middle Way", recognizes all Buddhist sects, and is itself a miniature Buddhism. Very popular in Japan is its fundamental teaching that not only everyone, but also everything, attains Buddhahood, and that Buddha is Supreme Reality, manifested as the historical Guatama Buddha. The Tendai ideal is to live in harmony with Reality by vowing (to ones' self) imitation of Buddha.

Vajrayana ("the diamond vehicle")

A version of Mahayana Buddhism, originating in India, that has become overlaid with occult, magical, and mystical elements. Vajrayana seeks to pass beyond the appearances of things into an emptiness of through which the individual is identified with the absolute. To achieve this, specific techniques are used: the "mantra" (a magic saying, which is repeated over and over again); the "mudra" (special physical gestures); and the "mandala" (a `meditation circle' which is contemplated to achieve an experience of the divine). It is the Buddhism of Tibet.

Won ("complete")

Perhaps the most lively form of Korean Buddhism today, it stresses a correct understanding of grace, activity in spreading Buddhist teaching, and selfless service to others.

Zen (Ch'an)

Bought to China from India in the 6th century by the philosopher Bodhidharma. Stressing self-reliance and meditation, Zen seeks to substitute intuitive awareness for intellect and logic. It is intended to train the mind to jump beyond the limits of thought -- to leap from "thinking" to "knowing". In order to attain enlightenment, or Buddhahood, according to Zen, a person must plumb the depths of his own "self". When he comes to know his own consciousness fully, he will find it identical with the spiritual reality which is conterminous (having the same boundary) with all that is. If a person cannot perceive reality in the most commonplace objects and activities, he will not find it anywhere.

Tantrayana (Tantrinism)

Differs from the other two schools of Buddhism through its emphasis on sacramental action. Instead of stressing such concepts as faith or wisdom, it relies on a consecration consisting of actions of the body, speech and mind. The human body is not deprecated but is valued as the instrument through which actions are performed to achieve salvation. Such actions entail complicated rituals that require oral instruction under a recognized master, and such instructions are given only to those who are properly qualified. Tantrists believe their way is superior to Hinayana and Mahayana because it does not require the long road that those beliefs must travel, but allows followers to achieve salvation within a single lifespan.


Founded by the prophet Muhammed, who received the holy scriptures of Islam (the Koran) from Allah (God), Islam maintains that Muhammed is the last in a long line of holy prophets, preceded by Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. In addition to being devoted to the Koran, followers of Islam (Muslims) are devoted to the worship of Allah through the "Five Pillars": the statement "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet"; prayer, conducted five times a day while facing Mecca; the giving of alms; the keeping of the fast of Ramadan during the ninth month of the Muslim year; and the making of a pilgrimage at least once to Mecca, if possible. Consumption of pork and alcohol, as well as usury, slander, and fraud are prohibited. In the end, the sinless go to Paradise, a place of physical and spiritual pleasure, and the wicked burn in Hell. The holy book is called the Qur'an (Koran).

The divisions of Islam are:

Sunni (Orthodox)

Practice is staid and simple. A deterministic (no free will) viewpoint is held. The Wahhabis are the most important Sunni sect. 90% of Muslims belong to this belief.

Shi'ah (Shiite)

The Shi'ah believe in the 12 "imams" (perfect teachers) who still guide the faithful from Paradise. Practice tends towards the ecstatic. Man's free will is affirmed. For Shiites, pilgrimage to the cities sanctified by members of Mohammed's family is almost as important as the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The sects of Shi'ah Islam include:

Imamis (Imamiyya; Twelvers)

The largest sect of Shiite Islam. They have accepted the Jaafari (named after the sixth "imam") form of Muslim law, and are led by independent religious authorities (mujtahids) recognized as learned and pious representatives of the hidden imam.

Isma'iliyya (Batinyya; Seveners)

A branch of the Shi'ah with numerous subdivisions which began to be differentiated from the Imamis at the time of the great Shi'ite Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. They restricted the number of imams to seven, the last of which was Muhammad ibn Isma'il (the grandson of Ja'far al-Sadiq), and was expected to be the Mahdi (the awaited descendant of Muhammad who would restore Islam to purity).

Druses (Druzes)

Developed in the 11th century from the Ismalii branch of Islam and based on the adoration of the Egyptian Caliph al-Hakim (who is regarded as the manifestation of God). They expect al-Hakim to return a conqueror and fill the earth with righteousness. Meanwhile, the more pious of the Druses try to purify their souls (which are held to be reincarnated generation after generation) so as to be worthy of him.

Zaydis (Zaidis; Zaydiyya)

The Zaydis hold that any descendant of Ali and Mohammed's daughter (Fatima) may be a legitimate imam (ruler of the Muslims) provided he is both expert in the law and effective in claiming his rights by the sword.


Adherents of several Muslim sects who insisted that the ruler of Islam must be of pure character and elected by the faithful. The Kharijites declared all other Muslims renegade for accepting sinful rulers.


A contemporary messianic movement originating in South Asia, it was created by Ghulam Ahmad Qadiyani in 1889 in an attempt to regenerate Islam in the face of challenges from Western religions. His visions led him to belief that he was an agent of the apocaplyse - the Messiah whom Muslims expected at the end of time. In 1914, a split in the ranks of the faith occurred, resulting in two branches of the original movement:


Consistent apologists for a progressive, modernist Islam; defending their faith against propaganda attacks from other religions.


Insist on the uniqueness of Ghulam Ahmad as a prophet, and have engaged in fierce debate with other Muslims.



Belief that it is impossible to know whether God exists, or to have any other theological knowledge. Because the limits of the mind may not be the limits of the real, Agnosticism does not necessarily imply athiesm.


Derived from the Latin word "animus", meaning "spirit", Animism is the belief that all beings, objects and natural phenomenon have souls. Animism is considered by many to be the original religion and is still widespread today, particularly in Africa, South America and parts of Asia.


The rejection of belief in God. Some atheists have held that there is nothing in the world that requires a God in order to be explained.

Baha'i (Babi)

Though the original intent of the movement was to purify the branch of Islam called Shiite Islam, it soon developed into an independent faith, the followers of which called for social reforms. The faith emphasizes the unity of all religious teachings that share the same spiritual truths and promotes universal education, equality between the sexes, world peace, and world government. The teaching of Baha'is especially concerned with the problems of the individual in the community, and Baha'is seek to work hand in hand with science. Man is required to adopt a new attitude to his role as a partner in the family and the whole social structure.

Cao Dai

Religious and political movement which started in southern Vietnam around 1920. It is sometimes called the "Third Amnesty". Firmly nationalistic, its teachings are a mixture of Buddhism and Taoism.

Ch'ondogyo (Chondo-kyo)

A Korean religion, Ch'ondogyo ("Way of Heavenly Teaching") teaches the worship of God in Heaven but combines features of shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Founded in opposition to the spread of Catholicism in Korea, the basic statement of belief affirms that "man is God". Man and the universe are one, no idols should be worshipped, no humans are above others, but all should strive to make this earth a heaven.


Confucianism, which grew out of a strife-ridden time in Chinese history, stresses the relationship between individuals, their families, and society, based on "li" (proper behaviour) and "jen" (sympathetic attitude -- the ultimate goal of conduct). Confucianism gives primary emphasis to the ethical meaning of human relationships, finding and grounding the moral in divine transcendence. The goal of the Confucian is to become a sage; a servant of society.


Originally a religious brotherhood of English masons founded in the twelfth century, today it is a semi-secret society which retains certain mystical symbols and ceremonies. Members are committed to a belief that God as "the great architect of the universe", symbolized by an eye.

Hotoku ("repayment of blessings")

A religious and ethical movement founded by the "peasant sage" Ninomiya Sontoku for the benefit of peasantry. It is a practical application of ethical principles to the solution of rural economic problems.


An athiestic religion (which teaches that the universe goes through a process of advance and decline according to natural law) founded by Mahavira (the Great Hero), the faith accepts karma and reincarnation and, like Buddhism, rejects the Hindu caste system. However, unlike Buddhism, followers are urged to take the extreme path of asceticism, or self-denial. All Jains are vegetarians. They cannot take part in war. They cannot be butchers, or engage in any professions where they must kill or injure any living thing. They cannot even be farmers, for in tilling the soil they might kill worms. Hence, most Jains have become merchants and bankers. Jainism had some influence on Mahatma Ghandi, especially in respect of his insistence on complete nonviolence. The two major monastic traditions are Digambara, which requires all monks renounce their possessions, including all clothing, and live completely naked; and the Svetambara, which permits the wearing of simple robes.

Konko-kyo ("the religion of golden light")

One of the new Japanese religions, it was founded by Bunjiro Kawate who had a shamanistic vision in which a folk religion deity revealed himself to be actually a monotheistic "high god". The major distinctive rite of this religion is a practice of personal spiritual guidance somewhat comparable to Roman Catholic confession.


An outgrowth of Marxist-Leninism, which was brought to China from the Soviet Union in the 1920's, it was founded by Mao Tse-tung, who aligned himself with the poor peasants of China and gained control of the Chinese Communist party in 1935. The main tenets of Maoism are faith in the Communist party, faith in the masses, and transcendence of personal desires in order to serve the people as a whole.

Omoto ("great source")

A group of new Japanese religions, Omoto emphasizes the existence of a spiritual world, the coming of a new age and a new messiah, healing, mental powers, the creation of paradise on earth and the religious importance of art. Among those religions are:

Pl Kyodan ("perfect liberty order")

Members believe that "life is art" and that all aspects of life need to be integrated into a total work of art. Sports is emphasized, and they have a golf course near their churches, where possible.

Seicho-no-Ie ("house of growth")

Teaches that "all is perfect" and draws from the Western "New Thought" positive-thinking tradition and from the Mahayana belief in the universal unstained One Mind.

Seikai Kyusei-Kyo (Sekai Meshia-Kyo; Church of World Messianity)

Offers "johrei" - in which the "Divine Light of God" is channeled through the cupped hand of one who administers it to a recipient.

Radha Soami Satsang

A sect containing elements of Hinduism and Sikhism, its founder described God as the union of Radha (symbolizing the soul) and Soami ("master", symbolizing the centre). They believe in a living guru (unlike the Sikhs) and do not regard the Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book) as their only scripture.


Religious and political movement centered in the Caribbean. Rastafarians believe that all West Indians came from Ethiopia and will return there to liberation. They are distinguished by keeping their hair in "dreadlocks" and by their use of cannabis in worship. They helped develop the reggae style of music, which they use to express their political and religious aspirations.


A modern movement, begun in 1868 that claims ties to an older Society of the Rose and Cross that was founded in Germany in 1413 by Christian Rozencreuz. Claims to empower members with cosmic forces by unveiling secret wisdom regarding the laws of nature.


The worship of the power which Judaism and Christianity regard as the origin of evil. Ideologically, Satanists seem to be divided into three groups. Some modern Satanists regard the Judeo-Christian devil as actually the true deity of this world, synonymous with the life force and "healthy" natural impulses, and God as a sinister being who piously urges an unwholesome repression of nature and the flesh. For the most "liberal" wing of Satanism, represented by Anton LeVay (who founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco in 1966), the whole Satanist symbol system is little more than a myth and ritual to help people accept their carnal and materialist sides without guilt. For others, Satan is indeed the prince of evil whom they embrace for his own sake, and in hope of reward after death in his dark domain.


Scientists believe that the order of the universe can be determined by systematic study and analysis. They believe that theirs is the only true path and that other paths are "mere superstitions".


Religious philosophy based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard. It teaches development through personality counselling and mind-training, the aim of which is the "clearing" of the individual and the recognition of his immortal nature.

Shintoism ("way of the kami")

The ancient native religion of Japan developed out of primitive worship of ancestors and natural forces, but has been influenced by Confucianism and Buddhism. The word "Shinto" means "way of the gods". Shinto stresses belief in a great many spiritual beings and gods, known as "kami" (who are paid tribute at shrines and honoured at festivals), and reverence for ancestors. While there is no overall dogma, adherents of Shinto are expected to remember and celebrate the kami, support the societies of which the kami are patrons, remain pure and sincere, and enjoy life. Shintoism places great emphasis on physical and mental purity.


The Sikhs religion developed out of Hinduism under the influence of Islam, and it also contains features perhaps showing Christian influence. Sikhs are more strictly monotheistic (one God) than Hindus, referring to God as Ram, Akal ("the Timeless"), and as Wahguru ("the Great Master"). Like Hindus, they believe in the transmigration of souls (reincarnation), but like the Muslims, they object to the worship of images. In their gurdwaras (temples), the sacred image is replaced by a large copy of the Sikh scriptures, referred to as Granth Sahib ("Lord Book"). This is a lengthy collection of hymns in Punjabi and Hindu, composed by the Sikh gurus and various Hindu hymnodists. Certain regulations of Govind Singh have given the Sikhs their distinctive appearance. The orthodox male Sikh must always wear certain articles, known as the "five k's" (because in Punjabi, their names begin with that letter). These are long hair (kesh), which, including the beard, must never be cut; a pair of sewn knee-length underpants (kachh), replacing the Hindu dhoti; an iron bangle (kara); a comb (kangha) to keep the hair in place; and a short sword or dagger (kirpan). The hair is always worn under a turban in public. Orthodox Sikhs rigidly avoid alcohol and tobacco, but they are permitted to hunt and eat meat.

Society of Ethical Culture

A humanist movement, stressing the importance of ethics and morality in human interaction, although it offers no system of ethics or other religious beliefs of its own.

Taoism (Daoism; "the Way")

Both a philosophy and a religion, Taoism was founded in China and can best be described as a philosophy of "live and let live". It derives primarily from the "Tao-te-ching", which claims that an ever-changing universe follows the Tao, or path. The Tao can be known only by emulating its quietude and effortless simplicity; Taoism prescribes that people live simply, spontaneously, and in close touch with nature, and that they meditate to achieve contact with the Tao. Harmony is thus achieved by pursuing inaction and effortlessness.

Tenrikyo ("Religion of Heavenly Wisdom")

One of the new religions of Japan, members perform sacred dances with gestures of sweeping movement to symbolize clearing away spiritual dust. Founded by Miki Nakayama, it is said that a deity spoke through her lips, saying he was the True and Original God, and that he wished to use Miki's body as a shrine to save the world. From then on, she lived wholly as the vessel of this "holy one", known to believers as the Father-Mother God. Through her came the sacred scriptures of the religion, the divine dances, and the sire of its great temple, located where it is believed the creation of the world began and where divine dew will fall from heaven to mark the inception of the paradisal age.


The religion of 90% of the people in Haiti (in spite of the official domination of the Roman Catholicism) as well as others in the West Indies and parts of South America. The name derives from a West African word for God, and the faith is a mixture of Christianity and native African religion. The Voodooists believe that life came from the mud and that from it they derive strength.

Unification Church

Korean religion founded by Sun Myung Moon, who claimed that when he was 16, Jesus appeared to him. It combines Christian, shamanistic and messianic features. Members are dubbed "Moonies", after the name of their leader. The Church teaches that a second Adam and Eve must come forth to pay the indemnity for the sin of the original Adam and Eve. Jesus came to earth as the second Adam, but did not marry and therefore could not fulfill the prophecy. Therefore, the material world remains under the power of Satan. Moon teaches that the time is near when a new Messiah will arise in Korea, complete the indemnity, marry the new Eve, found a sinless humanity, and establish God's kingdom.

Zoroastrianism (Parsi)

A religion of ancient Persia, Zoroastrianism still exists on a limited scale in India and Iran. Founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra in Persian), who had a series of revelations, inspiring him to preach the new faith. Eventually, it was eclipsed by Islam. Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith with a strong ethical emphasis centering about the dualistic concept of the conflict between Good and Evil. Good was manifest in the creator-god of light and truth, Ahura Mazda, the great, beneficent Wise Lord. His evil opponent was Angra, Mainyu, or Ahriman, the spirit of darkness. The ultimate triumph of Ahuru Mazda was assured, but during the struggle, men could aid the cause of Ahuru Mazda by making free ethical choices and judgements in their daily lives.

As an appendix to this file, I offer a chart comparing the world's most influential religions. The information was culled by a fascinating book called "Many Peoples, Many Faiths".

Religion can be expressed in three broad areas: Theoretical, Practical, and Sociological. It is through these areas of expression which we shall examine the differences between the various religions under examination.

THEORETICAL (what is said by the religion)

Basic World View

(how the universe is set up, especially in its spiritual aspect -- the map of the invisible world)

  • Tribal: the universe is a place animated by many spirits, some friendly and some not. Humans have a real place in the cosmos, which works by rules and cycles that can be known.
  • Hinduism: the universe is profoundly one. Even though it goes through surface changes and cycles, its ultimate nature as expression of the divine does not change.
  • Zoroastrianism: the universe is a battleground between good and evil.
  • Buddhism: reality is an indescribable unity. Humans find themselves in a realm of suffering governed by karma.
  • Confucianism: the universe is a unity under heaven, of which humans are an integral part. For humans, family and society are the most important links to the universe.
  • Taoism: the universe is one, yet always moving and changing.
  • Shintoism: universe is pluralistic, having many gods. It is growing and changing. Nature, humanity, and the divine are not sharply separated.
  • Judaism: universe is made by God but is an arena of humans to live in and enjoy, exercising free will, in co-operation with God's guidance.
  • Christianity: a world made by God, but fallen far from harmony with his will; Jesus Christ bridges the gap between God and humanity. In this situation faith and love are required.
  • Islam: the world is for humans but under the absolute rule of God.

God or Ultimate Reality

(what the ultimate source and ground of all things is)

  • Tribal: many gods and spirits; but perhaps a higher god or unifying force over them.
  • Hinduism: Brahman, the one Mind or Life, is the one reality. It expresses itself in all that is like a flame taking many shapes.
  • Zoroastrianism: the good high God, Ahura Mazda, whose adversary is the evil force Angra.
  • Buddhism: unconditioned reality beyond all opposites; Nirvana, the Void.
  • Confucianism: "heaven", regulating the world and moral order.
  • Taoism: the Tao, the great Way down which the universe moves.
  • Shintoism: many "kami" (gods).
  • Judaism: in traditional Judaism, a sovereign, personal, all-good creator God.
  • Christianity: a sovereign, personal, all-good creator God.
  • Islam: God, sovereign, personal, revealing himself and giving specific guidance to humanity.

Origin of the World

(where it all came from)

  • Tribal: either no point of origin, or created by the gods or a high god who may subsequently have withdrawn from activity.
  • Hinduism: the world goes through endless cycles of creation and destruction but has no real beginning or end.
  • Zoroastrianism: made by Ahura Mazda to entrap the evil force.
  • Buddhism: while the cosmos may go through cycles, it has no known beginning or end.
  • Confucianism: the world originates from heaven.
  • Taoism: it is an expression of the Tao without a known beginning.
  • Shintoism: generated by the gods.
  • Judaism: created by God.
  • Christianity: created by God.
  • Islam: created by God.

Destiny of the World

(where it is going)

  • Tribal: usually not clear.
  • Hinduism: the world goes through endless cycles of creation and destruction but has no real beginning or end.
  • Zoroastrianism: at the end of the age, to be remade as a new, pristine palace.
  • Buddhism: while the cosmos may go through cycles, it has no known beginning or end.
  • Confucianism: vague, but world proceeds through interaction of Yin and Yang and the five "principles" or elements.
  • Taoism: it is an expression of the Tao without a known end.
  • Shintoism: unknown, but historical progress has meaning.
  • Judaism: will be led by God through historical vicissitudes, until finally a messianic age brings it to a paradisal state.
  • Christianity: at the end of time, to be judged and then remade as a paradise of God.
  • Islam: to be destroyed on the Last Day, the day of judgement.

Origin of Humans

(where we came from)

  • Tribal: often children of gods or demidivine primal parents.
  • Hinduism: like the world, the individual has no known beginning. It goes through countless lifetimes, the nature of which is determined by karma.
  • Zoroastrianism: made by Ahura Mazda with free will to help trap and defeat the enemy.
  • Buddhism: an individual is a process of cause and effect rather than a self; to this there is no beginning.
  • Confucianism: vague; ultimately from heaven and earth.
  • Taoism: an expression of the Tao, to share in its never-ending evolution.
  • Shintoism: descended from the "kami".
  • Judaism: created individually by God.
  • Christianity: created individually by God.
  • Islam: created by God.

Destiny of Humans

(where we are going)

  • Tribal: frequently to go after death to another world, not unlike this world, sometimes also to be reborn here in this world.
  • Hinduism: the series of lifetimes continues and may include episodes in heavens and hells. Finally, one transcends karma through God- realization.
  • Zoroastrianism: judgement after death; sentence to paradise or hell; ressurection in the new world at the end of the age.
  • Buddhism: unending lifetimes in this and other worlds, good or bad according to karma and merit. One then breaks through to attain the Nirvana state.
  • Confucianism: no stress on afterlife except in terms of ancestrism. Ideal is to live a good life in this world through family and society.
  • Taoism: one may become immortal by mastering the Tao and its power.
  • Shintoism: unclear; perhaps to become "kami" or merge with "kami".
  • Judaism: chiefly in this world; with divine help and human co-operation, the human condition can become better and better until a paradisal age is reached.
  • Christianity: judgement and resurrection on the last day; eternal life. Islam: to be judged on the Last Day and receive reward or punishment in the Second Creation.

Revelation or Meditation Between the Ultimate and Human

(how we know this and how we are helped to get from here to our ultimate destiny)

  • Tribal: myth, often told and enacted at festivals and by shamans; benign gods and ancestral spirits as helpers.
  • Hinduism: the Vedic scriptures; the brahman priesthood; the gods and God-realized saints as expression of the One; following one's "guru" as spiritual guide.
  • Zoroastrianism: revelation through the prophet Zoroaster; meditation by priests.
  • Buddhism: through the Buddha, who attained full enlightenment, and the scriptures attributed to him.
  • Confucianism: the teachings of Confucius and the classics; mediated by the education system.
  • Taoism: the teachings of Laozi and other sages. Benign immortals or gods can be honoured and serve as helpers.
  • Shintoism: myths; traditions, and festivals of shrines where one approaches the "kami" presence.
  • Judaism: the scriptures, especially the Torah (or Law), and its traditional interpretation in the Talmud.
  • Christianity: supreme self-manifestation by God in Jesus Christ the Mediator; revelation in Scripture and, especially in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican traditions. The tradition and authority of the Christian church.
  • Islam: the revelation in the Koran given through Muhammed, the last and greatest of the prophets.

PRACTICAL (what is done in religion)

What is Expected of Humans; Worship, Practices, Behaviour

(what we ourselves must do)

  • Tribal: to undergo initiation; to honour and sacrifice to gods and ancestors; to observe tribal norms of behaviour and taboos.
  • Hinduism: to follow "dharma: (cosmic & social order) through rituals, behaviour, and righteous deeds. If one seeks "moksha", or liberation, one would practice yoga, meditation, or devotion under the guidance of a "guru".
  • Zoroastrianism: to choose good, do right, keep pure; to maintain the faith by supporting its rites and institutions.
  • Buddhism: to do good. Religious and moral works that gain good rebirth. To seek Nirvana by meditation or related practices.
  • Confucianism: to observe official and ancestral rites; to honour parents and meet other ethical obligations. One works for a good society by exercising benevolence and practicing mutuality with others.
  • Taoism: to live spontaneously and close to nature; in more formal systems, to meditate and perform rites that draw one close to gods and immortals.
  • Shintoism: to remember and celebrate the gods, remain pure and sincere, enjoy life. Support the societies of which the gods are patrons.
  • Judaism: to honour and serve God by following the laws of Moses in letter or spirit, to maintain the identity of the people, and to promote the ethical vision of the great prophets and humanitarians. Jewish customs are followed in the home as well as in the place of worship.
  • Christianity: to seek and know God, to worship him, to practice the ethics of love and service.
  • Islam: to worship and serve God in accordance with his commandments; to observe the "Five Pillars" and the rest of Shari'a (code based on the Koran).


(kinds of groups formed by religion)

  • Major Social Institutions (how the religion is set up to preserve and implement its teaching and practice; what kind of leadership it has; how it interacts with the larger society)
  • Tribal: tribe as spiritual unit; shamanism.
  • Hinduism: the caste system; temples as places of worship of gods; holy men; the family; the brahmin priesthood.
  • Zoroastrianism: temples, priesthood, a close-knit community; now mostly Parsees in India.
  • Buddhism: temples; the "samgha", or order of monks.
  • Confucianism: great importance of family and of elite class; aligned to state under empire.
  • Taoism: temples, monastaries, the Taoist priesthood.
  • Shintoism: shrines, with the "ujiko" community of each. Family, work, and regional ties with particular shrines is important.
  • Judaism: after the Jewish people as such, the basic unit is the congregation of Jews, forming a synagogue or temple. Jewish family life is also very important.
  • Christianity: the Christian church, divided into many traditional denominations; also monastic orders, missionary works, numerous associations.
  • Islam: the whole Islamic community; the local Friday Mosque community; the "uloma", or body of teachers and preachers; Sufi orders; the ideal of Islamic society.