Experiencing the Humanities
A Web Textbook
Symbols of Fifteen World Religions*
Chapter Six of
by Richard Jewell
Introduction--What Is "Religion"?
"Religion" is a word that comes the Latin word "religio." It means, literally, "re-legging" or "re- running." Religion is, then, a "re-run."
This does not at all mean it is inferior. It simply means that religion is the re-legging or re-running of what great spiritual leaders have discovered, taught, and lived. Their teachings and lives are "re-legged" or re-run in some kind of regular pattern that thousands or even millions of people can appreciate and use. Religion is the patterning of the discoveries that great spiritual leaders have made in their own spiritual lives.
Of course, one of the first things that always comes up in any general discussion of religion is, "Does God--or Spirit, or some kind of Being--actually exist?"
Those who want scientific proof can never get it. Yet those who want scientific proof that some kind of Being does not exist will not get it, either. Science cannot prove or disprove God.
The only evidence there is for the existence of some
kind of Being beyond mere matter is the evidence of
experience. The majority of people in our society have had
some kind of spiritual, mystical, or "psychic" experience that suggests to them that there is something out there,
beyond mere matter. A majority of people in our society
express belief in some kind of Being when they are polled
by top-level independent polling organizations such as Gallup. And a
majority of people in our society attend a church,
synagogue, or other religious service at least once or
twice a year. Clearly, most people believe in something.
Religion Means Our Cultures
In addition, for a majority of people, religion may be the single most important cultural influence that has shaped their lives. This influence may be direct, for those who attended religious services when they were young or still do attend. However, for many people this influence may be even more strongly indirect--through their parents, their grandparents, the families and friends, and the culture around them.
For example, many small towns and rural areas in the U.S. have been deeply affected by one, two, or possibly three religious groups or subdivisions. Many such locations may have a Catholic or Lutheran church; others may have a Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, or other church. In each town, these two or three churches or types of churches mean, if you live in that town, that:
(a) You and your relatives or many of your friends, their parents, and their grandparents may have grown up learning one of these churches' beliefs and practices.
(b) The way that you, yourself, feel and think has been influenced in important ways by these family and friendship backgrounds.
(c) The entire town may have been founded by groups of church people coming from specific countries where these religious groups were followed by most people in those countries.
For example, if you have a Catholic church in your town, then your town likely has a significant number of individuals, parents, or grandparents who grew up going to confession on Saturday night, attending mass on Sunday, being baptized as a child, and following the ethical beliefs and spiritual practices of Catholicism. In addition, this group of people may have an Italian, Irish, or Spanish (or other) cultural background from a country like Italy, Ireland, or Spain (or other) from which many Catholics came to settle in the United States.
The question of "important cultural influence" in your community is even more direct and relevant if your own people or those close to you came from what is often a more recently settled religious group, such as Islamic or Buddhist people in suburbs or central cities. Islamic people bring a number of cultural practices and beliefs from the type of Islam practiced in their country of origin, especially if it is an almost completely Islamic nation. Likewise, Asian immigrants who come from countries where Buddhism is practiced bring with them a great number of cultural beliefs and practices according to the type of Buddhism practiced in their originating country.
Whether the influences in your family, your culture, and your community appear strong or diluted, recent or long ago, still they tend to be among the strongest single set of influences on who and what you are in society. The religion and religious group of your ancestors have in many ways shaped who you are today.
This hold true in every country. When a large group of people move from
one country to another, whether over a period of a few years or several
centuries, they bring with them a new culture. That new culture will have a
profound impact on everyone in the new country to which they move. This occurred
time and again, for example, in the gradual founding and development of the
United States, from the first white "Protestant" (which means "Protesting")
faiths (e.g., Puritans, Quakers, Methodists, et al.) who created some of the
early American colonies to the later mass immigrations of Catholics (Irish,
Italian, et al.), and to our more recent immigrations of people from Islamic and
Buddhist countries. Each new wave brings a new religion and with it a new
culture that intermixes with the present cultures, sometimes painfully and
sometimes well, until a new balanced mix of cultures is achieved. This happens
in many other countries in the world, too.
Ways of Believing
But how, exactly, have these cultural religious influences shaped you? What did your ancestors and, perhaps you, believe and practice regarding religion?
Religion for some is a very mild belief that there is some kind of generalized Being, possibly even one that started the universe--and who then, like some giant Swiss clockmaker, sat back and let His/Her creation tick away like a fine clock he has just made. In this theory of Being, God only steps in every once in a long while to repair the watch that is the universe if the mechanisms get out of order now and then.
Some people believe that religion is merely an honoring of a Source or Greater Being that is like a great ocean, and each of us has a soul or consciousness that merges once again with the great ocean at the time of our death. In this viewpoint, God is a sort of Sea of Conscious Awareness, and we are mere drops of water from this sea.
There even are some people who believe in religion without believing in what religion worships. That is, there are people who do not believe in a Being, but yet they believe that religion and even church attendance still are good things because they foster moral, emotional, social, and intellectual growth.
There are, on the other hand, those who believe that churches and synagogues make a mockery of true religion-- and that God cannot be celebrated inside stone or brick walls with droning speeches and rattling money boxes; but rather that God must be celebrated in the open--in woods and hills, in the arts, or even in each other's arms-- leaping free of convention and boredom.
There are some for whom religion is a thing of occult and dangerous secrets, sťances, contact with strange and unusual forces, powers, and psychic beings on the other side of the curtain of reality.
And finally, there are those who carefully follow one of the major religions that are accepted by the majority of humankind. These religions usually have the following elements:
regular rituals regular ways of joining with God regular spiritual leaders
They have regular rituals, rules, laws, and observances;
regular ways of joining--directly or indirectly--with the
form of God they worship or believe in; and a regular group
of spiritual leaders who help show the rest of the people
the way to becoming more spiritual.
Five Great Religions
The great majority of people in the world belong to one of the five major religions:
Buddhism - Christianity - Hinduism - Islam - Judaism
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all are linked because they have scriptural body of materials in common. The Christian Old Testament, the Jewish Torah, and the Muslim (Islamic) Koran all have stories, laws, and sayings in common. Each of these three religions have other scriptures and sources, but they do share this one body of scriptural materials. Most of Western humankind goes to church knowing ancient stories about Adam and Eve, Moses, King David, and many other important figures from beginnings of our civilization in the West.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims differ in a significant belief--who is most important in their religion. The differences have to do with the time of founding, too. The Muslims, of the most recently founded religion of these three, believe that Mohammad was God's greatest prophet. Christians believe that Jesus was the greatest prophet (and the Christ). Jews believe that Moses was the greatest prophet.
Beyond these differences, there also are cultural and social differences that have led to differing practices. But in many essential ways, the three religions are similar: all offer prayer to God in similar ways, the traditional theologians conceive of God in much the same way, and all believe in strict moral living, in thinking as a guide to understanding God's ways, and in asking professional priests to interpret Scripture for everyone else.
Buddhism and Hinduism also are related to each other. Buddhism was born about 500 B.C. when Gautama Siddhartha-- known as the Buddha ("Enlightened One") founded it. He took his spiritual experiences--and the Hinduism with which he had been brought up--and turned them into a new religion. So Buddhism is to Hinduism much as Christianity and Islam are to Judaism historically: Buddhism arose out of the heart of Hinduism, and both religions continue on today as vital forces.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism believe that God has incarnated in human flesh more than once--and Buddha was just one more recent version of that incarnation. Both Buddhism and Hinduism emphasize that a spark or chip of God exists inside each person. Both believe in the reincarnation of this spark or chip into a series of bodies over a series of lifetimes. And both are less concerned about intellectual discussions and readings and more about intuition, the heart, and the will in understanding God's ways.
Buddhism and Hinduism tend to be meditative and intuitive religions, whereas the three Western religions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam --tend to be religions of action and intellect.
Finally, all five of these great religions, along with other, more
ancient ones--Zoroastrianism and the ancient Egyptian system of beliefs, along
with ancient and classical Greek philosophical systems--had loose connections to
each other historically. A number of ancient documents describe visits of
scholars and spiritual leaders from several of these religions travelling to
each other's spiritual communities in the several countries and regions. For
example, Plato, who had a profound affect on Christian thinking, is said to have
studied in Egypt, and some Egyptian texts claim their mystery religion developed
from even older Hindu sources in India; legend claims, for example, that even
Socrates and Plato--whose philosophical work later had a profound effect on
Christian theology--spent years studying in Egypt, and perhaps elsewhere, as
well. As a result, the roots of all five of today's great religions are
interrelated, sometimes intertwined, in ways that scholars today are still
trying to untangle and understand.
The West: Reason and Revelation
All religions are a combination of reason and revelation, but the Western religions focus especially on the tensions between these two poles.
REASON -- the rules, laws, explanations, moral systems, and intellectual understandings of religion.
REVELATION -- the revealed truth: mystical and spiritual experiences of God, Spirit, and Being.
These two forces are opposite poles to some religious thinkers because they pull in two different directions.
Reason helps explain God and spiritual practices, but it is nothing without some kind of revelation from God.
Revelation helps give the original truth or core of belief or faith to a religion, whether it is revealed through the founder's experiences, or through the experiences of other spiritual people in the religion. But revelation alone can only give us raw experience: it doesn't help us think our ways through everyday experience and belief.
Another way to put it is that religious thinkers consider us to be both spiritual animals and rational animals. We think, but we may also commune with a spiritual realm. We like to have an ordered, rational existence. But we also want to have enough spiritual communing to have faith, trust, love, and hope in something greater than ourselves, greater than reason.
All three of the great Western religions have been very interested in making sure that their religions are extremely rational and reasonable. All three accept a basic source of revelation: their scripture and the founders' religious experiences as explained in that scripture. And all three accept that there is a certain amount of revelation still going on: through prayer and spiritual promptings, the great spiritual guides and leaders can understand what they must do, and so can individuals in smaller ways.
However, the three great Western religions also believe to a very great extent that the most important revelations are over--that they were finished when the scriptures were finished--and the major task or job now is to figure out, using reason, what the scriptures say.
Each of the three great religions in the West has a
large, complex body of intellectual thought that has been
built up over the centuries by some very great thinkers.
The Western religions are not at all what they were when
they first were founded. They are a combination of early
inspiration and later thinking.
Early Christian Practices, Paul, and Plato
The Christian religion in the West is an excellent example of this combination of early inspiration and later thinking. It might be said that modern Christianity is a combination of early Christian practices, an early theologian, and an even earlier Greek philosopher:
Early Practices + Paul + Plato
The first, early Christian practices, produced not just the Christian New Testament as we know it today, but also many dozens of other "apocryphal" gospels and letters ("apocryphal" meaning "not accepted into the New Testament" by later Church Fathers), and many dozens of different practices. These practices diverged so much that they not only produced the two major early divisions in the Christian Church--the Western Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Church, also known as the Orthodox Catholic Church. They also left many practices in how to meditate, how to pray, and a host of other differences in countries from Ireland to Northern Africa and Asia Minor. Many of these practices still exist today and are being resurrected as Christians discover new manuscripts and look outward for new methods of spirituality.
The second great influence on Christianity, helping to establish it more than any single person other than Jesus of Nazareth himself, is Saul of Tarsus, also known as the evangelist Paul. He is the named author of a majority of the Christian New Testament's Letters. He was, in turn, influenced by the early Christians and apostles of Christ, and by the multiple trends and sects in Jewish religion. The early Christians and apostles were, of course, influenced by a combination of their own Jewish roots and by Jesus' and their own revelations. It is Paul's interpretation of the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth that, beginning around 100-200 C.E., had the greatest influence on how Christianity formed as a spiritual philosophy and religious practice.
The third great influence on Christianity, giving it a certain philosophical form, was Plato. Plato became, in time, the most famous of the Greek philosophers. His teacher was Socrates, his student was Aristotle, and Aristotle's most famous student was Alexander the Great. All four of these people had a deep, long-lasting, and profound affect on the thinking, life, and culture of Western civilization, and their effects still remain. Plato himself lived and taught in about 300 B.C.E.
Plato developed the idea of a perfect world beyond this one where spirits may go after death. He was not Christian or even Jewish. However, from Greek philosophy and possibly Eastern or Egyptian influences, he developed the idea, somewhat unusual in his time and place, of a single God above others, and the idea of some kind of heaven. These and other aspects of his philosophy were adapted to Christianity over many centuries by a series of Catholic thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Dante. Augustine proposed the Christian concept of the ideal Christian society in his book City of God, which he developed from Plato's Republic. Aquinas developed a series of logical arguments to explain God's existence and actions; Plato's discussion of logic aided Aquinas in this venture. And creative writer Dante developed striking literary images of heaven, purgatory, and hell, much of which also came from Greek--and particularly Platonic--sources. Others contributed, as well, to the development of Platonic thought in Christian literature and philosophy.
The result of all this adaptation is that Christianity is not what it started out to be. It is, first, a combination of reason and revelation. The revelation came primarily from Jesus, his apostles, and the authors of the Bible. The reason came in sorting out these revelations-- mainly through Pauline and Platonic influences:
In addition, the many early practices of Christians listening to different gospels and letters--some of which are now are in the New Testament and many are not--gave subtle flavors and differences throughout the geographical reach of Christianity. The result today is that Christianity as a religion is really a multitude of practices in many places, with a core of theology ("religious philosophy") that started with Paul and Plato, developed over many centuries.
Christianity is just one important example of the multiplicity of sources, beliefs, and practices in each of the major religions. In the same way, Judaism, Islam--and the Eastern religions of Buddhism and Hinduism--and also the often older multiple pagan, earth-related and aboriginal religions all have their wide variety of versions, beliefs, and practices.
In all of these religions, whether Western or Eastern, there are very important thinkers, great and small, who have deeply affected the course of religious thinking, action, and belief in their religion and, indeed, often the course of politics, culture, and civilization in the countries where their religions are followed. And often, as in Christianity, reason and revelation stand as two great poles--like the opposite poles of a magnet or of the earth's magnetic core: topposites that are yet drawn together out of need. It is impossible, really, to have a great religion without having both reason and revelation, and the multiple practices of actual people make a third pole that irresistibly tugs at the poles of abstract reason and historical revelations.
All three are required to make a major religion major. And all three are
at the center of changes in the cultures around them, as if the three have been
thrown into a pool of water at the same time, creating waves that wash over and
against each other and outward to the edges of the entire pool.
The East: The Great Cycle of Being
The two great religions of the East, Buddhism and Hinduism, are less concerned about the differences between reason and revelation. In fact, both tend to assume that revelation is something that happens to everyone who seeks it--we are all our own founders of our own spiritual lives- -and reason is helpful but not always that important in developing spiritual lives. The great religions of the East do have scriptures and spiritual guides, but they consider them less important than do the great religions of the West. To a Buddhist or Hindu, scripture is a sometimes useful guidebook, not a requirement for the spiritual life. And the priests and ministers of Buddhism and Hinduism are less often paid professional salaries--again, they are not considered quite as necessary to the individual in pursuit of his/her spiritual life as Western priests, rabbis, or imams.
The greater concern in the religions of the East is the great cycle of being--life, faith, and religion all are cyclical They exist as part of a great circle always travelling back on itself and tied into itself. Three forms of this cycle, three cyclical patterns in Hinduism, are
Self and God
Reincarnation is the belief that we all are, at our cores, a Self or soul that lives indefinitely through a series of lifetimes. Being born temporarily masks for us our past lives--sensory experience makes us forget our spiritual sources. But as we grow older we fall into patterns of acting, feeling, and belief that have ties with previous lifetimes of ours.
Our identities change--we may incarnate for a series of lifetimes as males, then for a series of lifetimes as females. We may be poor in some lifetimes and rich in others. We may pursue different jobs sometimes and similar jobs at others, make new friends and remake old ones, and try new areas of the world or return to old ones. Whatever we do, though, we generally keep patterns: we keep returning to certain kinds of relationships, work, beliefs, and parts of the world, growing ever more deeply into these. The goal is for us to gradually shuck off our imperfect sides of ourselves and become ever more perfect, in tune, pure, and in harmony with what is good, true, and right.
Once we have attained this goal, often, it is said, we still will choose to come back--in order to help others who have not yet arrived at the end of their cycles. For whatever reason, almost all of us, say those who believe in reincarnation, continue to go through life, death, and rebirth--the endless cycle of living.
As we go through this cycle, we find ourselves caught each lifetime in the webs of life. These webs are the patterns of emotion, thought, feeling, thinking, and action that are imperfect--that keep us from seeing with perfect clarity what is true, loving perfectly, and even having perfect physical bodies. These imperfections, this web that we keep weaving around ourselves and trapping ourselves in, is karma.
Karma also means that we get what we paid for: what goes around comes around. Karma on its simplest level means that a baby learns that if it sticks its finger on a hot radiator, a burn is the result. So the baby learns to avoid creating karma or results by not sticking its finger on the radiator.
More complex karma means that we learn if we talk and joke about someone behind their backs, we can lose a friendship or even a job. So we avoid creating karma or results by not talking and joking behind someone's back.
Karma over several lifetimes means that if, in one
lifetime, we murder someone, we will get "caught" in
another lifetime and have to pay the price in some way.
Our punishment may be that we somehow end up in prison for
another crime or no crime at all in another lifetime; or,
possibly, in another lifetime we may become a victim of a
murderer; or, even, possibly, we may spend a lifetime
devoted to helping victims of murderers, or working on
death row in a prison, or some other suitable balancing or
our previous act. Karma is results; and learning to get
past karma is a balancing act: paying off old debts, and
not incurring any new ones. One can still live, according
to reincarnation theory, and live happily; but one also
should seek to pay off "karmic debts" and avoid getting
entangled in any big new ones. The idea is to break the
cycle of creating and then paying off debts. This is how
karma is a cycle, and this is how one is supposed to rise
The third great cycle of Hinduism and Buddhism is the spiritual cycle of Self and God.
Hinduism says that there is both atman and Brahman. Atman and Brahman both are one thing--God. However, atman is the individual spark or chip of God that is within each of us--the deepest level or layer of our consciousness or awareness--and Brahman is the aspect of God that is "out there"--transcendent beyond the bounds of the physical universe.
In this Hindu concept of God, God is most certainly within us--and aspect of Godhood that the great Western religions ignore or de-emphasize. In Hinduism, spiritual experience is not just of, or from, something "out there"; it also comes from contacting the deepest level within us. And the experience is cyclical: whether you start from the inner atman or Self, or the outer Brahman or God, you must complete the circle and discover the other half, too. Discovering one leads to discovering the other, and if one refuses to experience one, he or she may lose the other. This means, according to Hinduism, that God must be experienced just as much within us and outside of us in the spiritual life.
Buddhism is similar in that it emphasizes the spiritual experience of the Self, and how we must save the Self before we can know or experience anything to do with ultimate Being or God.
This saving of Self is accomplished by experiencing nirvana.
Nirvana is, in Buddhism, the emptying of all personality, emotion, thought, desire, hope, and expectation from one's awareness. The lowest level of nirvana is that of being an empty shell: one can still act in the world, but one does so in a great, deep silence with no thought, no emotion, no hope or desire of any kind at all. At higher levels, this empty nirvana may be filled by one or more spiritual experiences: a great Peace is said to be one of the most common among seekers of nirvana, and other such "fillings" are a great Love, great spiritual Power, and other such spiritual forces.
Nirvana does not last forever--it may come each time for only a few days, weeks, or months. However, in the experience of it, one's Self comes blazing forth--one's divine chip or spark, according to Buddhists--and this, in turn, leads one to be connected with Being or God in all its forces, powers, and ways, step by step.
In experiencing nirvana, say Buddhists, one is ending the constant cycle of karma during the experience, and one is starting a spiritual cycle that takes the person who experiences it beyond mere Self to the experiencing of God as well.
It is the cycles of Eastern religions, and the wrestling match between reason and revelation in the Western religions, that give these five great religions much of their characters.
Those who do not believe in these religions also have their own ways--and who is to say who or what is right? Nothing is proven; nothing is disproved. Instead, we all live together in a world where many people have had experiences that we can just guess at. Religion is a profound and fascinating field of study for those who wish to undertake it: the varieties of people, their experiences, and the ways they perceive God make for endless research.
Look up the five great religions in an encyclopedia. Make a list of five important beliefs or ways of worship or action for each great religion. Compare the lists.
Look up the founders of the five great religions-- Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, and the Vedic rishis (or just The Vedas). How are their lives similar? How are they dissimilar?
Make up a new religion. Describe how the people in your religion perceive a great Being, what they do in church, what they believe morally, what they think and feel about an afterlife, and how they accept people into their religion and why. Make up a ritual for this religion.
If reincarnation is true, so theorists say, one can at least partly identify one's past lives by examination and meditation. If we are interested, for example, in special times in history, we may have lived then. If we are fascinated with certain types of people or jobs, we may have been like that--or knew people very closely who were-- in past lives. In addition, if we dream about past events or people, or have images of them that come to us in meditation, these may be indicators of past lives, too. For this exercise, make a list of possible past lives, and mention why you have listed each. Then share and discuss this with others who also have made lists.
Make two columns on a piece of paper. Title one column "Beliefs From Reason" and the other column "Beliefs From Experience." Then list all the things you know, believe, or practice from your own religion, now or in your childhood, putting each thing you list in the column where it belongs.
How many of the religious symbols can you identify in the picture under
the beginning title of this chapter? Make a list, starting with the cross at the
top right of the picture. There are fifteen pictures. How many can you find that
you don't know? Hint: In a search engine (e.g., Google), type the name of a
religion, then the phrase "symbol image." Look at the resulting images and see
which you can identify that are on the picture at the top. Try several religions
whose names you have found in this chapter. Note: In the picture, sometimes
there are two or three symbols from one major religion, for different branches
Bibliography for Religions of the World
Bunson, Matthew, Pope Encyclopedia. Crown Trade Paperbacks, 2005.
Watts, Alan, Myth and Religion. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle, 1996.
*Image in Chapter Title: Symbols of Fifteen World Religions, https://scaffoldingmagic.com/clil-international-world-religion-day-university/. Retrieved 6 Feb. 2020.
Most recent revision of text: 6 Feb. 2020