Even before the advent of organized religions, our then savage male and female ancestors had been trying to find meaning in their lives. These people hunted and killed animals, protected their tribal members, fought or otherwise made allegiance with other tribes, made rough tools with which to aid their daily needs, procreated—but as the sun rose or hid below the horizon, they felt something was missing. They pondered and pondered, but couldn’t yet fully grasp what they were looking for. Seasons changed, and our ancestors painted the cycle in the caves where they lived. Rudimentary yet artistic, imageries of a hunt, of beasts great and small, or of people covered the walls. A judgmental archaeologist may find such paintings mediocre, the work of mere savages whose imaginations couldn’t leap far ahead of the norm back then. Look closer, however, and the archaeologist will find that our ancestors, even then, had always believed in the presence of Gods. Beings taller than ordinary humans or beings whose heads were covered with halos covered the walls beside the imageries of seemingly mundane events. Evidently, part of our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development is the inherent need to find meaning and order, both of which we find in our Gods, whose exemplary conduct inspire us to do the same. Our ancestors weren’t too savage after all.
In the pages of the Kojiki, an early Japanese semi-mythical chronicle, one can find further evidence regarding our development: “The Three Deities performed the commencement of creation; the Passive and Active Essences then developed, and the Two Spirits became the ancestors of all things” (qtd. in Microsoft Encarta [DVD], 2005). This passage may seem cryptic—and it is, considering our forebears’ tendency to make riddles with which to make us think—but the same would form our different religions around the world. First, the passive essence is our believing in Gods, to whom we give our praises and from whom we ask for salvation, mercy, and the like. Next, the active essence is our emulating the morals and character strength our Gods. Both essences play a great role in our advancement as a whole.
The term ‘religion’ borrows its name from the Latin word ‘religio’, which signifies the adherence to and practice of ritual obligations, to include the more abstract concepts such as faith and belief (Paden, 2005). Again, the former is active, the other passive—two vital essences completing each other. Over the years, religion has evolved into what it is now: a way of life, and a vital part of society. For instance all, if not most, religions define a set of conduct by which adherents must behave accordingly. This in turn limited our tendency to indulge in excessive pleasures or extreme behavior. No longer are the males savage enough to just raid a helpless village, where they will kidnap females as wives. No more. With religion, marriage takes precedence over savagery, for it holds man and woman in a sacred oath that they will share a life through thick and thin, till death parts them. Moreover, in some tribal communities around the world, tribal leaders resolve quarrels by marrying their daughters or sons to others found in rival tribes, where the leaders have quarrels with. Another good example in which religion plays a vital role is to be found in Native American villages. Here, tribal leaders forge inter-tribal unity and peace through their religion, which they expressed in songs, sacred symbols, and dance. Smoking a peace pipe which they pass around, these American Indians sit in groups and discuss how best to resolve a petty issue or two, and they even discuss portents of the kind of life ahead of them—whether it will rain or not, for instance—so that each leader may suggest a solution.
Religion, in its noble usage, brings people closer together. It bridges gaps. It does not limit its followers to just one set of ideals or purposes, but rather finds a common ground among other religions. Perhaps one could also say that religion makes sacred the vital components in society. Indeed, in the words on one writer, “it intersects, incorporates, and transcends other aspects of life and society” (Paden, 2005).
At present the three most prominent world religions—as based on the number of adherents, the organizational structure such as one unifying sacred literature, the historical-cultural significance, and the unique qualities of each one—are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three religions have had shared a bloody history, of conquests to liberate sacred artifacts, of inter and outer wars, of betrayals and treacheries, and of everything else that makes every form of birth as bloody and painful as that of a newborn infant. Yet even so, these religions also share common practices and beliefs, and this paper aims to identify them, as well as analyze how they affect adherents. But, first, a brief background and history of each.
Around 200 B.C, in the time of Abraham, Judaism started in what is now Israel (although at first it was called Palestine, until the Jews formed the state on Friday, May 14, 1948.). It was founded by Rabbis, although many consider Abraham the first Jew, the first one to have made a sacred written agreement, or covenant (berith), with God. This agreement, written in the Torah, is sacred and central to Jewish belief, because Jews believe that by adhering to God’s laws—which are expressed in commandments or mitzvoth—can humanity achieve a peaceful life, harmoniously connected with the workings of the universe (Microsoft Encarta, 2005).
Born almost immediately after the death of Christ, Christianity is the sister of Judaism, from which it borrowed much of its teachings and practices, such as the baptism. The main distinction, however, is Christianity’s outlook on the persona of Jesus. Jews believe that Jesus was a messenger or a teacher and nothing more, neither a messiah nor God himself; on the other hand, Christians believe that Jesus was the divine reincarnation of God. The Bible is the sacred text of Christians.
Muhammad founded Islam around the 7th century, in Saudi Arabia. He was born in Mecca, then the central city in the Arabian Peninsula. A quiet man, he had always retired into the neighboring hills and mountains, where he often meditated and prayed. One day, as he was sleeping after a day of mediation, he heard a voice commanding him to memorize and recite the words that would form the core teachings of Islam. The voice, many believe, came from the Angel Gabriel, whom Muslims consider the highest of angels, and not Michael, as the Christians believe so. Muslims adhere to the set of morals and way of life written in their Koran, or Qur’an, the counterpart of the Christian Bible and the Jewish Torah.
These three religions all share a common concept: that there is only one God, one supreme deity or consciousness that gives life and death, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, and many other paradoxes. Christians, for instance, are taught to have no other gods, to believe only in God the Father, as Jesus called Him. Jews, on the other hand, believe that God created the universe and ceaselessly governs it (Microsoft Encarta, 2005). The same goes true with Muslims, who believe that Muhammad is the final prophet sent by God to preach the system of laws for proper living (Dallal, 2005).
Such a monotheistic belief has had both negative and positive results. First, the positive result is that it had effectively abolished idolatry—part of the human weakness to worship people and objects—as when Moses demolished a golden calf. Moreover, it had altered the way people worship, for it had reduced the Greek pantheon of Gods to just one. The negative effect of monotheism, however, has been largely played by the adherents themselves. For one thing, it had altered the adherents’ view towards other religions. What should be ‘there is only one God’, has many times been turned into ‘there is only one God, and yours is not as valid as mine’. It gave birth to fanaticism, hatred, and bigotry. Just consider the inquisition created by the papacy in the Middle Ages. Led by the infamous Tomas de Torquemada, who was then the Inquisitor General, the inquisition proceedings had tortured and killed heretics and other deviants from the faith, including those that weren’t proven guilty and were merely suspected. Then there were also the adherents’ labeling of other non-adherents as infidels or traitors, especially in the time of the Crusades, when the three world religions clashed.
Evidently, thin is the border that separates faith from fanaticism. All three world religions have proven that. But alas, our wills are sometimes weak, and for this reason the prophets, as instructed by God, had written sacred texts with which to guide our way of life.
In the Christian Bible, Jesus plays the central role by which people can emulate his examples towards proper living and interacting with others. By following the actions and character of Christ, whom Christians believe as the Son of God and the divine reality itself, Christians will inherit God’s kingdom, have life everlasting, and thereby become children of God themselves (Pelikan, 2005). Furthermore, Christ’s supreme sacrifice of death by crucifixion had instilled love and hope in the hearts of Christians. Most Christians indeed rely on their hope when they are thrown in either a life-affirming or difficult circumstance, for they are inspired mainly by Christ’s resurrection. Hence, they love God for it, for the promise of salvation He gives. More than anything, however, more than the Christians’ belief that God reigns in both heaven and earth, that He alone can judge what is good or evil, and that He is eternal, Christians preach that God himself means love, the supreme living entity capable of total love (Pelikan, 2005). It is unsurprising, therefore, that the concept of love pervades Christian teachings, developing into charity, compassion, and others. One will find these concepts in the Bible—the tale of the Good Samaritan, is one. Christians also believe that God will always forgive them for their sins, although one might argue that this is complacency on their part, their laziness to be virtuous, knowing that with each sin they make they are already forgiven.
The Jewish Torah differs in some concepts, however. After making the covenant, or sacred agreement with God, the Jews had agreed to recognize God as their only king and ruler; in return, God had supposedly chosen the Jewish people and appointed them as the mediator between God and humanity (Microsoft Encarta, 2005). Jews devote themselves unfailingly to following God’s commandments, as bestowed to Moses. They believe that everything that is happening—or will happen—to them ultimately has meaning; nothing is purely arbitrary or otherwise left to chance. Therefore, even in the midst of persecution and forced exile, Jews have always been living in virtue, so firm is their belief that their actions and obedience to the teachings in the Torah will grant them justice, their oppressors judged accordingly. Jews also believe that the more they live in virtue the more they can hasten the arrival of the messiah who will grant the justice they are waiting for. Their devotion and patience to receive justice may be perceived as passivity in times of trouble, but Jews have always proven that they could safeguard their faith and their fellows in times of trouble, as when they won in the Yom Kippur War. But perhaps the distinctive character of the Jews as a collective is their obligation and unity with one another. For instance, kibbutzniks—members of the agricultural and industrial collectives scattered across Israel—discuss inter-community issues (Library of Nations, 1989). They share their agricultural produce and industrial know-how with other self-supportive communities, in turn propagating an endless stream of contribution to the economy and security of Israel as a whole nation. Jews are somewhat bred to be close to one another, particularly in their childhood, when toddlers are allowed to spend a lot of time with fellow children. Eventually, as they grow up, Jewish youth take part in adult responsibilities, symbolically and realistically—boys aged 13 (during a ceremony called Bar Mitzvah), and girls aged 12 (during a ceremony called Bat Mitzvah) read passages from the Torah. Jews value their youth, and over the years they have also been increasing the roles and responsibilities of women. Having faced a number of persecutions over the years, Jews have turned to preserving their brothers and sisters.
Islamic teachings, although some are similar to those in either Judaism or Christianity, is another unique religion, owing to its rich history and concepts. Islam means “surrender” or “submission to the will of God, or Allah. The Koran teaches that all Muslims, regardless of their social-religious structure, are equal in the eyes of God. Therefore Muslims, as an entirety, are loyal to God and belong to a somewhat familial community called umma, which is shared even with non-Muslims (Dallal, 2005). What distinguishes Islam from other religions is it Five Pillars, a set of religious duties that each Muslim should do. First is the profession of faith (shahada), in which a Muslim declares loyalty to the one true God by uttering the words “I bear witness that there is no God except Allah and that Muhammad is its messengers. Shahada is one way by which Muslims surrender to the will of Allah, a symbolic surrendering of the ego in favor of regaining the higher self, the one that is purest and sinless. Second in the pillar is prayer (salat), in which a Muslim prays five times a day—such a devotion that trains the mind into doing only good deeds, much like self-imposed hypnosis of encouragement brings good results. The third pillar is almsgiving (zakat), in which a Muslim helps the needy. Fourth in the pillar is fasting (sawm), in which a Muslim—during the time of Ramadan, when the first revelation of the Koran was revealed—fasts in order to be more spiritually aware of and connected to God and to the plight of other Muslims all over the world (Dallal, 2005). The fifth pillar (hajj) requires financially and physically able Muslims to make a pilgrimage, at least once in a lifetime, in Mecca, the birthplace of Islam. Although the rituals of such an act relives historical events vital in Islam—such as Ibrahim’s building of the Kaaba, which is the house of God—it also reunites Muslims around the world, much as families and relatives schedule a reunion in order to relive the past, scrutinize the present, and make plans for the future.
The aforementioned three world religions have contributed greatly to civilization. They have enlightened and inspired people to emulate their prophets. But perhaps the greatest contribution these religions have made, in the millennia that had passed, is the stories and parables which up to now still rings true, still imparts sound insights to all the growing children in the world. We can only hope that Jews, Muslims, and Christians—and let’s include those from other religions—will find a common ethos, instead of impugning each other most of the time.
Chorlton, Windsor (1989). “Library of Nations: Israel” New Jersey: Time-Life Books.
Dallal, Ahmad S. (2005). “Islam.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Microsoft Encarta (2005). “Judaism.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Paden, William (2005). “Religion” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Pelikan, Jaroslav (2005). “Christianity.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.