Copyright © 2007 Dorling Kindersley
Religion involves belief in divine beings along with a set of practices and a moral code that help to reinforce that belief. A religion’s teachings, usually written down in a holy book, and its stories are intended to help people to understand the meaning of life. Each religion has its own idea of the ultimate goal of life, its own place for worshiping GOD or gods, its own rituals, and its own rules for living.
The Ganges River, also worshiped as the goddess Ganga, is considered the holiest of all rivers by Hindus. Pilgrims drink, bathe, and scatter their loved ones’ ashes in the sacred waters in an act of spiritual purification.
Religions are not easy to count. Islam, Judaism, and Christianity share some common origins, but are all separate. Each of these may contain more recent differences, such as Sunni and Shia Muslims, or Catholic and Protestant Christians.
Table 29. FAITHS AND FOLLOWERS (A ROUGH GUIDE BASED ON CENSUSES)
Atheists reject all belief in supernatural beings. Agnostics accept the possibility of God, but cannot commit themselves. Humanists replace faith with human reason. Many people are nonreligious, but may describe themselves as having spiritual beliefs.
Young people usually learn a religion by following the same beliefs and rituals as their parents. Most religions use teachings and stories to inform children about, for example, CREATION. Some religions also try to convince other people to join their faith.
As people grow up, they start to ask all kinds of questions: “What is the meaning of life?”; “Why do people suffer?”; “Does God exist?” The world’s religions have all sought in different ways to provide answers to these questions. Where Western religions tend to focus on obedience to God and salvation from sin, Eastern religions tend to focus on self-knowledge and release from the cycle of rebirth.
The mysteries of the natural world and the Universe have inspired religious feelings throughout time. Today, science can explain much but not everything, and people still use religion to help them explain events and their place in the world.
Most religions believe in one god or many gods. A god is an all-knowing, all-powerful being, who can help or hinder humans. In some religions, believers pray to their god or gods for help. In others, they use meditation to help them focus on their duties.
Although Buddhists share common roots with Hindus, they worship no gods but instead use Buddha’s teachings to encourage spiritual progress. Confucians strive for cosmic harmony by creating a society based on order and virtue. Many local religions worship spirits that inhabit the natural world around them.
Each religion has its own explanation for suffering. Often it is seen as punishment for sin, or bad behavior. People may be tricked into being bad by a devil figure, or they may be misled by their own desires. Western religions generally see suffering as the result of human failings. Eastern religions see it as the result of human ignorance.
Many religions have their own story about the origins of the Universe and of humankind. Called creation stories, these often pass on ancient insights about humanity and its relation to the natural world. Some view the scientific Big Bang theory as another creation story.
Some religions have complex stories about the gods who gave birth to the world. Australian Aboriginal beliefs recount a Dreamtime when mythic ancestors roamed Earth, creating the landscape by their actions. Judaism and Christianity describe a world that was created in seven days by God’s command.
Most religions follow their own calendar. The Mayan calendar of Central America predicts that the current epoch will end in 2012. Hindus and Buddhists believe that time is cyclical, so everything is reborn over and over again, including the world. Christians and Muslims believe that time is linear and that the world will end with a Day of Judgment.