Religion is a social institution that answers questions and explains the seemingly inexplicable. Religion provides explanations for why things happen and demystifies the ideas of birth and death. Religions based on the belief in a single deity are monotheistic. Those that encompass many deities are polytheistic.
Major World Religions
Most of the world subscribes to one of the following religions:
- Christianity: The most widespread world religion, Christianity derived from Judaism. It is based on the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and the redeemer of mankind. There are many different Christian denominations.
- Islam: Followers of Islam are called Muslims. Muslims believe that the true word of God was revealed to the prophet Muhammad around 570 a.d. God in Islam is the same god as the Christian and Judaic deity.
- Judaism: Judaism is a monotheistic religion that predates Christianity, built on the belief that they are the “chosen people” of God.
- Hinduism: Hinduism is the oldest major world religion, dominant in India. Hindus do not worship a single person or deity but rather are guided by a set of ancient cultural beliefs. They believe in the principle of karma, which is the wisdom or health of one’s eternal soul. Karma can be strengthened with good acts and harmed by bad acts. Hindus believe that karma plays a role in reincarnation, a cycle of continuous rebirth through which, ideally, the soul can achieve spiritual perfection. The state of a person’s karma determines in what form he or she will be reborn.
- Buddhism: Buddhists, most of whom live in Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma, follow the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a spiritual teacher of the sixth century b.c.e. Buddhism, like Hinduism, does not feature any single all-powerful deity but teaches that by eschewing materialism, one can transcend the “illusion” of life and achieve enlightenment.
Types of Religious Groups
Sociologists group religious organizations into three categories: church, sect, and cult.
- A church is a religious group integrated with society.
Example: The Roman Catholic Church is well integrated in the society in Spain.
- A sect is a religious group that sets itself apart from society as a whole.
Example: The Amish of Pennsylvania are a classic sect. Though Christian, they choose to set themselves apart from the rest of society by their lifestyle, which eschews many aspects of modernity.
- A cult is a religious group that is outside standard cultural norms, typically centered around a charismatic leader.
Example: The People’s Temple, a cult that emerged in the late 1970s, was led by a man named Jim Jones. Jones started his cult in San Francisco, then convinced several hundred followers to move with him to Jonestown, Guyana. He claimed to be a god and insisted on strict loyalty. In 1978, he and 913 of his followers committed mass suicide.
Religion in the United States
In the United States, the degree to which people are religious is related to their social class, race, and ethnicity. The most affluent people in the United States tend to be Protestant, although Jews also enjoy a higher-than-average standard of living. Northern Europe, which is mostly Protestant, was the area of origin for most of the early settlers in America, so people of Northern European descent tend to come from the most established families and encounter the least amount of prejudice. People who emigrated from predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Southern and Eastern Europe and, later, Latin America encountered more prejudice and tend to be less affluent than the Protestants. However, there is wide variation among the groups.
African-American churches have blended the traditions of Christianity and the African faiths of the slaves brought to America. These churches have played a major role in promoting civil rights for blacks.