America is both the most religious and most diverse country in the world. Around nine out of 10 Americans claim they practice at least one of several dozens of religions. Furthermore, the United States is the only developed nation in a recent Pew Research Center study where the majority of citizens reported that religion played a “very important” role in their lives. Understanding our religious landscape is important for evangelical Christians because we are called to live as missionaries in this culture of diversity. We can’t be effective if we are uninformed.
This truth hit home recently for Clayton, a 28-year old elementary school teacher in an underprivileged area in Lawrenceville, Ga. “I have taught kids from Peru, Mongolia, Ethiopia, Korea, and Madagascar. I had a little bit of everything in my classroom,” he says. “The majority of kids were not Christians like me, and I’m not allowed to indoctrinate my students with religion. I’m a teacher, not a preacher, and having to work in this situation really made me understand how religiously diverse America is.”
You may not be a teacher in a multi-ethnic classroom, but chances are you have friends, coworkers, and neighbors who practice a religion other than Christianity. “Now, other religions aren’t just across the world. They are across the street,” says pastor Dan Scott, author of Faith to Faith. “You need to know not only where we disagree with [religious beliefs], but what in them attracts an increasing amount of Americans.”
Every religion contains its own rationality. That is, most non-Christian religions have beliefs that promote some level of good ethics and wisdom. Therefore, it’s important that we evaluate the religions of our culture on their own terms, understanding the most alluring elements as well as their inconsistencies. Here are four every Christian should know about but might not.
Wicca: An Occult Classic
Wicca is a neopagan religion, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a new expression of a really old belief system. Based largely on pre-Christian earth worship, Wiccans worship a deity known as “the Goddess” and her companion, a horned god. Though most Wiccans will tell you they do not worship Satan, some Wiccan writings encourage followers to emulate the devil. They often practice witchcraft.
The beliefs are based largely upon the Wiccan Rede, which instructs to “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” This creates an “anything goes” sense of morality with no definite right or wrong and no sense of authority, even among their deities. In the Wiccan system, there is no confession for sin because there is no such thing.
Perhaps the most unique thing about Wiccans is the inner-diversity. “Asking a group of Wiccans to define Wicca is like nailing apple sauce to the wall. They will all give you different answers,” says Steve Russo, author of What’s the Deal With Wicca? “Since it is a self-styled religion, sometimes they take Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity and sprinkle some of their beliefs into it. This makes it appealing to the experiential, ‘whatever’ generation today.”
Though the numbers indicate that it’s a smaller religion per capita, Russo says Wicca is more influential than you might think. “There aren’t any hard, fast numbers on Wicca because there is no Church of Wicca, no place you can go count heads,” he relates. “I believe it is bigger than people estimate and it’s the fastest growing religion among high school and college students.”
Islam: The One You Think You Know
In a post-9/11 world, Islam is all over the place. And with great exposure often comes inaccurate caricature. What many people don’t realize is that in addition to the sects that we often hear about through news outlets, there are many other Muslims who practice a peaceful version of the often controversial faith.
“Christians need to know something about Islam. They need to know that it is not one thing,” Scott says. “Multiple millions of [Muslims] today are not Sunni or Shiite. They are Sufi, and these are good people of an intense prayer life.” This can make the religion both attractive and disarming to spiritual seekers.
Islam is an Abrahamic religion like Christianity, but the religions are a chasm apart theologically. It originated with the teachings of the 7th-century Arab political figure Muhammad and centers around the unity of a god they call “Allah.” Followers deny the existence of a Trinitarian deity. They tend to be deeply committed and devout, living up to the name “Islam,” which means “submission.” Adherents observe the Five Pillars of Islam: profession of faith, daily prayers, giving of alms, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca.
“Islam is a religion that emphasizes the simplicity of [Allah’s] will and the accessibility of [Allah], so it has many attractive features for 21st century individuals,” says Jacob Neusner, professor of religion at Bard College and editor of World Religions in America. This attractiveness has contributed to Islam’s high rate of growth and its status as the second largest religion in the world with nearly two billion followers.
Baha’i: The New Kid on the Block
According to the official Web site of the Baha’i faith, this is “the youngest of the world’s religions.” Baha’i was founded in the 19th Century by Bahaullah, a man of broad religious beliefs who claimed he was the most recent in the line of prophets that includes Jesus, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, and Zoroaster. The central teachings of Baha’i include the promotion of equality for every race and gender, the elimination of extreme poverty and wealth, universal education, and harmony between religion and science.
Perhaps the most interesting teachings of Baha’i involve the nature of truth. Practitioners believe that each person is independently responsible to search for truth. This, they say, should lead humanity to a common understanding and unity. Central to this is the belief that truth is relative to the individual rather than absolute. According to Baha’i, all religions are true and should be unified. “They believe that all religions should tolerate one another,” Neusner says. “And because they make sense of tolerance in a religious sense, they have a lot to offer contemporary people.”
Indeed, it’s easy to see how the virtuosic and conciliatory teachings of Baha’i would square with post-modern individuals. Perhaps that is why the self-described world’s youngest religion is also one of its fastest growing. Some experts estimate that there are more than 200,000 practicing Baha’i followers in the United States today.
Buddhism: Faith or Philosophy?
Buddhism is a unique religion in that some people deny that it’s a religion at all. Because it teaches virtue over theology, it is often classified as mere philosophy. “Buddhism has traits that make it a religion, but also traits that make it a philosophy,” Neusner says. “Buddhists have a tendency to de-emphasize the divinity of God. There are many people who think that Buddhism doesn’t have a view of God at all.”
Buddhism has several versions, mostly originating in India and the Far East. They center on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, who is seen of the highest expression of many “Buddhas” who have lived on earth.
The practice of Buddhism almost always builds upon a lengthy set of virtues. Among these is the suppression of desire, meditation, moral conduct, and simplistic living. Similar to the Christian Ten Commandments, Buddhists have five prohibitions, which include murder, stealing, lying, adultery, and taking intoxicants.
“Buddhism offers good advice and principles of great wisdom, which is why it is attractive, especially for the intellectual,” Scott relates. Buddhism is especially common among the educated, including college professors, which makes it a religion every Christian should know about.
The Christian Calling
There are great bridges of evangelism for every religion, including those mentioned above, but before we engage in evangelism we must understand what we are up against. The apostle Paul is a great example of this principle. When he spoke to the Greek philosophers in Acts 17, it was obvious that he had done his homework. In fact, his knowledge of their idols turned out to be the clearest path to sharing about the true God.
Many people rightly claim that we are living in an Acts 17 era today. As Christians we can no longer walk through life without knowledge of religions other than our own.
“Years ago, individuals would be almost aghast if a Baptist became a Methodist or vice versa. Today the lines are drawn between religions,” Scott says. “We cannot go back to an older America. We have to learn to understand our new neighbors. This happens by learning about the allure of these religions so that we can serve them and eventually take Christ to them.”