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Not all religions focus on the belief (or disbelief) in a particular deity. In this lesson, we define nontheism and discuss the ideologies of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Nontheism

When you hear the word ‘religion,’ is there a specific one that comes to mind? It’s common to think of religions, like Christianity, whose belief centers around one God. In other lessons, we’ve discussed the concept of religion and even talked about monotheistic religions, like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

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However, not all religions are monotheistic or even polytheistic. Some are actually nontheistic.Nontheism, in this lesson, refers to nontheistic religions, which are religions that do not focus on belief in god(s). Some nontheistic religions could also be called ‘ethical religions’ because they revolve around ethics instead of a god. In this lesson, we discuss three nontheistic or ethical religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

Hinduism

Hinduism is the oldest of all the practiced world religions, originating about 4,500 years ago! Today, it is the third largest religion after Christianity and Islam. The majority of Hindus reside in India, and Hinduism is at times hard to separate from Indian culture. However, Hinduism continues to gain popularity in the West.

The majority of Hindus believe in multiple gods and so are polytheistic. However, some Hindus are atheist and do not believe any gods exist. Still others are monotheistic but typically envision God as a universal moral force rather than a specific entity. So, Hinduism is certainly a nontheistic religion because it doesn’t revolve around any particular deity. The core, instead, is ethics. All Hindus subscribe to a system of ethics and moral responsibilities, which they call Dharma.

It promotes an open-minded, respectful, and peaceful existence.Another Hindu principle that most people are familiar with is Karma, which is a system of reward and punishment for actions and intentions. Good actions and intentions reap good rewards, and bad actions and intentions reap negative consequences. Karma works through reincarnation, a cycle of life, death, and rebirth by which a person is reborn into a state corresponding to the moral quality of a previous life. A person that is just and moral in one life could be reincarnated as a rich and powerful person. Someone that is not moral could be punished in the next life by returning as a lower being.

The ultimate goal of all Hindus is release from this cycle of rebirth. They believe a being has to live many lives before this is possible. For those who finally reach Moksha, the state of spiritual perfection, the soul will no longer be reborn and will become one with the universe.Hindus have multiple sacred texts, the oldest and most sacred of which are the Vedas.

The Vedas consist of four compositions that contain hymns, incantations, and rituals from ancient India. They are considered to be the original knowledge of humankind.

Buddhism

After Hinduism, the fourth largest world religion is Buddhism.

Almost all Buddhists live in Asia, but there are a significant number of followers in the U.S. Buddhism has much in common with Hinduism; it is concerned primarily with ethics and morals, sees each daily action as having spiritual consequences, and believes in reincarnation.Since its creation, Buddhism has evolved into a wide variety of forms. Although the majority of Buddhists are atheist, some believe in one God and others believe in multiple gods.

Like Hindus, Buddhist beliefs in the existence of deities and emphasis on religious rituals vary. However, all Buddhists focus on and share ethical and moral beliefs, as well as a great respect for the teachings of the Buddha, or ‘The Enlightened One.’Siddhartha Guatama was an Indian prince who, after witnessing the suffering of others, became enlightened through much learning and meditation. According to his teachings, the purpose of life is to end suffering and develop compassion for all living things without discrimination. The Buddha taught that we must use meditation to move beyond selfish concerns and desires.

Only by quieting the mind can people connect with the power of the larger universe and reach a state of enlightenment and peace. Today, anyone that achieves a state of perfect spiritual enlightenment in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings can achieve the title of a Buddha.Buddhists have many sacred texts that are thought of as guides on the path to truth and enlightenment.

The majority of these texts have been compiled into the Tripitaka. Part of the Tripitaka, the Sutras, are believed to be the actual words of the Buddha. However, not all Buddhists believe they should be used.

Confucianism

The last nontheistic religion we’ll discuss in this lesson is Confucianism. For about 2,000 years, Confucianism was the official religion of China. Today, it is still extremely common in China and some 100,000 followers or so live in North America.Like Hinduism and Buddhism, Confucianism deals more with ethics and morals than with any particular belief system.

However, where Hinduism and Buddhism are almost always categorized as religions, some say Confucianism is simply a philosophy or a model of disciplined living. This is because it deals with everyday life instead of the sacred or supernatural. The central idea of Confucianism is humanism, or what they call ren. Ren emphasizes placing moral principles above our own self-interests and looking to tradition for guidance on how to live. Confucianists value duty and obligation and believe them to be uniting forces in society.

Confucianism began as a way of life taught by Master Kong – or Confucius to us Westerners. Like the Buddha, Confucius was deeply moved by people’s suffering. But, where the Buddha’s response was spiritual withdrawal from the world, Confucius instructed his followers to engage the world according to a code of moral conduct. In the same way that Hinduism became part of the Indian way of life, Confucianism became linked to the traditional culture of China.The Analects of Confucius are the books important to Confucianists. They include moral principles taught by Confucius, as well as his sayings and ideas that have been passed on by his disciples.

Lesson Summary

In summary, nontheistic religions are religions that do not focus on belief in god(s).

We discussed three religions that focus on morals and ethics instead of a deity: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. These three religions are some of the largest religions in the world, after Christianity and Islam.Two of the most important principles in Hinduism are Dharma, a system of ethics and moral responsibilities that call for Hindus to lead an open-minded, respectful, and peaceful existence; and Karma, which is a system of reward and punishment for actions and intentions. Karma works through reincarnation, a cycle of life, death, and rebirth by which a person is reborn into a state corresponding to the moral quality of a previous life.

The ultimate goal of all Hindus is release from this cycle of rebirth by reaching Moksha, the state of spiritual perfection.Buddhism is similar to Hinduism in that Buddhists see each daily action as having spiritual consequences, and they believe in reincarnation. However, instead of focusing on dharma and karma, Buddhists follow the teachings of The Buddha, or ‘The Enlightened One‘. They believe the purpose of life is to end suffering and develop compassion for all living things without discrimination. They use meditation to move beyond selfish concerns and desires in order to connect with the power of the larger universe and reach a state of enlightenment and peace.Finally, Confucianism is sometimes considered a philosophy or disciplined way of life rather than a religion. This is because it deals with everyday life instead of the sacred or supernatural.

Confucianists practice ren, a principle of placing morality and tradition above one’s self-interests. Confucianists value duty and obligation and believe them to be uniting forces in society.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Summarize the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism
  • Identify the main region where each of the three religions is practiced
  • Define nontheistic religion, dharma, Karma, reincarnation, Moksha, and ren

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