Religious Tradition: Definition & Examples

Religious Tradition: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:03 Definition of Religion
  • 1:02 Monotheism and Polytheism
  • 1:36 Monotheistic Traditions
  • 3:34 Polytheistic Religions
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Hundreds of different religions are practiced around the world, but the major religions are generally divided into monotheistic and polytheistic traditions. Despite their many differences, all of the major religions focus on basic principles of what it means to live a moral life.

Definition of Religion

We hear the word all the time, but what exactly is a religion? How does it differ from a philosophy? Or a cult? Or some guy making up stories about how the universe began?

By most standard definitions, a religion must contain a few specific elements. First, it must include a set of beliefs in a higher power (or something that exists beyond our understanding of the natural world) that exerts influence over the universe and, in most cases, created the universe. Second, it must contain a system of practices for worshiping that higher power, such as attending a religious institution (such as a church, synagogue, etc.), prayer, and communion with other worshipers. Finally, it should have a set of moral principles that the followers of the religion are supposed to follow (such as 'Thou shalt not kill'). The specific practices that bind a religion together, such as prayer, holidays, and attending services, make up a religious tradition.

Monotheism and Polytheism

The religious traditions in existence around the world are staggering in their numbers and diversity. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different active religions around the world and even the major religions, such as Christianity or Islam, have multiple smaller groups, called sects, within them.

Generally, the world's major religions can generally be broken into two categories. The monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all believe in a single god. Polytheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism believe in multiple gods.

Monotheistic Traditions

Judaism, the oldest of the monotheistic religions, arose around 3000 years ago in the area now known as the Middle East. In opposition to the polytheistic religions of the time that worshiped multiple gods responsible for different aspects of life and nature, Jews worshiped a single deity who is all-knowing and all-powerful. The central holy text of Judaism, the Torah, lays out many specific rules for how Jews are supposed to live their lives in order to appease God.

Christianity began as a splinter group from Judaism about 2000 years ago. Followers of Jesus Christ believed him to be the living son of the Jewish God. Their sacred text is the Holy Bible, which incorporates Jewish sacred texts (known as the Old Testament) and writings about Jesus (known as the New Testament).

Christianity has grown to be the largest single religion in the world, with around 2 billion followers all around the world. Though Christianity incorporates hundreds of sects, which makes it difficult to generalize about their beliefs, Christianity generally emphasizes moral principles over the ritual practices that form a large part of the Torah. They also believe in evangelizing, or bringing in new members, something that Judaism does not.

About 600 years after the rise of Christianity, another religion arose, deriving elements from both Judaism and Christianity. Islam was founded by the Prophet Muhammad, who claimed that God had delivered him a message directly. This message was written down as the Quran, the sacred text of Islam. Islamic tradition respects Jewish and Christian history but believes their texts, the Torah and Holy Bible, had become corrupted by the interference of man and the Quran is the true, unaltered word of God. Today, Islam has over 1 billion followers. They are mostly concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa, where many countries, such as Saudi Arabia, are governed explicitly on Muslim principles.

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