1. Eastern Orthodox
The Eastern Orthodox Church has always reflected a more philosophical branch of Christianity. Part of their beliefs is that religion is a personal experience; there is often no exact definition of religious truth for all individuals. The Orthodox Church is lead by the head bishops (although these bishops don’t have the same power as the Pope does in Catholicism). They have a slight difference in their view of the Trinity; other branches view Jesus Christ’s human form as the second part of the Trinity, but the Orthodox Church believe it’s the divine preexistent nature of Christ. The Orthodox Church originated after the Great Schism between the western and eastern parts of Constantinople; today the greatest Orthodox population remains in that area (Greece, Turkey, Russia).
2. Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church is, by far, the biggest denomination of Christianity with more than one billion followers. Catholicism is dominant in Western nations like Italy, Spain, Latin America, and even the United States (if you count each branch of Protestantism individually). The Catholic Church there is one universal church (Latin meaning of Catholic is “universal”), by which all Christian denominations lie under. There aren’t many differences between Roman Catholicism and other sects of Christianity; just like all other branches Catholic followers believe in the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the Bible. With that said there are a few essential differences. Distinctive Roman Catholic beliefs include the special authority of the pope, the ability of saints to intercede on behalf of believers, the concept of Purgatory as a place of afterlife purification before entering Heaven, and the doctrine of transubstantiation – that is, that the bread used in the Eucharist becomes the true body of Christ when blessed by a priest.
The roots of the Anglican Church lie within its first church, the Church of England; in fact the Medieval Latin meaning of Anglican is “of England.” Just like Protestantism, Anglicanism was formed in an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church (Anglicanism formed just 20 years after Protestantism). In Anglicanism, there is no central source of power: no Pope, no Patriach, and no worldwide Anglican Church (the connections with Protestantism are clear). However, unique to Anglicanism is the Book of Common Prayer. This prayer book forms the historical basis for most Anglican liturgy around the world.
The Anglican Church was originally spread through English colonization, but this also led to the several independent Anglican Churches. The most notable of the Anglican Churches are the Church of England and the Episcopalian Church. The Episcopalian Church originated through the War of Independence in America; after the war Americans didn’t want to be associated with the English Church, so they derived the Episcopalian Church. The Episcopalian Church has many similarities to the Church of England, but one vital difference is the lack of monarchial ties in the Episcopalian Church. This process was repeated through English colonies; although the Church of England was the first branch of Anglicanism, today there are over 40 independent national Anglican Churches.
The Protestant church goes directly to the Word of God for instruction, and to the throne of grace in his devotions. Protestantism was formed on three fundamental principles: scripture alone, justification by faith alone, and universal priesthood of believers. Scripture alone states that the Bible is the only source of authority for the church and that the priest’s word are insignificant. Justification by faith alone allows salvation only through faith, this was an attempt to reform the Church’s accepting of donations. Lastly, the universal priesthood of believers encourages followers to read the Bible and take action in all church related activities and government. Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis, which called the church out on all its immoral actions, played a vital role in the foundation and progression of the Protestant Church. Today, the Protestant Church has grown to many different denominations including but not limited to Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian.
Sufism is a mystical way of approaching the Islamic faith. It grew out of an early ascetic movement within Islam. The earliest form of Sufism arose during the Umayyad Dynasty (661-749). During this period many mystics focused on the Doomsday passages in the Quran, which is how they earned nicknames like “those who always weep.”
Sufis lead a life of strict obedience to the Islamic scripture and tradition and are associated with their regular night prayers. The central concept of Sufism is having an absolute trust in God. A few centuries later, the emphasis on asceticism changed into mysticism. The New Sufi ideal was then having a pure love of God that was disinterested without hope for Paradise or fear of Hell. Some other developments included having strict self-control, psychological insight, “interior knowledge,” annihilation of the self, mystical insights about the nature of man and the Prophet, as well as focusing on hymns and poetry.
Sufi beliefs are based on orthodox Islam and the text of the Quran as well as a strict obedience to Islamic law and imitation of the Prophet. The core principles of Sufism include Tawakkul, which is the absolute trust in God; Tawhid, which is the truth that there is no deity but God; and the combination of God and nature. Sufism has the goal of attaining absolute purity of intention and act through self-denial, careful introspection and mental struggle.
Sufis also believe in hosting sessions with music and poetry recitals known as Sama. One form of Sama that is most commonly known is the “Whirling Dervishes.” This is commonly practiced by members of the Mevlevi order of Turkish Sufis. This practice involves spinning around in groups. Whirlers are called semazens. The Whirling Dervishes is a form of meditation in which the Sufis seek to abandon the self and contemplate God, sometimes achieving an ecstatic state.
The divison between Sunni and Shi’a started with the death of the Prophet Muhammad when his followers had to choose who his successor and leader of Islam would be. The Shi’ites follow Ali, the closest relative of Prophet Muhammad.
The leader for the Shi’ites is the Imamate, who is a political leader as well as a spiritual leader. The Imamate must have the ability to interpret the inner mysteries of the Quran and the shariah. The twelve Imams are descendents of the first Imam Ali. The basic idea in Shi’a leadership is that the clergy, by virtue of their superior knowledge of the laws of God, are the best qualified to rule the society of believers who are preparing themselves on earth to live eternally in heaven.
Some of the Shi’a religious practices and observances differ slightly from the other main sect, Sunnis. Shi’ites observe the Islamic month Muharram as the month of martyrdom. Shi’ites also make pilgrimages to the shrines of the first twelve Imams. Some Shi’a holidays, in addition to the general Muslim holidays, include Arba’een Arba’een, Eid-al Ghadeer, Eid al- Mub ahila, Milad al-Nabi, and Mid of Shaban.
Sunni Islam is the largest Islamic sect. In the Sunni sect of Islam, the leader is the Imam, who is the leader of the congregational prayer. In Sunni Islam, the successor of Prophet Muhammad was Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet’s. They chose to follow Abu Bakr because they believed he was the best versed in the knowledge of Islam as he learned everything he knew from the Prophet. They also felt that he was the most effective leader. The Sunnis are named so because they believe themselves to follow the sunnah, the traditions of the Prophet.
Sunnis base their religion based on the Quran and the Sunnah as understood by the majority of the community under the structure of four schools of thought. The four schools of thought are the Hanafi, the Maliki, the SHafi’l and the Hanbali. These schools of thoughts are NOT different sects. they are schools of religious law that associate themselves with four great scholars of early Isla,m: Abu Haneehfa, Malik, Shafi’I and Ahmad bin Hanbal. These four scholars were known throughout the Muslim world for their knowledge and piety and only differed in minor issues of application and certain principles in the religion. They were no in opposition to each other.
The Ahmadiyya sect of Islam is a more radical sect. Unfortunately, not much information could be found on it.
The differences between Jewish denominations, or movements, are based on the degree that they have rejected or not rejected various aspects of Judaism based on ‘modern times’.
1. Orthodox Judaism
Orthodox Judaism is the most traditional expression of Judaism. Orthodox Jews believe in the entire Torah, including “Written”, the Pentateuch, and “Oral”, the Talmud. Orthodox Jews reject the changes of all of the various reformist changes to Judaism and believe firmly in the traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. They continue all the traditions of their ancestors, such as the dietary laws, traditional prayers and ceremonies, regular and intensive study of the Torah, and separation of men and women in the synagogue. Orthodox Jews also strictly observe the Sabbath and religious festivals and do not permit instrumental music during communal services, in memory of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
2. Reform Judaism
Reform Judaism is known as the most liberal denomination of Judaism. It is organized under the Union for Reform Judaism in America. Reform Judaism came about in Germany in the early 1800s as a reaction against the perceived severity of Orthodox Judaism as well as a response to Germany’s increasing liberal political climate.
Some changes that were made included the de-emphasis on Jews as a united people, the discontinuation of prayers for a return to their historic homeland, prayers and sermons being recited in German instead of Hebrew, the addition of organ music to the synagogue service, and a lack of observance of the dietary laws. However, Modern Reform Judaism has restored some aspects of Judaism that were abandoned in the 19th century. Modern Reform Judaism has included the sense of a Jewish united community, and the practice of some religious rituals.
In Reform Judaism, women may be rabbis, cantors, and synagogue presidents and intermarried families are accepted.
3. Conservative Judaism
Conservative Judaism is a moderate denomination that seeks to avoid the extremes of both, Orthodox and Reform Judaism. Conservative Judaism seeks to conserve the traditional elements of Judaism while also allowing for reasonable modernization and rabbinical development. Conservative Judaism is founded on the teachings of Zacharias Frankel. Frankel insisted that Jewish tradition and rituals were essentials.
Conservative Jews observe the Sabbath and dietary laws, although a few modifications have been made to the latter. Women may also be rabbis. Conservative Jews believe in the importance of Jewish nationalism and they encourage the study of Hebrew. However, beyond these basics, beliefs and practices among the Conservative Jews range from those of Reform to Orthodox.
4. Hasidic Judaism
Hasidic Judaism came about in the 12th-century as a movement that focused on simplicity and mystical experience born out of love and humility before God. The modern Hasidic movement was founded in Poland in the 18th century. It is heavily influenced by the Kabbalah movement and focuses on personal experiences of God instead of religious education and ritual. Modern Hasidic Judaism focuses on the needs of the common people and the Hasidic Jews take the concept that everyday activities are of equivalent importance to religious rituals to an extreme.
The leader in Hasidic Judaism is known as a Rebbe or Tzaddik. A Rebbe does not necessarily have to be ordained. However, the Rebbe is considered especially enlightened and close to God. The Rebbe is looked to for guidance in all aspects of life, from interpreting the Torah to choosing who to marry, or what house to buy. A Rebbe’s advice is considered utterly authoritative.
There are six schools of philosophy in Hinduism known as: Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimasa and Uttara Mimasa. These six schools of philosophy are incorporated into all the different denominations of Hinduism. There are also numerous sects and numerous sacred books. The major sects of Hinduism are the following:
Vaishnavism is regarded as a monotheistic sect. Vaishnavism has a belief in one supreme God known as Vishnu. The Supreme God simultaneously infuses all creation. However, there are also many lower Gods under the Supreme One. Vishnu encompasses these gods. The main belief of Vaishnavism is that there is an emphasis on God as a personal being. Vaishnavites believe that God is someone you can know and have a relationship with. They believe that the six qualities of God include all knowledge, all power, supreme majesty, supreme strength, unlimited energy and total self-sufficiency.
Vaishnavism is the largest sect. Vaishnava texts include the Vedas as well as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Samhita, and the Gita Govinda.
Vaishnavites recognize the importance of meditation in religious practice. Vaishnavites believe that it is more important to believe and to be devout than to study the doctrines and focus on religious knowledge.
There are subdivisions within Vaishnavism. They include:
- Sri Sampradayins
- Vallabhachrains or Krishna Sampradayins
- The Chaitanyas
- The Nimbarkas
- The Madhvas
- Radha Vallabhis
Shaivism is regarded as a monotheistic sect. Shaivism has a belief in one supreme God known as Shiva. Shaivites believe that the entire creation is an expression of conscious divinity and is no different from the divinity, which they call Shiva because he is both the created and the creator. This concept differs from many other religions that see God as fundamentally different from the creation and is considered higher. Shaivism also acknowledges the existence of many other deities.
Shaktism focuses worship upon Shakti or Devi, the Hindu Divine Mother. Shakti doctrine tends to emphasize the non-difference between matter and spirit, and looks to the creative force of matter rather than its ability to delude and entangle. For this reason, Shaktas worship for material benefit as well as final liberation. A notable aspect of Shaktism is animal sacrifice and even documented accounts of human sacrifice.
Smartism refers to those who follow the Vedas and Shastras (religious texts). Believers of Smartism mainly follow the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of Adi Shankara, who bases his teachings on the unity of the soul and Brahman. Smartas believe that the worshipper is free to chose a particular aspect of God to worship.
The Anglican Domain. <http://anglican.org/church/ChurchHistory.html> May 8 2010.
“About the Union for Reform Judaism.” Union for Reform Judaism official site. http://urj.org/about/
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Reform Judaism.” Jewish Literacy (William Morrow and Company, 2001), 241-43.
“Conservative Judaism.” Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
Religion Facts on Christianity. <http://www.religionfacts.com/christianity/index.htm>
Religion Facts on Islam. <http://www.religionfacts.com/islam/index.htm>
Religion Facts on Judaism. <http://www.religionfacts.com/judaism/index.htm>
Religion Facts on Hinduism. <http://www.religionfacts.com/hinduism/fastfacts.htm>