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World Religions

30 November, 1999

From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: Philip Barnes provides a thorough introduction to the tenets and beliefs of all the major world religions. This series, edited by Eoin G. Cassidy and Patrick M. Devitt, is designed for teachers of the new Leaving Cert religious education syllabus.

240 pp, Veritas, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.


1. The phenomenon of religion
2. Judaism
3. Christianity
4. Islam
5. Hinduism
6. Buddhism
7. Inter-faith dialogue
8. New religious movements
9. Other living religions


This quite ambitious work in the Into the Classroom series provides a commentary on the World Religious component of the new Leaving Certificate syllabus, putting flesh, as the author expresses it, on the bare bones supplied by others. Barnes discusses the difficulties of defining and categorising religion. His chapters include outlines of religion as a human phenomenon, as well as of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Other religions, inter-faith dialogue and new religious movements receive separate treatment. Since the writer is a lecturer in Religious Studies in the University of Ulster, Coleraine, it is no surprise that he should examine the religious dimension in the Northern Ireland conflict. His book should be of interest to a wider readership than that of teachers and students of the religious education curriculum.

CHAPTER 1: The phenomenon of religion

Religion as a world-wide phenomenon
There is a rich variety of beliefs, activities and customs commonly designated as religious: apologising to God for one’s sinfulness, bowing before an image of the Buddha, scattering ashes on the River Ganges, beating one’s chest in memory of the violent death of Hussein, a member of the prophet Muhammad’s family, tea-ceremonies in Japan, consulting a shaman, and so on. The diversity of religion naturally raises the question of definition. To what does the word ‘religion’ apply? We speak of Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism as religions, but is there any belief or practice common to them? The Christian notion of a single, almighty, all-powerful God does not fit the cultural and religious reality of Hinduism particularly well, and in the case of Theravada Buddhism, does not fit at all: God and the gods are superfluous to the pursuit of salvation. What about a more nebulous concept of deity, say the existence of a spiritual being (or spiritual beings): does this provide a minimum content by which religious activities and beliefs can be distinguished from non-religious activities and beliefs? Certainly most religions affirm the existence of a spiritual being, but do all? Again Theravada Buddhism has been quoted as an exception by a number of authorities. Such difficulties have suggested to some scholars that the problem of definition is intractable and that the cause of understanding religion would be better served by simply getting on with the task of describing and explaining religious phenomena. Such a position has been pursued by the eminent, British philosopher and phenomenologist of religion, Ninian Smart (who died in 2001). Rather than attempt to construct a definition of religion, which, he believes, experience shows will be inadequate in some respect, he advocates that we look at the different religions (following common usage) and analyse their nature. In his view, a religion reveals itself to be composed of a number of different dimensions. These are:

• the practical and ritual dimension
• the experiential and emotional dimension
• the narrative or mythic dimension
• the doctrinal and philosophical dimension
• the ethical and legal dimension
• the social and institutional dimension
• the material dimension (by which is meant buildings, works of art, and sacred places)

Although Smart contended that these dimensions are present in all the different religions he acknowledged that different religions place varying emphasis on them. For example, Buddhism stresses the experiential dimension of religion, and attaches much less importance to the narrative or mythic dimension; Protestant Christianity emphasises the doctrinal and philosophical dimension, and so on. It would be an interesting exercise to apply Smart’s dimensional analysis of religion to the different religions and religious movements that we will be considering in subsequent chapters.

Types of religion
There are different ways of categorising religion. One popular categorisation is to distinguish between prophetic and mystical religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism belong to the former category, whereas Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism belong to the latter category. Prophets are spokespersons (historically, typically spokesmen) for God. They receive a message from God, which they then pass on to others. Focus falls on the revealed ‘word of God’. Given the divine origin of the message it is invariably remembered and transmitted in written form, hence the production of Sacred Scriptures such as the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and the Qur’an. The proper response to the message of God is obedience. Mystics, by contrast, experience union with the divine. The religious focus falls on the need for adherents to ‘authenticate’ the experience for themselves in their own lives. Even though mystics produce religious texts and writings it is made clear by them that the texts are useful only to the extent that they serve to direct others to seek immediate experience for themselves. Prophets typically accentuate the transcendence and otherness of God. God is ‘high and lifted up’; his mystery is only penetrated when he chooses to reveal himself. Prophetic religions speak of the ‘grace of God’: God is experienced only when he chooses to reveal himself. Mystical religion tends to accentuate the closeness of God. In some traditions, Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, for example, there is the notion that God and the disciple become one: the individual participates and lives in God. Meditation replaces worship and salvation is achieved by commitment to the mystical path and by self-effort. Is this characterisation of two types of religion convincing? It does carry force, but only up to a point. There are difficulties, in that there are prophetic elements within Hinduism that exalt the transcendence of God and there are mystical elements within the theistic, prophetic religions that exalt the closeness of God. Christianity is a good example, with some writers tracing the Christian mystical tradition back to the New Testament. Christians are implored by John the Apostle to ‘abide in Christ’ and St Paul speaks of the Spirit of God indwelling believers. In response to such observations, Ninian Smart has maintained that rather than divide religions into prophetic and mystical categories we should instead view each religion as a combination of both prophetic and mystical elements. In Islam, the prophetic element predominates over the mystical, though it does not exclude it altogether. In Hinduism, by contrast, the mystical element predominates. In Christianity, according to Smart, the balance between prophetic and mystical is about equal: one element does not predominate over the other.

The categorising of religions into prophetic and mystical categories is only one of a number of different ways of distinguishing religions. One straightforward way to categorise the different religions is to trace their ancestry. On this understanding Islam and Judaism trace their roots back to Judaism. Christianity emerged historically out of Judaism, and Islam emerged historically out of Christianity and Judaism. Similarly Buddhism emerged out of the Buddha’s rejection of certain elements of Hinduism, like the notion of caste, though he did affirm other elements, rebirth for example. Another way of categorising religions is in terms of their concept of deity. We can distinguish between polytheistic, pantheistic and monotheistic religious traditions. In polytheistic religions, such as Primal Religion (on one interpretation), popular Hinduism and Shamanism, the existence of many gods is affirmed. Pantheistic traditions, such as Mahayana Buddhism and certain schools of Hinduism, identify the divine as present in all things. Monotheistic religion, as illustrated by Christianity, Islam and Judaism, maintain that there is only one true God, the infinite and personal Creator, whose perfect character is love, holiness, righteousness, justice, mercy, kindness and compassion. This one God rules over all. A variation on this theme is to trace the evolutionary history of religion (or at least what is supposed to be the evolutionary history of religion) from animism to polytheism to pantheism and then to monotheism. We will look at this theory more closely when we consider Primal Religion later in this chapter.

Global distribution of religion
In most countries of the world, a majority of people (over 50 per cent) are adherents of the same religion. In most nations where Christians make up the majority, the majority of the population are adherents of a single religious body (such as the Greek Orthodox Church in Greece, the Catholic Church in Poland, or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Norway). Either Christianity or Islam is the predominant religion in most places. Even though a larger number of nations are predominantly Christian, it is sometimes claimed that the influence of Christianity is not as great as that of Islam on its adherents. In other words, Muslims are more likely to be religiously committed than Christians.

Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with perhaps as many as two billion adherents; it can claim to have a significant number of followers on every continent. Eastern and Western Europe, the countries of North and South America are all predominantly Christian – at least in a formal sense. Much of Africa, particularly Central and Southern Africa is Christian, as are Australia and New Zealand.

We have already spoken of religious commitment and introduced the notion of formal membership of a religion. Religious commitment typically denotes participation in religious activities, whereas formal membership may simply mean that an individual chooses to describe himself or herself as belonging to a religion or is regarded by some religion as an adherent, perhaps on the basis of having undergone a rite of passage as an infant or child. The important point to note is that formal membership need not denote any real religious commitment in terms of practice or public expression of religion. Formal membership without any real commitment is often referred to as nominal membership. The statistics to which we refer provide information on the formal membership of religions only; they provide little insight into the nature and commitment of those identified as formally religious.

Islam has about one billion three hundred thousand adherents. Ninety per cent of Muslims belong to Sunni Islam and 10 per cent belong to Shi’a Islam (this distinction is explained in Chapter 4). Most countries throughout the Middle East are Muslim, countries such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. A large number of countries in Africa, particularly North Africa, are also Muslim: Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Somalia and Sudan. In the East, Islam is the dominant religion in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Indonesia.

Hinduism, the world’s third largest religion, makes up the majority of the population in three nations: India, Nepal and Mauritius. The majority of the world’s Hindus live in India, though the nation as a whole is only about 80 per cent Hindu, and is officially a secular state. Altogether there are about nine hundred million Hindus. In Nepal a higher proportion of the population are Hindus than in India. Nepal is the world’s only official Hindu state. Freedom of worship is protected, but the official state religion is Hinduism. In Mauritius, a majority of 54 per cent of the population is Hindu.

The world’s fourth largest organised religion, Buddhism, is the religion of the majority of the population in about ten countries in Asia, particularly South-East Asia, countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Buddhism is also very important historically and culturally in several other Asian countries, but is no longer cited as the main religion by at least 50 per cent of the population. In China and North Korea, Buddhism was forcibly suppressed by Communist regimes. In South Korea Christianity has recently made sufficient gains to displace Buddhism as the religion of the majority of the population. Currently, many people in traditional Buddhist countries such as Korea and China are embracing Christianity; while Buddhism in turn is gaining increasing numbers of converts among Westerners in places such as Europe, Australia, and the United States. There are about three hundred and sixty million Buddhists worldwide.

Sikhism does not make up the majority of the population in any nation. Sikhism does, however, make up the majority of the population in the Indian Province of the Punjab. Sikhism is often called the world’s fifth largest organised religion, and with nearly twenty million adherents, it is larger than Judaism. For many Sikhs not having a state of their own is an issue of great importance and the Punjabi independence movement is hotly debated in the region and in the Sikh community worldwide. Some Sikhs feel that an emphasis on achieving their own independent political state is overly divisive and draws undue attention away from the profound theological and spiritual message of their religion.

Jews make up the majority (83 per cent) of the population in the country of Israel. Interestingly, a large number of Israel’s Jews are secular, i.e. non-observant or agnostic or atheist. Religious Jews are in, the minority in Israel. A larger number of Jews live in the United States than in Israel, and a higher proportion of American Jews are religious (i.e., practise Judaism or profess some form of belief in Judaism). There are about fourteen million Jews world-wide.

The religion of Europe
In the late Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism dominated religious life within Europe. The Pope enjoyed unchallenged religious supremacy. The Church enjoyed the support of Emperor and people. Since then, as a result of reformation and secularisation, the influence of Christianity has declined, and if we equate the Christian Churches with religion, then we might be tempted to conclude that religion has declined. But to rush to such a conclusion may be both premature and controversial.

In a typical European country there is one large Church, superior in numbers, which until the twentieth century was closely tied to the state, or which may still be closely tied to the state. Generally, the Catholic Church is predominant in southern Europe, while Protestant national Churches are predominant in northern Europe (Ireland being an exception). Germany takes an intermediate position, and is also an exception to the rule: here the Catholic and the Protestant Churches are almost equally strong. In southern Europe, in traditionally Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, the Catholic Church still has an important social position, but not to the extent it had some decades ago. Secularisation has had its impact on these countries; it also had its effect on the relationship between state and Church. The concordats, for example, that had been signed by the fascist regimes of Italy and Spain and the Vatican have been partially revised. If we look at the northern European counterpart, the five Scandinavian countries, we see Protestant national state Churches. The social relevance of these Churches has greatly decreased – even more than the Catholic Church in southern Europe – but state/ Church structures still exist; only Sweden has abolished its state Church (in the year 2000).

The broad division between Catholic Southern Europe and Protestant Northern Europe also correlates to a distinctive pattern of religious participation. The populations of Southern Europe record higher levels of church attendance than the populations of Northern Europe. But it is equally true that across Europe, perhaps with the exception of Catholic Ireland, fewer people are attending church regularly than thirty or forty years ago. This is particularly apparent in such countries as England and Wales. The story of institutional decline, however, does not reveal the full story of the nature of religious change within European society. Despite falling levels of religious participation, there is also strong evidence that the population of Europe is. still relatively religious in terms of belief. On average 70 per cent of Europeans believe in God, and interestingly, there is no significant difference between Southern Europe and Northern Europe. Traditional Catholic countries may have higher levels of religious participation, but this does not translate into higher levels of religious belief.

England and Wales are highly secularised countries, with low levels of church attendance. The majority of the population, however, describes itself as Christian and most people mark ‘rites of passage’ such as birth, marriage and death with Christian ceremonies. Self-designation, however, may disguise the true nature of religious decline, for although people may ‘describe themselves as Christian, the evidence shows that only a small proportion of the population actually attends Christian worship on a typical Sunday. This phenomenon broadly holds across Europe, and it has been described by one sociologist as ‘believing without belonging’.

Ireland is one of the most religious countries in Europe. Whereas the average church attendance on a typical Sunday is 29 per cent across Europe, in Ireland a figure of 59 per cent is recorded. Interestingly, the figure for Northern Ireland is 49 per cent, considerably lower, but actually the second highest level of church attendance in Europe. Does this mean that both countries are unaffected by the process of secularisation? We address this question a little later in this chapter in the section entitled ‘Religious Trends in Ireland’.

Although the story of institutional religious decline across Europe may not be true everywhere, it is generally true. By contrast, Charismatic fellowships and house-churches have grown considerably over the last forty years or so, and of course immigration into Europe over the last fifty years has also increased the numbers of those who adhere to religions other than Christianity. In Britain and Germany, for example, there are now quite large Muslim communities. Mosques, temples and gurdwaras exist alongside churches in most large European cities. Equally there has been a growth of new religions and ‘unorthodox’ religious movements across Europe. Religious choice has never been greater, even though the majority remain within the religion of their birth and upbringing. There are commentators, Rodney Stark for example, who claim that increasing competition between religions has the effect of raising the levels of religious participation across society. Consequently as new religions and movements begin to make their presence felt in Europe so we can anticipate religious growth. This may still mean that the traditional Christian Churches will continue to decline, but overall the participation in religion will increase as individuals take advantage of new opportunities to join emerging religious groups.

Religious traditions in Ireland
The predominant religious tradition in Ireland is Christianity. Both the Anglican Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church trace their origins to the ministry of St Patrick and the founding of the Celtic Church in Ireland, some time in the fifth century. Monasticism thrived in the sixth and seventh centuries and played a hugely significant role in the life of the Irish Church, and through the work of missionaries from Ireland, in the life of the Church across Europe. In time Celtic Christianity and Roman Catholic Christianity became one. It is a moot point to enquire when they became one, or whether they were always spiritually, if not institutionally one. In any case the religion of the Irish throughout the Middle Ages was exclusively Catholic, if not in the sense that Catholicism was able to banish local beliefs and customs, which were held and practised alongside and even integrated into Christianity, at least exclusive in the sense that all formally professed Christianity. The Reformation in Europe in the sixteenth century eventually made its presence felt in Ireland, when James I (1603-25) in an attempt to ‘consolidate’ his rule in Ireland planted English Anglican and Scottish Presbyterian ‘settlers’ in six of the counties of Ulster – in 1542 Henry VIII had declared that he and his heirs would be ‘Kings of Ireland’. In the succeeding centuries of British rule religious and political differences were accentuated by legitimate Catholic grievances over land and discriminatory practices. British rule in Ireland was interpreted by most Irish, if not most Protestants (who were a significant minority in the country), as a period of English domination and even occupation. Ireland was partitioned in 1921, into Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a partition symbolic in some respects of a deeper partition in the ‘Irish’ mind over religion.

All the main Christian Churches treat the island of Ireland in its entirety as one unit for purposes of organisation. Currently, about 75 per cent of the population of Ireland as a whole profess to be Roman Catholic, with the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian each commanding the allegiance of about 6-7 per cent of the total population. Such statistics no doubt present a somewhat inflated impression of the significance of religion, but in reality they tell us little about the nature and depth of religious commitment: many are churchgoers, others are nominal Christians and do not practise on a regular basis, still others are Christian in name only.

Catholics make up 91.6 per cent of the population of the Republic and about 40 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland. The leader of the Church in Ireland is the Archbishop of Armagh, the Primate of All-Ireland, and is usually a cardinal. The Church has twenty-six dioceses and four provinces each under a metropolitan archbishop. There are over 1,300 parishes, about 3,400 diocesan or secular priests and some 20,000 members of religious orders in Ireland. The Irish Church has a strong missionary outreach with nearly three thousand priests, brothers and nuns active in more than ninety countries across the globe.

The Church of Ireland is a self-governing Church within Anglicanism and is therefore in communion with the See of Canterbury. Although it retained episcopacy, its beliefs and practices are ordered by an appeal to the Bible. The leader of the Church of Ireland is the Archbishop of Armagh. His is a ‘primacy of honour’ and not a ‘primacy of authority’. The Church has twelve dioceses, approximately 470 parishes and some 540 ministers (who can be male or female). Up until 1869 the Church of Ireland was the state Church in Ireland and since then its chief legislative body has been the General Synod made up of the bishops and representatives of clergy and laity. In the Republic just over 2 per cent of the population profess to be members of the Church of Ireland, while the percentage in Northern Ireland is about 18 per cent: Church membership is declining in both jurisdictions.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is strongly represented in Northern Ireland, claiming the allegiance of over 21 per cent of the population; in the South less than 0.4 per cent profess allegiance. The Presbyterian Church follows a broadly democratic system of Church government, expressed through elected elders and ministers of the local congregation, presbyteries (of which there are twenty-one in Ireland), synods with wider representation, and finally the general assembly of ministers and elders elected by the presbyteries throughout Ireland. The leader of the Presbyterian Church is the moderator, always a minister, who is elected for a one-year term of office. The ministry was opened to women in 1972, though not without considerable opposition from more conservative elements in the Church. The Bible, as with all Protestant Churches and denominations, is the final court of appeal in Presbyterianism. Christian belief and practice should be regulated by the teachings of the Bible and the example and practice of the early Church as described in the Bible. The Westminster Confession of Faith, drafted by the Puritan ‘divines’ at Westminster in 1643, is regarded as a subordinate standard, in the sense that its theological content is believed to systematise and summarise the teaching of the Bible.

About 9 per cent of the population of the Republic of Ireland and 14 per cent in Northern Ireland profess to have no religious allegiance. This category includes agnostics, atheists and Humanists. Their number has grown slightly in the last few decades. The remainder of the population is divided between three distinguishable groups: those belonging to smaller Protestant denominations, such as the Methodists (recognised as the fourth largest denomination in Ireland), Baptists, Congregationalists, Free Presbyterians, and the Christian Brethren; a tiny minority belonging to New Religious Movements; and finally a small number of individuals who belong to one of the major world religions – Jews and Muslims chiefly.

(The beliefs and practices of some of the Churches and religious groups mentioned in this section are expanded upon in later chapters)

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