A map featuring the world's biggest religions (click to enlarge)
Human beings have always tried to make sense of the universe in which we live, just as we have developed moral systems to organize societies. Individuals have also had intuitions and other experiences that have required explanations. Above all, we have endeavored to avoid suffering and cultivate happiness. All these (and other) aspects of human existence have been part of something called religion. Religion, often ridiculed in some parts of the modern world, has dominated almost every aspect of every culture on this planet for thousands of years. In fact, even in modern ‘secular’ societies such as the
U.S. and the religion still exerts a powerful influence on both millions of individuals as well as on governments. Furthermore, in countries that were or still are (at least technically) communist and atheist, such as U.K. Russia and , religion has made an amazing resurgence in recent decades. China
Religions change, of course. As the Buddha taught, all conditioned things change; they are processes forever in flux. This is equally applicable to religion, for, if we were to travel back to ancient times, the faiths of those times would seem quite alien to us, not only in the early, ‘prototype’ versions of what became Judaism and Hinduism amongst others, but also in those religions that not only altered over the coming centuries, but actually died out as newer religions such Christianity and Islam came onto the scene. The Greek and Roman gods are long gone, as are the ancient religions found across
Europe, including the Norse, Celtic, Germanic, and Russian creeds. It is not only in the West that religions die out and are replaced with alternatives, as can be seen when studying the long dead Aztec, Arabian, and Pacific faiths.
As to the religions that exist today, these too are not static phenomena; they are constantly changing and adapting to the needs of their followers, often altered by reformists who wish to lead the followers of their faiths in particular directions. Martin Luther and the subsequent Protestant revolution in the history of Christianity is an example of this, as is the development of many Mahayana schools of Buddhism in
India and the Far East. Nevertheless, despite – or more probably, because of – these continual changes in religion, it remains in its varied forms an extremely important aspect of most people’s lives in the early part of the Twenty-First Century. Here’s a current ‘Top Ten’ of religions and their number of adherents:
· Christianity – 2 billion
· Islam – 1.3 billion
· Hinduism – 900 million
· Chinese Indigenous Religion – 400 million
· Buddhism – 360 million
· Sikhism – 23 million
· Judaism – 14 million
· Mormonism – 12 million
· Falun Gong – 10 million
· Baha’i Faith – 7 million
There are some interesting facts to be read from this list, albeit with one important reservation: these are nominal figures that in some cases are little more than educated guesses, as the exact numbers that follow particular religions is difficult to calculate. Nevertheless, if we take the numbers above as somewhat accurate, there are some fascinating facts to be drawn from them. Firstly, these ten religions account for nearly five-sixths of the world’s population, with the top three amounting to over two-thirds of humanity. All this is incredible, considering the millions of atheists in the world and the thousands of religions that didn’t make the Top Ten, such as
Cao Dai, Jainism, primal religions, Rastafarianism, Scientology, Shinto, Soka Gakkai, Tenrikyo, Transcendental Meditation, Voodoo, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism.
Secondly, it can be understood that monotheism – the belief in a single almighty god – is the central religious creed of most of the world’s populace, as with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and Baha’i followers. Polytheism, the belief in more than one god is a central characteristic of only one of the Ten – Hinduism. Buddhism also includes the traditional belief in the existence of deities, but it is arguably not essential to its teachings. Chinese Indigenous Religion is a fusion of Confucianism, Daoism, and ancestral worship, and also includes the belief in more than one deity. So, gods are a matter of faith for the majority of the world’s population; something that atheists, agnostics, and modern Buddhists would do well to bear in mind.
Whilst seven of the Top Ten can be classed as old religions thousands of years old in some cases, Mormonism, Falun Gong, and the Baha’i Faith are all new religions that have arisen in the last few centuries. On the subsidiary list above another six religions are recent developments. Also, within the long-established religions there are modern movements that are in a process of constant updating (and in some cases ‘backdating’). This new growth in religious reformation and movements belies the claim by some modernists that religion is an antiquated activity that is on the wane; far from it. As mentioned above, those that belittle or dismiss religious faith are on dangerous ground as the numbers are clearly not on their side. Watch out Richard Dawkins and friends!
Within the confines of this blog (and the confines of my life!), this series will focus on the top five religions on the list featured earlier. Despite only numbering five – unless we subdivide the various Chinese faiths – these religions each number in the hundreds of thousands or even the billions, and together account for roughly five-sixths of the world’s population. Again, atheists should not be ignorant to this fact, as it is often said that religion is a dying force in the modern, technologically advanced world. Even if these figures include many nominal members of religious traditions, the remaining active adherents of these five enormous movements still add up to well over half of all humanity. Either way, Richard Dawkins and his faithless friends such as Sam Harris are far from witnessing the end of faith that they apparently so desperately desire. Perhaps the wisdom of working with these religions rather than against them will surface during this series of articles, and maybe a few atheists and modernist Buddhists will be inspired to interact with religionists in more positive ways in the future. We can but hope!
A little note on Buddhism as a religion is required here. Many modern Buddhists do not consider Buddhism to be a religion, as for them it does not demand the belief in a god or gods (despite the traditional Buddhist belief in deities mentioned earlier). It can be argued that Buddhism inherited the belief in gods, demons, heavens and hells from Hinduism, and that the Buddha and his early disciples used these beliefs to illustrate Buddhist teachings like those on suffering, impermanence, selflessness, and enlightenment. For others, including the vast majority of the world’s Buddhists that live in
Asia, Buddhism is a religion. A previous Buddha Space post features this debate, and can be read here: Is Buddhism a Relgion? Irrespective of whether we consider Buddhism a religion or not, as the title of this series of articles suggests, it is not the purpose here to compare and contrast Buddhism with other religions. Instead, it is from the viewpoint of the Buddha that religions, including religious forms of Buddhism, are to be examined.
So, whether we take Buddhism to be a religion or not, it is still useful to contemplate some of the world’s major religions from the viewpoint of the Buddha, for perhaps such an undertaking will not only highlight the differences between Buddha and religious faith, but also bring to our attention areas where mutual interests can be explored. This exploration will be conducted in a contemplative manner rather than a doctrinal one. There are two advantages to taking this approach; Buddhism has many different doctrines, due to there being many sects, and obviously if the viewpoint of one sect is taken up, all the other sects are not involved; also, the heart of Buddhist practice is a contemplative one, based on mindfulness and meditation, and therefore to consider religion from a meditative position is to simultaneously cultivate wisdom. Taking up the standpoint of the Buddha, then, will enable us to explore not only religions such as Islam and Christianity from the enlightened perspective, but also allow for a nonsectarian examination of Buddhism itself. That’s the theory, anyhow!
Where to start, then? Well, looking back at the Top Ten list, it makes sense to start at the top, especially as most English-speaking Buddhists reading this blog will be more familiar with Christianity than the other five faiths to be featured. There are some fundamental differences between the Buddha’s worldview and that of the world’s most popular faith, such as the respective doctrines of salvation in Christianity and enlightenment in Buddhism. Perhaps surprisingly for some, there some striking similarities also, that we will explore, such as the role of morality in the lives of both Christians and Buddhists. In the next article in this series on Buddha & Religion, then, we will begin by taking a look at the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the major branches of the religion that grew out of his ministry: Christianity.