On the Founders of Religions

On the Founders of Religions

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Religions are cultural frameworks that are based on doctrinal beliefs and prescribed practices to which significant numbers of people subscribe. They rest on the utterances of men of wisdom of the distant past. (There is no major religion that was initiated by a woman.) Their thoughts and sayings are embodied in various sacred texts.

The vast majority of people subscribe to one religion or another. There are about nineteen major religions in today’s world, whose adherents are concentrated in different regions of the world. Those which have spread from their place of origin and have a vast number of followers are often referred to as “world religions.” Of the world religions the ones with the most numbers of followers are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Other world religions include Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shintoism, Ba’hai, Unitarianism, and Zoroastrianism. Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity are more than 2000 years old. Islam, Sikhism, and Ba’hai are of relatively more recent origin.

According to a survey done in 2005, the approximate numbers of adherents to some of these religions are as follows: Christianity: 2.1 billion; Islam: 1.5 billion; Hinduism: 900 million; Buddhism: 376 million; Sikhism: 23 million; Judaism: 14 million; Baha’i: 7 million; Jainism: 4.2 million; Shinto: 4 million; Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million. It has also been estimated that there are at least half a billion people who are either non-religious, or describe themselves as agnostics or atheists. These numbers have no intrinsic significance, since they change with time and place.

Affiliation-numbers in religions change in two different ways. The first is through increase in population. Many religions encourage progeny production precisely for this purpose. The other mode is through active conversion. Christianity and Islam are the most energetic and effective in this regard, and the result shows. Buddhism spread initially from India to South-East Asia, including Korea, Japan, Thailand, and China. It has been spreading successfully in recent decades in the West even without a committed missionary machinery. Hinduism has been rather lukewarm in the matter of spreading its message during many centuries, but of late there have been some efforts at converting Westerners to Hinduism. At the same time, because of caste discrimination in Hindu society within India, there has been a significant exodus of the so-called lower and out-caste Hindus to Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. In the midst of all this, atheists are proselytizing in their own way, through reasoning, arguing, and books attacking the foundations, belief-systems, and records of practically all traditional religions.

Most religions arose from the visions and proclamations of individuals who were regarded as superior human beings. Their charismatic proclamations rendered them superhuman in the eyes and imagination of later generations. As years rolled by, the deeds and dates of these extraordinary individuals were often transformed into fabulous tales and incredible deeds. Their names got mingled with episodes in legendary lore, so that we of this late era know but little of substance about the founders of religions.

In other words, we have no reliable information on the historical roots of the founders of most religions. In some instances even the historicity of their existence is doubted, though their names and messages have survived the ravages of time. Like God himself, about whom religions speak with great confidence, very little reliable information is available on the founders of religions. Unlike the inventor of the wheel and the first one who recognized the planets or learned to cook raw meat with fire, their names have survived.