Ethics & Religion

Click Here for a PDF of the chapter “Preliminary Distinctions” from Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, by Charles Taliaferro – A great introduction to ethics in Philosophy of Religion


What is religious ethics? Why care about religious ethics? Isn’t religion a
world religionsthing of the past? Aren’t the more educated persons secular?

Religious ethics concerns teachings and practices of what is right or wrong, good or bad, virtuous or vicious, from a religious point of view. The definition of “religion” is controversial. A definition favored by the Supreme Court is that religions are traditions that are anything like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism.

A more detailed definition to consider is: A religion is a tradition and practice based on a conception of what is real and significant (God, Allah, the Tao, Brahman, etc.), and the belief that sin, vice, disillusionment, and illusion may be overcome by grace, meditation, practices, and living in harmony, unity, or wise concord with what is real and significant. A Christian ethic, for example, may be informed by Jesus’ radical teaching about loving one’s neighbor, being a good Samaritan, loving one’s enemies, and the like.


Why bother studying religious ethics?

The majority of the world’s population consists of self-identified members of some religion. While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled out compulsory prayer, in the same ruling it states: “It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” To not study world religions is to not inquire into a vital part of human history and life today.
Here in the U.S., our population is woefully ignorant of world religions. A recent poll showed that only 38% of adult Americans know that Vishnu and Shiva are gods or divine beings in Hinduism. The majority do not know the Five Pillars of Islam or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, and only 50% of adult Americans can name one of the four gospels in the New Testament. If you are thinking of engaging in international relations or working in a pluralistic religious culture (medicine, law, business of any kind, politics, governance, architecture, the arts, and more), a working knowledge of world religions is essential.

There is no evidence that the tendency to self-identify with a religious identity is declining among world populations. Islam continues to grow, and while Christianity has atrophied in some European countries, worldwide it continues to grow, remaining the largest religious population in the world. Roughly 40% of Africans are Christian, and 40% are Islamic. About half the world’s population is made up of self-identified Christians and Muslims, and there are roughly a billion Hindus.

Predictions by mid-20th century sociologists that modernity (increased education and technology) would usher in a secular age seem dubious. While some of the “new atheists” assume many religious believers are under-educated, studies show no such correlation. In fact, in terms of non-question-begging criteria, religious believers have above average credentials in terms of education.
Another reason to study religious ethics is simply that it is possible that one or more religious worldviews may be true. Common to most religions is the understanding of the cosmos as a meaningful forum in which we share a responsibility for each other, to care for the vulnerable, and to pursue justice. Most world religions hold that evil, sin, illusion, greed, and cruelty should not exist. If such a religious view of values might be correct, there is definitely reason to study the coherence, resources, promises, and challenges of religious ethics.

A possible religious foundation for ethics is important to explore, as it is not obvious that secular naturalism can provide a fully satisfactory foundation for ethics.

The study of religious ethics is also recommended given the great importance of interfaithdialogue, which pervades our political system, not to mention everyday human interaction. See the work of Professor Anant Rambachan for more about the exchange between different religions: CLICK HERE

Does ethics require God?

Some theists and atheists believe that if there is no God (and they usually think of the Judeo-Christian idea of God), then right and wrong, good and evil are entirely subjective, or relative. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Devil’s voice says to Ivan that, without God, “everything is permitted” (Dostoevsky 1990: 643). Philosophers like J.L. Mackie, Michael Ruse, Bertrand Russell, and Jean-Paul Sartre seem to agree. Nietzsche claims that if there is no God, “there are no moral facts.”

Is this position plausible? There is reason to think that if one were to ground ethics only in terms of what is best adapted for natural selection (in other words, if one were to base ethics on evolutionary biology), then ethics would lack an authoritative base. Michael Ruse, an atheist, evolutionary biologist-philosopher, grants that if it was to our advantage in terms of survival “to dwell in darkness, eat each other’s feces, and cannibalize the dead,” then such behavior would be seen by us as noble, virtuous, and just. In Descent of Man, Charles Darwin grants this same point:

If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless the bee, or any other social animal, would in our supposed case gain, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience . . . In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed: the one would have been right and the other wrong. (Darwin 1882: 99)

Both Darwin and Ruse are optimists (in light of our current values) and believe that survival would be better achieved through collaboration, care for each other, and so on. And yet such values would only be contingent, or just happen to be true, because of their evolutionary advantage. There is no room for any kind of justice to be good independently of its evolutionary advantage.

As a sober, important side-note, it is regrettable (for many of us) that Darwin thought it would be to the evolutionary advantage of human beings if the strong let the weak perish:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature . . . Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage. (Darwin 1871: 168-169)

Still, one can be a non-theist and hold that ethical values are objectively true, having emerged through natural processes, just as objective mathematical reasoning has emerged in human thought. The best case for believing that ethics requires some theistic grounding (objective values derive from the goodness of God) is NOT one of the following:

  • Only those who believe in God know what is right or wrong.

Most religious traditions, including Christianity, deny this. Atheists, agnostics, and non-theists can know what is right and wrong.

  • One needs to believe in God to be truly good.

Many theists hold that God has brought about a cosmos in which persons can know right and wrong and be good without believing in God.

  • It is necessary to rely on the Bible or some other sacred text of revelation to know good and evil.

Arguably, the Bible itself claims persons can know of good and evil without relying on special revelation.

  • The Bible is the perfect guide to ethics.

Maybe so, but even according to the Bible itself, careful interpretation is necessary. (SEE Ethics and the Bible)

Setting aside these other positions, one needs also to distinguish several theistic proposals. The one that seems the most plausible (to many theists, but not all) is that God is essentially good. What does this mean? “Goodness” may be understood positively as such:

  • X is good if it is better that X exists than not exist. Thus, X’s existence is correctly loved and preferred to X’s non-existence.

In one theistic tradition, God is maximally excellent, or that than which nothing greater can be conceived. God’s other attributes (in classical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) include omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, incorporeality, eternality (without beginning or end), and necessity of existence, which make God worthy of worship. Christians also believe God is triune (exists as a trinity, including God incarnate). Given this view of God, it is natural to expect that God would bring into existence and sustain a cosmos in which life emerges, including conscious life with ethical, aesthetic, and religious awareness (a sense of the sacred).


Some Ethical Issues in Philosophy of Religion

The Problem of Evil: If there is an all powerful, all good, and all knowing God, then why is
there evil?  This is the classical theistic problem of evil that comes in the form of either a deductive or probabilistic argument.  Deductive arguments content that there is a strict logical incompatibility between theism and the existence of evil.  Probabilistic arguments usually concede that it is logically possible for God and evil to co-exist, but they argue that, given the amount of evil that exists, it is unlikely or improbable that God exists.  A theodicy attempts to justify the apparent problem of the existence of evil in God’s creation.

CLICK HERE for a response to the problem of evil in the form of a book review.
CLICK HERE to read a section from a publication by Charles Taliaferro about the problem of evil


The Euthyphro Dilemma: Is X right because the gods approve X?  Or do the gods approve of X because X is right?  This question emerges in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro.  Plato himself seems to hold that the gods love the good because it is good.

CLICK HERE for a paper on the Euthyphro dilemma

Abortion: Is the termination of a fetus a violation of the sanctity of human life? The Roman Catholic position is that the personhood of the fetus is established immediately upon conception. Positions on the issue vary widely among different religions.


Moral Arguments for Theism

There is a family of arguments that variously urge that certain features of human moral experience are best accommodated on a theistic worldview.  In particular, the common claim is that moralrealism, the view that there are objective or mind-independent moral facts-calls for theistic metaphysical or epistemological underpinnings.  Immanuel Kant reasoned, for instance, that if there is no God then there are objective moral requirements that are not possibly met, namely, that the moral good of virtue and the natural good of happiness embrace and become perfect in a “highest good.”  The early 20th-century Idealist philosophers Hastings Rashdall and W.R. Sorley argued that an objective moral law requires an infinite Mind in which to reside if it is to have full ontological status. C.S. Lewis offered a popularized version of such an argument in a series of talks for the BBC during WWII, later published in his Mere Christianity. Lewis argued that conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver. Philosopher Robert Adams has argued that moral obligation is best explained by appeal to the commands of a loving God, and moral values in general may be thought to reflect God’s nature.  Atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie observed that objective moral facts and our epistemic access to them would be metaphysically and epistemically “queer” on metaphysical naturalism.  He thus rejected moral realism for a variety of nihilism, privileging metaphysical naturalism over the existence of moral facts.  The argument invites reversal:  Insofar as the belief in moral facts seems warranted, we have reason to reject naturalism for something akin to theism.  Other arguments focus on the inadequacy of metaphysical naturalism for accommodating any robust form of moral realism. The naturalist’s commitment to a Darwinian genealogy of morals might be thought to present the naturalist with an undercutting defeater for any and all moral beliefs, thus yielding moral skepticism.  The theist may be thought to be in a position to maintain that human moral faculties are designed for the purpose of discerning moral facts and are thus “truth-aimed” in a way that they would not be on naturalism. Or one might argue that no adequate theory of normative ethics sits comfortably within the confines of a naturalistic worldview.  For instance, one might argue that the belief in natural and inviolable rights is implicated by our considered moral judgments, but would prove to be “nonsense on stilts” given the metaphysics of naturalism.  The inherent worth of persons, on the other hand, might best be understood within a theistic framework in which the axiological and metaphysical Ultimate is a Person.


What if secular naturalism is true?

Secular naturalism is the view that there is no purposive structure of the cosmos, or, as Richard Dawkins puts it, “there is, at bottom, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Given this background, is it natural or likely that objectively good and bad states would arise? The philosopher J.L. Mackie holds that, “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.” Being an atheist, Mackie rejects the belief in the existence of God, and thus the existence of moral properties as well.

Evolutionary Ethics: Ethics as derived from evolutionary theory.  This faces the difficulty that evolutionary theory does not seem to provide a reason to believe that if a form of life survives natural selection, it is ipso facto good or virtuous or more ethical than organisms that perish.  Darwin proposed that in human beings compassion and ideals of justice will tend to promote survivability, but he conceded that it might not do so.  Some environmental ethicists claim that Darwinian and neo-Darwinian evolution can provide reasons for thinking that non-human animals deserve greater moral attention (given our mutual ancestral descent) than if one adopts the view that species are all separately created.  While some philosophers think evolutionary theory and ethics are incompatible with Christianity (Richard Dawkins), others (Michael Ruse) see no essential conflict.


Some definitions:

ABRAHAMIC FAITHS. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are called Abrahamic because they trace their history back to the Hebrew patriarch Abraham (often dated in the 20th or 21st century BCE). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each see themselves as rooted in Abrahamic faith, as displayed in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament (essentially the Hebrew Bible) and New Testament, and the Qur’an.

Since the 17th century, “theism” has been the common term in English to refer to the central concept of God. According to the classical forms of these faiths, God is the one and sole God (they are monotheistic as opposed to polytheistic) who both created and sustains the cosmos. God either created the cosmos out of nothing, that is, ex nihilo, or it has always existed but depends for its existence upon God’s conserving, creative will (some Islamic philosophers have claimed that the cosmos has always existed as God’s sustained creation, but the great majority of philosophers in these three traditions have held that the cosmos had a beginning). Creation out of nothing means that God did not use or require anything external from God in creating everything. The cosmos depends upon God’s conserving, continuous will the way light depends on a source or a song depends on a singer. If the source of the light goes out or the singer stops singing, the light and song cease. Traditionally, creation is not thought of as a thing that an agent might fashion and then abandon; the idea of God making creation and then neglecting it—the way a person might make a machine and then abandon it—is utterly foreign to theism.

In these religions, God is said to exist necessarily, not contingently. God exists in God’s self, not as the creation of some greater being (a super-God) or force of nature. God is also not a mode of something more fundamental, the way a wave is a mode of the sea or a movement is a mode of the dance. The cosmos, in contrast to God, exists contingently but not necessarily—it might not have existed at all; God’s existence is unconditional insofar as it does not depend upon any external conditions, whereas the cosmos is conditional.  Theists hold that God is, rather, a substantial reality: a being not explainable in terms that are more fundamental than itself. God is without parts, i.e. not an aggregate or compilation of things. Theists describe God as holy or sacred, a reality that is of unsurpassable greatness. God is therefore also thought of as perfectly good, beautiful, all-powerful (omnipotent), present everywhere (omnipresent), and all-knowing (omniscient). God is without origin and without end, and everlasting or eternal. Because of all this, God is worthy of worship and morally sovereign (worthy of obedience). Finally, God is manifested in human history; God’s nature and will is displayed in the tradition’s sacred scriptures. Arguably, the most central attribute of God in the Abrahamic traditions is goodness. The idea that God is not good or the fundamental source of goodness would be akin to the idea of a square circle: an utter contradiction.

Theists in these traditions differ on some of the divine attributes.  Some, for example, claim that God knows all future events with certainty, whereas others argue that no being (including God) can have such knowledge. Some theists believe that God transcends both space and time altogether, while other theists hold that God pervades the spatial world and is temporal (there is before, during, and after for God).

BAHÁ’Í FAITH.  From the Arabic Bahá’, meaning “glory” or “splendor.” A monotheistic religion that teaches the unity of all religions and has a strong humanitarian focus.  Bahá’ís believe that God’s will has been progressively revealed through a variety of messengers (including Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster, and so on), the most recent of whom is Bahá’u’lláh. The Bahá’í faith emerged out of Shi’a Islam.  In 1844, Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad of Shiraz, Iran, claimed to be “the Báb” (Arabic for “the Gate”) and announced the coming of a Messianic figure.  His followers were persecuted by the Islamic clergy, and the Báb himself was executed in 1850.  In 1863, one of the Báb’s followers, Mírzá Husayn `Alí Núrí, declared himself to be the messenger foretold by the Báb and took the title Bahá’u’lláh.  He was banished to `Akká, an Ottoman penal colony in what is now Israel, where he remained until his death in 1892.  Bahá’u’lláh’s son, `Abbás Effendi (known as `Abdu’l-Bahá or “Servant of Bahá”), became the next leader of the Bahá’í community, followed by his grandson, Shoghi Effendi.  The Bahá’í faith is now a world religion, with over five million adherents in 247 countries and territories.  Bahá’ís are the largest religious minority in Iran and often face persecution from the Islamic majority.

BUDDHISM.  Buddhism emerged from Hinduism, tracing its origin to Gautama Sakyamuni, who lived in northern India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE and came to be known as the Buddha (“Enlightened One”). His teaching centers on the Four Noble Truths. These are that: (1) life is full of suffering, pain, and misery (dukka); (2) the origin of suffering is in desire (tanha); (3) the extinction of suffering can be brought about by the extinction of desire; and (4) the way to extinguish desire is by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path consists of right understanding; right aspirations or attitudes; right speech; right conduct; right livelihood; right effort; mindfulness; and contemplation or composure. Early Buddhist teaching tended to be nontheistic, underscoring instead the absence of the self (anatta) and the impermanence of life. In its earliest forms, Buddhism did not have a developed metaphysics (that is, a theory of the structure of reality, the nature of space, time, and so on), but it did include belief in reincarnation, skepticism about the substantial nature of persons existing over time, and either a denial of the existence of Brahman or the treatment of Brahman as inconsequential. This is its clearest departure from Hinduism. The goal of the religious life is nirvana, a transformation of human consciousness that involves the shedding of the illusion of selfhood. Schools of Buddhism include Theravada Buddhism, the oldest and strictest in terms of promoting the importance of monastic life; Mahayana Buddhism, which emerged later and displays less resistance to Hindu themes and does not place as stringent an emphasis on monastic vocation; Pure Land Buddhism; and Zen Buddhism.

DAOISM.  A Chinese philosophy articulated by Laozi in the Daodejing and by Zhuang Zhou in the Zhuangzi that seeks harmony by means of passivity and humility.  Dao means “road” or “way” and refers to the processes of life which flow in a back and forth, correlative pattern between yin and yang.  It is used as both a noun and a verb.  Although the dao is ultimately inaccessible to human minds, the “true person” (zhen ren) may seek unity with the daothrough effortless action (wu wei), accepting the flow of reality between yin and yang.  One ought not to draw moral (good vs. bad) or aesthetic (beautiful vs. ugly) distinctions, for these human forms of ordering the world interrupt the dao.

HINDUISM. Hinduism is so diverse that it is difficult to use the term as an umbrella category even to designate a host of interconnected ideas and traditions. “Hindu” is Persian for the name of a river that Greeks referred to as the Indos and the British as the Indus. The name “Indian” is similarly derived. Hinduism names the various traditions that have flourished in the Indian subcontinent,going back to before the second millennium BCE. The most common feature of what is considered Hinduism is reverence for the Vedic scriptures, a rich collection of oral material, some of it highly philosophical, especially the Upanishads. Unlike the three monotheistic religions, Hinduism does not look back to a singular historical figure such as Abraham.

According to one strand of Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta (a strand that has received a great deal of attention from Western philosophers from the 19th century on), this world of space and time is non-different in its essential nature from  Brahman, the infinite.  The world appears to us to consist of discreet diverse objects because we are ignorant, but behind the diverse objects and forms we observe in what may be called the phenomenal or apparent world (the world of phenomena and appearances) there is the formless, reality of BrahmanAdvaita Vedanta rejects ontological duality (Advaita comes from the Sanskrit term for “non-duality”), arguing that Brahman alone is ultimately real. Advaita does not deny the existence of  a diverse world of space and time, but understands the many to be an appearance of the one Brahman. Shankara (788–820) was one of the greatest teachers of this nondualist tradition within Hinduism.

Other, theistic strands of Hinduism construe the Divine as personal, all-good, powerful, knowing, creative, loving, and so on. Theistic elements may be seen, for example, in the Bhagavad Gita and its teaching about the love of God.  Ramanuja (11th century) and Madhva (13th and 14th centuries) are better known theistic representatives of Hinduism.

There are also lively polytheistic elements within Hinduism. Popular Hindu practice includes a rich polytheism, and for this reason it has been called the religion of 330 million gods (devas). There is a strong orientation in the Hindu tradition to understanding the  multiple deities as different name and form expressions of the infinite Brahman.  This makes it difficult to characterize Hinduism as polytheistic in the generally understood sense of the term.

Whether theirs is the non-dual or the theistic form, many Hindus believe that a trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva is the cardinal, supreme manifestation of Brahman. Brahma is the creator of the world, Vishnu is the sustainer (variously manifested in the world, e.g. as Krishna and Rama, incarnations or avatars who instruct and enlighten), and Shiva is the lord of time and change.

Most Hindus believe in reincarnation. The soul migrates through different lives, according to principles of karma (Sanskrit for “deed” or “action”), the moral consequence of one’s actions. Karma is often associated with (and believed to be a chief justification for) a strict social caste system. Not all Hindus support such a system, and some Hindu reformers in the modern era argue for its abolition. The final consummation or enlightenment is moksha (or release) from ignorance and samsara, the material cycle of death and rebirth. In non-dual forms of Hinduism, liberation is achieved by overcoming the false dualism of Brahman and the individual self or soul (atman) and by discovering their essential identity.

Hinduism has a legacy of inclusive spirituality. It accepts the validity and value of other religions. The one God may be worshiped under a variety of names and forms. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna declares: “If any worshiper do reverence with faith to any God whatever, I make his faith firm, and in that faith he reverences his god, and gains his desires, for it is I who bestow them” (vii. 21–2). Hinduism has also absorbed and, to some extent, integrated some of the teaching and narratives of Buddhism. Although Hinduism and Islam have sometimes been in painful conflict, there are cases of tolerance and collaboration.

ISLAM.  The second largest world religion, with over 1.5 billion followers.  Islam asserts shared roots with Judaism and Christianity, acknowledging a common, Abrahamic past. The Qur’an (from Qu’ra for “to recite” or “to read”), was, according to tradition, received by the Prophet Muhammad from the Angel Gabriel as the literal speech and revelation of God (in Arabic, “Allah“).  In addition to the Qur’an, Islamic teaching was forged by the sayings (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad (570–632).  Islam proclaims a radical monotheism that explicitly repudiated both the polytheism of pagan Arabia and the Christian understanding of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Central to Islam is God’s unity, transcendence and sovereignty, his providential control of the cosmos, the importance for humans to live justly and compassionately, and to follow set ritual practices of worship.

“Islam” in Arabic means submission, and a follower of Islam is therefore called a Muslim, “one who submits” to God. The Five Pillars of Islam are witnessing that ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger,’ praying five times a day while facing Mecca, alms-giving, fasting during Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim calendar), and making a pilgrimage to Mecca. The two largest branches of Islam are known as Sunni and Shi’a; their differences began to develop early in the history of Islam over a disagreement about who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad in the leadership of the community. Sunnis comprise a vast majority of Muslims. Shi’ites put greater stress on the continuing revelation of God beyond the Qur’an as revealed in the authoritative teachings of the imam (holy successors who inherit Muhammad’s “spiritual abilities”), the mujtahidun (“doctors of the law”), and other agents. Like Christianity, Islam has proclaimed that a loving, merciful, and just God will not annihilate an individual at death, but provide either heaven or hell.

JAINISM. Also known as Jain Dharma, Jainism is a religion that originated in India toward the end of the Vedic period.  Jains believe in a timeless history of endless cosmic cycles.  These cycles are divided into two halves: a progressive half and a regressive half.  In the third and fourth phases of each half of the cosmic cycle, there are twenty-four Jinas (conquerors) or Tirthankaras (ford-makers).  The twenty-fourth Jina of the current cycle was Vardhamana (“increasing”), known as Mahavira (“great hero”), a historical figure who lived near Patna in the state of Bihar and was a contemporary of Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism.  Historians date Mahavira as living from 497 to 425 BCE, but Jain tradition puts him a century earlier, 599 to 527 BCE.  Jinas or tirthankaras such as Mahavira are religious teachers who have conquered samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth) and can provide a crossing or ford (hence, “ford-maker”) for Jains to follow them from samsara to liberation.

Jainism, like Buddhism, emerged as a shramana or ascetic tradition in response to the ritualism of Vedic religion and the hegemonic role of the priestly Brahmin caste.  Jainism teaches that all living beings, including plants and animals, have an eternal soul (jiva).  They therefore strictly adhere to the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, and undertake many ascetic practices.  Jains are strict vegetarians and also avoid root vegetables. The aim of life to shed one’s karma through these ascetic practices and achieve liberation (moksha) from samsara.

By the fifth century CE, Jainism had split into two main sects: Digambara (“sky-clad”) and Shvetambara (“white-clad”).  Digambara Jainism was stricter, teaching that people should not anything, including clothing, and that only men could attain moksha.  Shvetambara Jainism was more moderate, allowing people to wear white robes and own a few basic possessions: an alms bowl, a broom (to sweep the ground in front of oneself in order to avoid stepping on any living creatures), and a mukhavastrika (a piece of cloth to hold over one’s mouth to prevent one from accidentally inhaling, and thereby killing, small insects).  Today there are approximately 5 million Jains and many different branches of Jainism, but most of them are associated with one of these two main sects.

Jains are expected to live out five basic vows: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (celibacy), and aparigrapha (non-possession).  The way in which these principles are lived out varies depending upon whether one is a householder or a renunciant.  Jains identify fourteen stages (gunasthanas) of the path to liberation (moksha marg).  The ascetic vows (mahavratas) are taken at the sixth stage.  Only ascetics can attain liberation.  Because the world is timeless, Jains do not believe in a creator God.  However, they consider the liberated soul (arhat or kevalin) to be divine, and they worship the Jinas.

JUDAISM.  In Judaism, God’s principal manifestation was in leading the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land (Canaan) as recounted in the book of Exodus. This “saving event” is commemorated perennially in the yearly observation of Passover. The tradition places enormous value on community life, a life displayed in the Hebrew bible as a covenant between God and the people of Israel. The more traditional representatives of Judaism, especially the Orthodox, adopt a strict reading of what they take to be the historic meaning of the Hebrew scripture as secured in the early stages of its formation. Other groups, like the Conservative and Reformed, treat scripture as authoritative but do not depend on a specific, historically-defined interpretation of that scripture. Although there is presently some lively disagreement about the extent to which Judaism affirms anafterlife of individuals, historically Judaism has included an affirmation of an afterlife.

MANICHAEAISM (a.k.a. Manichaenism). An ancient gnostic religion founded by Mani (c. 210-276 CE) in Babylon, which was then part of the Persian Empire. Manichaeism was a dualistic religion, positing the existence of two great cosmic forces, one good and one evil. These forces play out their cosmic battle in human beings, pitting the soul (composed of light) against the body (composed of dark earth). In order to overcome the evil, material world, one must seek the good, spiritual world. Like other gnostic religions, salvation comes through knowledge, while ignorance results in sin. Manichaeism thrived between the third and seventh centuries CE, spreading throughout the Roman Empire and as far east as China. Although early Christians were highly critical of Manichaeism and deemed it a heresy, it often influenced their worldview. In The Confessions, Augustine recounts how he entertained Manichaeism in his youth, but later rejected it. In 382 CE, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I (who later made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire) issued a decree of death for Manichaens. Manichaens were also persecuted by Buddhists and Zoroastrians. Muslims, however, were tolerant of Manichaeism.

NATIVE AMERICAN TRADITIONS. Native American beliefs stem from their culture and nature.  They believe in a Creator or Great Spirit and many smaller spirits.  Most of the Native American groups have many common beliefs, but their rites and ceremonies differ; the Lakota, for instance, have rites such as the Ghost Keeping, the Vision Quest, and the Sun Dance while the Sioux have Keeping of the Soul, Making of Relatives, and Throwing of the Ball. Native American spirituality includes many sacred narratives that are based in natural elements: earth, weather, seasons, and so on, and supernatural meaning is given to natural objects (trees, sun, moon).  The Inuits (Eskimos) believe that souls exist in every living being.  Post-Columbian missionaries attempted to “civilize” the Indians by introducing schools, European customs, and Christianity.  During this time, people from both sides expressed politeness and hostility; most of the Native Americans were willing to converse but not to give up their beliefs while others would attack the British.  This rejection of Christianity was not solely based on religion, rather many Native Americans rejected what came along with Christianity: schooling, separation of clan and family, tax, and so on.  Some were willing, however, to talk about and learn about the Christian God.  The Indians who were not opposed to learning about Christianity were drawn to the missionaries that adopted their culture (eating the native food, walking around barefoot, not dressing up, and acting kindly) as opposed to the missionaries that came in lavish clothes and imposed threats.  Along with Christianity, Native Americans also were exposed to diseases such as smallpox and measles; with no vaccinations or previous dealings with the diseases, the diseases spread like wildfire through the different tribes in North, Central, and South America, killing millions.  The Native Americans who were able to survive the wave of pandemics that swept through their villages then had to survive the famine, moves, and conflict that came with the Europeans.

NEO-CONFUCIANISM.  Neo-Confucianism is a broad term, with no precise Chinese analogue, referring to the revival of Confucianism beginning in the Song dynasty (960-1276), hoping to recapture the original vision of an ideal Confucian society and a return to study of the Confucian classics.  The Confucian canon was studied with new questions in mind, in response to Buddhist intellectual domination during the Tang period (618-906).  Neo-Confucian philosophers formulated a response to some Buddhist concerns and methods and created a new Confucian metaphysics meant to compete with Buddhism.  At the same time it drew from Buddhist ideas.  Zen ideas of enlightenment through meditation had a strong influence, as did Huayang cosmology.  Neo-Confucianism was nevertheless always this-worldly and practical.  It rejected Buddhism’s search for nirvana, salvation, and afterlife in Buddhism, as well as religious Daoism’s quest for immortality.  The Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, were among the founders of Song Neo-Confucianism, but Zhu Xi was its greatest synthesizer.  Zhu Xi’s writings became the basis of Confucian orthodoxy, enforced through the civil service examination system until the examinations were abolished in 1905.

OPEN THEISM. Open theism is a developing theological movement that is gaining credence in certain sectors of Protestantism.  The view has attracted widespread attention since the publication of The Openness of God (Clark Pinnock et al.) in 1994, but essentially similar views were held by a number of earlier theologians and philosophers.  Like more traditional versions of Christian theism, open theism affirms that God is the personal creator ex nihilo of all that exists other than God, and that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.  (The affirmation of creation ex nihilo and of divine omnipotence clearly distinguish the view from process theism, with which it is sometimes confused.)

Open theism distinguishes itself from much of the tradition by affirming that God is temporally everlasting rather than timeless, and it emphasizes the continuing dynamic interaction between God and created persons that is so prominent in the Bible.  It holds that humans are free in the libertarian sense and that much of the future is genuinely contingent and undetermined, from which it is held to follow that even a perfect Knower cannot have complete and detailed knowledge of that which is at present indeterminate.  This last point is clearly in disagreement with the main theological tradition, and has led to many and sometimes vituperative attacks on the view, especially by those of Calvinistic persuasion.  Open theists claim, however, that their view is more consonant with a piety that emphasizes a personal relationship with God than are views that see God as all-determining and humans merely as the executors of God foreordained plan for the world.

ROMAN CATHOLICISM. Roman Catholicism is the style of Christianity found in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).  While this has much in common with other styles of Christianity (such as Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy), it also has distinctive features, many of which pertain to the relationship between material and spiritual things – or more precisely, between created and divine realities.  Thus in Roman Catholicism, the human will must cooperate with divine grace in salvation, rather than simply being acted upon.  Furthermore, grace is primarily bestowed not directly upon the human soul but mediated through the material means of the sacraments; similarly, grace is found directly incorporated into exemplary Christians (saints) whose examples and even bodies are venerated after death.  Moreover, the Christian Church per se exists not as a disembodied or abstract entity but is found embodied in the RCC, where the bishops and the pope are heirs of the teaching of Christ (taking up the role of the apostles) and are mediators of the sacramental grace (since they, assisted by the priests, celebrate the Eucharist).  This relation of created and divine things is often justified by reference to the union of the divine and human in the Incarnation, and is taken to imply a positive view of God’s presence in the material world.  All of these factors foster among Roman Catholics a sense of reliance upon the RCC and upon Christian tradition that is not often found in Protestantism.

Furthermore, Roman Catholicism as a style of Christianity is tied to history of the RCC, which (though present throughout the world) has developed primarily in Western Europe.  Many of the differences between the RCC and Eastern Orthodoxy can be attributed to this history.  Thus, Latin rather than Greek has traditionally been associated with Roman Catholicism (though the RCC claims both heritages); Italian politics and art have shaped the papacy; and the circumstances of Western social history have influenced the structures, values, and expectations of the RCC.  For example, the long reliance upon monasteries for priestly and episcopal training may have contributed to the RCC’s insistence upon priestly celibacy; and the isolation of the papacy from the other four prominent archbishops of ancient Christianity (all in the Eastern Mediterranean) may have advanced the papacy’s singular authority in the RCC.

The doctrines of Roman Catholicism are elaborated primarily on the basis of two outstanding Latin theologians and saints: Augustine, a fourth/fifth-century North African bishop; and Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Italian friar.  However, neither theologian is followed completely, and many others have a significant voice.  An extensive presentation of the teachings of the RCC can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

SHINTOISMShintoism or Shinto, from the Sino-Japanese shin (gods) and  (way or dao) refers to the indigenous religion that existed in Japan before the introduction of Buddhism and has coexisted with Buddhism to the present. It originated in prehistoric animism and polytheism and encompassed the worship of spirits representing different phenomena of nature and ancestors of clans. Eventually local religious cults were integrated with mythology.  The Sun Goddess Amaterasu, as the putative ancestor of the imperial family, emerged as the most important deity for the purposes of political legitimization.  Yet Shinto is primarily concerned with nature.  All great works of nature – waterfalls, huge trees, unusual rocks, and so on – are kami or sacred beings.  Kami does not mean “god” or divinity on the Western sense, but suggests awesomeness and special powers.  Emperors themselves came to be regarded as kami, but the distinction between humans and divinities was not clearly drawn.  Shinto lacks any clear moral code – that came later with Buddhism.  The stress in Shinto is not so much ethics or morality as much as ritual purity, which is caused by physical dirtiness, disease, menstruation, childbirth, wounds, and contact with death.  Such defilement must be overcome by exorcism and cleansing ceremonies.

SIKHISM. A monotheistic religion that emerged in the Punjab region of India in the 1600s, based on the teachings of Guru Nanak (1469-1538) and the nine Gurus who followed him.  Following the execution of the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, by the Mughals in Delhi, the Sikh community or Panth became further solidified and militarized by the tenth Guru, Gobind Rai (a.k.a. Gobind Singh, meaning “lion”). In 1699, Gobind Singh established the Khalsa, a community of initiated (amritdhari) Sikhs who would defend the Guru and the Sikh Panth.  Members of the Khalsa keep the five K’s: kesh (uncut hair), kangha (a steel comb in one’s hair), kach (knee-length pants), kara (a steel bracelet on one’s right wrist), and kirpan (a sword or dagger at one’s side).  After the death of Gobind Singh in 1708, Adi Guru (literally, the “original” or “first” Guru),  the Guru Granth Sahib, a collection prayers and hymns, was established as the eleventh and final Guru.  Today, the Guru Granth Sahib remains the sacred scripture of the Sikhs and plays a key role in their worship practices.

Sikhism drew upon the teachings of the two main religions in the Punjab region, Hinduism and Islam, but understands itself to be a separate and distinct religion.  The central teaching of Sikhism is the oneness of God: theMul Mantra, from Guru Nanak’s first composition, begins with “Ek Onkar” – “There is one God.”  This God, who has many names but is most commonly referred to as Waheguru (a.k.a. Vahiguru, meaning “Wonderful Lord” in the Gurmukhi language), is the formless and genderless creator of the universe who is the eternal truth (ad sach).

Sikhs believe in reincarnation and seek to overcome the painful cycle of death and rebirth (chaurasi) by following the teachings of the Sikh Gurus.  Ultimately, it is only God’s grace which may allow one to attain mukti(liberation), but one should strive to become more Guru-oriented (gursikh) and less self-oriented (manmukh).  The name Sikh itself means “disciple” or “learner.”  Sikhs stress the importance of nam (the Name), dan (giving), andisnan (keeping clean).  They believe in the equality of all people and reject the hierarchy intrinsic to the caste system, offering langar, a free meal, to all who come to their houses of worship, which are known as gurudwaras(literally, “Gate of the Guru”).  Sikhs view religious diversity as a gift from God, understanding different forms of worship and religious traditions as contextual articulations of the one universal truth.  In the Dasam Granth, Guru Gobind Singh wrote, “Recognize all human kind, whether Muslim or Hindu as one.  The same God is the Creator and Nourisher of all.  Recognize no distinction among them.  The temple and the mosque are the same.  So are Hindu worship and Muslim prayer.  Human beings are all one.” Today, there are about 20 million Sikhs in the world, most of whom live in the Pubjab region of India.

SPIRITUAL/ SPIRITUALITY. That which has to do with matters of the spirit, often conceived of in opposition to the physical or material world.  Spirituality emphasizes the connection between one’s own inner spirit and the divine. Spiritual practices include prayer, meditation, and so on.  Traditionally, the spiritual was contrasted with the secular, but today it is often contrasted with religion: e.g., “I’m spiritual but not religious.”  This use of the term highlights the personal, non-dogmatic nature of spirituality.  Many religious practitioners, however, cultivate a deep spirituality within a particular religious tradition.

WICCA.  An earth-based religion, Wicca involves working with the powers and spirits of the world to produce white magick.  They worship both a Lord and a Lady (the God and the Goddess) and many lesser deities, including Diana, Brigid, Apollo, and many more who represent different aspects of the Lord and Lady.  The Wiccan creed, ending “And it harm none, do as you will,” provides a basis for the practice of magick; this is also referred to as karma. Wicca has no official doctrines that all must follow, but all practitioners subscribe to some variation of the Wiccan creed:

Bide The Wiccan Law Ye Must

In Perfect Love, In Perfect Trust

Eight Words The Wiccan Rede Fulfill:

An Ye Harm None, Do As Ye Will.

And Ever Mind The Rule Of Three:

What Ye Send Out, Comes Back To Thee.

Follow This With Mind And Heart,

And Merry Ye Meet, And Merry Ye Part.

Wiccans have eight holidays, or Sabbats, that center around the changing of the seasons: Imbolc (February 2), Ostara (March 21, the Spring Equinox), Beltane (May 1), Mid-summer (June 22, the Summer Solstice), Lammas (August 1), Mabon (September 21, the Autumn Equinox), Samhain (October 31), and Yule (December 22, the Winter Solstice).

When a person wants to begin practicing Wicca, he or she is expected to study the tradition solitarily and after a few years, if desired, seek out an experienced witch to further the student’s knowledge.  Witches (referring to both men and women) can practice alone or in groups, called covens.  Within a coven, the most experienced witch, known as the high priestess, leads the worship services.  Because there is no doctrine or required beliefs or practices, each coven or witch practices differently.  A typical worship or spellcasting will begin with creating a sacred circle and inviting in deities from the four directions (North, South, East, and West) to be a part of the service. Then, prayers, thanks, or petitions are said to the Lord and Lady.  Sometimes there is anointing of oil (different oils have different meanings).  If it is a worship ritual, some kind of sweet cake and drink (such as juice or water) is consumed inside the circle in celebration of the deities.  If it is a spellcasting ritual, the spell is performed using herbs, candles, string, oils, fire, or anything else for which that the specific spell calls.  At the end, the deities are thanked for being present and the sacred circle is broken.

Spells that are cast are thought out carefully beforehand.  The witch considers whether the spell honors the Wiccan creed and whether it will harm anyone indirectly (if a spell is cast for rain, then somewhere else in the world will be deprived of the rain).  The day is carefully chosen: if the witch is casting a good luck spell, then it is important to cast it when the moon is waxing (growing bigger so the good luck grows).  The spell, then, requires different objects that have different meaning.  With the good luck spell, for example, the witch, in the sacred circle, would light a candle that represents him or her (perhaps a blue candle representing the depth of the self), saying “This is me.”  Then the witch would light a black candle (representing bad luck), saying “This bad luck is draining from me;” then light a grey candle (representing neutrality), saying “The bad luck is neutral;” and finally light an orange candle (representing energy), saying “This energy is coming to me to work through better luck.”  Once the candles have burned down, the circle is broken and the spell is complete.

Some witches keep an herb garden for their own personal growth or to use in rituals and so they plant the herbs that will help them.  For example, basil is used in love and prosperity spells, chamomile is used for relaxation, dill is used for protection, peppermint for purification, and so on.  Keeping an herb garden, for witches, requires tending to it and thanking the Mother Earth for the growth and health of the plants.  Of course, just like most things in Wicca, an herb garden is not required to be a witch.  The herbs, along with oils, candles, stones, and anything else needed for rituals can be found almost anywhere: plant stores, convenience stores, and, of course, Witchcraft stores.

Some witches find it easier to practice with some kind of animal, as they believe animals are powerful spirits.  The common animal is the cat, but other animals are kept as well.  These pets, along with small children and other animals are the only beings (besides the deities, of course) that can enter the sacred circle without destroying the ritual.  All animals that aid in rituals or spiritual advancement are known as familiars (but they can be cats, frogs, birds, dogs, and so on).  Even wild animals can be familiars; for example, if a witch is casting a spell or performing a ritual outside, any animal may wander up and come and go within the circle acting as a spirit aide. Contrary to popular belief, Wiccans do not perform any kind of animal sacrifice as they respect every lifeform and the sacrifice would go against their creed of “And it harm none, do as you will.”

ZEN BUDDHISM. A branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism that developed in China as Ch’an beginning in the seventh century CE.  It later spread to Vietnam (where it is known as Thiền Buddhism), Korea, and Japan.  Zen Buddhism stresses a form of sitting meditation known as zazen and other practices in order to cultivate experiential wisdom, believing that excessive focus on texts and theoretical knowledge can deter one from experientially realizing bodhi(enlightenment or awakening). Chinese and Vietnamese Zen are much gentler compared to the shocking Japanese Rinzai.  Within Japanese Zen, the two main schools are Soto and Rinzai.  Soto Zen is a calm version of Japanese Zen where practitioners spend most of their time in sitting meditation and wait to realize enlightenment.  In Soto Zen, the meditator does not focus on anything, so if a thought arises, they are to acknowledge it and let it fade away. Rinzai Zen, on the other hand, is the school that the West has adopted.  Rinzai has a strong focus on the koan (a statement or question-and-answer that does not make any logical sense, such as “What is the Buddha?  The rooster crows at daybreak.”) and the awakening stick (a flat wooden rod that is used on meditators as a reminder to stay focused or to encourage “sudden enlightenment”).  The Rinzai meditator focuses on breathing and the koan in hopes of attaining satori, or “sudden enlightenment.”  Zen, as a whole, is a very individualistic tradition, meaning that it is up to the individual to decide how to practice Zen and there are no set rules on how to practice; the individual or the school can pick and choose which, if any, Buddhist doctrines to accept.  Zen does, however, emphasize the importance of questioning everything, otherwise the follower is no better than a parrot who repeats words without knowing the significance.  Zen prides itself on being illogical, and the use of the koan and the awakening stick are examples of non-rational ways of reaching enlightenment.

ZOROASTRIANISM. The main religion in Persia (now Iran) prior to the advent of Islam, founded by Zarathustra (Greek, Zoroaster).  Most scholars believe Zarathustra was born around 570 BCE, although some date his birth as far back as the 15th century BCE.  His sayings are preserved in the G­āthās, which are part of the Avesta (“Book of the Law”).  Zoroastrianism teaches a mixture of monotheism and dualism.  Ahura Mazdah is the supreme deity, but he has an evil and slightly less powerful opponent, Aura Mainyu.  Zoroastrians interpret the world in terms of a cosmic battle between good and evil at present, but believe that Ahura Mazdah (good) will ultimately triumph over Aura Mainyu (evil).  Human beings have free will, and their actions determine their eternal destiny.  Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism, Mithraism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism.  After the fall of the Sassanid Empire in 651 CE, many Zoroastrians migrated to India.  Today, the majority of Zoroastrians live in India, where they are known as Parsis.  The small remnant of believers in Iran are known as Garbars.