We are traditionally taught that the five great religions are Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as they are the religions with the most believers. It is often contested whether they are all religions, or whether they may be belief systems instead, and to answer this, one must firstly establish definitions for “religion” and “belief system”. A religion is the worship of one or many deities following certain rituals, often has a holy volume of reference and has a designated person (or persons) who officiates ceremonies of worship and represents the faith, while a belief system does not necessarily entail deity worship but instead is a set of values and morals that are accepted and followed, sometimes according to certain rituals.
Since most religions preach certain values, generally along the lines of piety, charity, kindness, etc., it can be deduced that most religions are also belief systems. However, since not all belief systems have a deity, belief systems may be a religion, but are not automatically so. While some may argue that Christianity is in fact a belief system, it would be wrong to say this and deny that it is a religion, considering the generally accepted definitions of religion and belief system. Christianity fills the “criteria” for a religion according to the definition given above. Firstly, Christianity, as the name implies, is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the son of God, who would have lived on the Earth approximately 2000 years ago, during Roman times.
There are many branches of Christianity, the two main ones being Catholicism and Protestantism, which are further divided into subgroups. However, common to all Christians is the belief in Christ as a prophet of God. Furthermore, Christian worship follows a clear set of rituals regardless of denomination, rituals that have certain key elements to them; readings from the written teachings of God and Christ, belief in a Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost), lyrical praise, prayer and often Communion.
Depending on the denomination, Christian worship is led by a priest, reverend, minister or other, sometimes numerous, leaders, who serve to catalyse people’s faith and open them up to the word of God. Lastly, Christians have a holy book, the Bible, which is divided into the Old and New Testament, in chronological order from events before (Old Testament) and after (New Testament) Christ’s birth. Therefore, we can conclude that Christianity is a religion, following the definition previously given.
The question that must now be asked is whether Christianity is also a belief system, or whether it is simply a religion. According to the Bible, Christ preached values of charity, kindness, piety, forgiveness, humility and peace. This is shown well in two of the most well known quotes from the Bible; “You have been taught, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to try to get even with those who have done you wrong. If someone slaps your right cheek, turn the other one towards them and let them slap it too. If someone sues you for your shirt, give up your coat as well”1. The following passage is also well known: “If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. […]
I would be nothing, unless I loved others. […] I would gain nothing, unless I loved others. […] Love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous, boastful, proud or rude. Love is not selfish or quick empered. It does not keep record of the wrongs of others. Love rejoices in the truth, but not in evil. Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting. Love never fails!” These two passages on the virtues of love, forgiveness and humility and their importance show quite clearly the values that are encouraged by Christianity, and help see how Christianity is not only a religion, but also a belief system, as Christians follow a set of clear morals, while still worshipping a deity following fixed rituals.
Perhaps another clear way of seeing the true difference between a religion and a belief system is by taking another example, that of Buddhism. It is contested today whether Buddhism truly has its place among the five great religions of the world, or whether it is in a different category. When trying to apply the definition of religion given above to Buddhism, certain discrepancies can be found. The most important and conclusive fact is that Buddhists do not clearly follow the teachings of a specific deity. Many would (wrongly) say that it is clearly the worship of Buddha that is the focal point, while in fact, Buddha is not one entity, but the idea of an elevated man who has fulfilled his own potential and had reached a state of enlightenment, called the Buddhahood. There have been many Buddhas in history, the first being classically described in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, with others following.
The concept is that all of us have within us the potential to reach enlightenment, as well as the capacity of doing the “supernatural” things that Buddha is credited with (levitation, control of martial arts, telepathy or “speaking with the mind”, healing, etc.). This state can be attained by emptying oneself of worldly and selfish desires and achieving a state of mental purity, where respect for other beings take precedence over personal comfort.
Also, Buddhists do not have a specific holy book, as much of the teaching is passed on from sage or Buddha to student. Moreover, Buddhist ceremonies are not officiated by one designated person; instead, Buddhist monks, who have devoted their life to the search for the Buddhahood, will play an active role in certain ceremonies, though much of Buddhist growth is done personally, or with only a few select people. Through all this, we can conclude that Buddhism is not a religion in the purest sense of the word, and seems to be a belief system instead.