An Animated Introduction to the World’s Five Major Religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity & Islam

No mat­ter the strength of par­tic­u­lar beliefs, or dis­be­liefs, reli­gions of every kind are all equal­ly fun­da­men­tal to the human expe­ri­ence. This was so for thou­sands of years before the advent of the world’s big five reli­gions, and for thou­sands of years after. “Reli­gion has been an aspect of cul­ture for as long as it has exist­ed, and there are count­less vari­a­tions of its prac­tice,” says Epis­co­pal priest and anthro­pol­o­gist John Bel­laimey in the TED-Ed video above. “Com­mon to all reli­gions is an appeal for mean­ing beyond the emp­ty van­i­ties and low­ly real­i­ties of exis­tence.”

Reli­gions par­tic­u­lar­ize a set of arche­typ­al human respons­es to uni­ver­sal meta­phys­i­cal ques­tions like “Where do we come from?” and “How do I live a life of mean­ing?” and “What hap­pens to us after we die?” Such ques­tions find answers out­side the bound­aries of reli­gious faith. For an increas­ing num­ber of peo­ple, sci­ence and sec­u­lar phi­los­o­phy offer com­fort­ing, even beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral­is­tic expla­na­tions. And mil­lions more feel the pull of intu­itions about a high­er pow­er or “a source from which we all come and to which we must return.”

Reli­gion gives the big ques­tions faces and names, of divini­ties, demons, and holy men (in the five big, it has been almost entire­ly men). Whether these fig­ures exist­ed or not, their leg­ends shape cul­ture and his­to­ry and are shaped and changed in turn. Bel­lamy sur­veys the big five world reli­gions with an overview of their cen­tral nar­ra­tives, illus­trat­ed with mon­tages of reli­gious art. The infor­ma­tion is at the lev­el of a 101 course intro­duc­tion, but the num­ber of peo­ple in the world who know lit­tle to noth­ing about oth­er reli­gions is like­ly quite high, giv­en the num­bers of peo­ple who know so lit­tle about their own. We can prob­a­bly all learn some­thing here we didn’t know before.

Bellamy’s approach broad­ly sug­gests that what mat­ters most in reli­gion is sto­ry. But to dis­miss reli­gions as “just sto­ries” miss­es the point. Pure­ly at the lev­el of nar­ra­tive, we can think of reli­gions as cre­ative ways to tell the sto­ries we find untellable. This says noth­ing about religion’s effects on the world. Is it a force for good or ill? Giv­en its role in every stage of human cul­tur­al devel­op­ment, both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive, maybe the ques­tion is unan­swer­able. There are too many vari­eties of reli­gious expe­ri­ence over too great a span of time to reck­on with.

Bellamy’s char­i­ta­ble expla­na­tions of the major five reli­gions high­light their con­tin­gent nature—he locates each faith in its par­tic­u­lar time and place of ori­gin. But he also shows the uni­ver­sal­iz­ing ten­den­cies of each tra­di­tion, qual­i­ties that made them so portable. He does not, how­ev­er, men­tion that more inclu­sive inter­pre­ta­tions usu­al­ly came from revolts against more lim­it­ed orig­i­nal designs. Reli­gions and cul­tures evolved togeth­er, mate­ri­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly. As they spread and occu­pied more ter­ri­to­ry with wider pop­u­la­tions, they grew and adapt­ed.

In his book The Tree of World Reli­gions, Bel­lamy devel­ops such his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al into an explo­ration of twen­ty world reli­gions from Hin­duism to Rasta­far­i­an­ism, show­ing each one as a col­lec­tive act of sto­ry­telling. Com­piled from a 25-year high school world reli­gions class Bel­lamy taught, the book cov­ers the Mayans, the Norse, and Socrates, Laozi, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Bud­dha. In what Karl Jaspers called “the Axi­al Age,” writes Ama­zon, these lat­er sages “moved reli­gion from most­ly-super­nat­ur­al to most­ly-human­is­tic, shift­ing the focus on God’s inscrutable oth­er­ness to God’s increas­ing insis­tence on eth­i­cal behav­ior as the high­est form of wor­ship.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Visu­al Map of the World’s Major Reli­gions (and Non-Reli­gions)

Chris­tian­i­ty Through Its Scrip­tures: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty 

Take Harvard’s Intro­duc­to­ry Course on Bud­dhism, One of Five World Reli­gions Class­es Offered Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Joshua Blackstone says:

    Bud­dhism is not a “reli­gion”. It is the study of how to free one­self from the tyran­ny of attach­ment. Bud­dha declared the dhar­ma was not a reli­gion and he was not to be wor­shipped.

  • Rupak Bhattacharyya says:

    It is high time that sci­en­tists and tech­nol­o­gists take over all reli­gions, do a thor­ough analy­sis, and draft a new reli­gion that meets lat­est tech­no­log­i­cal and social require­ment and make it sim­ple to prac­tice. If God is one, there can be only one reli­gion uni­ver­sal­ly. At this point of time reli­gion has been divid­ing the soci­ety; peo­ple are fight­ing and killing each oth­er. A sin­gle reli­gion can elim­i­nate one of the main con­flicts in human soci­ety. By the way I am non reli­gious.

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