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Categorizing Religions

Categorizing Religions

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson provides an overview of the major divisions of religion and the broad categories into which they fall.

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Hello, and welcome to Categorizing Religions. It can be confusing to know where to begin to think about categorizing the world's religions. In this tutorial, we're going to get an idea about how to do that. We're going to see that there's more than one way. It just depends on your personal or academic interest and perspective.

We're going to look at some of the key features of some of the main religions of the world to help orient us on this religions pathway. One of the first ways of categorizing religions is in terms of geography-- the Eastern religions and the Western religions. From a historical perspective, the Eastern religions predate the Western religions. Some of those from the East that we will be looking at briefly are Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, and Shinto.

For now, we're going to look at some of the key features of some of the Eastern religions, starting with Hinduism. Hinduism is often considered the world's oldest living religion. It dates back thousands of years. You can trace the word Hindu back to the Sanskrit word Shindu, which is a reference to the river system in Northwest India. Sanskrit is the ancient language of Hindu that is no longer spoken. But their sacred texts were written in Sanskrit, and they're collectively called the Veda. The four Vedas-- collectively called the Veda.

The Veda helps guide one along the way of the Dharma, which is a term that refers to the natural law and order that sustains all being. As a way of being in the world, Dharma means duty, morality, and virtue. An essential element in Hinduism is the belief in the law of karma or action which governs the process and cycle of birth, life, and death. The cycle is called samsara.

The hope is to break free of this cycle of perpetual reincarnation. Therefore, one must follow the Dharma, always being attentive to the laws of karma. There is no transcendent god who is worshipped in Hinduism. Instead, there is a supreme transcendent power identified as Brahman. There are many manifestations of this universal force, many gods, more personal gods that have very specific personalities and purposes in Hindu life and practice.

Another ancient religion from India that is still practiced today is called Jainism. It emphasizes spiritual independence, universal equality among all life forms, and nonviolence and self control. Nonviolence and self control are principle means of liberation from the endless cycle of reincarnation.

The other principal religion which also originated in India is Buddhism. Historically it follows Hinduism, but philosophically it does overlap in many ways. But unlike Hinduism, it does have a founder. His name is the Buddha or enlightened one, awakened. In history, he was called Siddhartha Gautama. Followers along the way of the Buddha are called Buddhists.

The Buddha was a teacher who taught that enlightenment was possible in this life, possible to attain in this life. He taught through his actions, his words, his silence, and his presence. The principal commitments of a Buddhist are known as the Three Jewels-- the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, which are Sanskrit words. Sangha means community.

Along the Buddhist way, one continually reflects on the teachings of the four noble truths-- life is suffering, suffering is caused by cravings and attachments-- attachments which are caused and guided by ignorance-- release from suffering is possible, and the truth of the way out of suffering. Ultimate release from suffering is known as Moksha. This is a state and a way of being that is referred to and called nirvana.

Moving over to China in the fifth century now. We'll take a brief look at Confucianism. The founder of Confucianism was a man who emphasized the extreme importance of moral responsibility in the community. Confucius taught that responsible life in the family and the community takes priority over some of the more unanswerable questions of existence. Nevertheless, human life and ethical duty did clearly reflect a higher order and structure that are not to be denied or ignored. One of the central texts of Confucianism that explores this is called the I-Ching, or the Book of Changes.

Most of the religions we've mentioned so far have spread to Japan and other parts of the globe to a greater or lesser extent. But now we're focusing on indigenous traditions in various regions.

In Japan, the ancient religion is called Shinto or Shintoism as it's sometimes called. The main feature of Shinto is to offer a way of maintaining a link with the past. The word Shinto means way of the gods. One of its core beliefs is that everything has a spiritual essence or kami. In Japan, many people recognize both Shinto and Buddhism. Buddhism is practiced for things more directly related to this life and Shinto is practiced more for things related to the other life and death and the remembrance of things past or beyond.

That briefly covers the East. Now we can go to the West, to Israel, and talk about Judaism. Judaism is considered the first of the monotheistic religions, religions that adhere to beliefs that there only one god. People who follow the beliefs of Judaism are called Jews or Hebrews. They believe they are descended from Abraham. They also believe that they have been chosen by God for some purpose, and this purpose is laid out in their sacred texts, the Talmud and the Torah, the Hebrew Bible.

Arising out of Judaism, there's Christianity, also from the land of Israel, another of the monotheistic religions. Its central figure is Jesus Christ, believed to have been the son of god born to the Virgin Mary. The story of Jesus Christ's life and death and resurrection, his teachings and actions in the world, make up the Christian Bible, which is called the New Testament. If there is a central teaching and principle associated with Christianity and the life of Christ, it could universally be called love.

Following the historical line of the monotheistic traditions, we have Islam, which emerged during the seventh century. Islam refers to the life and teachings of the figure Muhammad, believed to have been a prophet inspired and informed directly by God through the angel Gabriel. The sacred text of this exchange is called the Koran. Like many of the other religions, there are different branches of the faith. But in general, all Muslims, followers of Islam, agree that the word of God has been revealed before to Moses and Jesus of Nazareth and other prophets, but that the Koran is God's final and complete revelation. Muslims also generally agree on the five pillars of the faith, the five pillars of Islam-- creed, daily prayer, almsgiving, fasting during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace and site of Mohammed's revelation.

This gives us a general idea of how to organize and categorize religions according to east and west. Another way to think about religions is in terms of whether or not they're still practiced. All the ones that we've mentioned so far are still practiced today, and they're called living religions. The ones that aren't practiced are called classical. These include the Pantheons or pantheistic religions of ancient Greece and Rome, for example. In spite of their antiquity, or perhaps because of it, they were very influential in the development of the living traditions, particularly the monotheistic traditions.

We're going to conclude now with what are called the primal religions. This refers to indigenous and tribal practices and beliefs which, for the most part, were transmitted orally. It's hard to categorize these religions in terms of Eastern or Western. It's also hard to categorize them in terms of classical or living, because some are still practiced, but many aren't.

Nevertheless, they are the source of many myths, legends, and practices that have found their way into the living traditions we've mentioned so far. And they found their way into modern life as well. For example, the primal religions share a deep spiritual connection to and with nature and animals. This intuitive response to an interaction with nature might then be linked to contemporary environmental concerns.

Let's do a quick review. One way of categorizing religions is by geography, either Eastern or Western. The primary religions from the East are Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, and Shinto. The primary monotheistic religions that originated in the West are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religions can also be categorized according to whether or not they're still practiced. We refer to them as living and classical.

And finally, there are primal religions that are tough to categorize because they are spread across the globe. Some are still practiced. Most are not. Nevertheless, the primal religions have influenced many religions, religious thought, and practice as well, and also our modern understanding of our relationship with nature.

That wraps up this tutorial. I hope you learned what you needed to. I look forward to seeing you next time. Goodbye.

Notes on "Categorizing Religions"


Pals, Daniel. Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.






Terms to Know
Eastern Religion

Any religion originating on or east of the Indian subcontinent.


A group of gods or deities.

Western Religion

Any religion originating in the present-day Middle East, Europe, or the Americas.