By Susan Davis Gryder 2014-06-12 06:19:56
For many, religious faith is a fundamental facet of their identity. Understanding some of the basic tenets of that faith is a crucial step in building an atmosphere of inclusion and respect. ACROSS ALL CORNERS OF THE GLOBE, you will find people of faith. The Pew Research Group estimates that an astonishing 84% of the world’s population is affiliated with some kind of religious organization or tradition; in 2010, this included 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1 billion Hindus, 500 million Buddhists and 14 million Jews. Add dozens of other formal religious groups around the world, including Baha’is, Jains, Sikhs, Shinto, Wiccans and more. Folk or so-called “traditional” religions are practiced by some 400 million people in Africa and China, as well as many Native Americans and Australian aboriginal people. Plus, there are 1.1 billion people who have no religious affiliation, which adds to the extraordinary diversity that we humans exhibit when it comes to faith. This incredible kaleidoscope certainly is reflected in our own population here in the United States. While the majority of adults in this country—nearly 80%—identify as Christian of various denominations, many other religions are represented in our population, too. With rising populations of immigrants from Asia and Africa, you may be encountering a wider array of faith traditions in your community today than perhaps you did as a child. For most of us, our faith—or lack of it—is an integral aspect of our identity. Disrespect, disparagement, stereotypes and downright bigotry about our beliefs can be as hurtful as attacks on our race, age, gender, sexual orientation or physical attributes. Building our awareness of faith traditions that differ from our own does not diminish our personal beliefs, but it can make a world of difference in establishing a welcoming culture of understanding, tolerance and respect. We all have to live—and work—together, after all. The pages that follow offer a very brief overview of some of the world’s major faith traditions. This article isn’t intended to be an in-depth study in comparative religions, but merely provide you with a simple introduction that may help you to understand a co-worker, a student customer or a neighbor just a tiny bit better. Judaism Three monotheistic religions have their origins in the Middle East and share some of the same traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The oldest of these, Judaism, was founded more than 3,500 years ago, and is a monotheistic religion, which means that its followers believe in a single God. In the Jewish faith, God is considered transcendent, all-knowing and all-powerful; a God who has always existed—and who always will. Jews believe that they are God’s chosen people—not because they are better than anyone else, but because they have a mission, having made a covenant with God: in exchange for God’s favor, they keep His laws and work to bring holiness into their daily lives. Jewish tradition includes several holy days: although Hanukkah and Passover probably are the most well-known, the most important holidays include Rosh Hashanah (the New Year of the Jewish calendar) and Yom Kippur (the traditional day of atonement). In addition, Jews observe many rituals tied to milestones in a person’s life, from birth to coming-of-age ceremonies (Bar/Bat Mitzvahs) at age 13, to traditions for mourning the dead. The Jewish holy book is known as the Torah, which strictly refers to the five Books of Moses but is often used to refer to the collection of books known by non-Jews as the Old Testament. In addition, Jews read and study a set of commentaries and explanations of the Jewish Scriptures called the Talmud. In fact, study of sacred texts is a lifelong duty, and the Jewish place of worship, the synagogue, can be thought of both as a house of prayer and a house of study, led by a spiritual leader known as a rabbi. Congregations vary in how strictly they observe traditional Jewish custom or interpret Jewish law; Jews may follow an orthodox tradition, or be part of congregations that consider themselves Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative. Although the Jewish faith originated in the Middle East, events throughout early history led to a scattering of Jewish populations around the world, with large groups settling in Spain and what is now Germany and Eastern Europe. The Jewish population of Europe was almost wiped out during World War II, in the genocide known as the Holocaust. Today, there are about 14 million Jews in the world, with the majority (80%) living in Israel and the United States. DID YOU KNOW? • Texts written in Hebrew are read from right to left. • The small, dish-shaped cap worn by many male Jews, especially during religious ceremonies, is called a yarmulke. • Say “mazel tov” when you wish someone congratulations for a new baby or a wedding. Christianity Christianity also has its origins in the Middle East, in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God, sent to earth to save humanity from its sins. Christianity teaches that Jesus, a Jewish preacher with radical ideas who was crucified in Jerusalem by the Romans, was resurrected and rose to heaven. Although Christianity is also a monotheistic religion, Christians believe in God as three entities: God the Father, Christ His Son and the Holy Spirit, collectively known as the Trinity. The Christian holy book is the Bible, and consists of both the Old Testament (roughly equivalent to the Jewish Bible) and the New Testament (which contains stories of Jesus’ life and teachings as related by the Apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). The holiest days in the Christian year are Easter, commemorating the day that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, followed by Christmas, a celebration of Jesus’ birth. Today, there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world—a number that’s quadrupled over the past 100 years, according to the Pew Forum. The Christian Church was, for most of its history, divided into followers of the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader, the Pope, is based in Rome, and followers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which today includes orthodox churches in Greece and Russia, along with other Eastern European countries. A third major branch of Christianity, Protestantism, arose during the Reformation in Europe, in the 16th century. Begun as an attempt at reforming the Catholic Church, it resulted in the establishment of a new group of denominations, each with its individual views on such subjects as sacred texts, rites like baptism and communion and forms of worship. Protestants make up two thirds of U.S. Christians, but they belong to many different churches, from mainline Protestant to Evangelical to historically African-American denominations, along with a number of orthodox denominations and other distinct groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Christian Scientists. DID YOU KNOW? • It’s estimated that 50 copies of the Bible are sold every minute. It’s also said that the Bible is the world’s most shoplifted book. • Modern lists count 266 popes heading the Roman Catholic Church, starting with St. Peter, who was an apostle of Jesus Christ. • Charlton Heston starred in the top two highest-grossing Biblical theme movies: “Ben-Hur” (about a Hebrew prince who encounters Jesus) and “The Ten Commandments” (about the life of Moses). The Mormon Church One of the fastest-growing religions in the world today traces its beginnings to 19th-century America. The Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church), now has 15 million adherents worldwide. In addition to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Mormons follow the teachings found in the Book of Mormon. Church founder Joseph Smith asserted that an angel showed him golden plates containing the text of this book and published it in 1830. Smith founded his first churches in New York, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois, but his followers faced often-violent persecution. Eventually, Mormons crossed the country to what is now Utah. There, in a place of relative isolation, they founded a society consistent with their beliefs and religious practices. Mormons believe that, over the centuries, Christians went astray from God’s original intent, and that Joseph Smith’s revelations represent a return to the early Christian church. In this belief system, people had an existence as God’s spirit children prior to their mortal existence. During their lives on Earth, Mormons learn and progress in their faith until they are resurrected into one of many kingdoms in the afterlife. By accepting LDS teachings and living according to Mormon law and tradition, a person can be resurrected into the highest level of the kingdom of heaven. Mormons worship in congregations called wards, and services are typically led by lay members of the church. Mormons are asked to avoid tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea, as well as addictive behavior such as gambling. Family life is considered so important that Mormons believe that the family unit stays together even in the next life. From the beginnings of the LDS Church, Mormons have stressed the importance of missionary work. Today, young Mormon men typically serve on a two-year mission, often abroad, and there are Mormon congregations in many countries around the world, including high percentages in some South American countries, as well as nations in the South Pacific. DID YOU KNOW? • The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is made up of 360 men and women, all volunteers, and all who are members of the LDS Church in good standing. The choir was founded in August 1847. Since 1929, the choir has performed a weekly radio broadcast. • A religious satire musical by the creators of the animated comedy “South Park,” “The Book of Mormon” won nine Tony awards and an original Broadway cast recording became the highest-charting album in this genre in more than four decades. • Famous Mormons include The Osmond Family, NFLFootball Coach Andy Reid, Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Islam The religion of Muslims is known as Islam, the third monotheistic religion with its origins in the Middle East. The word “Islam” is derived from the Arabic word for peace that signifies submission or surrender to the will of God. Muslims believe that God sent a series of prophets to show people how to worship Him. These prophets included many familiar to readers of the Old and New Testaments—such as Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus—as well as the last of the prophets, Muhammad. Muhammad, who lived on the Arabian Peninsula in what is now Saudi Arabia, received his first message from God (or Allah, in Arabic) in the year 610 from the Angel Gabriel, and he continued to receive Allah’s revelations over a span of 23 years. The holy book of Islam is called the Qur’an (also written as “the Koran”). To Muslims, the Qur’an represents the final and unadulterated word of God, who is infinitely merciful and compassionate. Islam teaches that spiritual piety must be balanced by just actions and human responsibility in the world. This balance can be found in the five pillars of the Muslim faith: the belief that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is His prophet; the practice of prayer five times daily, facing Mecca (the location of the holiest site of Islam, called the Ka’aba); charity to the poor; fasting during the month of Ramadan; and making a pilgrimage (a “Hajj”) to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime. Muslims worship in a mosque, where prayers are led by a spiritual leader called the imam. Islam has several denominations; the largest is Sunni, comprising 85% of the world’s Muslims. 15% of Muslims are Shi’a. These two denominations differ on how leadership of the faithful should be determined. There also are much smaller sects within Islam, such as Sufism (a mystical approach to Islam). Today, Islam is truly a world religion, with sizeable populations not only in the Middle East, but also on every continent, with particularly large populations in northern and western Africa, South Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia, Russia, China and North America. DID YOU KNOW? • Muslims worldwide observe the ninth month of the Islamic calendar as Ramadan, a period of fasting (from dawn to sunset), increased prayer, spiritual reflection and charity. In 2014, Ramadan begins June 28 and ends July 28. • Fanatical Muslims are no more representative of true Islamic teachings than Timothy McVeigh or David Koresh were to Christianity. Extremism is a problem that is common to all religious groups. • Renowned boxer Muhammad Ali is a practicing Muslim. So are Shaquille O’Neal, rapper Akon and medical celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz. Hinduism Hinduism is the third-most practiced religion in the world, with almost 1 billion followers, most of whom live in India. Hinduism has no specific founder or origin story. In fact, the name “Hinduism” is an outsider’s derivation of the word “India” itself; its adherents refer to it as “Sanatana Dharma” or eternal law. Hinduism might be thought of as a group of varied religious traditions and diverse beliefs, developed over millennia, which have certain common aspects. Most Hindus believe in the authority of their sacred texts, called vedas, and of their priests, called brahmans. Hinduism has no official leader or hierarchical structure; worship happens in temples, as well as at shrines, often in the home. Hindus believe in reincarnation of the soul from one body to the next, as well as the law of karma, which says that one’s actions have an effect both in this life and in future lives to come. In this way, the moral implications of one’s deeds in this life have a direct effect on the next life. For Hindus, this explains the presence of good and evil in the world, as well as why misfortune might happen to good people. The objective of a life well-lived is to reduce bad karma and achieve a better life the next time, with the ultimate goal of ridding oneself of karma entirely and ending the cycle of rebirth. There are many paths to this goal, from selfless service to others, to study and intellectual understanding, to religious devotion and meditation. Most Hindus worship one or more primary deities, many of whom can take multiple forms, and possibly one or more local gods, as well—but all gods are seen as manifestations of a single divinity or divine universal spirit known as Brahman. The three primary deities are Brahma, the creator of the universe; Shiva, the destroyer; and Vishnu, the preserver. The representations of Hindu gods can be full of symbolism and meaning. For example, Shiva is often depicted as having three faces, representing a male aspect the destroyer), a female aspect (the restorer or giver of repose) and the reconciliation of these two aspects in one supreme being. Vishnu is associated with protection and restoration of order to the world. He usually is shown with four arms, each holding symbols of divinity, and is often depicted sleeping, waiting for the next time that the world is destroyed and renewed. Hindus celebrate many festivals, including Diwali (New Year), which features gift giving and the lighting of ceremonial lamps, and Holi, the beginning of spring. Rituals and ceremonies are common, and take place both in temples and at home. DID YOU KNOW? • Hindus do not worship cows as deities, although they do revere them as a symbol of life and do not kill them for food or clothing. • The red dot worn on the forehead of many Hindu women is both a religious symbol and a beauty mark. Called a bindi, it can represent divine sight, an emphasis on intellect and concentration. • The word “om” or “aum” is a mantra in many meditative practices and is of Hindu origin. It is placed at the beginning of most Hindu texts to be intoned at the start and conclusion of a reading or prayer. Buddhism If the core of Hinduism focuses, at least in part, on looking deep within to understand and improve one’s soul, Buddhism is about understanding that there is no permanent soul, a concept known as anatman. Buddhism is a nontheistic religion—it has no god or deity. Its 300 million adherents follow the teachings of the Buddha, or Awakened One. The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, a prince, in 563 B.C., in an area that is now part of Nepal. After rejecting his life of luxury and indulgence, he spent six years meditating on the true purpose and meaning of life. The Buddha concluded that life consists of suffering, because it includes pain, illness, death and negative emotions. This suffering is caused by craving what we want and avoiding what we don’t want. This struggle creates a powerful energy that doesn’t dissipate when the body dies, but rather continues into another life. Suffering can be overcome by giving up cravings and living each day in the moment. Buddhists try to do this by living a moral life, focusing the mind, developing wisdom and practicing compassion. People who perfect this discipline over many lives eventually will not be reborn. Although similar to the Hindu concept of reincarnation, Buddhists do not believe in a permanent soul that moves from life to life, but rather in the continuation of mental and physical energies from one life to the next. The Buddha’s teachings about the truth were recorded by his followers in documents known as Sutras and are chanted today as part of Buddhist ritual. DID YOU KNOW? • The Dalai Lama is the high lama in the school of Tibetan Buddhism. • Numbers carry great significance in Buddhism. There are Three Jewels/Refuges, Three Delusions, Three Trainings, Four Noble Truths, Four Reminders, Four Vows, Five Precepts, Five Hindrances, Six Perfections and much more. • Celebrities with a bona fide tie to the practice of Buddhism include actors Steven Seagal and Richard Gere and singer Tina Turner. Sikhism The fifth-largest religion in the world, with 30 million followers, the monotheistic religion called Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak more than 500 years ago in the Punjab region of what is now India. The word Sikh means “disciple” or “student,” and Sikhs are followers of the teachings of Guru Nanak and his successors. Sikhs believe in the oneness of an omnipresent God with all things. Sikhism stresses the intermingling of the spiritual (miri) and temporal (piri) worlds; a Sikh’s active, positive engagement in everyday life is as important as spiritual endeavors. Sikhs believe in sharing and equality, and consider all world religions to have equal validity in leading people toward enlightenment. Sikhs do not view God as having a male or female gender or even a worldly form; humans do not go to heaven after death, but rather unite with the timeless aspect of the world. The sacred text of Sikhism is known as the Guru Granth Sahib, and observant Sikhs recite from it daily, from memory. Their place of worship is called a gurdwara; one particularly significant custom at the gurdwara is the community meal, to which all are welcome. Most Sikhs do not cut their hair, and men often wear turbans called dastars, wrapped in a distinctive style. Consumption of alcohol, drugs and tobacco is forbidden, and the religion discourages materialism, bragging, lying, slander and the practice of eating meat killed in a ritualistic manner. Sikhism has no class of priests; any Sikh can choose to lead recitations or other observances. SIKHISM DID YOU KNOW? • Strict practitioners of the faith do not cut their hair, but let it grow as a symbol of their faith. Turbans for men are a religious requirement, not a social custom, and must be worn at all times in public. • All Sikh temples, gurdwaras, across the globe must have four doors to show that they are open to all, as well as a community kitchen to demonstrate equality of all people, irrespective of caste, creed, religion, race or sex. • Sikhs do not believe in fasting. Protecting Diversity, Ensuring Respect This incredible diversity in faith traditions is found in communities large and small—and it’s reflected in U.S. schools, particularly in areas that are close to large urban centers or where there are groups of immigrants who follow specific religious traditions. School nutrition programs often are at the forefront of demonstrating respect for religious diversity in schools, particularly reflected in the foods that are served and the extensive labeling of menu options to ensure students can choose foods that are consistent with their religious practices. Many faiths have dietary restrictions: Buddhist and Hindu students may require vegetarian options, while Muslims may avoid pork products, some Jewish students might need to choose kosher options or avoid pork and certain Christians may elect not to eat meat on Fridays. According to attorneys Shamus O’Meara and M. Annie Santos, writing in the American School Board Journal, there’s very little legal guidance for schools on the accommodations that must be made for religious dietary restrictions. In fact, they point out, the very issue is muddled: If a specific group lobbies to eliminate certain foods from a menu all together, because those foods violate their dietary laws, does this infringe on the freedom of others? And while the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause might be interpreted as requiring that a public school system provide meals that conform to students’ faith-based dietary restrictions, could too much accommodation prompt a conflict with the First Amendment’s clause separating church and government? Navigating these questions can be tricky, but O’Meara and Santos conclude that schools should make reasonable adjustments to menus to allow for students’ religious dietary requirements by offering a variety of food choices and clearly labeling menu items. Don’t be afraid or suspicious of practices that differ from your own. Show interest and ask polite questions to demonstrate your desire to learn. Above all, remember that understanding faith traditions is a critical step in making students—and coworkers—of all faiths feel welcome in our cafeterias and schools. BONUS WEB CONTENT Some 400 million Chinese practice what is called Chinese Traditional Religions. You can learn about this faith as part of this issue’s online extras. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent to access the article. Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. Photography by Dmitry Kianov and iStockphoto.com.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.