This page is a brief outline of the eight religions with the most followers (in order of size). In making these summaries, I am presenting the teachings of the religion, not making any judgments about their truth.
Christianity (2 . 1 billion)
Christianity depends on its founder (Jesus of Nazareth or Yeshua ben Yosef) probably more than any other religion. (Most other religions see their founder as a messenger of a truth greater than themselves, but Christians see Jesus as the embodiment of their faith.) Jesus lived in Israel between about 4 BCE and 30 CE and was an itinerant preacher and healer for the last couple of years. He claimed to be the long-awaited “Messiah” (anointed one) of Israel, who would inaugurate God’s rule on earth, a kingdom which anyone (not just the ultra religious) can enter if they seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus was executed for sedition, but his followers claimed he was resurrected and was seen alive by them.
Christians believe Jesus’ death was the means by which God’s forgiveness can now be received by all who ask for it. They believe that following Jesus requires a new way of living, based on love and serving others, and assisted by God’s Spirit who lives within all believers. Jesus is believed to be the “Son of God” and equal with God – the Father, Son and Spirit share the same nature and make up the “Trinity”, three “persons” of the one being God (a difficult concept!). The christian scriptures are the Bible, which consists of the Old Testament (basically the Jewish scriptures) and the New Testament (writings about Jesus) – “testament” means covenant or agreement, so the New Testament supersedes the Old in many ways.
Islam (1 . 2 billion)
“Islam” comes from an Arabic word meaning “submission”, and it is a religion based around a life of surrender to the will of Allah (God). It was first taught by “the Prophet”, Muhammed, who lived in Arabia from 570-633 CE. The Prophet received many revelations from Allah which were eventually written in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, which is believed to contain the exact words of God.
Islam is founded on three elements: the unity of God, Muhammed as the messenger of God to all people, and a belief that all living things will be brought back to life after death to be judged by God.
Five practices (the “five pillars of Islam”) are required of every Muslim:
- “Testimony of faith” – bearing witness aloud to Allah as one God and Muhammed as his prophet,
- the spiritual exercise of prayer and worship of Allah,
- giving charity to those in need,
- fasting during the month of Ramadan – abstention from food, drink and sex during daylight hours,
- pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj) at least once in a lifetime, if the person is able.
Hinduism (850 million)
The religion we call “Hinduism” is known as “the eternal religion” by its adherents, and is a collection of diverse beliefs and practices. Hindu scriptures consist of three sets of writings – the Vedas (1500-500 BCE), the Upanishads (1000-300 BCE) and the Smriti writings (500 BCE-300 CE). Hindu religion is built around the following beliefs:
- Brahman is the ultimate reality of the universe, but not really a personal God. Everything came from and will return to Brahman. All deities (there are estimated to be 300 million of them, with Vishnu and his incarnation Krishna and Shiva being the most important) are seen as emanations from Brahman.
- The inner you, a life force known as “atman”, is trapped inside this physical world, and longs to escape and return to Brahman.
- This release (“moksha”) is prevented by the things we do, known as “karma”. People must be repeatedly reborn into a new life, via reincarnation, until they achieve this release.
There are three paths by which a Hindu can escape the cycle of rebirth and return to Brahman:
- the “path of duties” – to faithfully continue in one’s duty (as defined by one’s caste) with detachment;
- the “path of knowledge” – contemplation and rigorous self-denial; or
- the “path of devotion” to a particular god, often in the form of temple worship and donations.
Confucianism/Taoism (400 million)
Although Confucianism and Taoism are considered to be separate religions, they are often grouped together because they, plus Buddhism and folk religion combine to form “Chinese religion”, with many people holding to all or part of the teachings of these different beliefs.
Confucianism, named after the teacher K’ung Fu-tzu (various spellings are used, including Kongzi and Kong Fuzi) who lived in China from 551 to 479 BCE, is a system of teachings aimed at achieving human fulfilment through perfecting the moral nature of individuals and society, especially the ruling classes. A superior person is one who shows humanity and respect to others by not doing to them what they would not want done to them, and who loves learning. Governments should maximise the opportunities for people to live in this way.
Taoism originated with Laozi, who is believed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. The Tao is a
formless, all-pervading power which brings all things into being and reverts them back into non-being in an eternal cycle. “Tao” means “way” or “path”, so living according to Tao means not taking actions that are contrary to nature. Taoism exists in many forms, but it includes a belief that Tao has been manifested in history through gods and worthy people who obtain divinity after death. Taoism’s religious practices include healing, funeral rituals, offering sacrifices to gods and ancestors and divination. Taoists believe they can possibly attain immortality.
Thus Confucanism attempts to put right relations between people, whereas Taoism attempts to put right relations between people and nature, or the Tao. In China, throughout history (though less so today because of the impact of communism), these beliefs have been mixed with Buddhism and folk religious practices to create an amalgam of beliefs.
Buddhism about 500 million)
Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian Prince who lived about 400-500 years BCE. He became dissatisfied with both the luxury of his life and Hindu asceticism, and embarked on a life of pondering the true answer. In a moment of enlightenment, he gained understanding of a new way, and became known as the Buddha (= “enlightened one”)
Buddhists do not have any specific belief in a god, and believe that self is an illusion. The four noble truths of the Buddha’s teachings are:
- existence is marred by suffering
- suffering arises from desire
- eradicating desire will bring release from suffering and the cycle of rebirth, and realisation of nirvana
- the eightfold path is the way to achieve this
The eightfold path is a process of discipline which consists of the following:
- right understanding – knowing the truths of Buddhism
- right thought or aim – directing the mind towards the ideals of Buddhism
- right speech – speaking truthfully, helpfully, without desire
- right action – non-violent, generous, without desire
- right livelihood – work appropriate to the Buddhist life
- right effort – a daily choice to think good and true thoughts
- right mindfulness – awareness of body and mind
- right concentration – practicing meditation
Sikhism 23 million)
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 CE) in northern India, so it is one of the most recent religions. Sikhism is a practical religion where honesty, serving other people and treating them equally, and living a productive life in one’s family and community, are valued more than religious rituals. Sikh men are easily recognisable by their wearing of a turban.
Sikhs believe in one God, Vahiguru (the name means “wonderful Lord”), who is indescribable and the ultimate reality, present in all creation. Sikhs pursue salvation through disciplined personal meditation on the name and message of God which leads to faith, a relationship with God and ultimately spiritual union with God and escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. The barriers to spiritual union with God include karma (bad deeds, social conflicts and an attachment to worldy pursuits have an impact on one’s next life) and maya (the illusion of wordly pleasure). The Sikh scriptures are the Guru Granth Sahib, the writings of Nanak and subsequent gurus.
Thus the four basic principles of a good life and leaving the life cycle are:
- honest hard work
- charity and sharing
- service to humanity and God.
Judaism 14 million)
Judaism is the ancient monotheistic religion of the Jewish people, based on the revelation of God to Abraham (about 1800 BCE), Moses (about 1200 BCE) and later prophets, and through the history of the Jewish people recorded in the Jewish scriptures. God chose Israel to be a “light to the Gentiles (non-Jews)”, and gave them detailed instructions how to live in the Torah, the first section of the scriptures. However their continual falling short of the faithful living required of them led to the Jewish nation suffering invasion, destruction, exile and occupation. During this period, the Nation of Israel worshipped God in a permanent temple or a movable tabernacle, with an emphasis on animal sacrifice for atonement for sins and the singing of Psalms.
Following completion of the scriptures in the last few centuries BCE, further Jewish traditions were gathered together in other writings, and Judaism took on new forms as the temple was destroyed (meaning the sacrifical system has not been possible for almost 2000 years) and the Jewish people were scattered. Jewish religious life centred on keeping the law, observing the Sabbath (the seventh day of the week when no work was to be done), a number of annual
festivals and meetings in synagogues.
The Jewish nation of Isreal was re-established in 1948 as a homeland for Jews after the horrors of World War 2 and the Holocaust. However many Jews today, often as a result of the Holocaust, no longer hold to their faith, although many retain Jewish culture.
The above religions comprise about 80% of the world’s population. The remaining portion of the world’s population follow one of many relatively small religions (generally animistic religions) or no religion.
John Dickson: “A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions: an introduction to the big five”
Liz Flower: “The Elements of World Religions”
John Hinnells (ed): “A Handbook of Living Religions”
Paul Oliver: “World Faiths”
Mortimer Adler: “Truth in Religion: the Plurality of Religion and the Unity of Truth”
Religion Facts website – probably the most comprehensive site I have found.
BBC, Wikipedia, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, Philtar – you can look up most religions on these sites, although some of their information is biased (especially the so-called ‘Ontario Consultants’).
Wikipedia on “Abrahamic Religions“
Michael Coogan (ed): “Eastern Religions”
Wikipedia on “Dharmic religions“
Michael Coogan (ed): “Eastern Religions”
Joseph Adler: “Chinese Religions”
Wikipedia on “Taoic religions“