In his book Religions of the World, Niels Nielsen presents 12 common characteristics found in most religions.
  1. Most religions include belief in the supernatural (spirits, gods, God) or belief in some other Ultimate Reality beyond, yet connected to, human experience and existence.
    A. Hindus acknowledge 330 million gods and one Ultimate Reality, the Brahman, which is beyond all names and forms.
    B. Christians consider themselves Monotheists, but Muslims reject the doctrine of the Trinity as a dangerous possible form of Polytheism.
  2. Religions distinguish between the sacred and profane (or ordinary) in terms of time, space, objects, and people.
    A. Mecca is different from Milwaukee for Muslims.
    B. Christmas and Easter are the most sacred days in the Christian calendar.
  3. Religions strongly encourage or require prescribed ritual activities for individuals and communities of faith.
    A. Rituals connected to birth and death frame the lifecycle in all religions.
    B. Most religions celebrate and reenact sacred stories through annual rituals.
  4. Religions commonly promote a moral code or ethical principles to guide individuals and communities.
    A. The Ten Commandments anchor legal and moral requirements in the biblical tradition, while shari'ah ("Islamic law") should ideally govern Muslims in an Islamic state.
    B. Following the path of the Buddha includes vows of poverty and chastity, as well as dietary restrictions, for monks.
  5. Religious life engages and incorporates common emotional and intuitive human feelings.
    A. These feelings include a sense of the wonder and mystery of existence, joy, guilt, and the bond experienced in the community.
    B. Religious worship often appeals to feelings of guilt and remorse, as well as joy and thanksgiving.
  6. Religions both encourage communication and provide ways to communicate or connect with the divine.
    A. Individual and corporate prayers are visible among Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
    B. Hindus and Buddhists refine meditative techniques in order to discover the truth that is accessible within.
  7. Through sacred stories, the religions provide a coherent worldview.
    A. The meaning of creation has to somehow fit into a logical pattern that explains how we get from where we are to where we hope to be.
    B. Stories about the lives and teachings of the great religious leaders underscore the nature of the human predicament and offer guidance on how to realize the fullness of a hopeful future.
  8. Religions organize life for individuals--including dress codes, personal sacrifices, and appropriate occupations--in the context of their respective worldviews.
    A. A Buddhist monk wears a saffron robe and has a shaved head.
    B. A Muslim woman wears the hijab, a traditional, loose-fitting covering that may include a veil.
  9. Religions require and promote social organization and institutional forms to carry out the necessary functions of worship and leadership, preserving orthodox teachings and practices.
    A. Protestant Christians don't have a pope, and Sunni Muslims don't have ayatollahs (supreme religious leaders) as Shi'ite Muslims do.
    B. All communities, however, have religious functionaries and institutional structures.
  10. Religions promise an inner peace and harmony despite the vicissitudes of life.
    A. Discovering meaning that transcends physical existence enables people of faith to overcome the challenges posed by disease, evil, and injustice that permeate life and society.
    B. The religions that have stood the test of time have offered hope and meaning that move beyond mere physical survival.
  11. Religions typically offer a future hope through the coming of a new age or a better existence in the afterlife.
    A. Most religions anticipate the coming of a gifted person (for example, the Jewish messiah, the Second Coming of Jesus, one final incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu, or one last manifestation of the Buddha) who will help usher in a new age of peace and tranquility.
    B. The future hope may be realized in a new heaven or new Earth or a blissful existence beyond this physical life.
  12. Religions must propagate themselves through the recruitment of new members and procreation within the community of faith.
    A. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are the primary "missionary" religions in the world.
    B. Most religions require marriage and procreation within the community as the primary source of new adherents.

Links:
Basics of Human Beliefs - Characteristics of Religion at Stonehaven Circle
Buddhism and Christianity
Return to Religion

last updated 11 July 2010