Introduction to the World's Religions

Bahá’í Faith

Founded by the Persian nobleman, Bahá’u’lláh, in the 19th century, the Bahá’í faith is one of the world’s fastest growing. It teaches that humanity is actually a single race and that the time for true global unity has come. The Baha’i faith affirms the spiritual and ethical teachings of the great religious traditions, while offering new principles appropriate to an emerging global civilization. Bahá’ís regard Baha’u’llah as a divine messenger in the line that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh, “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”



The profound commitment to global peace and unity. The understanding that human evolution is inexorably linked to spiritual development. Intercultural harmony as the touchstone of our planetary future.


Master Story: The Báb – forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh – as the bearer of a long-awaited divine revelation


Ritual Pattern: Daily prayer and scripture reading


Ethical Norm: Service to humankind



Buddhism is the religious and philosophical tradition founded in India in the 6th century bce by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, or the “One who Awakened.” One of the great Asian religions, it teaches the practice of meditation and mindfulness and the observance of moral precepts. The basic doctrines include the "Four Noble Truths" taught by the Buddha: existence is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; there is a cessation of suffering—Nirvana, or total transcendence; and there is a path leading to the end of suffering, the "Eightfold Noble Path" of right views, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. For Buddhists, the goal of existence is the cultivation of perfect wisdom expressed in perfect compassion. Buddhist philosophy is animated by the exploration of the implications of the interdependence of every event in the universe with every other. The tradition flourishes in Asia and has a growing influence in the modern Western world.


Excellence: The clearest expression of the natural meeting of psyche and spirit; the ground of enlightenment. Meditation, visualization, and transformative spiritual experience. The most eloquent celebration of the interplay of wisdom and compassion.


Master Story: The Four Passing Sights


Ritual Pattern: Meditation


Ethical Norm: Compassion



The Christian faith embraces a wide variety of doctrines and religious groups based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is held by Christians to be the Christ, the Annointed One, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, and the Savior of humanity. This teaching finds its essential expression in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament. Although Christianity is in one sense the most fragmented of the world’s religions (thousands of variations exist on the Christian theme), most Christians see the promises and prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. For Christians, Jesus is Lord, brother, exemplar, and transcendent savior. Christians celebrate the life of faith as the key to real relationship to Jesus Christ as God and through that relationship the path to salvation and eternal life. Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity has a powerful social message. Christians believe in the action of God as Holy Spirit, informing and transforming humanness through faith.


Excellence: A unique vision of the human‑divine connection and of the power of love as the essence of that connection The person of Jesus Christ as one of the most powerful and evocative of spiritual symbols. Devotion to and reliance on the Savior as the essential spiritual path.


Master Story:The Death and Resurrection of Jesus


Ritual Pattern: Holy Week


Ethical Norm: Love one another



For almost two millennia, Confucianism has provided the essential moral and religious structure of Chinese society. Its origins lie in the collection of sayings known as the Analects, attributed to the master Confucius, and in commentaries based on his thought. Originally, Confucianism was a system of hierarchical and ethical precepts for the management of society, based on the practice of jen—sympathy or "human-heartedness"—as shown in one's relations with others and demonstrated through adherence to li, a combination of etiquette and ritual. A person who wishes to be properly treated when in a subordinate role must, according to the Confucian Golden Rule, treat his own inferiors with propriety. In time, Confucianism provided a structure for the legal, educational, and bureaucratic traditions of China. Its precepts came to be regarded as the essential criteria for Chinese social life, ethics, and etiquette as well.


Excellence: The deepest insight into the role of the person as a member of a larger whole. Harmony, balance, family and people. Philosophy, science, education, law, society, and ethics. Ritual reinforcement of the social contract.


Master Story: The Ruler Sage


Ritual Pattern: Li (ritual propriety)


Ethical Norm: Law



It has been suggested that Hinduism is not so much a single religion as it is an umbrella under which the religious beliefs and practices of innumerable sects flourish. In any case, the vast majority of the people of India regard themselves as Hindus. Arising initially as a synthesis of indigenous religion and the religion brought to India c.1500 bce by the Aryan peoples from the north, Hinduism developed in syncretism with the religious and cultural movements of the Indian subcontinent. Hindu culture and belief is generally characterized by the caste system and the acceptance of the Vedas as sacred scripture. These texts, which comprise the liturgy and interpretation of sacrificial ritual, culminate in the Upanishads, mystical and speculative works that set forth the doctrine of Brahman, the absolute reality or Self, and its identity with the individual soul, or atman. The goal of Hinduism, like that of many other Eastern religions, is liberation from the cycle of rebirth and the suffering brought about by one's own actions. This can be effected through a variety of yogas, spiritual practices leading to knowledge of reality and union with ultimate reality. Many modern Hindu leaders have stressed the necessity of uniting spiritual life with social concerns. Traditionally, Hinduism has celebrated the multiplicity of paths to the ultimate with the words: “Truth is one, but the sages know it by many names.”


Excellence: The richest expression of the infinite divine: one God with countless faces, emphases, and dimensions. Many paths come together here, from blissful meditation, to lifelong study, to devotion to God, to selfless service. "Truth is One, but the sages know it by many names."


Master Story: The Master-Disciple relationship


Ritual Pattern: Puja (ceremony of blessing, homage, worship)


Ethical Norm: Duty (dharma)


Indigenous Religions

The religious and spiritual practices of native peoples, all too often dismissed as “primitive,” have shaped the lives of the vast majority of the planet’s past and present inhabitants. While these traditions offer an astonishing variety of beliefs and expressions, most share an abiding concern with the natural world and the spirits that choreograph its movements and hint at its deeper significance. The native traditions acknowledge the confluence of the invisible world with the visible and celebrate the sacredness of all life.


Excellence: An extraordinary tapestry of cultural modes of engagement with the visible world and the invisible world that enfolds it.


Master Stories: Origin narratives: land, spirits, rhythms, principles


Ritual Patterns: Celebrating Earth and its creatures


Ethical Norm: Respecting the community of all life




Islam—from the Arabic root meaning “submission” or “surrender” (to Al’lah, the one God)—was preached by the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. An adherent of Islam is a Muslim [Arabic, “one who submits”]. The youngest of the three great monotheistic world religions (the others are Judaism and Christianity), Islam stresses the belief in one God, unique and absolutely transcendent. This belief shapes the life of the devout Muslim. Like Judaism and Christianity, its sister religions, Islam is a covenantal faith, grounded in the belief in a sacred compact between the human and the divine. Muslims believe that the Qur’an, their sacred scripture, calls them to build a just social order, to submit to the one Lord, and to become one family. Islam calls its followers to lives of service to God and to the human family.


Excellence: The transformative power of the reconciliation of the personal will to the will of the divine. Peaceful surrender to God and embrace of a detailed vision of God's plan for nearly every dimension of human life. Sacralization of every moment of that life.


Master Story: The Pilgrimage of Hagar and Abraham to Mecca / Abraham and Ishmael Rebuilding the Kaaba


Ritual Pattern: Hajj (Pilgrimage)


Ethical Norm: Strive for justice



Jainism is the faith tradition of Jina, a religious system of India practiced by about 2 million followers. It arose in the 6th century bce in reaction against ritualism and the authority of the Vedas and was established by a succession of 24 saints, the last of whom was Vardhamana (also known as Mahavira or Jina). He preached asceticism and concern for all life as a means of escaping from the transmigration of souls—resulting from one's past actions—and of achieving nirvana. The central virtue of Jainism is ahimsa, “non-injury” to all living beings. Contem-porary Jains are known for charitable works and their eschewal of any occupation that even remotely endangers animal life. The Jain tradition is often acknowledged as the source of the most profound and passionate articulations of the urgency and beauty of non-violence.


Excellence: The most profound religious embodiment of the sacred principle of non-violence


Master Story: Tales of the 24 liberated souls


Ritual Pattern: The cultivation of the ascetic lifestyle


Ethical Norm: Ahimsa — non-injury to any living creature


Judaism is the tradition grounded in the religious beliefs and practices and the way of life of the Jewish people. It finds its anchor in the monotheism adopted by the biblical Hebrews. In this early period there also developed a belief in the ultimate coming of God's kingdom on earth, a time of peace and justice. While not all Jews subscribe to the belief in the coming of the Messiah, many still hold to this ancient hope. Judaism is a religion and a civilization that emphasizes the personhood of all its adherents. It is grounded in trust in God’s covenant with God’s people. Observance is shaped by adherence to the divine commandments or expectations, which have both a ritual and an ethical character. Judaism celebrates life and culture and enjoins its followers to the celebration of life’s essential goodness andto service to humankind in the name of God.


Excellence: The most profound celebration of the holiness of every dimension of existence, of the oneness and the universal presence of God. The celebration of the wonder and richness of community.


Master Story: Exodus and Sinai


Ritual Pattern: Seder


Ethical Norm: Do justice


New Thought

New Thought is a spiritually motivated way of life that embraces the ancient wisdom traditions of east and west. It embodies the belief that consciousness is elementally creative, reciprocates thought, and thereby shapes (but does not determine) what becomes manifest in our experience. New Thought principles reflect a universal conviction that the community of all life is sacred; its practices of meditation and prayer enhance a worldview promoting reverence for, and service to humanity and planet earth. New Thought is committed to global healing through personal transformation, community-building, interfaith, intercultural, and interdisciplinary understanding, and compassionate activism.


Excellence: There is an inherent perfection and sacred worth in the universe, all of creation, and every individual. The community of all life is interconnected and interdependent. Consciousness is infinitely creative; we create our experience through our thoughts and feelings. Human consciousness is ever evolving into higher states of awareness.


Master Story: Cocreation with the Divine


Ritual Pattern: Applying science of mind to everyday life


Ethical Norm: Consciousness creates according to divine purpose



The Sikhs are a religious community of some 16 million worldwide, centered on northern India, mainly in the Punjab. Sikhism’s founder, the mystic teacher Guru Nanak (c.1469-c.1539), taught monotheism and opposed idolatry and the caste system. He believed in the fundamental identity of all religions and stressed religious exercises and the regular practice of meditation. Gradually uniting and developing military power under a series of gurus, the Sikhs were inspired in defense of their homeland by Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), the tenth and last guru, who created a spiritual warrior fraternity and introduced the Sikh male practices of wearing a turban and sword and never cutting the hair. Sikhism professes the belief in One God—Eternal Truth (if God is to be named); immanent reality, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, unfearing, bearing enmity or hatred towards none; without an image; beyond human comprehension but realized through His Creation and Grace to those who seek Him.


Excellence: The exaltation of truth, social justice, and service to all in need


Master Story: The lives and teaching of the ten Gurus


Ritual Pattern: Reading the holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib


Ethical Norm: Selfless service, piety, and truthful living


Taoism is the sister to Confucianism in the family of Chinese philosophical and religious systems. The teaching derives from the Tao-te-ching, a book traditionally ascribed to Lao-tse. It sets forth an ideal human condition of freedom from desire, spontaneity, and of effortless simplicity, achieved by following the Tao, “the path,” or the “flow,” the spontaneous, creative, effortless way of natural events in the universe. When Indian Buddhism came to China, its encounter with Taoism’s contemplative relationship to nature gave rise to the tradition later known (in Japan) as “Zen.” Taoist reflection profoundly influenced the Chinese artistic tradition. Taoism also provided the essential ground for the development of the body-mind systems later known as the martial arts. The tradition of Chinese healing and pharmacology also owes its origin to Taoist observational skills. Attention to the natural and dynamic course of events is the animating practice of the Taoist way.


Excellence: An extraordinarily evocative treatment of the human relationship with Nature, with the flow of the ultimate principle, the Tao. Art as the highest expression. Contemplation as the essential skill. Present‑centeredness as the most basic virtue.


Master Story: Lao-tzu’s Departure from China


Ritual Pattern: Contemplation and Art


Ethical Norm: Wu wei (non-action [no agenda]


The Zoroastrian religion was founded by Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who preached the religion on the steppes of ancient Persia. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Persian Empire of Cyrus the Great in the 6th century bce. The religion flourished under later dynasties, but reeled with the advent of Islam. Many Persian Zoroastrians migrated to India where their descendant, the Parsees—concentrated in and around Bombay—have kept the faith alive in India. In an age of idol worship and polytheism, Zarathustra preached the first monotheistic religion of the one supreme God, Ahura Mazda (the “Wise Lord”). The message is contained in the ancient texts of the sacred Avesta, of which the five Gathas are considered to embody the word of the Prophet himself. The teaching finds its essence in the triad: Humata (Good Thoughts), Hukta (Good Words), and Huverashta (Good Deeds). Zoroastrianism celebrates the sacredness of the elements of existence and offers a unique spiritual perspective on ecology.


Excellence: The celebration of the sacredness of all the elements of existence and the cultivation of a unique perspective on spiritual ecology


Master Story: The Prophet Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) sees God and hears God’s words


Ritual Expression: Recitation of the sacred in the presence of sacred fire


Ethical Norm: Good words, good thoughts, good deeds