The Undergrad’s Introduction to the Basics Behind Major World Religions

Religious beliefs are among the most important parts of daily life for millions of people around the globe. World religions are made distinct by their unique beliefs and practices, many of which run counter to religious views of another faith. Developing an understanding of religious beliefs is an important way to promote tolerance and peace as a citizen of the globe.

Religions are intricate and complicated, but investing in a basic understanding is a critical component of developing compassion and appreciation for other cultures and peoples. This guide teaches you the basics behind major world religions, and then points out detailed resources for further examination.


Christianity is the world’s largest faith and is practiced by an estimated 2.1 billion followers. The faith is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ who lived in the Holy Land of Bethlehem.

Christian religion descended from Judaism, and is based on the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the messiah and that his life, death, and resurrection have the power to save all who believe in Christ. The sacred texts in the Christian religion are the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

There are three basic streams of Christianity: Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic.


Founded over 3,500 years ago in what is now commonly referred to as the Middle East, Judaism is one of the world’s oldest religions founded over 3,500 years ago in the Middle East and is one of the original of the three Abrahamic faiths, which include Christianity and Islam. As of 2007, there were over 13 million Jews in the world , according to the Jewish People Policy Institute. Most followers of Judaism live in Israel or the United States.

Judaism is the native religion of the Jewish people and is based upon the belief in a covenant between God and the Jewish people and the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. The Jewish faith believes in one God and agrees to follow God’s laws laid out in the Torah in exchange for all the good that God has done for the Jewish people.

Judaism is divided into three basic categories: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform/Liberal. Each differ according to their views of Jewish law. Orthodox faith represents the most traditional while Reform/Liberal allow more individualized interpretations, according to the World Factbook.


There are over 370 million Buddhists around the world. The two main sects of Buddhism are Mahayana and Theravada. Theravada is practiced mostly in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand while Mahayana Buddhism is common in East Asia,Tibet and parts of the West, according to the World Factbook.

Buddhism was inspired by the teachings of a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived around 500 BC. He is said to have attained enlightenment, or nirvana, in deep meditation under a poplar-figtree in Bodh Gaya, India and was given the title of Buddha, which means Enlightened One.

Buddhism focuses on the path to enlightenment following the teachings of Gautama’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path to spiritual and moral practice. Enlightenment is achieved through meditation, wisdom and a practice of morality.


Islam is the world’s fastest growing, and second largest religion with 1.2 billion followers. Roughly 18 percent of Muslims live in the Middle East, while the majority live in Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangledesh and India, according to the United Religions Initiative.

Islam is centered around the belief in God, or Allah, and can be traced back to Judaism and Christianity through the patriarch Abraham, and the first prophet, Adam. Muslims believe that God sent a number of prophets to mankind to teach them how to live according to His law, and that Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet to reveal the Islamic faith through the Koran. The Islamic faith revolves around the Five Pillars of Islam.

The two basic groups of Islam are the Sunnis, which represent about 80% of the world's Muslims and the Shi'ites, which represent 20%. The two groups share many beliefs, but disagree on who was the rightful leader of Islam after Muhammad's death.



Estimates of the total number of Hindus in the world vary greatly, but the faith is regarded as the third largest in the world with 950 million followers and is the dominant religion in India and Nepal, according to Hinduism originated in India during the second and first millennium B.C., and accounts for a diverse set of beliefs and practices with no single founder or religious authority.

Hinduism recognizes multiples Gods and Goddesses as manifestations or aspects of a supreme God. The gods Vishnu, Shiva, Devi are among the most important deities. Hindu theology revolves around the belief that the soul, or atman, is eternal, and that the soul goes through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) that is determined by the consequences of one's actions, or karma.


Taoism is an ancient tradition that grew from several religions and philosophical traditions in China over 2000 years ago. The religion centers on a belief of Tao, or the “way”, which is the spiritual force that governs the universe. Taoism is said to have been inspired by the teachings of Lao Tzu, who is regarded as the Supreme master.

Taoists believe in living in harmony with the Tao, and the Tao Yin/Yang symbol represents interaction of two opposing forces in the universe, the male yin, and the female yang. All Taoists live by the Three Jewels of compassion, moderation and humility. Taoist practices include meditation, feng shui, fortune telling and scriptures.

Taoism was strong in the pre-communist, but the number of followers are difficult to calculate after the Communist revolution campaigned to destroy non-Communist religions. Taoism is most commonly practiced in China, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam, according to the BBC.

There are many other smaller religions, some based in indigenous cultures, that are practiced around the world. Here are some examples of these religions:

Religious Tolerance

There is a long history of wars and acts of violence committed in the name of religion. Learning to understand and tolerant other faiths encourages peace and stability in the world. Do your part to understand the basis of world religions as a way to promote tolerance and peace.

Facebook Comments