World Religions

Mission Statement

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world; it is appeased by love. This is an eternal Law.

-- The Buddha (Dhammapada)

 

When you see the misfortune of your brother, do not rejoice, for Allah may save him and afflict you with the same misfortune. -- The Prophet Muhammad (as reported by Wa'silah bin al-Asqa'a)

 

What you do not wish done to yourself, do not do to others. -- Confucius (The Analects)

 

What you yourself hate, don't do to your neighbor. This is the whole Law; the rest is commentary. Go and study.

-- Rabbi Hillel

 

The purpose for creating this area of my website is to combat ignorance and spread knowledge of the world's religions in three principal ways:

 

  1. To make people aware of the similarities and distinctions among the world's many spiritual traditions.

  2. To increase communication among members of different traditions and belief systems.

  3. To inspire the discussion of news, information, and ideas directly related to religious traditions and religious tolerance.

  4. To facilitate our first goal, I offer a detailed database of information on the world's major religious traditions, and many of the smaller ones as well. The database will contain brief accounts of the history and beliefs of each tradition, including some of their most prominent divisions and sects, along with information on key figures and sacred scriptures. This information is drawn from my years of research and writing about the world's religious traditions, including three books and many articles, my discussions with teachers and practitioners of these religions, my own experience of their teachings and rituals, updated by recent developments in scholarship.

    For more detailed information on all of the traditions described here, consult my book, The Joy of Sects, available through this site, as well as the many links provided on my Interfaith Links page.

Religious Intolerance: Background

"Truth is one. Sages call it by different names."  - Rig Veda (India, c. 2000 BCE)

 

For over 200 years, the United States has been strongly identified as a nation with a single spiritual tradition. During that time, everything about the American population could be defined as some variation on a Christian theme. Although Christians here splintered into hundreds of different denominations, often contentiously so, they still have shared a common identity. America has essentially been run by Protestant Christians who are also white and Anglo-Saxon. Sequential waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, the Caribbean, and Latin America were welcomed but assigned to second-class Christian citizenship until they could be more fully assimilated. Jews were connected to Christianity through theological history, and, notwithstanding occasionally virulent anti-Semitism, found more freedom and security here than in any other place on earth, protected by legally established freedom of religion. Even America's home-grown religions, including the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, have had predominantly Christian identities, albeit idiosyncratic ones. There were Muslims among the African slave population, and Buddhists and Taoists among the Chinese laborers who came here in the 19th century, but until very recently they were all but lost in the swirling melting pot with handfuls of atheists, freethinkers, Theosophists, and other minority believers and non-believers. The native inhabitants of this country and their religious beliefs were shunted aside to make room for the white settlers, and have not since re-emerged into a position of prominence.

 

But midway through the 20th century, all that began to shift dramatically. Changes in immigration laws in 1965 admitted new waves of immigrants from Asia and Africa until, as Prof. Diana Eck of Harvard's Pluralism Project has so cogently pointed out, we have gone from being perceived as a Christian country to being "the world's most religiously diverse nation." There are now, for example, as many Muslims living in the U.S. as Jews or Episcopalians. Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists have become accepted, indeed respected, members of American communities from the Northwest to the Southeast.

 

With this new diversity have come problems, but also enormous potential for learning and positive social transformation. In the past, America's racial antagonisms made it the object of scorn by often hypocritical Europeans who didn't have to deal with the vast range of racial and ethnic differences that we have faced. Over the last century, America pioneered race relations on a level that the rest of the world is only now beginning to have to cope with, and even our failures have been instructive. Now America is doing much the same for religious diversity. We are undertaking not only an astonishing experiment in spiritual cohabitation, but also one on which the fate of the planet hinges.

Freedom of Religion in America

If God had pleased, He could surely have made you
one people (professing one faith).
But He wished to try and test you
by that which He gave you. 
So try to excel in good deeds.
To Him will you all return in the end,
when He will tell you of what you were at variance."
 Quran, 5:49 (translated by Ahmed Ali)

 

Although we tend to think of freedom of religion as a principle brought to this country by the Puritan Pilgrims who were seeking to escape religious persecution in England, that's not at all the case. The Puritans were seeking freedom to practice their rigorous brand of reformed Protestantism, but were not willing to extend that same freedom to others. They banned Anglicans and other Protestants, including Quakers, along with Roman Catholics and Jews, from the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies and much of New England. It was in the maverick colony of Rhode Island, founded by the English Baptist clergyman Roger Williams, that true freedom of religion first appeared--not only in colonial America, but in the entire world. The government of Williams's colony was based on complete religious toleration and separation of church and state, allowing each household a voice in government and an equal share in the distribution of land, which Williams purchased from the Narragansett Indians in 1636.

And, so, the American experiment in religious toleration was born. Fortunately for America and the world, the concept of genuine religious freedom and the separation of church and state fostered by Roger Williams was adopted by the framers of the Constitution and incorporated into our way of life. Using concepts of tribal law learned from Native Americans, our founders improved on the less equitable democracies of Europe, and this new democracy became inextricably intertwined with freedom to practice any and all religions.

In an odd twist of history having as much to do with patterns of immigration as with conflicting religious beliefs, the Baptist reformed tradition of Rhode Island migrated south and west to create the Bible Belt, evolving into the conservative Christian fundamentalist movement that is prominent there today, especially among Southern Baptists. (The Bible Belt consists of most of the American Southeast along with southern Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa and much of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Southern California.)

Meanwhile, the more exclusionary Puritan Christianity practiced throughout the rest of New England was influenced by a developing strain of liberalism at the newly founded divinity schools of Yale and Harvard, and metamorphosed into the more liberal mainline Protestantism and Unitarianism that characterize the religious tolerance of most of the northeastern United States today. The diversity of Christian belief throughout New England also developed largely through the immigration there of Southern Europeans, who changed the demographics of the region from what was once predominantly Dutch and English to a mixture of Roman Catholic Irish, Italians, Germans, and Poles, along with African Americans migrating from the South, and Asian immigrants. The South in general and the Bible Belt in particular remained more homogeneously Anglo-American and Protestant.

The Flushing Remonstrance

The colony of Rhode Island was not the only place in 17th-century America to embrace the concept of freedom of religion. In 1657, Flushing, New York, a Dutch settlement located on Long Island (in the borough of Queens and the future site of the 1960 World's Fair), refused to follow the orders of the Calvinist director-general of New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant, forbidding Quakers from entering the area. Founded in England by George Fox around 1648 and originally known as the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers -- the name was probably was first used derisively to refer to members who quaked in ecstatic transport -- believe that God can be understood by individuals without clergy or formal churches. This was heretical and no doubt threatening to both the Calvinists in New Netherlands and the Puritans throughout New England.

 

The document, known as the Flushing Remonstrance, was signed by the town clerk, sheriff, and several town magistrates, none of whom was a Quaker but who nonetheless supported the right of Quakers and others to worship as they chose. Although four of the signers were quickly arrested by Stuyvesant, they were soon released (the sheriff was later fired). The signers drew on their Dutch heritage, Holland having one of the most tolerant attitudes toward religions other than its own Dutch Reformed Church. The principles articulated in the Remonstrance foreshadowed the Bill of Rights, especially what became the First amendment to the Constitution. "For our part," the signers wrote of Stuvesant's order banning

 

Quakers, "we cannot condemn them in this case, neither can we stretch out our hands against them, to punish, banish or persecute them for out of Christ God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

Quakers arriving elsewhere in the area were not so welcome. George DeWan writes of 11 Quakers who arrived at the port of New Amsterdam in August 1657. Two local Dutch Reformed ministers reported to their superiors in Amsterdam that the ship sailed the following morning with most, but not all, the Quakers aboard: "We suppose they went to Rhode Island; for that is the receptacle of all sorts of riff-raff people, and is nothing else than the sewer of New England. . . They left behind two strong young women. As soon as the ship had fairly departed, these began to quake and go into a frenzy, and cry out loudly in the middle of the street, that men should repent, for the day of judgement was at hand." The women were put in jail for eight days and subsequently deported to Rhode Island.

Text of the Flushing Remonstrance 1657
From the New York Historical Records

Remonstrance of the Inhabitants of the Town of Flushing
To Governor Stuyvesant December 27, 1657 

 

Right Honorable, 

You have been pleased to send up unto us a certain prohibition or command that we should not receive or entertain any of those people called Quakers because they are supposed to be by some, seducers of the people. For our part we cannot condemn them in this case, neither can we stretch out our hands against them, to punish, banish or persecute them for out of Christ God is a consuming fire, and it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

We desire therefore in this case not to judge least we be judged, neither to condemn least we be condemned, but rather let every man stand and fall to his own Master. Wee are bounde by the Law to Doe good unto all men, especially to those of the household of faith. And though for the present we seem to be unsensible of the law and the Law giver, yet when death and the Law assault us, if we have our advocate to seeke, who shall plead for us in this case of conscience betwixt God and our own souls; the powers of this world can neither attack us, neither excuse us, for if God justifye who can condemn and if God condemn there is none can justify.

 

And for those jealousies and suspicions which some have of them, that they are destructive unto Magistracy and Minssereye, that can not bee, for the magistrate hath the sword in his hand and the minister hath the sword in his hand, as witnesse those two great examples which all magistrates and ministers are to follow, Moses and Christ, whom God raised up maintained and defended against all the enemies both of flesh and spirit; and therefore that which is of God will stand, and that which is of man will come to nothing. And as the Lord hath taught Moses or the civil power to give an outward liberty in the state by the law written in his heart designed for the good of all, and can truly judge who is good, who is civil, who is true and who is false, and can pass definite sentence of life or death against that man which rises up against the fundamental law of the States General; soe he hath made his ministers a savor of life unto life, and a savor of death unto death.

 

The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered the sonnes of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, soe love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Saviour saith it is impossible but that offenses will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to doe unto all men as we desire all men should doe unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Savior saith this is the law and the prophets.

 

Therefore, if any of these said persons come in love unto us, wee cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences. And in this we are true subjects both of Church and State, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man. And this is according to the patent and charter of our Towne, given unto us in the name of the States General, which we are not willing to infringe, and violate, but shall houlde to our patent and shall remaine, your humble subjects, the inhabitants of Vlishing [Flushing].

 

Written this 27th day of December, in the year 1657, by mee  Edward Hart, Clericus

Christian Fundamentalism

The concept of religious fundamentalism originally developed among Christian revival movements in California and New England around the turn of the 20th century. But since 1979, the meaning of the word has expanded to include Muslims and Jews and Sikhs. But before we can understand the implications of world fundamentalism, we need to know what fundamentalism means in its original Christian designation.

 

To begin with, although most fundamentalists would consider themselves born-again Christians, not all born-agains are fundamentalists. To call oneself a born-again Christian, as do between 30 and 50 million Americans, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, means to have gone through an adult conversion experience that included accepting Jesus Christ as one's personal savior. The experience is often preceded by a period of less than exemplary living, after which the believer is "rescued" by the Lord and is called to regenerate his or her life. But just as Carter and Reagan had very different political viewpoints, many born-again Christians refuse to align themselves with the so-called Christian Right, remaining staunchly liberal on social issues and often preferring to maintain separation of church and state.

 

How Did Fundamentalism Come To Be?

When empirical philosophy was applied to Biblical criticism during the 19th century, increasing numbers of Christians began to accept the Bible as largely symbolic and metaphorical rather than literally true. Scientific evidence and biblical scholarship were increasingly showing that on a rational level at least, the Bible didn't stand up to scrutiny as either a scientific document or even as the work of many of the men to whom it was credited. Bible scholars, for instance, were able to show based on textual evidence that the first five books of the Bible, known in Hebrew as the Torah, could not have been written by one person, and certainly not Moses. Indeed, they were shown to have been composed after the works of the Prophets, who follow those books in both the Hebrew and Christian Bible. And parts of the creation and flood narratives were found to closely resemble accounts from Sumerian and Babylonian myths that predate the Bible by more than a thousand years.

 

Those Christians who clung to the old belief that every word of the Bible was literally true -- called biblical inerrancy -- came together and formulated their beliefs at a series of revival meetings and Bible study conferences that took place across North America from Ontario to Southern California between 1875 and 1915. These groups agreed on five "fundamentals" of Christian belief that were enumerated in a series of 12 paperback volumes containing scholarly essays on the Bible that appeared between 1910 and 1915, entitled The Fundamentals.

 

Those fundamentals included:

  • Biblical inerrancy

  • The divinity of Jesus

  • The Virgin Birth

  • The belief that Jesus died to redeem humankind

  • An expectation of the Second Coming, or physical return, of Jesus Christ to initiate his thousand-year rule of the Earth, which came to be known as the Millennium.

 

By definition, fundamentalists also believe in some form of creationism, the doctrine that the universe was created only a few thousand years ago, rather than the billions claimed by modern science, and that God created man and woman and all the species outright, rather than by a process of evolution. (Creationists differ over how to explain fossil records that "appear" to be millions of years old. Some believe God created them that way on purpose, others, that they were put there by Satan to mislead humanity.)

Fundamentalism, or the adherence to the fundamentals of Christianity, grew at least in part out of a desire by fundamentalists to return to the days of a less ethnically and religiously diverse America, a time that predated not only the empirical approach to biblical criticism but also the influx of large numbers of immigrants from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean rim, mainly Roman Catholics and Jews. They especially sought a return to a world in which moral laws were absolute, men dominated women, and the laws of the Bible were strictly adhered to. Throughout the 20th century, for example, fundamentalist Christians have staunchly opposed equal rights for women and the legalization of homosexuality and abortion. For these reasons, fundamentalist Christians tend to be intolerant of those who practice modernized, liberalized, or less rigorous forms of their religion (something that is true to some extent of all religious fundamentalists, including Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs). They lobby to have their beliefs, including creationism, taught in public schools and, increasingly, they have moved into the political arena by promoting candidates for public office -- from local school boards to the presidency of the United States. The extremist fringe of fundamentalism advocates militant action that may include civil disobedience, violence, and even murder.

Although many of the most vocal fundamentalists are rigidly conservative in their political orientation, national polls have indicated that as few as one-third of Americans who identify themselves as born-again Christians align themselves with the so-called Religious Right, which is dominated by politically active fundamentalists with a socially conservative agenda.

World Fundamentalism

Although the term fundamentalism derives from Christian revivalism that took place in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, and refers specifically to the five fundamentals of Christian belief put forward by those movements, the word has also been applied more recently -- at least since the 1979 revolution in Iran -- to somewhat similar movements among Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs. Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism obviously do not share Christian fundamentalists' specific beliefs regarding Jesus and the Bible, but they do often exhibit a similar fear or distrust of modernism and a desire to return to the way they presume their religion was practiced in an earlier, purer, time. Modernism here may be defined both as modern secular culture, liberal attitudes toward sex, especially homosexuality, and the modern view of women as equal to men with equal political and economic rights.

 

Because much of modern secular culture is identified with the West, particularly the U.S. (Hollywood, MTV, the women's movement, gay rights), world fundamentalism can take on an anti-American bias. This tends to be true more among Muslim fundamentalists than, say, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, who share strong bonds with American Jews and who rely heavily on American financial and military support. What Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism do have in common with each other and with Christian fundamentalism is a certain contempt for and opposition to those members of their own faith who do not share their views. Because of their distrust of modern secularism, they also share a desire to return to the values and religious beliefs of an earlier era, many of which their more liberal coreligionists have long since abandoned. As with Christian fundamentalism, extremist groups exist within both the Islamic and Jewish world that promote violence against perceived opponents, including members of their own religion who don't share their absolutist beliefs.

 

Although there have been instances of Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists acting in ways that could be considered fundamentalist, most observers find no large-scale, organized fundamentalist movement within these traditions.

There is one other way of looking at fundamentalism that has nothing to do with organized religions per se. The South African Islamic scholar Farid Esack, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, in an interview on Beliefnet.com described the current conflict between extremist elements of the Muslim world and the West as "a clash between two religious fundamentalisms. On the one side you have the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the actions we have witnessed. All that clearly represents the fanaticism of a religious fundamentalism. On the other side of the conflict we are dealing with another religious fundamentalism, one that is not generally recognized as such. The Buddhist theologian David Loy has described faith in the free market as a religion, a religion with a transcendent god, a god that is worshiped and that its adherents have a deep yearning to embrace and to be at one with -- and that god is capital. It also has a theology in the form of economics, a fundamentalist ideology that excludes all others. Its cathedrals are the shopping malls, and there is paradise or the promise of paradise for those who get on board. It is the fastest growing religion in the world today.

 

"If you look at the language of [President Bush], his notion of absolute evil and complete abhorrence, as well as Osama's language of complete abhorrence, neither recognizes the possibility of any grace on the other side. Both espouse very hardened kinds of fundamentalisms.

 

"I really believe that fundamentalism is a mindset. . . . Fundamentalism can be economic, or it can be feminist. There are all sorts of fundamentalisms."

 

The Backlash

Recent polls show that more Americans view Islam favorably than unfavorably, and that more believe that it is a religion that espouses peace rather than conflict. There have been extraordinary displays of support for Muslim communities across the country, including a number whose mosques have been vandalized. The president and members of Congress have stood side by side with Muslim and Sikh leaders, as have Jewish and Christian clergy. But there have also been some reactions against the idea that all religions deserve equal treatment or that they are valid paths. In the most recent example, a Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been accused by other pastors of his Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in St. Louis, of worshiping publicly in the company of unbelievers. For that, they say, "he stands guilty of heresy and idolatry," according to an article in the New York Times for February 4, 2002. The cause of the charges was the national prayer service at Yankee Stadium organized and led by Oprah Winfrey and held just 12 days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Pastor Benke shared the stage with a Muslim imam, a rabbi, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, and Sikh and Hindu holy men, along with Mayor Giuliani, Gov. Pataki, and other elected officials.

 

"The strength we have is the power of love," pastor Benke prayed. "And the power of love you have received is from God, for God is love. So take the hand of one next to you now and join me in prayer on this field of dreams turned into God's house of prayer."

 

The Lutheran pastors accused Benke of "tolerating syncretism, the combining of Christian and non-Christian views." One of the pastors calling for Benke's censure and possible removal, the Rev. Steven Bohler of Crookston, Minn., was quoted as saying, "When we're dealing with those who are not Christians -- Hindus and Muslims -- in those cases, St. Paul talks about not being yoked with unbelievers. It gives the appearance that their God and our God are the same, and they are not, or there are valid other religions, and there are none. Christianity is very exclusive in that Jesus Christ is the savior."

The concept that no religions other than one's own can be valid is at odds with many mainstream Christian, Jewish, and Muslim institutions, although it is still embraced by conservative exponents of those faiths.

 

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