Religion For Dummies
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The world has mysteries that you confront and problems that you try to solve. However, mysteries are different from problems. The questions, "Does life have meaning?" "Is evil punished and goodness rewarded?" and "What is the cause of suffering?" are mysteries. No matter how many times philosophers and prophets provide answers to these and other of life's big questions, the questions remain real and pressing in every generation and in every life.

The questions "What causes lightning?" and "How will I spend my evening if the cable goes out?" are problems. Of course, not all problems are this easily answered or (to be honest) this irrelevant. "How will we feed the children if I lose my job?" and "Where should we go if the war comes to our front door?" are some of the bigger problems that people face.

For many folks, trying to find answers to life's mysteries is the place where the religious impulse begins. When you understand mystery, you come to understand God more as an ongoing action than as a thing and the religious life more as a quest than a destination. Comprehending such mysteries helps you figure out how to survive life's problems and enjoy life's blessings.

The search for meaning

Every culture has some kind of religion, and all faiths answer the question "What is the meaning of life?" Humanity's search for an answer to this question is one of the main reasons that people are drawn to religion. The answers, although different from religion to religion, give people's lives purpose, meaning, and hope.

The different religions have their own views on the meaning of life:

  • Hinduism: Gain release from the cycle of rebirth and merge with the eternal Divine, thus escaping an inhospitable world.
  • Buddhism: Gain enlightenment and, in that way, free yourself from the sufferings that come from illusions and attachments to life.
  • Judaism: Do God's commandments.
  • Christianity: Try to love the way Jesus loved.
  • Islam: Submit oneself to the will of Allah.
  • Taoism: Achieve inner harmony.

Accounting for sin and suffering

"Why is there suffering in the world?" That's another big mystery that religion addresses. For most religions, suffering is the result of human failing or the lack of human understanding. In monotheistic religions, suffering is wrapped up in the concept of sin and human failing. In the Eastern religions, suffering is the result of humankind's lack of understanding, or enlightenment. Whatever the source of suffering and death is — human failure or human "blindness" — religions give their members hope by offering ways to overcome suffering and death. In Western religions, the goal is salvation; in Eastern religions, it's enlightenment.

Sin: The devil made me do it

One of the most powerful reasons people come to religion is to find salvation from sin. Monotheistic religions use the term sin to describe the brokenness of human existence. The belief is that humans, in and of themselves, are not whole. Only by living through God's commandments or in accordance with God's will can humans be complete. Sin is a human failing, the result of human rebelliousness and arrogance and the source of evil in the world.

What makes a sin depends on the religion:

  • An action: All monotheistic religions agree that sins are actions that violate God's law. By behaving in ways that contradict divine will, a person sins. In Judaism and Islam, sin is always an act, a wrong act, and an immoral or impure act.
  • A thought: In Judaism, a thought cannot be a sin, but a thought can lead to a sin. In Christianity, a thought can be a sin.
  • A state of being: In some Christian traditions, sin is not only a thought or an act; it is also a state of being, represented in the concept of original sin. Original sin is a condition that humans are born to because of Adam's disobedience (he ate the forbidden fruit) in the Garden of Eden.

Whether sin is an act, a thought, or a condition, it is, at its heart, distance from God.

Atonement and salvation

For monotheistic religions, sin and suffering are the results of choosing badly, of allowing selfishness and grasping to overcome what we know to be the will of God. By willfully and deliberately violating the divine will, people distance themselves from God.

By atoning for bad deeds, people can cleanse themselves from the effects of sins and reconcile with God. Also called reconciliation, atonement requires repentance (being sorry for what you've done) and a change of behavior to conform to a religiously prescribed one. Through the process of atonement, people can reconstruct their relationships with God and those they have sinned against. By teaching people how to forgive others, religion helps people ask forgiveness themselves. In this way, these faiths address the basic human need to admit moral failings and move forward to a better way of living.

For most religions, salvation is a lifelong process, aided by both the discipline of ritual and the moral teachings of the faith.

Being negative

Buddhism doesn't concern itself much with sin as a separate issue. For Buddhists, the goal isn't to find salvation from sin but to achieve enlightenment and release from all human issues, including sin. Negativity or attachment to material life, Buddhists believe, is the obstacle that holds people back.

Within some Buddhist sects, negativity is expressed in the teaching of tahna (craving) and dukkha (suffering or imperfection). Our human desires, illusions, and attachments cause our suffering.

The reason people are so unhappy is that they want or crave things: love, adventure, and material possessions, chocolate, whatever. When people don't get what they want, they become sad. The idea is that we are our own source of unhappiness, and we can change how we feel by changing our attitude and desires.

Some Buddhist sects teach that life is a constant process of overcoming this suffering by learning why we suffer and giving up our attachments and our illusions. Dukkha, which describes the source of all human suffering, is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Being born again . . . and again . . . and again . . .

In Hinduism, the nature of human limitation is that we are all trapped in the world of samsara, which forces us to die and be reborn endless numbers of times. Hinduism also offers hope that we can stop the process of rebirth and death. With proper practice, a person can attain release (moksha) from the suffering of samsara and find freedom and oneness with the infinite, the ultimate goal in most Hindu sects.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman host cable TV's The God Squad and appear frequently on Good Morning America and Imus in the Morning. They have written several children's books on religion.

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