One’s own religion is after all a matter between oneself and one’s Maker and no one else’s.”

Khalil Gibran (Lebanese-American artist and poet)

Welcome to HRT3M World Religions and Belief Tradions: Perspectives, Issues and Challenges! You have chosen a dynamic interactive course that will introduce you to diverse human belief traditions, and help you explore and define your beliefs.

Throughout this course, you will explore how spirituality and religion can define a person’s identity and can influence what a person believes or thinks and how they might act or treat others. You will also be asked questions about your personal views about spiritual practices in Ontario and around the world. So, let’s begin.

What you will learn

After completing this learniing activity, you will be able to

  • explain why it is important to study diverse religions and /belief traditions
  • describe the connection between religion and philosophy
  • explain terminology used in the classification and study of religions and belief traditions
  • recognize the role of globalization in religious and spiritual diversity

Acknowledgements(Opens in new window)

The Quest

Silhouette of a hiker climbing a mountain at sunset

As you set off on this course, we are going to use the metaphor of a quest. A quest can be considered a challenging journey to seek and find the truth. For example, you will consider questions such as these:

  • Why do you believe what you believe?
  • What makes sense to you about your belief system?

To start off the thinking process, find and listen to the song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” by U2.

What is Bono (the lead singer in U2) talking about in this song?

Defining your beliefs

Can you identify with what Bono is saying? He’s considering one of life’s greatest questions. It sounds like he’s on a quest. Have you found what you’re searching for in life? This course could be the beginning of the quest you undertake to define your beliefs and consequently work out what you are looking for.

My Journal

As you go through these first four learning activities, you will be asked questions like the one you’ve just answered under the heading “My Journal.” The document “My Journal: Identity and Spirituality (Opens in new window)” lists all the Journal questions you will answer in the first four learning activities. Keep this document handy, so you can record your answers in it.

Note that you will submit your Journal answers for Learning Activity 1.1 and 1.2 and a reflection on them at the end of Learning Activity 1.2. And you will refer to all your answers to help you complete the first Assessment Task at the end of Learning Activity 1.5.

Why study religion?

A man thinking deeply, with question marks surrounding him

Religion is all around us. Pick up a newspaper, watch or listen to the news, or scroll through social media sites, and you’ll find news items about religious conflict, religious controversy, or maybe reference to a miracle that just happened. It’s a subject that we have all encountered or been taught, and its teachings can vary. As a consequence, experience with religion is different for all of us.

There are three main reasons why studying religion is important:

  • Religion can shape how people view themselves and others.
  • Religion is closely tied with culture, history, and conflict.
  • Religion is a part of past, present, and future.

Understanding yourself and others in new ways

Studying religion and finding out what you believe and how or why you have come to believe it can help you understand yourself and others in a new and deeper way. Knowing about other religious beliefs can connect you with new people and help you better understand a person’s actions.

For example, say you are a devout Catholic and you have a friend who is a devout Muslim. You may not understand why your friend must leave what they are doing and find a quiet place to pray facing Mecca. You also may not understand why they go through a period of fasting during the celebration of Ramadan. If you want to understand your friend, you need to have a good understanding of their religion.

Now it’s time to answer the first questions about your beliefs.

My Journal

What are your beliefs or values? Would you consider yourself spiritual?

How have your family or your friends shaped your beliefs?

Remember to transfer your answers to “My Journal: Identity and Spirituality (Opens in new window)” for these questions and all upcoming “My Journal” questions.

Culture, history, and conflict

Culture is the way of life of a group of people. It has ties in ethnicity, geography, history, language, and religion. In order to understand a person’s culture fully, you must understand their religion or beliefs.

My Journal

What culture do you identify with? Do you also identify with a religion?

Just as it is difficult to separate culture from religion, it also seems impossible to separate conflict or disagreement from religion. Conflict is not always negative. If you think about it, religious beliefs allow individuals to come together and form a religion with other like-minded people who think and behave as they do. The major conflicts occur with people who may not have the same belief system, and sometimes religious views are in such strong opposition to each other that the conflict becomes violent. This can also happen when one view or system of beliefs is forced upon people who did not originally hold this view or share this system of beliefs. Major conflict can also cause division within a religion, such as the conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which you will learn more about in later learning activities.

For example, the Crusades in the eleventh and thirteenth centuries were Holy Wars where the Christians wanted to avenge the Muslim capture of Jerusalem in 1076. These wars lasted over 200 years. Some historians see these wars as an attempt by Christians to impose their beliefs on others, while other historians see the conflict as defensive wars against Muslim conquest.

Your study in this course of the belief systems of Christians, Muslims, and Indigenous peoples will help you understand how conflict can arise and continue for decades, even centuries, when people disagree about culture and religion.

Past, present, and future

Religion is seen in the earliest forms of civilization. It is also in our world today, and will without doubt be evident in future civilization. For many people, their religion explains the creation of the world, guides their actions for their entire life, and also dictates where life will take them after they leave this earth. Studying religion can address any fear you may have in your own belief system, and it can make you more confident that your religious viewpoint is right for you.

My Journal

In what ways does studying religion and different beliefs or traditions enhance the ability to understand and appreciate diversity?

In what ways might the study of religions reduce the tendency of people to negatively judge others who are different from them?

A wide range of topics

To give you an idea of the diverse and stimulating content in the study of religions and belief traditions, here is an overview of some subjects covered in this course, with sample subtopics.

Subjects studied in this course Subtopics
Death and the afterlife The paths of the sun and the moon in Hinduism
Deities and the supernatural The Creator or the Great Spirit is an Indigenous spiritual entity; Allah is the deity connected with Islam; angels are spiritual entities in Christianity
Texts and sacred books Judaism and the Torah
Spiritual and traditional roles A priest; a guru; a shaman
Major historical figures Guru Nanak; the Buddha
Influencial activists Gandhi; Thich Quang Duc; Shirin Ebadi
Dietary components Jewish faith and kosher food
Rituals The Haudenosaunee and longhouses; Christianity and baptism
Culture Fashion and religion
Rules and regulations The Ten Commandments
Misconceptions Islam and terrorism; Indigenous traditional healing and magic
Conflict The Doukhobors in Canada
Philosophy The study of knowledge, reality, and existence

Keep in mind

As you work through the course, you will uncover many more subtopics. You may already have extensive knowledge of some areas, and you may also develop a special interest in subjects not yet studied. It’s all ahead of you!

What is religion?

Person in dark field is facing the rising sun that is about to bathe them in light

You’ve now explored the reasons for studying religion, but what precisely is “religion”? How broad or how specific is it?

Before you begin to consider the different subtypes of religion, think for a few minutes about the word. How do you define “religion”? What makes something a religion?

Now explore this short video to see 19 viewpoints on “What is religion?” from representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, as well as several faculty experts from the Religious Studies department at Missouri State University. This video was researched, produced, and edited by Julie Wrocklage, a resident of Missouri.

Indigenous ways of living

As you may have noticed, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit perspectives were not included in the video you just explored. Indigenous beliefs would not be considered or referred to as a religion by Indigenous peoples; rather they are world views or traditional ways of living according to one’s ancestors and ancestral knowledge. World views are systems of beliefs or values that inform decisions, perspectives, governance, ways of life, ways of knowing, language, and so on, and are directly related to creation stories. Each nation or community has its own distinct world view and do not all follow the exact same traditions or guidelines as another community.

Explore the following video to learn more about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit world views, and to explore beliefs from specific nations and community members.

My Journal

How would you answer the question “What is religion?”

How are you getting on? Before you go further in your study of religions and belief systems, you need to address the idea of philosophy and its relationship to religion.

Religion or philosophy?

Rodin’s statue The Thinker in silhouette

Traditional answers to the questions “What is philosophy?” and “What does it mean to philosophize?” go something like this:

Philosophy is a study that arises out of our wonder of the world. It focuses on fundamental questions concerning reality, knowledge, and life. Philosophy can also be viewed as a continuing exploration of three interconnected questions:

  • What exists?
  • How do we know?
  • What matters?

Aren’t these similar to the sorts of questions you might ask as you study religion?

  • Where is god?
  • Is there life after death?
  • Is there a heaven and hell?

Explore the video “What Is Philosophy?” Take notes throughout the video. You’ll hear some terms that you may not be familiar with, such as “metaphysics” and “ethics.” Look up the meaning of any terms that are unfamiliar to you. There will be a knowledge check following the video.

Knowledge check

Now that you have explored the video, have a go at these questions. Don’t panic if you don’t get them all correct the first time. Because this is new information, you may need to try a second time.

Select your answer, then click Submit to see if you are right!

As you go through this course, you’ll be asking yourself philosophical questions. In its attempt to clarify what exists in the world and what form it takes, philosophy teaches us to ask questions, analyze information, and draw conclusions about life, god, religion, mathematics – anything – in a structured, reasoned way. Your Journal questions could also be considered philosophical questions, as could the final question in the video you just explored: “What is the meaning of life?”

World view

It can be helpful to consider the components of a worldview (philosophy of life) when thinking about religion and spirituality. Keep the following diagram in mind as you proceed in this course. You may want to sketch out your own version that includes only key words from the descriptions.

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Press here for a long description.(Opens in newwindow)

Philosophy and religion

Do you feel that you have a better understanding of philosophy? Philosophy and religion definitely overlap, but they are two distinct ideas. Philosophy attempts to clarify what exists in the world and what form it takes; religion believes that a controlling power exists, and that controller usually takes the form of one god or many gods.

With a better understanding of philosophy, you can pursue your study of religions and belief systems in more depth.

You will also need to be able to recognize and understand some specific terminology. You’ll find this information in the next section of the learning activity.

Key terms and concepts

Before you begin to look at specific examples of religion, it is important to understand some key terms and concepts as you go through this course. Earlier in the learning activity, you considered the definition of religion and philosophy, and you learned that religion is made up of a set of beliefs. How, though, do you define a set of beliefs?

Religious terms

Here are some key terms that you need to know in order to succeed in this course.

Belief system
A set of principles or tenets which together form the basis of a religion, philosophy, or moral code.

Source: Oxford Dictionary

Example: Muslims have a particular belief system made up of the major points of faith relating to their belief in Islam.

A deity is a supernatural being who is divine and sacred. Depending on the religious tradition, there can be a focus on only one supreme deity or various deities.

Example: In the Jewish faith, Yahweh is known as the only deity.

Faith is the idea of believing without seeing or belief in something regardless of physical evidence.

Example: You have faith that your car can take you where you want to go. It’s in good condition and has not developed any troubling noises. You don’t have proof, you don’t know absolutely, but you trust that it will.

Theology is the study of God and religious truths.

Example: Within the Christian or Catholic faith, a person studies theology to be a minister or priest.

In the Christian faith, a denomination is a subgroup that functions under the umbrella of a particular type of religion. In the Jewish faith, a denomination is more often referred to as a branch/movement.

Examples: In Christianity, there are many different denominations, such as Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal. They all consider themselves Christian by religion, but each group believes in a Christian theology that might be slightly different. For example, to a Presbyterian, baptism involves sprinkling water on a baby. In the Baptist church, baptism is done by submerging an adult who has acknowledged a faith in Christ. In Judaism, some of the main branches (denominations) are Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative.

In Christianity, a sect is a subgroup or group that has distanced itself from a denomination. A sect is smaller than a denomination and often disagrees with the majority on what beliefs and values should be followed. Once a sect becomes widely accepted, it can become a denomination. Sect does not have the same meaning across religions. For example, in Islam, the two main subgroups of Shia and Sunni are referred to as branches, denominations, or sects by various sources.

Example: The Amish are a Christian sect

A cult is a particular type of religious group that is often secretive and can be run by a single leader. Unlike sects, cults do not usually form by separating from a denomination but rather are founded outside the boundaries of a denomination. Followers often live in close proximity to each other, sometimes in a commune setting. The evil and violence displayed by certain cults (as shown in the example below) has overshadowed the fact that most cults are not like this. It is interesting to note that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were originally cults.

Example: Jim Jones founded a cult known as the Peoples Temple in California in the late 1950s. It had extreme beliefs and was radical in nature. By 1978, he had moved the group to Guyana into a heavily fortified compound called Jonestown. On November 18, 1978, he convinced the group to drink Kool-Aid laced with poison and commit suicide before the ending of the world, resulting in the deaths of more than 900 men, women, and children.

It is important to note that the term "cult" is no longer being used by certain scholars:

The complexity of the subject has led scholars to abandon the popular term "cult" - which became associated with the 1978 People's Temple mass suicide/murders in Jonestown, Guyana; the Waco tragedy; the Solar Temple murders in Québec and Switzerland; and similar events worldwide - in favour of the more neutral term "New Religious Movements."


Well-known “isms”

In religious studies, there are several terms to remember that end in “ism.” Review the following list. Two of the most important “isms” you need to know are atheism and agnosticism.

Atheism is the rejection of a belief system that has faith in the existence of deities or in the supernatural.

Example: An atheist may believe in the scientific theory of evolution and the Big Bang Theory to explain the existence of the universe, instead of creation by a divine being.

Agnosticism is a philosophical view that it is impossible to ever know which religious beliefs, if any, are true.

Example: William L. Rowe, professor emeritus of philosophy at Purdue University, and specialist in the philosophy of religion, says "an agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of god(s)." An agnostic’s viewpoint therefore is not as forthright as that of an atheist, who believes that god(s) do not exist.

Monotheism is the belief in one supreme deity.

Example: In Judaism, Yahweh is considered to be the one true God.

Polytheism is the belief in multiple gods and goddesses.

Example: The ancient Greeks believed in hundreds of gods and goddesses organized into a pantheon (a supernatural world). Specific gods or goddesses had different duties or obligations: for example, Hades had control over death and Aphrodite was the goddess of love.

Pantheism is the belief that the entire universe is divine, meaning there are no specific gods, but all of nature is part of the supernatural.

Example: In Hinduism, believers have a pantheistic view of the universe. It is considered the oldest religious tradition to hold this view.

Animists believe that non-humans, like animals, plants, and nature, contain spirit entities.

Example: Many Native Americans and Indigenous peoples in Canada believe "The Great Spirit" oversees creation. When they hunt and kill an animal for food, they say a prayer to give thanks for the animal’s spirit.

Knowledge check

For each term, select the corresponding definition from the drop-down menu.

Select your answers, then click Submit to see if you are right!

Key terms and concepts

The insider-outsider problem

A good grasp of religious terms and “isms” is important, but when studying religion, it is also crucial to be aware of a concept called the “insider-outsider problem.” Listen to religions researcher Dr. George Chryssides explain what this means.


Thinking ahead

You may already have heard some of the terms covered in this section or been exposed to them because of the multicultural environment we live in. In the next section, you will see how the process of globalization has changed world religions.

History, globalization, and religion

World map with glowing network connections

So how did each major religion emerge and spread into new areas? What world views existed in North America before the spread of these religions? Next, you will check out an interactive map to find some answers before responding to some questions about what you discovered.

Colonization and world views

Indigenous world views are something known to Indigenous people since time immemorial, meaning beyond memory, tradition, or record. In this sense, these world views are ancient and have always been here and a part of the land of Turtle Island (the Indigenous name for pre-contact North America and remains in use to acknowledge Indigenous presence on the land and resist colonization).

However, these world views were not respected by European settlers or early European missionaries when they came to Turtle Island. These world views weren’t respected because they were not written and ultimately were not Christian. Christians believed that their religion was superior and all those who did not follow the faith were “uncivilized” and needed to be saved. This caused friction and violence across Turtle Island as European denominations and colonizers forcibly converted or killed Indigenous peoples who resisted. This is a brief synopsis; however, you will learn about these events in more detail later in the course.

Knowledge check

Which major religion began first and in what area of the world?

Which two religions take up the majority of the map?

Why do you think the areas for each religion constantly change throughout history?

Globalization and religious diversity

As you just learned from the map activity, different religions throughout history have spread into many areas in the world where they may not have been before. In the past, this was likely due to the relationship between power and control over empires and nations.

Globalization is a process of interaction and integration among the people, companies, and governments of different nations, a process driven by international trade and investment and aided by information technology.

Today, the spread of religion can be explained by globalization, immigration, and the continued impacts of colonization.

Religious diversity in Canada

Indigenous peoples’ beliefs and spiritual practices are diverse and are different across the country depending on the community, region, or nation someone is from. However, early settlers in Canada feared this diversity and focused on making Christianity the only belief system as more and more European immigrants arrived. Due to the fear of diversity in spiritual beliefs and continued immigration of Europeans, by the early 1900s Canada was predominantly Christian. This has had a profound effect on the reporting of Indigenous spirituality today.

Just over 64,900 people reported in the [2011 National Household Survey] that they were affiliated with traditional Aboriginal spirituality. They represented 4.5% of the Aboriginal population and 0.2% of the population as a whole.

Source: Statistics Canada

Now consider this snapshot of the main world religions practised in Canada according to the 2001 census.

Table of data showing religious affiliations in Canada according to 2001 census.

Now zero in on the level of religious diversity in Ontario’s Halton region in 2006.

Pie chart

Fig 1-1: Religious diversity in Ontario's Halton region in 2006: Protestant 155,680, Catholic 128,580 Christian Orthodox 5755, Christian (not included elsewhere) 7676, Muslim 4730, Hindu 2835, Sikh 2820, and Jewish 1840.

While Christianity is still predominant, other major world religions are on the rise in Canada:

In 2011, about 2,373,700 people, or 7.2% of Canada’s population, reported affiliation with one of [Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism]. This was up from 4.9% a decade earlier, as recorded in the 2001 Census.

Source: Statistics Canada

You may want to research more recent data to get a more current snapshot of religious diversity in Ontario and in Canada as a whole.

Now consider the following questions.

In what ways does globalization increase the need for us to learn about the belief systems of others?

Why does the violent history of colonization increase the need for us to learn about Indigenous beliefs?

Introducing the icons used in this course

You’ve just considered some statistics about religious diversity in Canada and Ontario. This course will take an in-depth dive into current statistics and evolving beliefs of six major religions from around the world. Ontario is home to significant numbers of believers in all of these religions, and it is also home to many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, who have their own distinct spiritual traditions. We will examine closely at Indigenous beliefs in our studies so in all we will consider six world religions and diverse spiritual traditions across Canadian Indigenous communities.

Throughout the course, the following icons will identify information related to these religions and spiritual traditions. The icons are in fact symbols that are deeply meaningful. You will learn about the meaning of these and other symbols in the second half of the course.

christian cross  Christianity OM  Hinduism
Sikh khanda sword and two swords over a circle  Sikhism Star of David  Judaism
Islamic moon and star  Islam A seated Buddha  Buddhism
 Circular icon containing a feather, an inuksuk, and the infinity symbol.First Nations, Métis, and Inuit spiritual traditions

As you continue

Religion is a complex and often contentious topic. While you might not have a personal theory about philosophy or physics, you probably have a strong opinion about religion.

Yet, as you have begun to see, the discipline of philosophy and its critical thinking processes can be applied to religious and spiritual topics.

By exploring different views and beliefs and asking questions, it is possible to see the bigger picture and increase the level of respect and empathy when discussing religious or spiritual topics.