Established Religions – an overview

  • This page is part of a group of pages looking at answers to the ‘big questions’ – ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘How should I live?’ are probably the biggest. For more on my motivations and approach, see Journey towards a Path if you haven’t already read it. As I said there, I looked first at the foundations of logical reasoning, science and philosophy – ‘Metaphysics‘ – and then at the major ‘Established Religions’, here, to see what might be useful.

Established Religions

The major world religions fall into two groups (according to Wikipedia, anyway): ‘dharmic’ and ‘Abrahamic’. The dharmic religions are Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, while the Abrahamic are Judaism and its offshoots Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic religions.

‘Buddhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world behind Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion, in that order,’ again according to Wikipedia. There are dozens or hundreds of smaller religions, depending on how ‘religion’ is defined. Some belong to one of the two major groups (e.g. the Baha’i Faith, which is Abrahamic) while some are unaffiliated (e.g. Taoism).

Looking at existing religions, I see that:

Firstly, most people I know who are affiliated with established religions are nicer and happier than most who are not, but also that religions are responsible for much of the world’s conflict. (This is ‘binding’, the root of the word ‘religion’, in action: strengthening ties within a community makes people happier but weakens ties between communities (cf. recent work on the evolutionary advantages of altruism: altrusim within groups disadvantages individuals within the group but advantages the group with respect to other groups). Meanwhile, religions’ inability to tolerate dissent makes conflict between groups more likely and more vicious. It is the collision of religions which makes them most toxic, though the anti-intellectualism which is a necessary consequence of authoritarianism (see below) is pretty bad too.)

Secondly, each religion consists of rules for living in the world, rules for transcending the world, and what I will call ‘cultural baggage’ – elements which are not essential to either of the other two but are products of the culture in which it was first expounded. (Things like the Jewish dietary laws, which make good public health sense for a community with primitive hygiene and no refrigeration, or the Buddhist practice of endlessly chanting scriptures, which makes good sense in an almost illiterate community.) I am perfectly willing to accept cultural baggage on its merits but I don’t think anyone should be required to give it the same respect as the core message of the religion.


Most religions are unsatisfactory from the ‘truth’ criterion or from the ‘fairness’ criterion, as set out in Metaphysics, or both at once.

  • We have been given the world by our bountiful God so it is ours to exploit as we please? No. (Extending the reach of ‘fairness’ beyond humanity to all living creatures, and/or beyond the present to the future, gives us reasons to reject the idea. And look at the mess we make while believing this.)
  • Miracles (aka granting of prayers) are just not on: Dear God, let 2 plus 2 equal 5, just for me? No (against science).
  • The active, interventionist God is not on: God will give us victory over the infidels? No (similarly against science – and fairness suggests we would be in line in for a retaliatory miracle).
  • The ‘chosen people’ worldview is just not on: We have been divinely appointed to rule the world? No. (Quite apart from conflicting with my fairness criterion, it might have worked when everyone in the community had the same religion but now it is a recipe for endless conflict.)
  • ‘Divine authority’? No. It manages to conflict with both truth and fairness: This is the word of the lord and it is eternal and infallible? No. (Just think about how that ‘word’ got into the world: some individual person said it. Fairness says his words don’t deserve to be privileged.) Truthwise, think about the scientific method, i.e. consistency and testability: If a statement is declared infallible it cannot be debated or tested. Such a position is profoundly anti-scientific and profoundly anti-educational.

Terry Lane covers this ground at greater length in God: The Interview (reviewed here). Arguments against religion in general or against specific religions can also be found on the net. See, for instance, the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Religious structures frequently mimic or echo family structures, with God as head of the household, believers as his children owing him respect and obedience and liable to be punished if they don’t give it, and everyone outside the household as ‘not one of us’ and less valued if not rejected outright. It has been hypothesized (e.g. by Pataki) that that is why religions seem so natural to humanity: that the ‘innate’ respect for teachers’ and parents’ authority which underpins learning of survival skills has expanded from its evolutionary origins and transferred to respect for religious teachers and civil authority.

Perhaps the authoritarianism of most religions is part of the cultural baggage of religions which grew up where only a tiny fraction of the people were literate, but perhaps it is due to this quasi-familial mindset. (Just as an aside: authoritarianism is inherently divisive, because anyone who contradicts authority is automatically schismatic, heretic; there is no possibility of agreeing to differ.)

Extending this line of thought: God or the priest as father-analogue puts us perpetually in the role of child, unable to make decisions of our own and therefore to take responsibility for our own actions. ‘Just do what I say and you will be all right,’ may be comforting but it denies us permission to think and gives us a cop-out too. I would rather be an adult.

That expresses it as a personal preference, which it is, but there is a stronger argument from fairness. If we all put ourselves in the ‘child’ role, no-one takes any decisions; things are better if we all put ourselves in the ‘priest’ role (that was the original impetus for the Protestant Reformation, though it has been eroded over the centuries since then) but we are still looking to God or scripture for direction rather than thinking for ourselves.

At this point I am ready to say that I cannot accept any religion which requires uncritical acceptance of dogma (scripture, the priest’s announcements) or any religion which posits an active, interventionist, personal God, or any religion which supports oppression of one group of people by another, especially on the basis of an accident of birth (e.g. gender, ethnicity, social class).

That knocks out Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the three major monotheistic religions. (Judaism may be the least objectionable of the three in most ways but its emphasis on the ‘Chosen People’ is inherently divisive.) I don’t know much about Baha’i. I know it tries to take the best of the other Abrahamic traditions but leaves the contradictions between them unresolved, and it still passes personal responsibility upwards to a (paternalistic) God, so I won’t even look at it in detail.

There are strands within these religions which still appeal to me. They tend to be the strands which are least tied to the organisational structures, most individualistic and most mystical; the obvious inference is that they appeal in spite of, not because of, the religions they are derived from. If I get back to them it will be in the context of the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ (which is introduced at and discussed later in this article).

Dharmic religions

What of the dharmic religions, then?

Hinduism is the oldest, emerging in a recognisable form about 1500 BCE. It is polytheistic but many traditions view the gods and goddesses as merely aspects of one unknowable divinity and that divinity, in turn, as an image or personification of the dharma.

And the ‘dharma’ is the ‘law’ or the ‘way’ or ‘duty’ or ‘teaching’ or ‘reality’ – which highlights a difficulty Westerners have with Asian religious thought: translation of concepts. Even very simple foreign words resist translation into English (should ‘maison’ become ‘house’, ‘home’ or ‘mansion’?) and the richer and less familiar the concept, the harder the task of translation. I will try to present enough alternative translations to give a broad sense of each new term as I introduce it.

‘Hinduism centers around a variety of practices that are meant to help one experience the Divinity that is everywhere and realize the true nature of the Self,’ according to Wikipedia. Meditation, Yoga (four main forms of it – see and devotional practices are common. Most Hindus worship the impersonal, unknowable God (Brahman) in the more approachable anthropomorphic form of one of the many Gods or Goddesses – Krishna, Vishnu and so on.

The phenomenal universe (i.e. commonsense reality) is seen as Maya (illusion). Enlightenment consists of seeing through Maya to the ultimate, permanent reality of Brahman.

Buddhism split off from Hinduism in much the same way as Christianity split off from Judaism or, better, Protestant Christians split from the Catholic church. Most of its fundamental concepts are the same but the Buddha (born about 560 BCE) taught a gentler, simpler and more personal approach to enlightenment. If fact, his teaching has been summarised from within the tradition (Dhammapada 183) as ‘To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one’s mind.’ It looks like a good recipe to me.

The Buddha said daily life is unsatisfactory (in fact, brings suffering) because it is impermanent and yet we grasp at it, and that the way to escape its unsatisfactoriness is to learn, through a programme of ethical behaviour, study and meditation which he set out as the Eightfold Path, to stop that craving. God vanishes almost entirely from his scheme and so does authority (see below, Kalama sutta).

Both Hinduism and Buddhism are much older than Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and they have similarly split into multifarious traditions and sects – but without (and I think this is important) the bitterness (amounting to persecution and warfare) found between the Abrahamic religions. (True, there is religious violence in India, but it is between Moslems and Hindus.) I suspect this is due in part to the fact that neither religion has any centralised authority to be threatened by such splits. (There was an acrimonious split in Buddhism analogous to the Protestant/Catholic split in Christianity, but is was a very long time ago; it resulted in the separation between Mahayana and Theravada traditions.)

Jainism is older than Buddhism. It is radically ascetic (one sect refuses to wear clothes – at all) and radically non-violent; perhaps this is why it has never been a large religion. It rejects God in any form but venerates liberated souls.

Sikhism began in sixteenth century India with the teachings of a respected Guru and is now the fifth largest organised religion in the world. It is more doctrinaire than Hinduism. It can be seen as a fusion of Hindu and Islamic ideas: Hindu ‘enlightenment’ is redefined as ‘union with God’ which is to be achieved by devotional exercises (primarily meditation) but the unknowable creator God and Maya, the illusionary ‘real’ world separating us from the reality of God, are understood in much the same way as in Hinduism.

At this stage, I am prepared to say that the dharmic religions as a group are much more credible and attractive to me than the Abrahamic religions.

I like the stress on cause and effect and on personal responsibility for improving one’s life; the emphasis on non-violence; and the tolerance for different approaches to religious practice and/or philosophical enquiry.

Narrowing that down, neither Jainism nor Sikhism seem to contain anything I value except elements which are also present in Buddhism and/or Hinduism. In much the same way, I can say that Hinduism contains little that I value that is not shared with Buddhism; and Hinduism seems to carry more negative cultural baggage (Gods, and the caste system, for instance) than Buddhism.

Buddhism, in fact, seems to carry less cultural baggage than any of the other major religions – see my Buddhist Beliefs page for a summary. The Gods, incarnations, demons and other supernatural beings found (especially) in Tibetan Buddhism are later accretions from other (Hindu and native Tibetan) traditions.

Returning to an earlier theme: is Buddhism really a religion, or is it a philosophy? About 60:40 religion:philosophy is my estimate. There is an agreed body of scripture, and there is an organisational structure analogous to Christian churches, monasteries and convocations. On the other hand, there is no central authority, there is no prohibition on individual thought or practice, and no ‘god who must be obeyed.’

In fact, there is encouragement of individual enquiry. See, for instance, the Kalama Sutta (even the ‘translator’s note’ is enough, but the whole piece is relevant). The core of it (from the linked alternate translation) is:

The criterion for acceptance
[The Buddha is speaking.] “Come, Kalamas [i.e. people of the village he is visiting]. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘This monk is our teacher.’
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

So I will go further:

Theravada Buddhism seems to have retained the rigour of the original teaching rather better than Mahayana and is therefore closer to what I am looking for.

Other approaches

There are Westernised secularised versions of Buddhism and Hinduism (Transcendental Meditation, for instance) but they tend to be unbalanced, focused on isolated teachings and a fairly selfish search for personal happiness without any wider considerations. There are also Western ‘medical’ versions of meditation practice which tend to share the same fault. Melbourne psychiatrist Ainslie Meares was one of the first.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is similarly studying mind/body interaction from a Western medical viewpoint and promoting mindfulness meditation. ‘As in the Buddhist tradition but you don’t have to approach it through that tradition – it can be learned in a secular setting,’ is the way he described it in an interview with Margaret Throsby (ABC-FM, 21 December 2006). Kabat-Zinn is the founding Director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The Perennial Philosophy is well outlined by Aldous Huxley:

At the core of the Perennial Philosophy we find four fundamental doctrines.

First: the phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness–the world of things and animals and men and even gods–is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

Fourth: man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground. … These four doctrines constitute the Perennial Philosophy in its minimal and basic form.

So far, so good. He continues:

A man who can practice what the Indians call Jnana yoga (the metaphysical discipline of discrimination between the real and the apparent) asks for nothing more. This simple working hypothesis is enough for his purposes. But such discrimination is exceedingly difficult and can hardly be practiced, at any rate in the preliminary stages of the spiritual life, except by persons endowed with a particular kind of mental constitution. That is why most statements of the Perennial Philosophy  have included another doctrine, affirming the existence of one or more human Incarnations of the Divine Ground [Logical error? Aren’t the ‘statements of the Perennial Philosophy’ abstractions from religions, so God was there all along and has just been acknowledged?], by whose mediation and grace the worshipper is helped to achieve his goal–that unitive knowledge of the Godhead, which is man’s eternal life and beatitude [Defaulting to Christian conceptualisation].

The biggest fault in Huxley’s analysis is that he is blind to the evils and nonsense that are carried alongside the Perennial Philosophy in mainstream religions. In fact, he goes on to say that any of the major religions is an acceptable substitute for the Perennial Philosophy. By doing so he loses my remaining support.

The people behind see themselves as inheritors of the twentieth century movement. Sadly, examination of their writings reveals the faults I see in Huxley’s outline, and more: a small, inward-looking group of people who rely on cult-like authority and highly improbable ‘historical’ traditions.

Some (e.g. The Charter for Compassion) would like to use the Golden Rule instead of the Perennial Philosophy as their abstracted-from-all-religions solution to the problems created by conflicts between religions. To illustrate its universality, I will just quote from a Buddhist discussion of karma formerly published on

The idea behind karma is not only found in Buddhism and Hinduism; it seems that the Bible certainly conveys the same essence:

All things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

Also the ‘Golden Rule’ of Confucianism makes a similar statement:

Tzu-kung asked, “Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?” Confucius answered, “Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”


For many more iterations of the Golden Rule, see  Ethic of reciprocity on Wikipedia. For another approach to reciprocity, which binds it closely with the Buddhist idea of ‘not-self’, see the interview with Douglas Hofstadter in New Scientist, Mar 10, 2007.

The beginning of a path

So what is the beginning of my path?

  • Truth and fairness.
  • The Golden Rule still looks good for a basic formulation of my position.
  • I reject monotheism and any (other) interventionist god/s whatsoever, along with any religious group which forbids rational enquiry or dissent.
  • Buddhism is the closest religion to philosophy and has some virtues philosophy and secular meditation practices both lack; it looks like my best way of further exploring my concerns from a moral perspective and gives me access to a refined tradition of concentration practices.
  • Yoga is a technical toolbox for the practice and may supplement Buddhist practices.

Since Buddhism looks likely to be important to the journey, I have taken time to study it. Core Buddhist Beliefs and An Introduction to the Main Schools of Buddhism, now also on this blog, are results of that effort.

Created 21 Jan, 2007;
refined and first published 2008;
added to this site (links updated, minor clarifications) Feb 2022

One thought on “Established Religions – an overview”

  1. Here’s another, and intriguing, approach to differentiating Eastern and Western religions:

    East and West, humans search for the divine. In the West, the divine is identified as external. In the East, the underlying world view is generally holistic and therefore the divine is identified as omnipresent, including within ourselves. It follows that one should be able to look within to find the divine, and so that’s apparently what they did in India for millennia. It also explains why science developed in the West (and might also explain why the West took a hard turn into materialism) – if the divine is external, then its marks should be identifiable in the material world. Eastern traditions can be described as consciousness religions while Western can be described as revealed religions.
    Buddhism is in this sense a consciousness religion in which the divine has been disassociated with the source. What we have instead is the result of Gautama’s inquiry into himself, as well as the observations of many others who followed in his footsteps down this path of internal inquiry where the divine is not posited from the start. Instead, we find emptiness.

    It’s a contribution to a debate about definitions of ‘religion’ on Dharma Wheel, a large online forum.

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