A.W. Tozer, a famous Christian thinker, is known for penning the words, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” He uses this statement to open his book Knowledge of the Holy. Even if you are not a Christian, there is much to be appreciated about Tozer’s statement.
Our lives are oriented around our belief (or lack of) spiritual things. No wonder, as religious philosophies concern what counts as ultimate reality, and pertains to our souls and the deepest questions of life. So what are the common religious philosophies today, and how should we view them? Let’s look at nine philosophies, in alphabetical order.
Sometimes Agnosticism is not a philosophy at all; it is simply ignorance, or not knowing what to believe. But there is a particular kind of Agnosticism, a “hard” or so-called “ornery” Agnosticism, which teaches that we can’t know things pertaining to religion; that the search for religious truth is considered a hopeless endeavor.
Reasons for holding a hard form of Agnosticism vary, but it is not difficult to imagine why. There are so many different view and opinions about spiritual things, so many arguments and so many different claims to truth that are difficult to sort through. By taking the hard, “we can’t know” Agnostic position, a person is able to stay out of the mess and carry on with life as he or she deems fit. But is this really a wise approach to the most important questions of life?
Some Atheists say, “I believe God doesn’t exist.” But many simply say, “I lack belief in God.” The distinction is that many of them don’t like to be associated with having beliefs of any kind pertaining to God, and they want to be clear that the burden of proof for belief is on the theist.
Typically, Atheism includes a lack of belief for anything pertaining to spirituality. Atheists operate under a naturalist worldview, where matter is all that there is, and everything — thoughts, feelings, consciousness, pain, suffering, etc. — can be reduced to chemicals in motion. There are no spirits, no seers, no reincarnation, no channeling, no karma, and no providence. The life you live now, is the only life you will ever experience.
Atheists are sometimes demonized in the minds of those who are spiritual/religious. This is unfortunate, as most Atheists care about people and the state of the world. They are concerned that spiritual/religious people believe through “blind” faith (which is sometimes true), which they would never do. They consider themselves students of Science and empirical evidence.
Atheism struggles to provide satisfying solutions to questions of purpose, meaning, destiny, and morality — at least, in any kind of absolute sense.
Buddhism is a popular Eastern religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama in the late 500s BCE. As the story goes, while sitting under a Bodhi Tree in deep mediation, Siddhartha became enlightened and was thus called a Buddha (often translated an “Enlightened one“). Siddhartha spent the remainder of his life teaching what he came to believe.
Buddhism recognizes reincarnation, but the goal is to get out of it and break from existence. The way of Buddhism is based on recognition and acceptance of these “Four Noble Truths”:
~ Life is suffering.
~ We suffer because nothing is permanent, and we are trying to hold onto things which are lasting.
~ We eliminate suffering by ending attachment to this life. We must break from desire in the cycle of life and reincarnation.
~ By following the 8-fold path (a set of moral guidelines to life), we are in a better position to understand the first three noble truths.
There is a psychological appeal here, as most people would agree that suffering is often (perhaps always) a result of something changing that we don’t want to change. The challenge for Buddhism is substantiating the rest of the system. What reason do we have to believe in reincarnation, and why should we believe the solution proposed by Siddhartha?
Christianity teaches that there is one God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who loves and desires to be in relationship with His creations. Yet all of humanity has done wrong in His eyes. This “sin” separates us from God, which He must punish, because He is holy.
But all is not lost, because God sent his son, Jesus, who willingly died on the cross as payment for our sin. Three days later He rose from the dead in bodily form, to offer eternal life as a free gift to those who confess their sins and receive Him for the salvation of their soul (see Ephesians 2:8-9).
Unlike most religious philosophies, the leading role is held by God, not people. God is the one who saves the day. In the Christian system, moral character is not the means to a relationship with God; it is a result of it.
It is also worth noticing that the central piece of Christianity is connected to an event in history. Christianity stands or falls on whether or not this historical religious figure named Jesus really existed, died, and resurrected. This event can be evaluated and weighed on historical grounds. We offer numerous resources on this website that answer these questions of history, to show why believers don’t simply rely on “blind faith.”
Hinduism is an Eastern religion with great diversity. Generally speaking, Hindus believe in karma, reincarnation, a caste system, and the Brahman, the absolute universal singularity in which everyone and everything is a part. The goal of life is to escape perpetual reincarnation by accumulating enough good karma over multiple lifetimes. Adherents tend to orient themselves toward on one of three divinities in the Hindu system: Vishnu, Shiva, or Devi. Oriented around a caste system, it is difficult to be a Hindu in a non-caste culture, especially if the culture values humanity having equal potential and freedom.
It’s a mistake to think of Hinduism as having a set doctrine. Many Hindu follow the Vedas, Upanishads, and/or the Bhagavad-Gita. Some forms of Hinduism involve gurus going into trance states, becoming possessed by various powers to provide specialized help. The culture of Hinduism varies by region, family influences, and other factors, and has a tendency to change or evolve. For this reason, Hinduism has often been called a way of life rather than a religion.
Islam considers itself the religion of Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Despite their similarities with Christianity, Islam theology differs dramatically in its view of God, Jesus, Scripture, and Salvation. Jesus was a great prophet, for example, but to call him “God” is a major abomination. Islam teaches that the Bible is corrupted, and that the prophet Muhammad provided the Qur’an, the only true word of God.
Of the most significant differences, salvation is a matter of moral character. This is largely determined by an adherence to Islam’s “five pillars”:
~ To confess, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.”
~ To pray five times daily.
~ To fast from sunrise until sunset during the month of Ramadan.
~ To make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in your lifetime, so long as you are able.
~ To give at least 2.5 percent of your earning to the poor.
These pillars, along with adherence to the Qur’an, are imperative for the salvation of Muslims. They are left to hope that they have been good enough to earn Allah’s favor into eternal life.
Jews trace their roots to Adam, Abraham, and Moses, similar to Christians. But Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah — because their Messiah has yet to come. The Jewish sacred text, what the Christian Bible calls the “Old Testament,” places special emphasis on the Torah, the first five books.
Judaism also developed an extensive oral tradition, which was written down as the “Talmud.” Judaism typically adheres to Rabbinic teaching and the Law of Moses. Adherents see themselves as belonging to the covenant of God, but they don’t share the New Testament view of God’s radical self-giving to forgive sinners and grant them full access to his presence.
New Age spirituality is one of the most diverse, and therefore most difficult, religious philosophies to succinctly define. Broadly speaking, this movement beckons followers to strip the different religions of their doctrine to fashion a spiritual smorgasbord from which to pick and choose.
It can be as simple as believing in your fortune cookie message, to being a full-fledged spiritual guru who performs healing therapy by channeling the energies with magic beads and crystals. Sometimes, New Age spirituality appears as a mystical movement that explores the idea of God consciousness within. Other times, it takes the form of a more magical movement with psychics, mediums, healers, and spiritual forces. As a whole, followers talk about enlightenment, about the exciting dawn of spiritual pluralism, and about helping people awaken to their self-potential.
New Age spirituality has become popular in the U.S. because it promises a have-it-your-way non-judgmental path to spirituality — it serves to “catch” those who forsake their former religious upbringing but desire to remain spiritual. I discuss this movement in greater detail in this article.
Modern Paganism is often called Neopaganism to distinguish itself from the old local village religions that we typically think of. Modern Pagans base their spirituality on nature, with an emphasis on practice, rather than belief. Their practices usually involve the use of magick (the “k” is used to distinguish it from fake “magic” tricks used for entertainment).
The most well-known form of Paganism is Wicca, of which there are variations. The basic form of Wicca worship involves creating or casting a circle somewhere, invoking or inviting deities into the circle, and using their powers to produce some kind of change. This can be concerning to any Christian friends, who understand that not all spirits are good ones.
I have not written this survey of popular religious philosophies without bias, but neither have I intended to mislead or deceive. Questions of God, spirituality, and religion are deeply important, both for daily life and eternity. At Josh McDowell Ministry, we have no doubt that the Christian faith is defensible and trustworthy. We know that Jesus is the Good News, and that God, alone, can address the needs of life over these other religious philosophies.
I invite you to spend time reading our online articles and resources, as well as Josh’s books, to learn about Jesus and the relationship He wants to have with you.