Characteristics of Religion

Most of the leading religions throughout history have shared characteristics. The chief characteristics include (1) belief in a deity or in a power beyond the individual, (2) a doctrine (accepted teaching) of salvation, (3) a code of conduct, (4) the use of sacred stories, and (5) religious rituals (acts and ceremonies).

The essential qualities of a religion are maintained and passed from generation to generation by sources, called authority, which the followers accept as sacred. The most important religious authorities are writings known as scriptures. Scriptures include the Bibles of Christians and Jews, the Koran of Muslims, and the Vedas of Hindus. Religious authority also comes from the writings of saints and other holy persons and from decisions by religious councils and leaders. Unwritten customs and laws known as traditions also form a basic part of authority.

Belief in a deity. There are three main philosophical views regarding the existence of a deity. Atheists believe that no deity exists. Theists believe in a deity or deities. Agnostics say that the existence of a deity cannot be proved or disproved. Most of the major religions are theistic. They teach that deities govern or greatly influence the actions of human beings as well as events in nature. Confucianism is the most important atheistic religion.

Religions that acknowledge only one true God are monotheistic. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are examples of monotheistic religions. A religion that has a number of deities is polytheistic. The ancient Greeks and Romans had polytheistic religions. Each of their many gods and goddesses had one or more special areas of influence. For example, Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, and Mars was the Roman god of war. In henotheistic religions, the worship of a supreme Deity does not deny the existence and power of other deities. For example, Hinduism teaches that a world spirit called Brahman is the supreme power. But Hindus also serve numerous other gods and goddesses. Many peoples in Africa and the Pacific Islands also worship a supreme power as well as many other deities.

The followers of some religions worship deities that are or were people or that are images of people. The ancient Egyptian people considered their pharaohs to be living gods. Before World War II (1939-1945), the Japanese honored their emperor as divine. Taoists believe in deities that look and act like human beings. They also worship some deities that were once human beings and became gods or goddesses after death.

Many people worship nature deities—that is, deities that dwell in or control various aspects of nature. The Chinese in particular have worshiped gods of the soil and grain. Followers of Shinto worship kami, spirits that live in nature. Many American Indian tribes worshiped a spirit power, a mysterious, magic force in nature.

A doctrine of salvation. Among the major religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism teach a doctrine of salvation. They stress that salvation is the highest goal of the faithful and one that all followers should try to achieve. Religions differ, however, in what salvation is and in how it can be gained.

A doctrine of salvation is based on the belief that individuals are in some danger from which they must be saved. The danger may be the threat of physical misfortune in this world, such as a disease. Christianity and several other major religions teach that the danger is spiritual, is centered in each person's soul, and pertains mainly to life after death. If a person is saved, the soul enters a state of eternal happiness, often called heaven. If the person is not saved, the soul may spend eternity in a state of punishment, which is often called hell.

Most religions teach that a person gains salvation by finding release from certain obstacles that block human fulfillment. In Christianity, the obstacles are sin and its effects. In most Asian religions, the obstacles are worldly desires and attachment to worldly things. Salvation in these religions depends on whether believers can free themselves from the obstacles with the aid of a savior. The savior may be the individual on whose teachings the religion is based, a god, or some other divine figure. People must accept the savior. They must also accept certain teachings, perform certain ceremonies, and abide by certain rules of moral conduct—all of which were inspired by the savior.

Some religions consider salvation to be a gift from the Deity or deities. For example, many Christian denominations believe that individuals are saved by the grace of God and not by their own merit.

Most religions teach that salvation comes only once and is eternal. According to Buddhism and Hinduism, the soul lives on after the death of the body and is reborn in another body. This cycle of rebirths is called reincarnation. The doctrine of karma is closely related to reincarnation. According to this doctrine, a person's actions, thoughts, and words determine the kind of animal or human body the soul will live in during the next reincarnation. The process of reincarnation continues until, through good deeds and moral conduct, a person finally achieves a state of spiritual perfection, which is salvation. Buddhists call this state nirvana, and Hindus call it moksha.

A code of conduct is a set of moral teachings and values that all religions have in some form. Such a code, or ethic, tells believers how to conduct their lives. It instructs them how to act toward the deity and toward one another. Religious codes of conduct differ in many ways, but most agree on several major themes. For example, they stress some form of the golden rule, which states that believers should treat others as they would like to be treated themselves. A religion's code of conduct also may determine such matters as whom believers may marry, what jobs they may hold, and what kinds of foods they may eat.

The use of sacred stories. For thousands of years, followers of religions have believed in sacred stories, called myths. Religious leaders often used these stories to dramatize the teachings of their faith.

Originally, people told myths to describe how the sacred powers directly influenced the world. As the stories developed, they showed how some feature or event in the world was indirectly caused by the sacred powers. Many stories described the creation of the world. Others told how the human race or a particular people began. Some of the stories tried to explain the cause of natural occurrences, such as thunderstorms or the changes in seasons.

Today, there are scientific explanations for many of the subjects dealt with in sacred stories. But some religious groups still insist that the stories are true in every detail. Other groups believe only in the message contained in the stories, not in the specific details. Still other religious groups regard sacred stories as symbolic expressions of the ideals and values of their faith.

Religious rituals include the acts and ceremonies by which believers appeal to and serve God, deities, or other sacred powers. Some rituals are performed by individuals alone, and others by groups of worshipers. Important rituals are performed according to a schedule and are repeated regularly. The performance of a ritual is often called a service.

The most common ritual is prayer. Through prayer, a believer or someone on behalf of believers addresses words and thoughts to an object of worship. Prayer includes requests, expressions of thanksgiving, confessions of sins, and praise. Most major religions have a daily schedule of prayer. Meditation, a spiritual exercise much like prayer, is important in Asian religions. Buddhist monks try to be masters of meditation.

Many religions have rituals intended to purify the body. For example, Hindus consider the waters of the Ganges River in India to be sacred. Every year, millions of Hindus purify their bodies by bathing in the river, especially at the holy city of Varanasi.

In some religions, pilgrimages are significant rituals. Pilgrimages are journeys to the sites of holy objects or to places credited with miraculous healing powers. Believers also make pilgrimages to sacred places, such as the birthplace or tomb of the founder of their faith. All devout Muslims hope to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad.

Many rituals are scheduled at certain times of the day, week, or year. Various religions have services at sunrise, in the morning, at sunset, and in the evening. The different religions have special services to mark the beginning of a new year. Many religions celebrate springtime, harvesttime, and the new or full moon.

Many rituals commemorate events in the history of religions. For example, the Jewish festival of Passover recalls the meal the Israelites ate just before their departure from slavery in Egypt. Various Christian celebrations of Holy Communion are related to the last meal Jesus shared with His disciples before His death.

Rituals also mark important events in a person's life. Various ceremonies make sacred occasions of birth, marriage, and death. Rituals accept young people into the religion and into religious societies. In Judaism, the ritual of circumcision is performed on male infants. Some Christians baptize babies soon after birth. Other Christians baptize only youths or adults.

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