The Atheist Bible, CC-BY Fabian M. Suchanek

Definition of Religion

Defining religion

Atheism is the rejection of the belief in the supernatural. This means that atheists do not believe in gods, spirits, or the afterlife, and they do not adhere to a religion. We have already defined what we mean by the supernatural. We shall now define also the notions of gods, spirits, and religion.

We start with the definition of religion, new religious movements, and mythologies. This is a difficult endeavor, because existing definitions vary widely: a religion is variously defined as a “faith”, a “system”, a “belief”, a “group”, an “activity”, or even “a relation with what is holy”; a new religious movement, likewise, as a “faith”, “group”, “movement”, or as “what is otherwise known as a cult”; and a myth as a “narrative” or “story” — without any link between the three. Our definitions will put them all on an equal footing.

Belief systems

A belief system is an umbrella term that we will use to encompass religions, , sects, denominations, cults, mythologies, interpretations of religions, and spirituality.

A belief system is a set of statements (the “beliefs”), some of which are supernatural statements, i.e., basically unfalsifiable statements. Typically, belief systems also contain a moral framework and a set of rituals . These rituals are usually activities that are performed by adherents of the belief system, with the goal of interacting with (or pleasing) the supernatural.

Consider for example the following set of beliefs 1:

Looking at this set of statements, the reader may have noticed that the first claim, that “everything in the universe is alive and in harmony with the infinitely large and infinitely small”, is an unfalsifiable abstract universal hypothesis. The claim evades human perception, and this makes it a claim about the supernatural. The statements also contain a moral framework of do’s and don’ts (i.e., “Do not be violent”), and therefore, the set is a belief system in the sense of this book.

Generally speaking, once a set of statements includes a claim about the supernatural , the tenets qualify as a belief system. Beyond that, the full set of beliefs may be more complicated. In fact, it is not always possible to compile a definitive and/or comprehensive list of statements for every belief system. This is why, in this book, we will never fully spell out the entire list of beliefs of a religion. We will not say “The beliefs of religion X are...”, but only “The beliefs of religion X include...”.

New religious movements

A new religious movement is a belief system that has adherents but is not yet old enough to be a religion. Such a movement will become a religion when it stands the test of time. This can range from 50 to 200 years, though at the very least, a leader of a New Religious Movement usually must pass away before it is accepted as a religion).

The transition from new religious movement to religion can still be observed today. The Bahai Faith, for example, was generally considered a new religious movement when it first rose to prominence in the late 19th century. Today, however, the Bahai Faith is recognized as a religion in Western countries. In large part, this is because its leader is dead, it is sufficiently old (150 years), and it has gathered a substantial number of adherents (a few million). That said, there is no universal standard for what is considered a religion. In Iran, Bahais are persecuted as heretics, while Indonesia is moving very slowly towards recognizing the faith as a religion, as of 20162.

Scientology, in contrast, is still mostly regarded as a new religious movement. This is, in part, because it was founded only in the 1950’s. However, as time passes, it may start to be recognized as a religion. In the US, for example, that is already the case. Raëlism, the belief system that we read about above (with the extraterrestrials) also remains a new religious movement: it is relatively young (dating back to the 1970s) and its leader, Raël, is still alive. As is clear from these examples, the difference between a new religious movement and a religion is only a matter of degrees.

Cults

A cult is a group with socially deviant or novel beliefs and practices .

Ira A. Lipma n, vice chairman and founder of one of the largest private security companies in the United States, detailed his experience with people who join cults in his book How to Be Safe 3. According to Lipman, some people join cults because of what he terms a “frustration” with established religion, while others are desperately searching for acceptance. The cult becomes their surrogate family and the leader, a father figure. Recruits are not usually passive targets overpowered by mind controllers. Rather, a cult serves the specific needs of its followers.

Cults are often perceived as more dangerous than religions for the following reasons: cults have unique characteristics that may include a charismatic and controlling leader who claims to have a direct line to a higher power; brainwashing techniques that instill fear, guilt, and shame, and foster dependence on the leader; pressure to cut ties with family and friends; an intolerance of questioning of the cult’s beliefs and practices; financial exploitation; criminal activity; and often an apocalyptic belief about the imminent end of the world. 3

It turns out that some religions shared these characteristics in their early stages. Take Islam, for example. From its beginning, Islam had a charismatic and controlling leader (the Prophet Mohammed) who reported to have a direct line to a higher power, and who was considered a criminal by his adversaries at the time . To this date, conservative interpretations of the Islamic faith show an intolerance to questioning their beliefs, encourage adherents to cut ties with family members who have left the faith, and believe in the coming end of the world (called “Yawm al-Qiyamah”). The same goes for Christianity: Jesus was a charismatic leader, and he was executed as a criminal by the Roman authorities of his time. Christianity then rose to a world religion that, historically, instilled guilt and fear, condemned all unbelievers to hell, and punished the questioning of its beliefs. To this date, it believes in an Apocalypse, and has leaders who take financial advantage of their followers.

Clear from these examples is that there is not much difference between a cult and a new religious movement that may eventually turn into a world religion. Accordingly, this book does not use the term “cult” when discussing belief systems.

In a cult, there is a person at the top who knows it’s scam.
In a religion, that person is dead.

Sects

A sect is a subgroup of a religious, political, or philosophical belief system .

Although usually regarded as something deviant, most religions were sects in their beginnings, in the sense that they all split off from another religion. For example, at its foundation, Christianity was a sect in all senses of the word. At first, the followers of Jesus Christ were only a small group of Jews, and even after the death of Jesus, they still identified, and were regarded by others, as Jewish. Later, Christianity began to develop into a belief system of its own, at which point it ceased to be a sect of Judaism. At that time, Christians were hated and persecuted because they were seen as transgressing Jewish law. It was only when Constantin the Great made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire that the sect became a major religion.

Like a cult or a new religious movement, a sect can turn into a religion. Therefore, this book does not use the word sect and instead uses the term “new religious movement” instead.

Mythology

Zeus, a god in the Greek mythology — pensioned off to the Louvre. CC0 Marie-Lan Nguyen
A myth is a traditional story, especially one that concerns the early history of a people or that explains a natural or social phenomenon, typically involving supernatural beings or events. A mythology is a collection of myths that is shared among a population. Well known examples include Greek mythology (containing stories of Zeus, Persephone, Athena, etc. ), Norse mythology (with Odin, Thor, Loki, etc.) , and Maya mythology (featuring Chaak, Yum Kaax, Pawahtuun, etc.) .

Interestingly , people believed in these myths with the same fervor that people believe in religions today. For example, the ancient Vikings were such ferocious warriors also because they believed that would meet Odin or Freya when they died in battle. The Mayas, for their part, believed so fervently in their gods that they sacrificed animals and humans (including children) to them at times.

Therefore , this book looks at mythologies and religions in the same way: both are belief systems. The main difference between the two is simply that the followers of a mythology are no longer living, while the followers of a religion are still alive. One era’s religion is another era’s mythology.

Religion

For the purposes of this book, a religion is a belief system that
  1. is sufficiently old. Most notably, its leader has to be dead (otherwise it would be a new religious movement).
  2. and has followers that are still alive (otherwise it would be a mythology).
Whether a belief system qualifies as a religion has nothing to do with its content. Any belief system can become a religion with enough living adherents and with enough time. In this book, religions with more than 10 million adherents will be referred to as world religions.
A religion is a sect that succeeded.
Mila in “Je suis le prix de votre liberté”

Interpretations

As noted above, this book proposes that a religion is a belief system whose followers are alive, and that has been practiced for a long time. For example, the world religion of Christianity is a belief system that includes the following beliefs :
  1. There is only one God.
  2. Jesus is the son of God.
This belief system can, and is often, extended by more tenets depending on the interpretation of the followers. For example, liberal Christian churches allow gay people to marry, while conservative churches do not . Thus, a conservative flavor of Christianity may contain the following beliefs:
  1. There is only one God.
  2. Jesus is the son of God.
  3. Marriage can only happen between a man and a woman.
This set of tenets is again a belief system, and we will refer to it as an interpretation of Christianity. Technically, an interpretation of a religion is a belief system whose beliefs include those of the religion.

Denominations

In the example above, we have shown that a religion can allow for different interpretations. If an interpretation operates under a common name, tradition, and identity, it is called a denomination. For example, the Catholic denomination of Christianity is an interpretation of Christianity that includes the following beliefs:
  1. There is only one God.
  2. Jesus is the son of God.
  3. During mass, the bread used during the ceremony transforms physically into the body of Jesus.
The Protestant denomination of Christianity, in comparison, is an interpretation that includes the following beliefs:
  1. There is only one God.
  2. Jesus is the son of God.
  3. During mass, the bread used during the ceremony is a symbol of the body of Jesus.
Thus, each such denomination is again a belief system in the sense of this book. Since all Christian denominations share the core beliefs of Christianity (regardless of if they add their own) every adherent of such a denomination is also an adherent of Christianity as a whole.

Most religions have several such denominations 4. Christianity, for example, is split into Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox denominations . Denominations also exist in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and other religions.

A Christian was walking across a bridge one day, and he saw a man about to jump off.
He ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
"Why shouldn’t I?" he said.
"Well, there’s so much to live for!"
"Like what?"
"Well… are you religious or atheist?"
"Religious."
"Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?"
"Christian."
"Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Protestant."
"Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Baptist."
"Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
"Fuck you!" said the Christian, and pushed him off.
anonymous

The true interpretation

Denominations and interpretations are variants of the belief system of a religion. Each such variation carries a name that sets it apart. For example, the belief system with the following tenets is known as Shia Islam:
  1. There is only one god.
  2. Mohammed is the final prophet of this god.
  3. Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, is the divinely appointed successor to the prophet Muhammad.
  4. ...

Other denominations of Islam have different tenets and their own name. This variation within all religions is just fine, that is until one interpretation of a religion claims to be the only true interpretation of that religion. For example, Shias Muslims claim that Shia Islam is “The true Islam” (as opposed to, say, Sunni Islam). Similarly, many conservative Christians claim that their belief interpretation is “The true Christianity”. Naturally, this upsets believers of other interpretations, because, by the common understanding of the word “true”, it implies that one interpretation is better than the others. Much conflict results from this.

This book takes no sides in these debates. It is not the task of an atheist to decide which interpretation of a religion is the “true” one. In any case, none of them can be the true one , because the others cannot be false. They are all unfalsifiable. Therefore, for this book, each interpretation of a religion is simply understood as a set of beliefs, and none will be referred to as the “true” variation of their respective religions.

Wrong labels

A Hindu ritual

in Bali/Indonesia

As has been outlined above, a religion is a set of beliefs that contains statements about the supernatural as well as a moral position . For convenience, each such set of beliefs has been given a name. For example, the set of beliefs that includes the ideas of karma and reincarnation after death and the enactment of rituals is usually called “Hinduism” .

You might object to this labeling if there seems to be a conflict between the Hinduism that you know (perhaps without the mandate for rituals) and the Hinduism that this book describes.

However, there is no conflict. For convenience, this book labeled the set of beliefs above “Hinduism”. If you believe that “Hinduism” is the wrong label for this belief system, then you are welcome to use any other label instead. Perhaps you feel the correct label is “Indian Ritualism”. And if so, you are invited to load this book into a word processor and to replace the word “Hinduism” with the words “Indian Ritualism”. After this small change, you will agree with this book that “Indian Ritualism” prescribes rituals, and that it is a belief system, because it includes a statements that relate to the supernatural. You will also agree that Indian Ritualism is a religion that has a huge number of adherents (who are, in your view, those who misinterpret Hinduism by assuming that it requires performing rituals ). Thus, you will in fact agree with all the claims that this book makes — just under another name. But that is not a problem: This book is about concepts, and not about what you label them.

Questions of words are of little importance for us. It is for you to formulate your definitions in such a manner as to make yourselves intelligible to one another. Your disputes almost always arise from the want of a common agreement in the use of the words you employ [...] For spirits, and especially for those of high degree, the idea is everything, the form is nothing.
the spirits in Allan Kardec’s “Spirits’ Book”

Groups of religions

We sometimes group together several religions that share a subset of beliefs. For example, the religions Islam, Bahai Faith, Christianity, and Judaism all share the following beliefs, among others:
  1. There is exactly one god.
  2. Abraham was a prophet of that god.
  3. After death, humans go to either heaven or hell (both mystical places).

This set of beliefs is a subset of those that intersect the respective religions, and the religions that contain these shared beliefs are called “the Abrahamic religions”. In a similar fashion, this book groups together Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism and refers to them as “Indian Religions”, because they share a belief in the repeating cycle of life and death, as well as the concept of Karma.

Scripture

The Torah

in the Beth Hatefutsoth Museum in Tel Aviv/Israel

Many religions are based on scripture s. These are books, narratives, or laws that are considered holy. Christianity, e.g., has the Bible, Judaism has the Torah (pictured right), and Hinduism has the Vegas.

For the purposes of this book, a scripture is a set of statements. Usually, a scripture includes some supernatural elements, and thus, one could be tempted to call the scripture itself a religion in the sense of this book. However, the scriptures are rarely followed in their entirety. For example, Christianity has abandoned the prohibition of pork that the Bible prescribes [Bible: Leviticus 11:7-8, Deuteronomy 14:8]. Since a set of statements can only be a religion in the sense of this book if it is followed by people, the Bible itself does not qualify as a religion. Not every holy scripture is automatically a religion.

However, a religion may incorporate beliefs from the scripture. For example, the Bible says that there is only one god, and the Christian religion takes over this belief. Technically, the set of beliefs of Christianity and the set of statements in the Bible overlap. In addition, religions usually also incorporate beliefs about the scripture. For example, Christianity contains the belief “The Bible is the word of God”.

Sources of religions

For this book, a religion is a set of beliefs. These beliefs can come from different sources.
Scripture
Most world religions are based on scripture (sacred writings). While many world religions hold that their scripture was divinely inspired, or even dictated by a god, all scriptures were ultimately written down by people. It was always a human who held the pen. Most religions incorporate some of the tenets of these scriptures into their belief system.
Power struggles
Some denominations were born out of a struggle for power. In such cases, the new denomination received new tenets to distinguish it from the mother religion. For example, Anglicanism split from Catholicism in part because the English king wanted to get a divorce that Catholicism would not allow him. Hence, he created a new denomination of Christianity in which divorce would be practicable. This denomination also received new beliefs about the religious role of the king, and others that denounce the pope as “the antichrist, man of sin, and son of perdition” 5. As another example, Shia Islam was born out of a power struggle related to the succession of the Prophet Mohammed. Shia Muslims believe that a man called Ali is the righteous successor of Mohammed (as opposed to Abu Bakr, as Sunni Muslims believe). Therefore, the Shia profession of faith goes “There is no god except Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and Ali is the Wali (guidance) of God”. In both examples, beliefs about particular leaders made it into the belief systems of these new denominations.
Scholarly decisions
Some beliefs within a religion are determined by scholars. For example, in 325 CE, Christian scholars decided that God was triune. Since that time, the trinity has been a belief of most denom inations of Christianity. Likewise, in Judaism, the synod of Rabbeinu Gershom decided that polygamy was forbidden around 1000 CE. Since then, the prohibition of polygamy is part of the belief system of the Ashkenazi Jews. Today, the vast majority of Jews adhere to this prohibition as well. The same goes for the very foundation of monotheism: the Israelites decided to abandon all other gods in favor of Yahweh. They removed all occurrences of the other gods from the holy scripture. Nevertheless, some traces of the other gods still remain in the Bible, as a residue of the decision process that gave birth to Judaism as a monotheistic religion.
Political decisions
In several countries, the government steers the interpretation of religion. In Singapore, for example, all Muslim Friday sermons are co-written by government agencies, with the goal to entice believers to take care of family elders, live a healthy life, be good citizens, and have good relationships with those of different religions. The sermons also emphasize the role fathers take in childcare. Similar efforts exist in Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Arab Gulf States6. In these countries, the prevalent interpretation of the faith echoes the messages of the government.
Preachers
In areas where few people can read, religion is spread mainly by tradition and preachers. These preachers can to some degree define the beliefs of the religion. The adherents then consider these beliefs part of their religion. In Hinduism, for example, there are no universally accepted religious rulings. Rather, adherents usually rely upon the teachings of their family guru.
Inheritance from other religions
Many religions were influenced by the religions that were predominant in the environments where they were conceived. Buddhism and Sikhism, for example have adopted the concept of Samsara and Karma from Hinduism. Islam acquired the prophethood of Jesus from Christianity, while both Islam and Christianity took on the concept of a unique god from Judaism. The Bahai Faith sees itself as inspired by the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Spiritualism recognizes the unique god from Christianity and adopted the practice of meditation from the Indian religions. As another example, the primary scripture of Islam (the Quran) does not mention the practice of circumcision, the five daily prayers, or the Halal slaughtering method. These practices were added to the belief system from other religions: circumcision and the slaughtering rite from the Jews, and the five prayers from the Zoroastrians.
In each case, human made tenets were added to the belief system of the new religion, all of which now form an integral part of that religion. Anglicanism is as much a denomination of Christianity as is Catholicism, even if its belief system includes beliefs that were added during a power struggle. Judaism is certainly a monotheistic religion, even if the abandonment of the other gods was a scholarly decision. Buddhism is a religion in its own right, even if it took on concepts from Hinduism. Similarly, the five prayers are a natural part of the belief system of Islam, even if they were added only after the Quran was finished. Muslims in Singapore may believe that the father’s role in childcare is an integral part of Islam, even though this part was deliberately instilled by the government. And Hinduism is a proper religion in its own right, even if some of its tenets were most likely added by Brahmans. Thus, even if the belief system of a religion may contain elements that were added by humans, or inspired or adapted from other religions, these beliefs are nevertheless considered integral parts of the religion today.

From an atheist point of view, of course, this applies to all facets of a religion. All tenets of a religion were ultimately made up by humans. A religion is a completely human construction. None of the beliefs comes from a god. Therefore, it is futile, from an atheist point of view, for one to argue that any given religion could be “misinterpreted” by humans against God’s will. God’s will appears nowhere in a religion . A religion is simply a set of tenets, created by humans, which were then declared divine.

Talking about a religion

For this book, a religion is a set of beliefs. We will use the word “religion” metonymically as follows:
Religion X believes/holds/says/... Y.
The belief Y is part of the set of beliefs of X. For example, we might say: “Christianity believes in the triune God ”.
Religion X condemns/shuns/punishes/... Y.
The beliefs of X include a moral statement that condemns Y. For example, we might say: “The Bahai Faith condemns homosexual relationships”.
Variants/Interpretations/Denominations/... of Religion X do Y.
There exist interpretations of X that do Y. For example, we might say: “Variants of Hinduism believe in several gods”.
Historically, Religion X did Y.
There exists a historical interpretation of X that did Y. For example, “Historically, Confucianism had very brutal punishments”.
The scripture of Religion X says Y.
The statement Y appears in the scripture of Religion X. This does not necessarily mean that it also appears in the beliefs of X. For example, we might say “The scripture of Christianity denounces the consumption of pork and shellfish” — even if these beliefs are not part of Christianity today.
Adherents of Religion X generally believe Y.
The majority of adherents of Religion X believe in Y. Therefore, Y is assumed to be part of X. For example, we might say, “Polls show that Muslims generally reject homosexuality”.
Religion (in general)
The phenomenon that religions exist. For example, we might say “Several wars were supported by religion” to mean that “Several wars were supported by the fact that religions exist”.
After having defined religions, we will now turn to the primary entities in these belief systems: gods, spirits, and supra-systems.

Gods

Spirits

A faun

in the Jardin du Luxembourg Paris/France

For the purpose of this book, a spirit is an entity that is described within a belief system as
  1. acting independently, according to its own will
  2. supernatural, (i.e., its existence is unfalsifiable)
Examples of spirits are the angels in Christianity, the Jinns in Islam, the fauns in Roman mythology (pictured right), the Elohim in Raëlism, and the “shen” spirits in the Chinese religions.

Some religions aim to enter into contact with the spirits. In such cases, special people (often called “mediums”) receive mess ages from the spirits. In this way, one may think that spirits are a physical phenomenon, and that their existence is falsifiable. Yet, it is not. There is nothing that an adherent of such a religion would accept as a proof that the spirits do not exist. For example, the first mediums of Spiritualism (one of the most well-known religions in which adherents connect to a spirit world), the “Fox Sisters” Leah, Margaretta, and Catherine, later admitted that they had faked their contact with the spirits7. Still, followers of Spiritualism continued to believe in the spirits. Thus, even proof that the Fox Sisters’ contact was faked was not enough to convince adherents that spirits do not exist. Hence, their existence is unfalsifiable.

Local Spirits

A local spirit is a spirit that is bound to a particular physical object or location. Examples could be the spirit that lives in the big fig tree down the valley, or the spirit of a certain river.

Most early religions likely worshipped local spirits. Only later did universal deities appear — such as the Roman goddess of love, the Hindu god of destruction, or the all-powerful Abrahamic god. Some religions recognize both spirits and deities. Christianity is one example, as adherents believe in both angels and the all-powerful god.

Spirits of the Dead

A spirit of a dead is a spirit that is thought to rise from a dead person, and to continue to interact with this world after the person’s passing. Spirits of the dead are particularly common in Spiritualism. One particular form of such spirits are ancestor spirits, i.e., the spirits of a deceased relative. Spirits of the dead are frequently worshipped in Indigenous religions. The saints of Christianity are also, technically, spirits of the dead.

Deities

Krishna (left), an important god in Hinduism

in the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Singapore

For this book, a deity (or god) of a belief system is a named spirit that has sole power over one domain or all domains of life. Examples include Krishna in Hinduism (responsible for the domain of compassion and love), Allah in Islam (responsible for everything), and Neptune in Roman mythology (responsible for the domain of the sea).

This book understands a deity to be nothing more than an entity described in a religious belief system. We do not care about the metaphysical quality of deities, or about their relation to reality. Rather, we understand, categorize, and describe deities like characters in a book .

Not every spirit of a religion is necessarily a deity. For example, Christianity recognizes the spirit of the Archangel Michael, but he does not have power in any domain of life. Hence, he is not a deity. Local spirits and spirits of the dead, likewise, do not have universal or sole responsibility in any domain of life. Other cases are less clear-cut: Spirits of cities (such as Athena in Greek mythology) are commonly called deities — assuming that the city is a domain of life. The patron saints in Christianity are very similar to deities, but closely miss the mark in official theology: they do not have power over a domain, but merely advocate for it with the supreme god. The Abrahamic devil, likewise, is usually not considered a deity.

Historians have cataloged over 3700 supernatural beings, of which 2870 can be considered deities. So next time someone tells me they believe in God, I’ll point out that they are nearly as atheistic as me. I don’t believe in 2,870 gods, and they don’t believe in 2,869.
Ricky Gervais

Dualism

Dualist belief systems recognize two important deities: a positive deity, who works for order, justice, and happy humans, and a negative deity, who works for chaos, suffering, and injustice. These two forces are not sub-ordinate to each other. Rather, they exist on an equal footing, and are often balancing, competing or opposing forces.

One of the first dualist religions was Zoroastrianism, with the positive deity Ahura Mazda and the negative deity Angra Mainy u8. Dualist traits can also be found today in religions that have a devil (such as Islam and Christianity). In these systems, however, the devil is not on equal footing with the good god.

Godhead Deities

A godhead deity is a deity that consists of several spirits. The most prominent example within the Western religions is the Christian God: Christianity reveres both God the Father and the Holy Spirit. These two entities qualify as spirits in the sense of this book, because they are supernatural entities that act independently, but they are not, individually, deities, because there is no domain for which they (and they alone) are responsible. Christianity groups these two spirits together with Jesus to form one deity — the triune god. Another example of a godhead deity can be found in Hinduism, where some variants believe that the deities Vishnu, Lakshmi, Shiva, Parvati, Brahma, and Saraswati are but different aspects of the same, all-embracing godhead deity called Brahman.

How exactly the spirits are grouped together in one being is not always easily understandable. But it is also of lesser importance to an atheist. For the purposes of this book, we will simply refer to any deity that groups several spirits together as a “godhead”.

Supra-Systems

Some belief systems have what we will call a “supra-system”, which is a set of statements that describes the fate of humans after death, a causal link between human behavior and the fate they will meet, or an underlying world order of the universe. Different from a deity, a supra-system does not consciously act according to its own will. It is merely a description of the way the universe supposedly works. A supra-system is supernatural because its existence is unfalsifiable and because it evades human perception.

An example of a supra-system is the Hindu concept of reincarnation: Humans will have another life after their death, and their status in that life depends on their deeds in the current life. Another example of a supra-system is the “Tao” in Taoism, a set of statements that relate the natural order of the universe.

In such systems, gods may or may not exist. If they exist, they co-exist with the other creatures of nature. In other words, humans, elephants, apple trees, and deities are all subject to the same supra-system.

Abstractions

Some modern belief systems (which we call “metaphysical philosophies” in this book) have neither gods nor supra-systems. In their view, “God” is just another name for a metaphysical phenomenon such as the “first cause of the universe”. This god does not have any physical attributes. In particular, he does not have the characteristics that are commonly ascribed to the Abrahamic god.

Some of these philosophies, as in the example above, hold that “God” is a name for the abstract first cause of the universe. Others hold that “God” is a name for the universe as a whole. Yet others hold that “God” is a name for the “sense of life”, the “universal principle of existence”, or for the perceived one-ness of nature.

In this book, we will refer to such interpretations of the word “God” as “abstractions”. They have in common that they assume an unfalsifiable cause or quality of a natural phenomenon. They are thus supernatural beliefs in the sense of this book.

Extraterrestrials

Some religions hold that the Earth was created by extraterrestrials. Extraterrestrials by themselves are not supernatural entities. They are hypothetical, but their existence in the observable part of the universe could be proven wrong.

However, the religions that involve extraterrestrials typically assert that there is no way to prove that these entities do not exist. That makes the existence of these extraterrestrials unfalsifiable, and the claim supernatural.

Different Beliefs

Overview of today’s religions

There exist hundreds, if not thousands of religions and denominations. In the following Chapter on the World Religions, we will explore the more common ones in detail. In this chapter, we set out to provide a rough overview, classifying them as follows:
Indian religions
These include Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, with a combined 1.8 billion adherents , mainly on the Indian subcontinent. They share the concept of a supra-system that enables reincarnation and nirvana. These religions believe in several gods (variants of Hinduism), no gods in the Abrahamic sense (Buddhism, Jainism, variants of Hinduism) or one god (Sikhism, variants of Hinduism).
East Asian religions
These include Shintoism, Taoism, and Confucianism. These religions share the concepts of “shen”, or local spirits (“kami” in Shintoism). Taoism and Confucianism also know a supra-system that represents the general order of the world. Together, the East Asian religions have around a billion adherents.
Indigenous religions
These include traditional African religions, Asian Shamanism, Native American religions, Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal traditions, and Chinese folk religions, with around half a billion total adherents. While some of these religions may have historically wielded large influence (in particular before colonization), today these religions are often localized. Indigenous religions are commonly centered on the concept of magic, rituals, and the power of certain objects to ward off evil. They are usually animist, i.e., they believe in local spirits.
Abrahamic religions
These include Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Spiritualism, and the Bahai Faith. Today there are around 3.4 billion adherents in total. The primary, shared belief is a single, omnipotent God who created the universe.
New religious movements
These include the Wicca, the Rastafari, Unitarian Universalism, Scientology and others, with several million total adherents. These religions all emerged in the 19th century or later, and they often syncretize, re-interpret or revive aspects of other religions. Other modern philosophies reject the concept of religion and hold metaphysical or spiritual viewpoints instead .

Gods and Spirits

© https://www.godchecker.com/
Most of today’s religions, but not all, have the concept of supernatural beings. The beliefs can be classified as follows:
Polytheistic religions
Polytheistic religions worship many gods. These gods can be worshipped in addition to spirits. Classical examples of such religions in ancient times were the Greek and Roman religions. Today, the following religions are polytheistic: Hinduism (in some of its variants), Chinese Folk Religions, Shintoism, Wicca, and Druidry. Together, they have slightly more than a billion adherents.
Monotheistic religions
Monotheistic religions worship exactly one god — possibly in addition to spirits, but without a supra-system. The most prominent monotheistic religions are the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bahai, Spiritualism), Zoroastrianism, Yazdanism, and Sikhism. Spirituality may also be de facto monotheistic. Some variants of Hinduism are also monotheistic. Together, these religions have around 4-5 billion adherents.
Supra-system religions
Supra-system religions believe in a supernatural world-order, which usually involves reincarnation. In such systems, gods and spirits may or may not exist. If they do, they are subordinate to the supra-system, and thus of lesser importance. The most prominent example of these religions is Buddhism, with around half a billion adherents. Others include Taoism and Jainism. Hinduism, too, knows a supra-system)
UFO religions
UFO religions believe that there are extraterrestrial intelligent beings. Examples for such religions are Scientology and Raëlism, with a combined several hundred thousand adherents.
Animist religions
Animist religions believe in local spirits, i.e., they hold that natural physical entities (such as animals, plants, or inanimate objects) possess a spiritual essence. Examples for such religions are the many Indigenous religions and neopagan religions (those that aim to revive pre-Christian religions), with probably a few million adherents. These religions also sometimes venerate ancestor spirits.
Metaphysical philosophies
Metaphysical philosophies hold that “God” is just an arbitrary name for a metaphysical phenomenon. These philosophies do not believe in deities or spirits at all.
Around half of the world believes in one god, though it is not clear whether this one god is the same god. The other half of the world believes in several gods, no gods, or spirits. (The Website GodChecker.com maintains a list of gods, currently counting 4000 of them from past and present.)

Yuval N. Harari argues 9 that polytheistic religions are inherently tolerant towards other people’s spirits, gods, beliefs, and religions. In other words, there is no difficulty for the devotees of multiple gods to accept the existence of other gods. Polytheistic religions do not try to spread their faith or punish believers of other faiths. In contrast, monotheistic religions do not accept the existence of other gods. With the exception of Judaism, they are typically proselytizing, aiming to make the faith in the one god universal.

Birth of the Universe

In one Maori creation myth, the world parents are Rangi and Papa, depicted holding each other in a tight embrace CC0 Kahuroa
The Pueblo peoples believe that the ancestors first emerged from a small round hole in the floor CC-BY-SA Wvbailey
Different religions have different stories as to how the world came into existence. These can be classified as follows:
Single divine creator
In the monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity, the Bahai Faith, and Spiritualism), the universe was created by a single god. This god is eternal and was not created.
World parents
The world parents are a male god (commonly identified with the sky) and a female god (the earth). At its most basic level, the two deities procreate, creating the world, humans, animals, and possibly other deities. Variations of this concept appear frequently in Indigenous religions (such as the Maori faith), and also in some neopagan religions.
Extraterrestrials
In some UFO religions, the Earth was created by extraterrestrials. In Raëlism, for example, the Earth is a big scientific experiment run by extraterrestrials.
Transformation
In some creation stories, divine beings transform into other divine beings or into physical parts of the world. In variants of Hinduism, for example, Brahma, the god of creation, emerges from a lotus risen from the navel of Visnu (the Supreme Being), who lies on the serpent Ananta Shesha . Brahma then goes on to create the world.
Abstract
Some religions provide an abstract, non-physical explanation for the beginning of the universe. The Taoist creation story, for example, goes as follows: “The Tao gave birth to unity, unity gave birth to duality, duality gave birth to trinity, trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures. ” [Tao Te Ching / 42]
Existence for Eternity
Some religions do not believe that the universe has always been there. According to Buddhism, for example, world systems have always appeared and disappeared in the universe. Therefore, Buddhists believe that the world recreates itself millions of times every second and will continue to do so. In another example, Jainism holds that it is not possible to create matter out of nothing. Hence, according to Jainism, the universe and its constituents have always existed.
Others
Indigenous religions offer a wide variety of other creation stories. The Pueblo peoples, for example, believe that the current civilization arrived here from a previous civilization in subterranean worlds 10.
The above list of creation stories is complemented by an equally diverse list of legendary first humans.

Places of worship

Most world religions have buildings or places for communal worship. Common examples include synagogues in Judaism, Churches in Christianity (except Protestantism), and mosques in Islam. In most other religions, locations of worship are referred to as temples. Below are some examples of today’s places of worship.
The Phuc Kien Assembly Hall in Hoi An, Vietnam, a temple of the Chinese Folk Religion dedicated to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea
The seat of Orthodox Christianity near Istanbul/Turkey
Saint Peter’s Dome in Rome/Italy, the seat of Catholic Christianity
A Buddhist temple in Shanghai/China
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul/Turkey
The Lotus Temple of the Bahai Faith in Delhi/India
Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple. In Indonesia.
A Confucian temple in Shanghai/China
A Taoist temple in Hangzhou/China
A Hindu temple in Bali/Indonesia
A Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem/Israel

Supernatural Interaction

In most large religions, people aim to interact with the supernatural or spiritual in a variety of ways. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism all contain the concept of prayer, i.e., an imagined, personal conversation with the supernatural. Adherents of Judaism and Confucianism write letters to the gods. Buddhists have automated the process by so-called prayer wheels. These are wheels on which the prayers are written. Turning the wheel equals sending the prayer.
A Buddhist mass in Bodhgaya/India
Letters with wishes in a Confucian Temple in Shanghai/China
Buddhists praying in the LongHua Temple in Shanghai/China
Letters with prayers in the Jewish Wailing Wall in Jerusalem/Israel
Praying in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel , where Jesus is said to be buried
Buddhist prayer wheels in Bodhgaya/India

After having provided an overview of the variety of belief systems, creation stories, and forms of worship, we shall now look more closely into the world religions.

References

  1. Rael: Intelligent Design, 2005
  2. United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: “Annual Report 2016 - Tier 2 countries - Indonesia”, 2016
  3. Ira A. Lipman: How to be safe, 2014
  4. Adherents.com: Major Branches of Religions
    http://www.adherents.com/adh_branches.html
  5. Westminster Confession of Faith / XXV / VI
  6. Helmiati: “Friday Sermons in Singapore: The Voice of Authorities toward Building State-Centric Muslim Identity”, in Journal of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 2022
  7. Smithsonian Magazine: “The Fox Sisters and the Rap on Spiritualism”, 2012-10-30
  8. Encyclopedia.com: “Angra Mainyu”, 2019
  9. Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind, 2011
  10. Merriam Webster: “sipapu”, 2023