A brief introduction to the world's main faiths

The information below is a very brief introduction to the world's main faiths, adapted from the BBC Religion and Ethics website

Buddhism

Buddhism focuses on personal spiritual development and the attainment of a deep insight into the true nature of life. There are 376 million followers worldwide and over 150,000 in Britain. Buddhists seek to reach a state of nirvana, following the path of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who went on a quest for Enlightenment around the sixth century BC. There is no belief in a personal god. Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent and that change is always possible. The path to Enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom. Buddhists believe individuals are reincarnated over and over again. There are numerous different schools of Buddhism. 

Christianity

Christianity has over 2 billion adherents. 42 million Britons see themselves as nominally Christian, and there are 6 million actively practising. Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, and is the Son of God, sent to earth to save humanity from the consequences of its sins. One of the most important concepts in Christianity is that of Jesus giving his life on the Cross and rising from the dead. Christians believe that there is only one God, but with three elements: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Christians worship in churches and their spiritual leaders are called priests or ministers. Their holy book is the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments. Christian holy days such as Easter and Christmas are important milestones in the Western secular calendar.

Hinduism

Hinduism is the religion of the majority of India and Nepal. It has over 900 million adherents; the 2001 census recorded 559,000 in Britain. The term 'Hindu' was derived from the river of northwest India, the Sindhu. Later invaders used this name for the land and its people. The term 'Hindu' itself probably does not go back before the 15th and 16th centuries when people used it to differentiate themselves from followers of other traditions.

The 'ism' was added only in the 19th century in the context of British colonialism. Although it is not easy to define Hinduism, most Hindus revere a body of texts as sacred scripture known as the Veda, and draw on a common system of values known as dharma. Most believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma

Islam

The word Islam means 'submission to the will of God'. Islam is the second largest religion in the world with over 1 billion followers. The 2001 census recorded 1,591,000 Muslims in the UK, around 2.7% of the population. Muslims believe that Islam was revealed over 1400 years ago in Mecca, Arabia. Muslims believe that there is only One God, known by the Arabic word Allah. According to Muslims, God sent a number of prophets to mankind to teach them how to live according to His law, including Jesus, Moses and Abraham. They believe that the final Prophet was Muhammad. Muslims base their laws on their holy book the Qur'an, and the Sunnah - the practical example of Prophet Muhammad. There are five basic Pillars of Islamdeclaration of faithpraying five times a day, giving money to charityfasting and pilgrimage to Mecca at least once.

Judaism

There were around 13.1 million Jewish people in the world in 2007, most residing in the USA and Israel. According to the 2001 census 267,000 people in the UK identify as Jewish, about 0.5% of the population. Judaism originated in the Middle East over 3500 years ago. Jews believe that there is only one God with whom they have a covenant; in exchange for all the good that God has done for the Jewish people, they keep God’s laws and try to bring holiness into every aspect of their lives. Judaism has a rich history of religious text, but the central and most important is the Torah. Jewish traditional law, the interpretation of the laws of the Torah, is called halakhah. Jews worship in synagogues and their spiritual leaders are called Rabbis - there are a number of sub-divisions within Judaism in terms of belief and practice. There are also many who identify as Jewish without necessarily observing any Jewish law.