Philosophy Things

Comparing Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam

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Among some of the world’s greatest religions there exists a wide variety of views, beliefs and doctrines that act in unique support of each system. And while there are many differences amongst these structures, there are often many similarities that can be found as well. By examining and critically evaluating these likenesses, we are able to accurately construct a succinct typology classifying each religion by their nature and principle concerns. For clarity purposes, this typology will be divided into three main aspects of religion; which include: 1) religious nature, 2) views of God, and 3) principle concerns.

There are nine “great” religions that will be the focus of our discussion, and they include: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Zen Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam. In respect to the religious nature of each of these religions, there are four main categories that they can be divided into. These categories include: 1) pluralism, 2) skepticism, 3) relativism, and 4) absolutism. Before classifying each religion into their appropriate category, it is first necessary to precisely define what each of the terms mean. By doing so, we can avoid unnecessary misinterpretations, and also aim toward a clearer understanding of why each religion has been given its classification.

The first in our classification list for religious nature is pluralism, which is the view that a wide range of religions can each possess valuable truths. This view emphasizes that it can be edifying to learn from other religions besides your own, so there is no need to be exclusive and only take truths from only one specific religion. Religions that fall under the pluralistic religious nature are Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Taoism.

Hinduism expresses religious pluralism through their central principle view that “many paths lead to the summit.” This view can be shortened to say “many paths, one summit.” Basically, the message is that there is no right or wrong path to the ultimate summit, which is enlightenment. Each path is unique to the person traveling on it, and each person will eventually reach enlightenment. This view is considered pluralistic because it acknowledges that people have different spiritualities, and thus requires different religious truths or “paths” to obtain enlightenment.

Jainism expresses religious pluralism best through its analogy of “the six blind men and the elephant.” In this analogy, a group of blind men are brought in the presence of an elephant, and then are asked to each touch one part of the elephant. After each man had experienced the elephant, they were to report back to each other, share their experiences, and determine what it is they felt. Inevitably, because each man had touched a different part of the elephant (the tusk, the leg, the ear, etc.), they group is in complete disagreement. This story is used to show how reality is dependent on one’s perspective, and how one “truth” from one’s perspective cannot be considered to be an absolute truth. It is an effective illustration of why the Jain’s believe that reality consists of a multiplicity of truths from different perspectives, not just one set of truths from one religion.

Sikhism expresses religious pluralism by believing that there are many ways of reaching the same God. Similar to the Hindus, the Sikhs believe that there is one summit (in this case, God) and that there are many paths that can lead you there. “Students of the Sikh faith are told to accept all leading faiths as possible vehicles for attaining spiritual enlightenment, provided the faithful study, ponder and practice the teachings of their prophets and leaders. The holy book of the Sikhs (the Sri Guru Granth Sahib) says, "Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false." 3 What this means is that other religious systems are not seen as false and invaluable, but rather it is the people that don’t consider these other religious truths that are not on the right path to God.

Finally, Taoism expresses religious pluralism with its view that everyone has intuitive access to knowing and following the Tao. While the Tao has a unique set of beliefs on how one can realize the Tao and become one with it, there is no discrimination for any religion that teaches some of the same qualities. For example, in the same way that the Sage of the Tao Te Ching teaches to be just, honest, and humble, the Bible teaches the same principles. The emphasis is not how one acquires these principles, but what is important is that these principles are followed.

The second classification in our list is religious skepticism, and it is the view that due to the nature of religious claims, particularly about the supernatural, we do not currently have the capacity to learn any religious truths. This has been said to be the “weaker” position of skepticism, as it leaves the door open to possibly one day uncover religious truths. The stronger position that can be held by religious skeptics is to claim that we will never have the capacity to learn religious truth, claiming that not only do we not have the capacity now, but also due to our human limitations we will never in the future have this ability. The religion that falls under the religious nature of skepticism is Buddhism.

Buddhism is categorized under religious skepticism because of the views of its founder, Buddha. Buddha taught that one should not concern himself with God because God is something that can never be known for certain. He emphasized the idea of “noble silence” which means that, “An ordinary person who is still unenlightened might have a lot to say, but all of it would be sheer conjecture based on his imagination.” 4 Basically, the Buddha found the explanation of God meaningless and also that any explanation of such would contribute great misunderstanding to one’s spiritual development.

The third classification is religious relativism, which is the view that there is no universal, absolute, eternal, religious truth. Instead, religious truth is completely relative to 1) an individual, and 2) a society. Individual religious relativism claims that religious truths are subject to the individual, and social religious relativism claims that religious truths are subject to the society. Some have argued that the position of a religious relativist is just a means of tolerance, however that is not the case. To be religiously tolerant, one must have an opposing set of views. With religious relativism, different views exist however within each of those views shares the idea that it is not right or wrong for others to have opposing views. Religions classified under religious relativism are Zen Buddhism and Confucianism.

Zen Buddhism is considered to be religious relativism mostly due to the fact that it does not contain any absolute truths. While there is a guideline of how one can achieve enlightenment, it is not a set absolute path. Zen Masters emphasize that the truth is not something that can be taught to someone, but that one must be directed toward the truth so that they can experience it on their own. “Koans,” or “riddles,” were among some of the methods used to help Zen students along the path to the truth. Koans such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “What did you look like before your mother and father were created?” are examples of riddles that were used to help the Zen student deeply examine the elements of reason. How the student uses their reason to solve these riddles is entirely up to them, the purpose of the Zen Master is simply to direct them toward it.

Last on our list of classifications for religious nature is religious absolutism, which is the belief that there is only one set of truths and only one religion possesses these truths. Hence, any other religion, to the degree that it disagrees, is false. Religions that embrace absolutism are Christianity and Islam.

Christianity clearly demonstrates religious absolutism with its belief that there is only one God, and that there is only one way to ultimately reunite with that God. These beliefs are supported by the Bible both in Matthew 6:24; "No one can serve two masters, because either he will hate one and love the other, or be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches!” and in Matthew 7:13; “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.” Matthew 6:24 is supporting that there is only one God, and that nobody can serve more than one God, and Matthew 7:13 is stating that there is only one way to get to heaven while there are several ways that lead to hell.

Islam demonstrates its religious absolutism in almost the exact same way that Christianity does. They believe that there is only one God (Allah), and that there is only one way to ultimately reunite with Allah. Christians and Muslims differ on what that one path is that leads to salvation, but as far as religious nature is concerned, both Christianity and Islam undeniably represent religious absolutism.

The second main aspect of religion concerns the nature of God, and just as the nine religions previously discussed represent the different natures of religion in general, they also share similar and dissimilar views about the nature of God as well. There are six categories that classify the nine religion’s nature of God, they include: 1) polytheism, 2) dualism, 3) monotheism, 4) pantheism, 5) agnosticism, and 6) monistic.

Polytheism is the view that there are many gods. It is the idea that there are many divine powers, and that divinity ultimately resides in individual entities or beings. Gods in a polytheistic religion are typically wise, just, immortal, and often manifest in natural forces, matter, and energy. The wisdom and the power of the gods is what forms the cosmos, and each are considered equally divine, uncontrolled by any other entity or power. Religions that express polytheistic views of God are Hinduism and Confucianism.

Hinduism reveals polytheistic traits by the way that multiple Gods are worshiped. In Hinduism, God is viewed as one and as many. There are many individual gods that are worshiped, including Indra, the god of sky and thunder, Aghi, the god of fire, Varuna, the god of cosmic order, etc. There are several of these celestial gods, but the ultimate god is Brahman and it is Brahman that encompasses all gods and all things. Brahman is everything, found everywhere, here, there, visible, invisible, above, below, etc. Brahman is one and many simultaneously.

Confucianism expresses polytheism in the way it holds a role for celestial gods. Because Confucius’ system was man-centered and relied on man’s self-effort, the goal of life was to life properly within a society. There was no need for a single divine being. The emphasis of his teachings focused on how to live now and had little concern for the after life.

Religious dualism is the belief that there are two gods, one good and one evil, roughly of equal power. A dualistic religion has the ability to blame bad things on the evil god and good things on the good god. Additionally, the dualistic belief can be used to explain the duality of human existence, making it easy to explain why humans are naturally torn on some issues. For example, imagine that you are faced with the decision to go out and celebrate your birthday, or stay in and study for an exam. An angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other are often used to illustrate this dilemma. In a dualistic religion, the evil god (the devil) would be telling you to go out and party, but the good god (the angel) would be equally influencing you to stay in and study. A religion that practices dualism is Jainism.

Jainism reveals its dualistic ways by how it views matter and souls to be two entirely different types of substances. Jains believe that the universe is eternal, and that there are many different celestial gods that can be worshiped, however they do not believe in a single creator god. Followers of Jainism believe in karma and reincarnation, karma representative of matter and reincarnation made possible through the existence of souls. The world is composed of matter and souls, equally uncreated and eternal.

Monotheism is the view that there is only one God, often said to be omniscient, omnipotent, omni benevolent, and sometimes the creator of the cosmos. It is important to note that not all monotheistic religions believed that God was the creator of the cosmos. The belief that there is only one God is sufficient enough to classify it as monotheistic. Examples of monotheistic religions are Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam.

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