Understanding World Religions

Religion is the driving force behind much of what happens in the world today -- particularly when it comes to the "big three" religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious differences have and continue to spark wars, create nations, and spawn ongoing conflict down through the centuries. No matter what religion you adhere to (or even if you claim that you don't adhere to any religion at all), you need to have a basic understanding of the world's religions in order to understand what is happening in the world today so that you can be better informed and a more useful citizen of your nation and of the world. Without some knowledge of religion, you will not understand the underpinnings of what is happening in an increasingly global society.
RSS Feed
Understanding World Religions




All Episodes
Now displaying: 2015
Dec 12, 2015

Our quote for today is from Elizabeth Gilbert. She said, "Look for God. Look for God like a man with his head on fire looks for water."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "The Unitarian-Universalist Association, The Unity School of Christianity, and The Unification Church"

These three belief systems are considered in one episode not because they are necessarily similar in belief but because the similarity of their names sometimes has led to confusion. We'll look at each separately.

--- The Unitarian-Universalist Association

The Unitarian-Universalist Association formed from the 1959 merger of the Unitarian Church and Universalism, which, historically, developed separately. Unitarian beliefs have roots in the anti-Trinitarian controversies of Christianity's early centuries but came into their present form during the Enlightenment. Unitarianism found greatest growth and popularity in the U.S., particularly through the speaking and writing of the nineteenth-century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In contrast to orthodox Christian teaching, Unitarians follow the ethics of Jesus but deny his divinity. They believe the apostle Paul was the one who intentionally elevated Jesus' standing—that Jesus himself was strictly human and knew it. Unitarianism was and remains popular chiefly with the intelligentsia.


--- The Unity School of Christianity

Charles and Myrtle Fillmore founded The Unity School of Christianity in 1889. Charles was interested in Eastern religions and the occult. Myrtle, his wife, was a follower of Christian Science; this mix came together in Unity.

Although Unity makes extensive use of biblical vocabulary, its basic belief system is more like Hinduism. God is the source of everything but is not distinct from the human soul. As with Christian Science, Jesus was only human; Christ was just the spiritual aspect of him. "Jesus was potentially perfect and He expressed that perfection; we are potentially perfect and we have not expressed it," according to Unity writings. The focus is on health, spiritual healing, and prosperity. All of us have Christ potential within us. The goal of Unity is to replace the physical human body with a true spiritual body through a series of reincarnations, so that everyone becomes a Christ.


--- The Unification Church

The Rev. Sun Myung Moon founded The Unification Church, in 1954, as The Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. Its followers, commonly called "Moonies," currently number about ten thousand in the U.S., though there were more at Unification's peak in the 1980s. Moon was born in 1920 in what is now part of North Korea, and later moved to South Korea. In 1972, he moved to the U.S., where he lived until recently reclaiming South Korea as his primary residence.


Dec 3, 2015

Our quote for today is from Ravi Zacharias. He said, "My premise is that the popular aphorism that 'all religions are fundamentally the same and only superficially different' simply is not true. It is more correct to say that all religions are, at best, superficially similar but fundamentally different."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Cults, 'Isms,' and Contemporary Religious Movements"

In the last few episodes of this podcast, we will deal with belief systems not typically categorized as world religions, even though some of them are global in nature and have many millions of followers. The number of adherents to Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), for instance, far exceeds the number of adherents to Judaism, Jainism, or Baha'i, and Mormons are in nearly every country though usually categorized as a cult. Conversely, Sikhism is small in numbers and followed by just one ethnic group (though it has spread somewhat through migration), but is nearly always found in books on world religions. How do we distinguish a cult from a religion?

At the outset, we must know there is no "Central Board of Religions" that decides what "gets in" and what doesn't. Some books include Baha'i and some don't. Some books on contemporary religious movements include it as well, just as most would include the Nation of Islam.

By our working definition, all these are religions—organized sets of beliefs that answer ultimate questions. So how does one end up as a religion and another as a contemporary religious movement? Some criteria does help distinguish one from another. A few belief systems are rather obviously one or the other. With some we might make the case either way.


Nov 26, 2015

Our quote for today is from Simone Weil. He said, "Humanism was not wrong in thinking that truth, beauty, liberty, and equality are of infinite value, but in thinking that man can get them for himself without grace."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Secular Humanism"

Secular Humanism is not merely nontheistic. It is zealously antitheistic. Secular Humanists hold that belief in God is the greatest danger humanity faces, and human "salvation" requires total elimination of belief in the supernatural.

So why include it in a book on world religions? Secular Humanism fits our working definition of religion as an organized system of beliefs that answers ultimate questions about life. It has councils and associations, conferences and workshops, and a statement of beliefs. As we've seen, many belief systems are not based on belief in or reliance on the supernatural. Theravada Buddhism, Jainism, and Confucianism, for instance, believe the answers come from within, not from any source beyond humanity. The inclusion of Secular Humanism is consistent, and besides, it would be strange to ignore a belief system that has the stated goal of eradicating the beliefs and practices described in every other chapter of this book.

Secular Humanism's foundation is built on the philosophy of naturalism, or materialism: that the material universe (the natural world) is all that exists. This it shares with atheism, the belief that there is sufficient evidence to deny the existence of God and the supernatural. Agnostics, those who say there is insufficient evidence to know whether God (or the supernatural) exists, may also embrace Secular Humanism. But for Secular Humanists, atheism is just a beginning point. They have developed a complete worldview and value system built on naturalistic presuppositions.

As an organized system it differs from secularism, a much broader term referring to the worldview of those who live as if God does not exist. This includes all the nonreligious, estimated by researcher David Barrett to exceed 20 percent of earth's population. Certainly, Secular Humanism influences secular beliefs, but it goes beyond passively ignoring God to actively building a lifestyle and worldview based on opposition to belief in God.

Nov 18, 2015

Our quote for today is from Yukitaka Yamamoto. He said, "To be fully alive is to have an aesthetic perception of life because a major part of the world's goodness lies in its often unspeakable beauty."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Shinto"

Shinto, Japan's traditional religion, combines animistic aspects with ancestor veneration. There are shrines, priests, and corporate ceremonies, but much of Shinto is practiced in the home. It has no founder or starting date and has been practiced in Japan since before recorded history. It is so imbedded in the culture that it didn't even have a name until the arrival of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism from China in about AD 400, when it was called Shinto to distinguish it from the other systems. The name comes from the Chinese words "shen" and "tao," meaning "the way of the gods." The Japanese name, "kami no mi chi," means the same.

Although "kami" is usually rendered "gods," it has a much broader meaning in the Japanese mind. It refers not only to major deities like the Sun Goddess but also to lesser deities, spirits of ancestors, even a spiritual presence in trees or hills. Basically, anything possessing a form of spiritual power or influence fits into the category. The Japanese estimate there are eight million kami.

Shinto also has nationalistic aspects. Its mythology explains the origins of the Sun Goddess (Amaterasu), the creation of Japan and the rest of the world, and how the Japanese emperors descended from Amaterasu, which is why they were believed by the Japanese to have divine status. In the 1930s, the military manipulated these traditions to justify the invasion of China and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.


Nov 12, 2015

Our quote for today is from Lao Tzu [LAH-O-ZAH]. He said, "In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don't try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family life, be completely present."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." 

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Taoism"

Because Taoism and Confucianism are so opposite in philosophy and concept, they're commonly treated as separate religions. Also, combining them would result in a very lengthy chapter, so the usual custom has been followed here. This is somewhat artificial, however, since Chinese religion as it is actually practiced combines these along with ancient polytheistic religions, including ancestor veneration and Buddhism. This is a community religion, and a traditional temple in Taiwan or rural China frequently contains statues of Confucius, Lao-tzu, Buddha, and many traditional deities all together.

Taoism takes its name from the title of the book "Tao Te Ching," or "The Way of Nature." In modern slang we might call this philosophy "It is what it is." This brief work—its length is about the same as five chapters of this book—rivals the "Analects of Confucius" as the most influential literature in Chinese history. Only the Bible has been translated more times than the Tao Te Ching, and more than a thousand commentaries have been written about it.

The man traditionally credited with having written it and with starting Taoism was named Li-poh-yang, but he is better known by the title given him by his disciples, Lao-tzu, meaning "Old Master." In China, where age is highly revered, this title of respect even gave rise to a legend that he was born old. There is less historical information about Lao-tzu than any other founder of a world religion. Some scholars even doubt that this historical person ever existed. Confucian sources say he was born about 500 BC, and that the two shapers of Chinese life met in person. Many literary scholars believe the Tao Te Ching was compiled from multiple sources over several centuries.

Nov 5, 2015

Our quote for today is from Confucius. He said, "Never impose on others what you would not accept for yourself."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Confucianism"

Many people would describe Confucianism as a philosophy or ethical system rather than a religion. This is probably what Confucius himself intended. His writings teach about how to live and conduct oneself in this life here and now. He was personally agnostic, if not atheistic; while not directly challenging belief in gods and the supernatural, he was indifferent as to their existence—as far as he was concerned, they were irrelevant to what's really important.

But in the centuries after his death, his followers gradually folded his memory and image into the religious practices already existing in China. The Chinese prefer the term veneration rather than worship to describe the rituals connected with their ancestors. To the outside observer, though, the rituals would look very similar to the worship practiced by other religions. It is the inward intent that distinguishes the two concepts.


Jul 29, 2015

Our quote for today is from Buddha. He said, "There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Tibetan Buddhism" 

Tibetan Buddhism may be best known in the West because of the international popularity of its leader, Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama. Tibetan Buddhist monks are called lamas, meaning "superior ones." There are two orders of lamas, which the West labels the Red Hats and the Yellow Hats. The Yellow Hats are the larger group and their leader is the Dalai Lama. 

Buddhist missionaries entered Tibet from both India and China in the seventh century AD, at the Tibetan king's invitation. The new religion was quickly adopted and had government support. By the fourteenth century, the monks had become so powerful they took over rule and held it until the 1950 Chinese invasion. At this time, the current Dalai Lama and many followers escaped to India, where they currently live in exile. Unlike his predecessors, Tenzin Gyatso has traveled widely as a spokesman for human rights and international harmony. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. 

When a Dalai Lama dies, monks thoroughly search Tibet, checking all boys born within a certain date range to see which might have the traits of the deceased leader. Further tests and divination will be carried out to select which child is the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Then he will be taken to a monastery and given years of special training to prepare him to take over leadership of the Tibetan community. The death of this Dalai Lama will produce a special challenge, since the Tibetan community is now scattered around the globe and a search of Tibet would be hindered or forbidden by the Chinese authorities. Also, the Chinese government has said China will choose the next Dalai Lama, which most Tibetans are sure to reject. Sadly, the effort to replace a Dalai Lama noted for peace efforts may be marred by violence. 


Jul 23, 2015

Our quote for today is from Buddha. He said, "There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Mahayana Buddhism" 

Early in Buddhism's development, disputes about the correct meaning of Gautama's teaching divided his followers into various schools of thought. Within ten years of his death, there were sixteen different factions. Several councils, one convened by Emperor Asoka, attempted to bring unity but failed. Over the next several centuries, these groups organized themselves, elaborated on their doctrinal views, and deepened what became permanent divisions. 

The Hinayana ("exclusive way") groups were more conservative; today Theravada is the only remaining Hinayana branch. The Mahayana ("expansive way") schools, largely because of their flexibility in accommodating other religions, were more successful in their missionary efforts and now are Buddhism's largest branch. Various types of Mahayana Buddhism are found in China, Korea, Japan, and other parts of Asia. 

Central to the Mahayana system is the belief that in addition to what he taught publicly, the Buddha gave a number of secret or hidden teachings to a select and qualified few. This idea gave authority to additions and changes as the movement spread and developed. One of the first was that Gautama was more than a man. This deification of Buddha as an eternal being who came to help humankind led to Buddhism's decline in India, even while helping it spread elsewhere. Hindus simply adopted Gautama as one of Vishnu's ten avatars, and by encouraging his worship, drew devotees back into Hinduism. 


Jul 16, 2015

Our quote for today is from Gautama Buddha. He said, "A man is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving, and fearless then he is in truth called wise."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day."

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Theravada Buddhism" 

Buddhism is the fourth largest of the world's religions, with about 350 million followers, and like Hinduism, its influence extends far beyond the actual numbers. Theravada, the most traditional, conservative form today is found primarily in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Although some of its followers intermingle animistic beliefs and practices, Theravada is essentially nontheistic, believing that enlightenment must be achieved by one's own efforts, without supernatural assistance. Since Theravada is closest to the original, Buddhism's beginnings will be described in this chapter. 

Buddhism began in India, though now it is a tiny minority there. Like Jainism, which began at about the same time, it started as a reform movement within Hinduism but developed into a separate religion. Siddhartha Gautama, its founder, was born into the family of a Kshatriya raja (minor ruler). Many legends have developed regarding his life, and sorting fact from later additions is difficult. Generally accepted dates for his life are 560-480 BC. 

According to tradition, at his birth it was foretold that if he saw only beauty and youth he would become a great king, but if he saw disease and death he would become a religious teacher. Since his father preferred the former outcome, Gautama grew up in an extremely sheltered environment, rarely leaving the walls of his palace. He married and had a son, but around age thirty became restless with his confined life. He slipped out and, deeply disturbed by seeing sick and dead people in the area, left his family and took up the life of a wandering monk. He tried philosophy, then the most extreme form of asceticism. One legend claims that during this period he lived on one daily grain of rice. However, even this did not bring him the answers he sought. He gave up asceticism, ate a meal, and sat under the shade of a tree to meditate. Finally, through meditation, Gautama found enlightenment and became the Buddha, meaning "Enlightened One." 


Jul 8, 2015

Understanding World Religions #27

Our quote for today is from Guru Granth Sahib. He said, "I didn’t ask for it to be over. But then again I didn’t ask for it to begin. For that’s the way it is with life, as some of the most beautiful days come completely by chance. But even the most beautiful days eventually have their sunset."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." 

Our Understanding World Religions topic for today is, "Sikhism" 

Traditional Sikh men are recognizable by their starched, symmetrical turbans and full beards. Because Sikhs are not to cut their hair, older men’s beards and hair are piled on top of the head, under the turban. A few Hindus and some types of Muslims also wear turbans, though of a different style. This led to a tragic case of mistaken identity in the first reprisal killing after September 11, 2001, when an enraged American murdered a Sikh store owner in Phoenix, assuming anyone wearing a turban was Muslim. 

The Sikh religion is unique in attempting to synthesize one religion out of two very different ones. Nanak, its founder, was born into a Hindu family during the late fifteenth century in the Punjab region of northwest India. This was during the period of the Moghul Empire, when a Muslim minority ruled over the Hindu majority. 

Besides his Hindu upbringing, Nanak was highly influenced by a Muslim teacher. He apparently had a contemplative personality and spent much time reflecting on religion. At about age thirty, he claimed to receive a revelation from God while meditating. He was called to be a prophet of the true religion and preach the message of the essential unity of Islam and Hinduism. 

For the next several decades, Nanak wandered India, teaching his concepts and organizing communities wherever people accepted his message. These followers were called Sikhs, a Punjabi word meaning “disciple.” Nanak taught that there is only one God, called The True Name. Hindu polytheism, he said, just sees many different facets of this one God. Also similar to Islam, he believed in the duality of the universe, the reality of both the material and spiritual worlds. The earth was created by God; humans are the pinnacle of that creation. From Hinduism, Nanak retained the concepts of karma and reincarnation and taught that The True Name would eventually free humans from the cycle of rebirths. He also taught very simple forms of worship, rejecting most of the rituals of both religions. 


1 2 3 4 Next »