Descriptive Religion/Describing world religions

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Describing World Religions

Religion is a multifaceted subject area. Religions differ in their histories, what their adherents believe, their geographic range and statistical characteristics, their art and literature, philosophies, medical traditions, practices, and so on. How would you go about describing religions?

It would have something to do with why you want to describe the religion. Two of the three resources I've given below approach the issue from a position of understanding other religions for the purpose of effectively evangelizing them. I won't be doing that here and the reason that I included those two resources is that they happen to be accurate and informative. Instead of emphasizing the negative characteristics of the religions (as a similar work might have done, say, a century ago), they strive to be accurate.

I intend to proceed systematically and will include the following sections under each religion:

Names and meanings of the names: There is often confusion related to the names of a religion. For instance, what does "Jewish" mean. Is it the name of a race, a nationality, or a religion?

Adherents: What is the geographic range and makeup of the adherents of each religion at the time of posting?

History: When, where, and by whom was the religion founded and who did it become as it is now? Religions are dynamic systems and almost never stand still over time.

Major scriptures. Most of the sources of world religions are available on the Internet for free so that it's easy to find out specifically what a religion says about any particular thing - at least, as far as the orthodox position.

Denominations: Few religions come in only one flavor. I will describe the major branches of each religion.

Specific beliefs: What do the adherents of each religion thing about God, Humanity, Animals, the primary problems of Humanity and their solutions, the spirit, death, and the afterlife, morality, proselytizing, and society.

Glossary: Finally, I will present a glossary of terms specific to each religion.

The major religions appeared over a period of 3000 years - from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. Two periods of time saw the appearances of many religions. In the Axial Age, between 800 and 200 BC, Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, and Confucianism were founded along with Greek philosophy and the rise of the major prophets in Israel. Then again, the last two centuries saw a proliferation of new religions and return of ancient religions long dead.

Major milestones were:

c. 1500 BC The rise of Hinduism in the area of present day India. c. 1440 BC Proposed date of the Exodus, the initial event in both Judaism and Jewish nationalism c. 660 BC reign of Jimmu Tenno, the traditional beginning on Shinto c. 600 BC The life of Lao Tze, traditional founder of Taoism 563 BC Traditional date of the birth of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama 551 BC Traditional date of the birth of Confucius c. 30 The crucifixion of Jesus 622 Mohammad arrived in Medina 1440 Birth of the Indian mystic Kabir, founder of Sikhism

Objects of art, as forms of communication of deeper meaning than is possible with technical writing and speech, are important in most religion. Inspired writing (writing thought to be produced under the direct guidance of deity) form the scriptures of the great religions, but creeds, commentaries, devotional literature, and educational materials are also important. Most religions also have a hymnology of music which conveys ideas central to the religions. Added to those, relics, architecture of holy places, recorded sermons form a rich heritage of the religions.

Few religions exist in a pure form - most have branches resulting from internal disagreements and variational interpretations of scriptures and denominations. There are thousands of denominations today but we will look at the major branches of the world religions.

World religions form a kaleidoscopic tapestry of tradition and society that would (and does) fill encyclopedias. Hopefully, this work will give more than a superficial introduction.


Gaer, Joseph (1963) What the great Religions Believe. The New American Library, Inc.: New York, NY

McDowell, Josh, & Don Stewart (1982) Understanding Non-Christian Religions. Here's Life Publishers, Inc.: San Bernardino, CA

Halverson, Dean C. (gen. ed.) (1996) The Compact guide to World Religions. Bethany House Publishers: Minneapolis, MN