What role has religion played in your life up until now? Some girls grow up against a backdrop of strong pious traditions, while others are born into families in which both parents belong to different denominations, or no denomination at all. Most of us tend to adhere to the religion of our parents, but some girls choose to venture on their own spiritual paths.
I do think it's important to have a defined set of religious beliefs — even if that means not believing in God. You may choose to belong to an organized, structured religion, such as Christianity or Judaism, in which you go to regular religious services and adhere to a certain set of moral expectations. This type of spiritual community can be a wonderful source of comfort and joy, as well as a place to turn for advice and insight.
On the other hand, you may choose to form your own set of sacred beliefs, separate from the rules of a church or synagogue. This approach has its benefits, too; you can draw from various religious and spiritual teachings to help you find a unique method of worship.
If you ever decide to buy a car, you'll probably shop around, compare prices, take a few test drives, and think long and hard before making a purchase. You won't just immediately buy the first car they show you, right? And you won't just buy the same car your parents drive without thinking twice, right? Well, the same should be true of your religious beliefs, considering that spirituality is more essential than a car could ever hope to be. In order to understand religion's value most effectively, it's best to examine it from all points of view. With each faith we explore, even the ones we do not accept as our own, we become better acquainted with various ways of seeing the world, God, and ourselves. We learn to appreciate and respect other cultures and ways of life, regardless of whether we agree with them. This tolerance helps us embrace the wisdom of other traditions without relinquishing the integrity of our own beliefs.
To help us begin our exploration, the following is a brief description of some of the world's major religions and what we can learn from them. Many of the religions you're probably familiar with, while others might be new to you. You certainly aren't expected to agree with all of them, of course, but practice keeping an open mind. Look for the grains of truth within each culture and each belief system. Along with the basic descriptions of each religion is a glimpse of what's special or unique about it, followed by a pearl of wisdom to be found in it that we can carry on our soul-searching journeys.
The Basics: The most widely-practiced religion in the United States, Christianity is based around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago. Followers of Christianity read the Bible and accept Jesus as the Son of God, who died for the sins of the world. When it comes to the issue of death, the soul is believed to be immortal, and it passes on into the glorious Kingdom of Heaven.
What's Special: An interesting thing about the Christian faith is the diversity of ways in which it is practiced. There are many communities of Christianity, including Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Mormons, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, and Amish, to name just a few; each has its own unique ways of honoring God! For example, the Amish people seek to emulate the life of Jesus Christ as closely as possible, which entails dressing in simple, unadorned outfits and shunning the use of modern technology and even electricity. Roman Catholics follow the guidance of their spiritual leader in Rome, the Pope. Christian Scientists believe that our bodies can be healed by faith in God alone; they refuse to use common medicines that the average person might take for a cough or cold, turning to prayer instead. Mormons believe that God continues to give revelation to a modern prophet and each person can receive their own inspiration and guidance from God.
The New Testament of the Bible is full of brilliant parables in which Jesus reveals many truths about the world around us. One example, the parable of the mustard seed, offers quite relevant advice to soul searchers. In the story, Jesus reminds us how puny and weak the mustard seed appears at first glance. It is smaller than most of the other seeds on earth. However, when planted, it grows up and becomes greater than all the herbs around it. The mustard seed shoots up into a great tree, "so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches."
The mustard seed, said Jesus, can be compared to the Kingdom of Heaven. Our faith and spirituality may seem puny and weak at first, and would probably appear unimpressive to the casual passerby who didn't know much about nurturing or faith. However, as we come to better understand ourselves and trust in a higher power, we begin to expand in unexpected and amazing ways. Like the mustard tree, we eventually grow so much that our spirituality encompasses more than our own confined space — it reaches out to others much like the tree provides shelter for the birds. Whenever we get discouraged with our soul-searching progress, we can have faith in Jesus' reminder that all great trees were once tiny seeds.
The religion we now call Judaism began in Palestine over 4,000 years ago. The Jewish faith is one of very strong historical roots, stretching back to Abraham. In the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), the lineage and covenant of the Israelite people are followed through a series of prophets such as Isaac, Joseph, and Moses. Jews are monotheistic (believing in one all-powerful deity), and consider themselves God's chosen people who find protection and salvation in their faith.
What's Special: Judaism has given birth to many aspects of modern society. From its roots sprung two of the world's largest religions, Christianity and Islam. The Jewish faith also brought us the Ten Commandments, a very important set of moral guidelines that have led millions of people for centuries. According to the Torah, God delivered the Ten Commandments to the prophet Moses, who then brought them to the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. Inscribed upon two tablets were rules such as "Thou shall not take the Lord's name in vain... Thou shall not murder... Thou shall not steal…" These ten rules for life, which you've probably heard before, offer very clear expectations about how people are meant to conduct their lives.
Judaism puts great emphasis on taking time to ask questions and reflect. "Judaism perceives a certain stillness, an almost indescribable placidity and perfection that we can sometimes glimpse behind the turmoil of the world," says Rabbi David A. Wolpe. But first, he believes, we must be ready for it. "It's not something that we can see or hear, but it can be felt."
In order to prepare for such a task, people of the Jewish faith believe, in observing the Sabbath, a day of rest and spiritual observation. On this day, work and chores are replaced by relaxation, introspection, and enjoyment of life. Even if you're not Jewish, you can observe your own version of the Sabbath by taking time each weekend to listen to your favorite music, go for a walk with your family, reflect on your spiritual principles, and delight in being alive.
The Islamic faith teaches that the world has seen many important prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. But the last prophet was named Mohammed and he is believed to have received messages from God over 1,400 years ago. Islam now has more than one billion followers, known as Muslims, throughout the world. Muslims assert their faith in God, called Allah, by following His revelations as written in the Koran.
What's Special: Islam encourages its believers to help their fellow man and also to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) before they die. During the sacred month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, beginning in December and ending in January), they must fast from sunrise to sunset. Muslims also pledge to uphold ideals of honesty, charity, and devotion. These teachings, thoroughly outlined in the Koran, are reinforced in places of daily worship called mosques.
From a very early age, followers of Islam are taught to seek guidance and serenity through the act of prayer. Muslims traditionally pray five times a day, facing Mecca. It is a method of communicating with a Higher Power, of looking inward by reaching upward.
Many of us are well acquainted with superficial prayers of desire. (Oh, dear God, please don't let me flunk this math test!) But what about more rewarding types of prayer? As we grow older and seek independence, we often forget how soothing it is to rely on something or someone greater than ourselves. Using prayer, we can release our fears, express our gratitude, and share our joys. We are never alone. Muslims make an entire ritual of prayer, beginning with a ceremony of changing into clean dress, washing themselves, and laying out a prayer rug in the direction of Mecca. They use ritual movement during their prayers, to unite body and soul. The next time you feel discomfort or anguish stirring in your soul, create your own ritual to call upon Allah, Jesus, Brahman, Kindness, or whatever else you may believe in, asking for guidance.
More than 2,500 years ago, a prince was born in India by the name of Siddhartha Gautama. Determined to achieve liberation from suffering, Siddhartha left his life of luxury and began searching for wisdom. After a long and difficult quest, he finally reached Nirvana (enlightenment) while meditating beneath a tree. From that day forward, followers called him the Buddha, meaning "awakened one," and flocked from miles around to hear his teachings on principles such as compassion, inner peace, and liberation. The Buddha's writings have been translated into almost 5,000 pages of text and sixteen volumes. The first three volumes, called the Middle Length Sayings, contain the most essential of the Buddha's teachings.
What's Special: Unlike most religious founders, the Buddha himself made no claims to divine origin. He recognized that there have been many buddhas in the past and that there are many buddhas yet to come. In fact, every man and woman has the potential to become an "awakened one." Within each of us lies "Buddha Nature," an innate, underlying state of mind untouched by negative emotions or thoughts. Followers of Buddhism seek access to this Buddha Nature by following teachings such as the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Eightfold Path," which offer guidance on how to find liberation.
A very special part of the Buddhist tradition is the practice of living in the moment. To be mindful means to be acutely aware of every movement, every sensation, and every thought we have throughout the day. It involves living in the present tense, instead of in the past or future. The Buddha once said that life comes down to one thing — staying awake. He wasn't warning us from dozing off in class or telling us not to enjoy our slumber at night; the Buddha was teaching us the beauty of the here and now.
"The next time you have a tangerine to eat, please put it in the palm of your hand and look at it in a way that makes the tangerine real," instructs renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. How can we make it real? A Buddhist might begin with the decision to eat consciously, instead of approaching her food absentmindedly like most of us tend to do. Then, after taking a seat at the kitchen table and placing the tangerine before her in a moment of examination, she would slowly begin to eat. As she did so, she would relish each detail of the tangerine on her tongue and thus experience the true pleasure of living in the moment. "Peeling the tangerine, smelling it, and tasting it, you can be very happy," reminds Thich Nhat Hanh. The next time you sit down to eat, make it a practice in mindfulness, and really try to experience your food. You'll be amazed to find that a simple tangerine can become a tool for spiritual enlightenment!
Since its origination some 3,000 years ago in India, Hinduism has acquired over 700 million followers. Unlike most other popular religions of our time, Hinduism has no founder or fixed creed. Although Hindus believe in a central Creator, called Brahman, there exist many other Hindu gods such as Vishnu, the god of space and time, and Durga, the goddess of motherhood. Each god has a unique personality and symbolic purpose, as described in the sacred Hindu scriptures called the Vedas.
What's Special: People of the Hindu faith believe in the concept of reincarnation, which states that we have each lived many lives and are reborn again upon our death. We each consist of two parts: body and soul. The body is like an outward robe we cast away when we've outworn it, but our souls endure forever in a chain of rebirths. "The body is ruled by passion and desires and meaningless ambitions," explains religious expert Joseph Gaer. "But the soul is ruled by serenity and the tranquil search for truth." When this truth is finally realized, Hindus believe that we escape the tedious cycle of reincarnation and enter Nirvana (similar to the Buddhist belief).
Like many other religious traditions, Hinduism teaches its followers about the power of reconciliation. "If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive," reads the sacred Hindu poem The Bhagavad Gita. "If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred."
Surely, we all know how challenging it is to love our enemies, but releasing past negativity helps us move forward on our soul-searching path. The Hindu approach to life makes this process easier by teaching its followers about the holiness inherent in each human being. When two Hindus greet each other, they bow slightly with their hands folded against their breastbones. This salutation is a gesture honoring the divinity inside each person, the glorious spirit we all possess within. When someone hurts our feelings or wrongs us in some way, we must take a moment to remember her inner splendor and honor it. With this, it becomes easier to release our bitterness and feel at peace within our own skin.
From the very beginnings of their culture, many Japanese people have worshiped the mysterious forces of nature in a religion called Shinto. Living in a country ruled by devastating typhoons, erupting volcanoes, and terrifying tsunamis, it's no surprise that the Japanese felt a humbling reverence toward the forces of nature. They named these forces "kami," and sought to honor them through prayer, sacrifice, and ritual.
What's Special: Shintoism is rarely practiced outside the borders of Japan, and its modern-day practitioners are often Buddhists or Christians simultaneously, since Shinto does not demand exclusivity. A profound love of nature, as seen in each blade of grass or sunrise, is required of its followers. To show their adoration, Shintoists have many temples in which they pray and bring offerings like food, origami art, or spears. With these rituals, they seek to make the heart of kami and their own hearts one undivided entity.
Living in present-day America amidst skyscrapers and concrete sidewalks, it's easy to fall out of touch with the harmony of the natural world. By intimate contact with our environment, Japanese commentator Inazo Nitobe says that we can learn the "healing power in the flower and the grass, in the mountains and streams, in the rain and the clouds." Shintoism urges us to seek therapeutic healing in all that surrounds us.
Even those of us who live in crowded cities or suburbs can still relish the scent of a rosemary plant in our window, or the sight of a squirrel burying an acorn in the park. Many Shintoists rise early to admire the sunrise, and others find unique ways of worshiping kami by painting, singing, and writing poetry. "Why seek afar for the divine?" Mr. Nitobe asks us. "It is in the objects around you."
The Basics: The Hopi are a Pueblo Indian people who live in northern Arizona and are still strongly connected to their religion and history. Unlike most modern faiths, Hopi religious practice has more to do with honoring cultural traditions than following some sort of hierarchical church organization or method of worship. An important part of the religion is the Kachina — the spirit essence of everything in the natural world. This essence encapsulates everything from rain to animals, sunlight to ashes, and is honored in special Kachina dances and carefully carved tihu dolls.
What's Special: As children, we all heard fairy tales like "The Tortoise and the Hare" that were meant to entertain us while conveying important moral lessons. Well, the Hopi people invest tremendous powers in these types of oral legends, and they often use storytelling to communicate their spiritual and religious teachings. Instead of directly stating various tribal beliefs, the Hopi ancestors encoded a variety of messages within their fables, which have been passed down for many generations.
In the holy stories of the Southwest Hopis, there is a Divine Mother named Spider Woman. Why on Earth would the Hopis choose a spider to represent a sacred deity? Well, next time you get a chance, observe a spider in action and you'll surely understand. A spider can spend many hours weaving the most intricate and elegant home found on the planet. When her web is damaged or broken, she rebuilds each tiny strand with patience, bit by bit. She will not rest until her home is restored to its regal splendor, where she waits for dinner to find entrapment in the glistening threads.
The Hopis remind us that we have much to learn from the plants and animals around us. Did you ever imagine that within the home of a single spider we could find a metaphor for sacred life? As Edward Hays observes in his book Pray All Ways, "Like the spider, we must return again and again to rebuild our webs by bringing together the threads of our lives and uniting them to the divine center within." The next time the tasks before you seem endless or you're thinking, "I want it NOW!" remember the Holy Spider Woman and the great gift of patience.
The Basics: The Baha'i faith arose in 1844 out of Islamic tradition. It began when a prophet named Bab heralded the arrival of "One greater than Himself" who would bring great wisdom and unity to the Earth. Nineteen years later, a man named Baha'u'llah in Iran claimed to be this special person, and thus became leader of the Baha'i religion. Bahl followers believe that there is only one God, the source of all Creation, and that this God is everlasting and unknowable.
What's Special: The Baha'i religion is unique because of its strong emphasis on unity. "The earth is but one country" declares a popular Baha'i saying, "and mankind its citizens." Followers believe that although God is unknowable, He sends many prophets to communicate His will. Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, and Baha'u'llah are all examples of these messengers from God. Each of them carries a unique and important message that ought to be heard.
By believing that all religions spring from the same spiritual source and have value in some way or another, Baha'is offer us a lesson in open-mindedness. To them, the many world religions are simply different paths up the same mountain. Holding tolerance close to their hearts as an important trait, the Baha'is have fought for equality among all races and sexes.
Many people confuse the concept of religious tolerance with indifference or naiveté. To be tolerant, we must value the right of each person to hold beliefs different from our own, even when we think those beliefs are incorrect. When we reach the most profound levels of tolerance, we cease to be threatened by foreign ideas; instead, we seek to find truth and wisdom in each new viewpoint we encounter. By approaching the world with arms outstretched, our souls become infused with the power of many peoples and beliefs.
World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored and Explained, by John Bowker
A World of Faith, by Peggy Fletcher Stack and Kathleen B. Peterson
Finding Your Religion, by Rev. Scotty McLennan
The World's Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World's Religions, by Philip Novak
Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
For more information on world religions visit: www.religioustolerance.org
This article was excerpted from the book:
As a young girl, Sarah Stillman dreamed of being an author. She is living proof that finding your passions and following your inner wisdom is the true path to happiness.