For most of history, the majority of the world's population has not known God and has followed other gods. Jeremiah and the other prophets lamented the fact that even God's own people were so often drawn away to worship pagan gods (Jeremiah 2:20). In this day and age, 60 percent of the world's population have not heard the good news of Jesus and live without any religion, or serve a religion that has no power to save them. We know that there is no salvation except through Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12), so no matter how old the religion is or how elaborate its ceremonies or how many followers, it will be destroyed along with everything else in this world when Jesus returns (II Peter 3:18).
This being so, it is still important to understand what others believe for several reasons:
- We need to be able to relate to other beliefs for the purpose of evangelism. Paul quoted the poets of Greece and made reference to their idols as a way of introducing the gospel to them (Acts 17:16-31).
- Knowledge helps us avoid being offensive towards non-Christians. We need understanding if we are to relate to others without insulting them. We can reject their beliefs without rejecting the people if we demonstrate some understanding of their belief system. This is why missionaries study different religions, cultures and societies before launching out to spread the gospel in foreign countries.
- Knowledge of other religions helps us appreciate the Christian faith even more. When we are able to compare Christianity to the other religions of the world we really begin to appreciate the superiority of our faith.
This book, therefore, has three objectives:
- Provide an overview of the world's major religions.
- Broaden our understanding of how other people think and what their religious experience is like.
- Increase our faith through a greater appreciation of the Christian religion.
The dictionary defines religion as, "..man's expression of his acknowledgement of the divine." The Bible writers use the word religion when describing the ceremonies that the Jews performed in expressing their faith (Acts 26:5). When we talk about the religions of the world, we are referring to the different ways that human beings express their awareness that there is something other than themselves (usually a higher form of being) in this world.
Disciples of Jesus Christ believe that Christianity is not a man-made religion but rather a faith given to us by God. However, for the purpose of this study I will list it next to other organized religions in order to compare it with these historically, theologically, geographically, etc.
There are many philosophies and movements that come and go throughout history which have an impact on society but are not necessarily religions. For example:
- New Age Movement: Combination of ideas from existing religions and philosophies.
- Communism: Political and ideological movement.
- Naturalism/Humanism/Post-Modernism: Outgrowth of Atheism that try to formulate a worldview without God.
These and others have had influence on the world but are not considered organized religions.
Religions of the World
In order for a belief system to be considered an organized religion it must have certain features. For example:
- History/Origins: All religions can trace their origins to a place or a person.
- Concept of Deity: The main feature of a religion is that it acknowledges the existence of a higher being or power.
- Concept of Mankind: A key question that most religions try to answer is, "Where did man come from?" and each religion offers an explanation of some kind.
- Salvation: Each religion has its own answer to the problem of suffering and death, and offer the hope (and description) of a better existence.
- Worship: Most religions practice rituals and ceremonies that express faith, obedience or adoration and are done individually or collectively.
- Scriptures: Organized religions keep records of their founders, teachings, history and worship.
- Geography: Most religions have certain countries where they begin and flourish, and where they exercise great influence.
Not every religion has all of these features, but most have a majority of these in common. Our study will compare the major religions of the world using these different categories.
There are only eleven major organized religions in the world today. They are divided into three geographic groups. These are Far Eastern Religions, Eastern Religions and Near Eastern Religions:
- Taoism (Far Eastern)
- Buddhism (Far Eastern)
- Shinto (Far Eastern)
- Confucianism (Far Eastern)
- Sikhism (Eastern)
- Jainism (Eastern)
- Hinduism (Eastern)
- Zoroastrianism (Near Eastern)
- Judaism (Near Eastern)
- Christianity (Near Eastern)
- Islam (Near Eastern)
I'd like to finish this first chapter with a review of "Primitive" religions. These groups do not fit into our pattern of organized world religions because religions of this type are usually disorganized, have no unified teaching, history or founders but do have many practitioners. Before we study "organized" religion, therefore, we will take a brief look at "unorganized" or "primitive" religion.
When discussing Primitive religions we are not referring to one religion in particular, but certain practices taking place in a variety of ways throughout history in different countries. Some of the features of Primitive religions are:
- Strong belief in magic and the occult.
- Primitive religion has no god or gods, only the belief that there are good and evil powers at work.
- The following are various forms and practices found in Primitive religions:
- Animism: Objects inhabited by spirits (charms, luck).
- Dynamism: Impersonal forces at work in nature. One of the principle reasons why primitive people have stayed within their confined territories is that they believe that the trees or rivers, etc. have power or are inhabited by spirits or spirits of the dead. The ancient Canaanites, Egyptians and Assyrians, to name a few, practiced Primitive religion in one form or another, as do the native peoples of various countries.
- Fetishism: An object into which power is induced by a Shaman (e.g. voodoo doll). Also the belief that an object has a specific purpose, for example a fertility stick used to deflower virgin girls, or a lucky charm for protection.
- Totemism: Tribes associate the characteristics of animals with themselves and emulate them. The idea is that if honor is given to a particular animal this will in turn impart its qualities to the tribe. Totem poles represent the characteristics of the tribe by showing which animals are on the totem (North American Indians).
The further one goes back into history the more gods there are. The first type of primitive religions were tribal in nature. The families of the tribes developed their own systems. Tribal religions were basically nature religions since their lives depended on their physical surroundings; their religion, therefore, centered on nature as well. Primitive nature religions rarely change or evolve because nature does not change. New ideas are simply integrated back into nature and various calls to renewal are in essence a call back to the "old ways" of nature.
A brief history of Primitive religion:
- Egyptian Religion (3200 BC):
- Nature religion (the river Nile and the sun were worshipped as forms of deity).
- Mystery cults (Priests performed rituals).
- Symbolism (Sphinx - wisdom/protection - pyramids - shape represented new life emerging).
- Assyro Babylonian Religion (3000 BC):
- Magic (first practitioners of astrology).
- Temple rituals, fertility rights, occult (read livers of animals to discern the future)
- Canaanite Religion:
- Probably most immoral and evil of religious practices (sexual activity part of worship, children burned as offerings to the gods).
- Nature religion.
- Greek Religion:
- Began as nature religion and evolved to a mythological stage (many gods and goddesses - Zeus, Apollos, Athena), philosophical stage (Plato, etc.), and ended up mixed with Roman style mythology (Romans took the Greek gods and gave them Roman names (i.e. Zeus = Jupiter).
- Roman Religion:
- Still primitive in its style in that it was a mixture of nature religion, magic and Greek mythology.
- Eventually the Roman religion was eclipsed by Christianity. (Why Roman Catholicism has many mystic practices using candles and images, etc.).
Today there are many primitive religious practices that take place in poorer countries (i.e. voodoo in Haiti), but researchers have found that as education and modernization increases, primitive religion decreases.