Classification of World Religions

Proper learning about a subject usually starts with its correct classification. There are many religions to which humanity adheres and even more branches and sects within those major religions. This may look rather confusing. Therefore, before we start studying religions of the world it makes a lot of sense to see how we can categorize and classify them.

Very often university departments of Religious Studies offer two different introductory courses; one on Eastern Religions and one on Western Religions. Of course, this geography-based classification is not precise. For instance, it lumps together under the umbrella term “Eastern” dissimilar religious traditions such as Sikhism, stemming from Punjab in Northwestern India, and the Japanese traditional religion of Shinto. Yet this is probably a step in the right direction, for so-called Western religions based upon monotheism, God's revelation, and the sacred scriptures are strikingly different from more philosophically-minded Indian or Far Eastern traditions.

Thus, the group of Western religions is comprised by Judaism, the traditional faith of the Jewish people, and the oldest of the Western religions, Christianity, arguably the largest of all world religions in terms of number of followers, and Islam, one of the fastest-growing religions. All three share a significant common heritage. The Torah, the sacred book of the Jews, is the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, and you will meet many familiar characters on the pages of the Quran, the sacred book of the Muslims, such as Adam, Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), Daud (David), and Isa (Jesus, who is considered a prophet in Islam). These three religions are sometimes called Abrahamic religions, for the figure of Abraham/Ibrahim as a father of the faith is prominent in all three. All Western, or Abrahamic religions are monotheistic (profess the belief in one God). Sometimes much smaller and less known faiths of Zoroastrianism (which emerged in Iran in VIII-VII centuries BCE) and the Baha'i Faith (which also appeared in Iran in the 1850-ies as an offshoot of Islam) are also classified as Western religions.

Eastern religions represent traditions that were born on the Indian soil (Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism) and those that hail from the Far East (Confucianism and Daoism in China and Shinto in Japan). While most Eastern religions largely remained confined to their countries of origin (except immigrant groups in North America and elsewhere), Buddhism quickly spread to China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Sri-Lanka and other countries, thus becoming a world religion.

Religions of Indian origin possess immense philosophical depth. They operate on such concepts as the endless cycle of births and deaths (samsara), the sum of good and bad actions affecting the following life (karma), the liberation from the cycle of rebirth (nirvana), etc. Far Eastern religions often stress the cosmic order and a balance in the universe as well as the inner balance of an individual. The key to success is to follow the way of harmony with the nature and other people, to be respectful and calm, and to know and fulfill one's role in society and the family.

Of course, the spectrum of world religions is not limited to the traditions mentioned above. There are religions rich in ritual and mythology in Africa, indigenous traditions of North and South American Natives, and finally, new religious movements, which are gaining popularity across the globe. However, universities rarely offer courses about these other religions. In any case, whether you want to study a major tradition or a little-known one, we are here to help you.

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