World Religions: Exploring Diversity

Course Overview

Units at a glance

What is religion? What purposes does religion serve? Throughout history, religion has played an important role in shaping the ways that humans understand the world around them and in the organization of different societies. In this unit, we will examine what religion is and what role it plays in society. We will examine different definitions for religion, and look at some of the explanations offered to explain the development of religion.

To many Westerners, the word “Hinduism” conjures up images of exotic art, meditation, and rituals.  But what exactly is Hinduism?   And what exactly do Hindus believe?  In this unit, we will learn more about the beliefs, practices, and cultures of the most ancient of all the world’s major religions.

The fourth most commonly observed of the world’s religions is in many ways an oddity.  Many Westerners define Buddhists as “Buddha worshippers.”  However, the Buddha taught that he was merely a human being.  He asked not to be worshipped, but merely revered as a sage and a teacher.  Classical Buddhism lacks a concept of god, of ritual, and of a metaphysical realm.  In this chapter we will learn what Buddhists believe, and how different kinds of Buddhists throughout the world practice their faith.

Despite its humble origins as the belief system of a small, nomadic tribe, Judaism is arguably the most influential religion in world history.  While less than one percent of the earth’s population is Jewish, roughly half of the people in the world practice a religion that is based upon the Jewish monotheism founded by Abraham and Moses.  In this chapter, we’ll learn about the origins of Judaism, the mark the Jewish people have made on world history, and Jewish life in the twenty-first century.

In terms of the sheer number of adherents, Christianity is the largest of the world’s religions.  Between one-quarter and one-third of the world’s people profess to be Christian.  If you live in North America, you are undoubtedly familiar with many Christian beliefs and customs, whether or not you are a practicing Christian yourself.  In this unit, we will learn about the origins of Christianity and how the Christian faith spread throughout the globe.  We will also study the core beliefs of the Christian religion and examine the similarities and differences among its major divisions.

Despite its historical (and in many ways theological) connection to Christianity and Judaism, Islam is among the most controversial religions in the West—where this faith is too often linked with associations of war, terrorism, and female oppression.  In this chapter we will try to get past the stereotypes and gain a more thorough understanding of the world’s second most widely followed religion.

The ancient philosopher Kung Fu-tzu (known as Confucius in the West) had the greatest influence on Chinese culture of any one individual.  The culture, rituals, social structure, and government of the world’s largest civilization are largely based on the teachings and writings of this individual.  In this unit, we will learn about the man Confucius, his teachings, and the imprint his philosophy has had on history.

Shinto, the indigenous belief system of Japan, descends from a collection of beliefs and practices that date back to prehistoric times.  Over the years, a number of global religious movements, most notably Buddhism, have made their way to Japan.  To a large extent, Shinto has endured alongside these additional religions.  In this chapter, we will learn more about the practice of Shinto and how Shinto has shaped the culture of Japan.

In an earlier unit, we learned how Chinese culture has been shaped through the centuries by the structure, regulations, and respect for authority that comes from Confucian thought.  Taoism, with its reverence of nature, acceptance, and complacency (while discouraging power and ambition), is in many ways a stark contrast to the other major Chinese belief system, but it has had a great influence on China’s culture and traditions as well.  In this unit, we will learn about the history, beliefs, and practices of Taoists.

The modern world is a rapidly changing place, and this can be particularly disconcerting in the field of religion. Technological advances make our lives more convenient, but they also impose on our day-to-day lives and make many of our customs and practices obsolete. Modern science has challenged many long-held religious convictions. Rapid transportation and communication has made the world smaller—and made interactions with individuals whose beliefs are markedly different from our own almost inevitable. What do these changes mean to the practice of religion in the twenty-first century?

Course Highlights

Identify some of the common elements and benefits of religion.
Explore the beliefs and values of religions around the world.
Examine religious practices and rituals.
Analyze the history and sacred texts of religions around the world.

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