By: Liana Balicka
The subject of religion is vast and its presence has long occupied an important place in culture and politics and has played a significant role in the development of civilisation. The oldest traces of religion can be found as far back as prehistoric times in the form of cave drawings and burials. According to recent research, the origins of religion date back to Neanderthal times, and it is assumed that its original form was animism, according to which non-human beings such as plants, animals or inanimate objects have a soul. Information on religion is also provided by written works, which began to appear around 4 000 BC. What emerges from them are pictures of established religions, the development of which was influenced by various ancient civilisations. With the help of religion, man tried to comprehend the world and the phenomena around him, such as thunderbolts, death or day and night cycle.
In order to define a religion, it is necessary to state that it is a moral and ethical code based on a system of beliefs and related rituals, customs and traditions, which in a way shapes the behaviour and attitude of the believer in a manner relevant to their religion.
So the question arises: how many religions are there and are they all known? It can be learned from various sources that there are between 4,200 and up to 10,000 religions in the world in total, but many remain unknown because they only occur locally. Only some of them gather a larger number of followers and play an important role. Based on 2010 data, the percentage share of the world’s major religions is as follows: Christianity – 33.43 %, Islam – 24.35 %, Hinduism – 13.78 %, Buddhism – 7.13 %, Sikhism – 0.36 % and Judaism – 0.21 %.
Monotheistic religions include Christianity, Islam and Judaism, namely those whose followers believe in one God. Sikhism, too, is one of the world’s youngest monotheistic and universalist religions, whereas Hinduism is a polytheistic religion that worships multiple deities. Buddhism is called the religion of joy and optimism, and although there are not many Buddhist festivals, each one is nevertheless celebrated very colourfully, and the events are mainly related to Buddha – the founder of Buddhism.
Christianity was born in the first century AD in Palestine and is based on the teaching of Jesus Christ of Nazareth conveyed in the canonical gospels and the content of the religious texts that form the Bible. Christians embrace a belief in one God, but embodied in three forms: God the Father, the Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Christianity has repeatedly been accused of polytheism. The very essence of the faith is the coming to earth of the son of God Jesus Christ, who by his death on the cross saved mankind and redeemed the sins of the whole world. Christianity is now the most widely practised religion in the world comprising a significant proportion of the world’s population. More than half of Christians are Catholics, more than a third are Protestants and the rest are Orthodox Christians.
Islam has been the world’s second most followed monotheistic religion after Christianity since the early 21st century. The founder of the religion is Muhammad, who proclaimed himself in Mecca as God’s messenger and his Prophet. Muhammad is said to have received a divine revelation through the Archangel Gabriel, which was written down in the Koran, the Holy Book of Islam. The followers of Islam profess God – Allah, who is the only perfect entity worthy of worship. He is the creator of heaven and earth, the just Master of the world, of life and death. The greatest sin in Islam is to worship other gods or saints. Islam is divided into three main factions: Sunni, Shiite and Kharijite. Arabs form part of the Islamic faith, while the majority of Muslims live in Asian countries, most abundantly in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Unlike Christianity or Islam, Hinduism has not evolved from the teachings of a single individual, and doctrinal differences make it difficult to define Hinduism, as its various factions include features of monotheism, pantheism, monism, panentheism, polytheism, henotheism and even atheism. In general, Hinduism holds that any faith that leads to gods is good and thus there is a belief in deities – Devas ( male deities) and Devis (female deities). Hinduism has a rich collection of sacred scriptures. This religion is an unnumerable compilation of various beliefs and views and is the third largest religion in the world in terms of number of adherents. The Indian peninsula is its main place of worship. A defining feature of Hinduism is the eternal transmigration of souls called reincarnation, which means that each person is born after their death in further incarnations.
Buddhism, known as the Teaching of the Awakened One, is increasingly finding adherents in the modern world. The founder and creator of this religion’s philosophy was the Indian prince Siddhārtha Gautama of the Śākya lineage, i. e. Buddha. The underlying religious doctrine is nontheism, which neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. Buddhism is based on the Four Noble Truths preached by Siddhārtha Gautama and the Eightfold Path laid out by him, which is supposed to lead to the cessation of suffering. The difference between Christianity and Buddhism is the concept of God. In Christianity, God is the supreme and perfect being, whereas in Buddhism it is the human being who is the most important entity, hence constant self-development, especially of the mind. In Buddhist philosophy, the highest level of development is the attainment of ‘enlightenment’ known as ‘Nirvana’. Buddha was not God, but the first individual to achieve enlightenment – a state of complete liberation from suffering. Buddhism contains many strands and superficial generalisations should be avoided here, but despite many significant differences, there are also many common threads to all Buddhist traditions and schools. Interest in Buddhism in Asia is declining, and after the culture of Tibet has been almost completely destroyed, the greatest spiritual opening to Buddhist teachings in the 21st century can be seen primarily in the western hemisphere.
Sikhism is one of the world’s youngest monotheistic and universalist religions. It originated in Punjab, North India, in the second half of the 15th century. Guru Nanak is considered to be the founder of the Sikh religion. The religion is partly an amalgamation of Hinduism and Islam. Its main principle – monotheism – is in agreement with the basic dogma of Islam present in India, and many other elements of its doctrine overlap more or less with Hinduism. It is opposed to sectarian warfare. Sikhism stands out as the only Indian socio-religious system that has taken an interest in the status of women. Moreover, it does not divide people into Muslims, Hindus or Christians. God can be worshipped by calling him Allah, Yahweh, Krishna or otherwise. This idea is expressed in the words attributed to Guru Nanak: “There are no Hindus and Muslims. The path I will follow is the path of God.” The most important place of worship is the ‘Golden Temple’ in Amritsar, where the original Sikh holy book called the Sri Guru Granth Sahib was kept. Today, there are approx. 27 million followers of the said religion. They live mainly in the Indian Punjab, but there is also a large diaspora of several million people spread over the countries of the former British Empire and in the USA.
The oldest and first monotheistic religion in the world is Judaism. It is a faith that assumes the existence of one God. Biblical Judaism developed between the 2nd millennium BC and 70 AD, i.e. until the demolition of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans. Christianity originated from biblical Judaism. Both Judaism and Christianity have the same approach to God-the Absolute, but the difference lies in the fact that the basis of Judaism is the belief in a single, indivisible God, Yahweh, who is not only the creator of the world, but its constant overseer and protector. The Jews are, according to this religion, the chosen people who made a covenant with God. The chosen people received from him two stone tablets on which the commandments of God, referred to as the Decalogue, were written. The faithful strictly observe the laws contained in the Torah and meet for daily prayers in synagogues.
To sum up, it is worth mentioning that along with languages, education and nationality, it is religions that are among the most important aspects of the diversity of the world’s population. For years there has been fierce competition for the title of the world’s greatest religion, and the world is a place where some entities emerge, others disappear, and it will probably remain so as long as it exists….