Spirituality feels complicated: cultural, nuanced. And it is. I understand that. But the basic tenets of the major world religions are actually fairly straightforward, and it is these that I seek to present here. Please note that this treatment is highly simplified and does not represent all adherents of the given faith. Other religions with over one million adherents that aren’t discussed here include Falun Gong (a 20th-century Chinese religion similar to Buddhism that incorporates meditation and qigong exercises), Sikhism (a 15th-century Indian religion that follows the teaching of Sikh gurus and rejects religious certainty), Korean shamanism, Caodaism, Bahá’í Faith (a nineteenth-century Middle Eastern religion that seeks to unify all world religions), Tenriism, Jainism, Cheondoism, and Hoahaoism.
Christianity Knowledge Checklist
Rank: Number one. Christianity is the world’s most populous religion.
Holy book(s): The Bible. The Catholic Christian version of the Bible includes additional sections, and Mormons have an additional holy book called The Book of Mormon.
Concept of God: There is one all-knowing, all-loving, everywhere-present, all-powerful, gender-neutral God, who created the universe.
Notion of life after death: Salvation–that is, eternal life in a place of bliss called Heaven–comes to those who profess faith in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins. Others go to Hell after death.
Other basic tenets: Humans are sinful and in need of redemption. Jesus Christ, the sinless son of God, came to Earth to preach faith in Him and to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sin of the world. In addition to faith, Christians should practice love, charity, self-sacrifice, humility, morality, prayer, Bible reading, sexual abstinence prior to marriage and monogomy thereafter, and other good works.
Origins: Christianity began with the life of Jesus Christ, who lived in the first century AD in the Middle East. His followers spread the faith widely over the following several centuries. From these early Christians, Catholicism developed, which appointed a Pope as its leader. Then Orthodoxy and Protestantism split off from Catholicism, in that order. Protestants divided into many different sects, including Methodist, Anglican and Lutheran Christianity. Later, Mormonism split off from Protestant Christianity with even greater changes.
Islam Knowledge Checklist
Rank: Number two
Holy book(s): The Quran, which is the verbatim word of God revealed to the prophet Muhammad, plus the sunnah, the other teachings of Muhammad, and the hadith, the record of Muhammad’s life.
Concept of God: There is one God, with Muhammad as the messenger of God. God is merciful and all-powerful.
Notion of life after death: Muslims go to a blissful Heaven, and non-Muslims go to a place of eternal punishment.
Other basic tenets: Islam is the final expression of a faith that pre-existed and was partially revealed through Adam, Abraham, and Jesus. Therefore, it is considered an Abrahamic faith like Judaism and Christianity. Muslims must practice the five pillars of the faith, which include (1) recitation of the creed, (2) daily prayers, (3) almsgiving, (4) fasting during Ramadan and (5) making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. They also must follow sharia law, which is more specific and lengthy and includes guidelines on clothing, relationships, finances and more. Most Muslims belong to either the Sunni or the Shia sect, with the major original difference between them being who they considered the proper leader of their faith after the death of Muhammad. Muslims also believe in angels.
Origins: Islam was started in the early seventh century in Mecca by the Prophet Muhammad. It spread in Europe through war and coercion, and in Africa through trading relationships.
Hinduism Knowledge Checklist
Rank: Number three
Origins: Hinduism is a fusion of various ancient Indian cultural ideas and tradition, with no single founder. It began to take its current form between 500 B.C. and AD 300. It is widely practiced in India and parts of Southeast Asia.
Holy book(s): Hindu texts are many and varied. They are not considered absolutely true. They are divided into two categories: the Shruti and the Smriti. The Shruti are the oldest traditions and include the four Vedas. The Upanishads are the parts of the Vedas that discuss meditation and philosophy and are the foundation of Hinduism. Of the Smritis, the Hindu epics, especially the Bhagavad Gita, and the Puranas are most important.
Concept of God: Varies by tradition. Some traditions teach the existence of multiple deities (dualism) while others teach of a single supreme being that is reflected in all other beings (the divine in all/non-dualism). Hindu gods are depicted in art and stories. Various incarnations of the same god are called avatars.
Notion of life after death: Reincarnation, called samsara. Hindus desire liberation from samsara through moksha (enlightenment).
Other basic tenets: Dharma (the path of rightness) is considered the foremost goal of a human being. It includes religious duties and moral virtues, but it is also equated with the eternal, unchanging truth. According to Hinduism, achieving dharma allows people to be in harmony with their true nature and with the world. Other Hindu goals are artha, properly pursued economic prosperity; kama, aesthetic pleasure; and moksha, liberation from suffering (enlightenment). Hindus also believe in karma. Hindu monks are called sanyāsī, sādhu, or swāmi. Religious rituals are observed mostly at home and are not mandatory. They include yoga, chanting, meditation and more. Hindus recognize four social classes: the Brahmins (teachers and priests); the Kshatriyas (warriors and kings); the Vaishyas (farmers and merchants); and the Shudras (servants and laborers). They believe in non-violence, respect for all life and vegetarianism.
Buddhism Knowledge Checklist
Rank: Number four
Origins: Buddhism was founded between 500 and 400 B.C. in India by Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, who as a wealthy but unhappy young man who became enlightened while sitting underneath a Bodhi tree. Buddhism is prominent throughout Asia.
Holy book(s): Numerous and highly varied. Some are based on the words of the Buddha, like the sutras, while others were created by ancient Buddhist schools, like the tantras.
Concept of God: There is no creator God or supreme being in the universe.
Notion of life after death: Reincarnation. This cycle of death and rebirth, which is affected by one’s karma, can be escaped through nirvana (enlightenment).
Other basic tenets: Meditation, mindfulness, nonattachment, compassion, lovingkindness and virtue; taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the way) and the Sangha (teachers and fellow travelers); the Four Noble Truths; and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are: suffering is universal; suffering is caused by desire and attachment; suffering can end; this happens through the Noble Eightfold Path (right understanding, right thinking, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration). There are two main schools of Buddhist thoughts: the Theravada and the Mahayana. They differ in their recommended approach to nirvana and more.
Confucianism Knowledge Checklist
Origins: Confucianism was founded by Confucius, a government worker-turned-philosopher who lived around the time of Buddha (551-479 B.C.) in China. Confucius taught his philosophy to his subordinates at work before quitting to travel and teach only. His teachings became the state philosophy during the Han Dynasty in China, which liked Confucius’ emphasis on strong central government and respect for authority.
Holy book(s): The Analects of Confucius
Concept of God: None. Confucianism is sometimes considered a religion and sometimes considered a philosophy.
Notion of life after death: None.
Other basic tenets: Kindness; manners; rituals; morals; respect of elders and family; moderation.
Taoism Knowledge Checklist
Origins: Taoism (sometimes called Daoism) began with the writing of the Tao Te Ching, likely by the teacher Laozi around 500 B.C. (This is close to the time of Buddha and Confucius.) The Tao Te Ching was influenced by an ancient divination text, the I Ching (Yi Ching), which as the oldest Chinese classic text was compiled around 800 B.C. Like Confucianism, Taoism became prominent during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-AD 220). It might have developed as a reaction to that more authoritarian philosophy.
Holy book(s): The Tao Te Ching, the I Ching, the Daozang/Treasury of Tao, and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). The Daozang is a collection of over 1500 texts written up to the Ming dynasty, and is considered the Taoist canon. The Zhuangzi is an important, beautiful, lighthearted description of the ideal sage written by Master Zhuang (Zhuangzi) (c. 369-301 B.C.).
Concept of God: Various gods exist but none are supreme, and all are subject to the Tao. (Most Taoist gods are borrowed from other cultures.)
Notion of life after death: Unclear. The soul is eternal, but there is a regular afterlife and an enhanced one.
Other basic tenets: Taoists are naturalists. They believe in the interconnectedness of all things; acceptance of contradiction or paradox, called Yin and Yang (concepts originated in the I Ching); and the pursuit of harmony through virtue. They also believe in fortune telling, honoring deceased spirits, and more.
Shinto Knowledge Checklist
Origins: Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan. It is a collection of animistic folk mythologies. Practices were first codified around 700 B.C.
Holy book(s): The Kojiki and Nihon Shoki, written in the 8th century.
Concept of God: There are many gods, spirits and essences, all with unique roles and purposes.
Notion of life after death:
Other basic tenets: Shinto emphasizes the importance of performing rituals for the purpose of connecting with the past.
Judaism Knowledge Checklist
Origins: Abraham, a man who lived in the Middle East, had a son, Isaac, who had a son, Jacob, who was the father of twelve sons, who founded the twelve tribes of Israel. These tribes, who lived around 1200 B.C., later became known as Jews, or the Jewish people. Later, Christianity and Islam developed from Judaism. Jews have been persecuted throughout history and repeatedly forced to leave their nation, Israel, yet they have largely maintained their ethnic and cultural identity. About 43% of Jews reside in Israel and another 43% reside in the United States and Canada.
Concept of God: Orthodox Jews believe in one all-knowing, all-loving, everywhere-present, all-powerful, gender-neutral God, who created the universe. Other Jews believe that belief in God is a matter of personal choice.
Notion of life after death: Unclear and controversial.
Holy book(s): The Torah, which is part of the Hebrew Bible, and additional oral tradition found in later texts like the Midrash and the Talmud. Texts are open to interpretation by rabbis and is a highly scholarly and intellectual endeavor.
Basic tenets: Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, practice a complex, laborious array of rituals dating to the time of Abraham. They believe that by doing so, they are keeping the Covenant (the law of God given to the Jews by which they earn God’s favor). Among these practices: not working on Sundays; not eating pork or shellfish (eating kosher foods only); and celebration of Jewish holidays. Conservative and Reform Jews take a more lenient approach to Jewish law.
Alternative Spirituality Knowledge Checklist
Origins: Alternative spirituality includes Buddhist Modernism, some new religious movements (NRMs), spiritual-but-not-religious ideas, New Thought spirituality and New Age spirituality. It primarily refers to belief systems that originated during the twentieth century. Alternative spirituality evolves rapidly as new spiritual teachers, channels and authors become known. It is largely influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism.
Holy book(s): None. Modern spiritual thinkers read modern spiritual-but-not-religious authors like Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and Esther Hicks, plus Buddhist authors like Pema Chodron, Ram Daas and more.
Concept of God: God is the one, unified something that makes up everything in the Universe. As such, God is part of everything, including each person. God is sometimes called the creator, the force, the all-that-is or simply the universe. God is good and loving.
Notion of life after death: Reincarnation, another afterlife including the experience of oneness with the Divine, or unknown. There is no Hell, but there is no one clear and correct path to a happy afterlife.
Other basic tenets: Sin does not exist. Though people often judge poorly or act out of fear, they are naturally and fundamentally good. Onesself is one’s only spiritual authority. Meditation and mindfulness are helpful. So are various healing modalities, such as Reiki. Discovering one’s highest self is a priority, as is practicing love and non-judgment. Truth is often relative and experiential and may be discovered through the law of attraction; divination/clairvoyance/mediums; angels, spirits and ghosts; near-death experiences; deathbed revelations; intuition; and more. Enlightenment or something akin to enlightenment is the goal of many modern spiritualists.