eligion is inherently existential. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, look at the world around us and think: What is the point of all this? Why does it matter? Is this the end, or is there something waiting for us on the other side?
For some people, these questions don’t necessarily have answers. Rather, meaning and purpose are created and recreated as they carry out their lives, and when their lives come to an end, everything just stops. For others, though, the only way for them to find meaning and purpose is through religion. The promise of something waiting for them on the other side is what makes the trials and tribulations of life worth it.
In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the major religions of the United States:
Protestantism is the most widely practiced religion in the United States. As of 2019, the Pew Research Center reports that a little under half of the U.S. population has an affiliation with a Protestant denomination.
As a subset of the wider Christian faith, Protestantism shares many of the same values as its parent religion, Catholicism, but there are a few key differences between the two.
What Protestants Believe
Like all Christians, Protestants believe that there is one god-with-a-capital-G, that both heaven and hell exist and everyone will wind up in one or the other, and that a man named Jesus Christ was sent down to Earth as a sacrifice from God so that the humans below might finally be able to be forgiven for their sins. That’s the cliffnotes version. To make this a little clearer, let us define a few of these things more specifically:
Sin in the Protestant Religion
A sin is essentially anything that might lead a person to break one of the Ten Commandments inscribed on a stone by Moses in the Old Testament. There are seven main transgressions believed to be sins by all Christians, usually called “the seven deadly sins”: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, lust, and sloth. Protestants believe that sin is something that everyone is born with inherently, and that the only way to be pardoned for those sins is to ask for forgiveness from Jesus.
Entry to Heaven or Hell
Protestants specifically believe that a person, once they have completed their life here on Earth, will go to either Heaven or Hell. Heaven is only attainable for those who ask for forgiveness and try to lead lives that are devoted to God. Anyone who doesn’t meet these requirements will go to Hell by default.
How Protestants Practice Their Faith
Protestants are usually very service oriented. Oftentimes, you’ll meet Protestants who perform acts of service, such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or working in disaster relief, in the name of God. Though not all of them are, many Protestants are Evangelical, meaning they make it their mission to spread their beliefs throughout the rest of their communities and sometimes even the world at large.
Most Protestants congregate at least once a week--typically on Sundays--to listen to a sermon given by the head of their church. Children are usually invited to attend some version of Sunday School, where they learn about their faith in a way that makes sense to the ears of children. There are also usually a number of church groups that people can choose to attend during the week if they would like to.
Catholics are also Christians, but their beliefs differ just slightly from those of Protestants, and the ways in which they practice their faith are much more traditional. Dating back to the Roman Empire, Catholicism is one of the oldest western religions. It contains a hierarchy of power, starting at the bottom with a parishioner, and then making its way up through the ranks with deacons, priests, bishops, and the Pope at the top.
What Catholics Believe
The primary beliefs of most Catholics largely coincide with those of most Christians, but there are still a few key differences. Catholicism’s traditionalism is what caused the fracture of the church in the first place, but they still stand by their beliefs for the most part.
Unlike their Protestant counterparts, Catholics believe that when they consume “the body and blood” of Jesus through Communion--which is usually presented in the form of a wafer cracker that tastes like cardboard and a sip from a chalice of cheap wine--the Communion is transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ.
They also believe over the one-and-done philosophy of Protestants that sins must be forgiven again and again. Because sin is inherent in the Christian faith, Catholics take the stance that it is also therefore never-ending and has to be obtained periodically throughout a person’s life.
How Catholics Practice Their Faith
Sort of like its hierarchy of power, Catholicism also has a hierarchy of actions a person must take in order to officially enter the faith, called sacraments. These are, in the most traditional order, Baptism, Confession, Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the Sick.
Most Catholics will receive the first four before they turn eighteen, Marriage a little later in their lives, and Anointing of the Sick later in their lives. Majority will not receive Holy Orders, as those are traditionally reserved for people who are entering a position of authority within the church, such as deacons, priests, and bishops.
Like their Protestant counterparts, Catholics usually congregate once a week at one of three or four masses carried out by the priest. Masses are much more structured than the sermons you might find at a Protestant church. The topic of the day is usually universal across all churches because they operate according to the liturgical calendar.
Judaism is one of the oldest faiths in the world. As the first monotheistic religion, it’s actually already a well-established faith early on in the new testament of the Christian Bible. With a rich history of both triumphs and heartache, Judaism has been through a lot--but their beliefs are still going strong.
What Jewish People Believe
As a monotheistic religion, Jewish people believe that there is a single God, and that any individual practitioner of the Jewish faith can have a personal relationship with him as long as they both keep God’s laws and practice holiness in their everyday lives. They also believe in Heaven and Hell, but their beliefs about these destinations differ greatly from Christians’.
While Heaven is still a holy place where people can reside with God after they die, and Hell is where they’ll go if they do not live holy lives, Jewish people believe that Heaven is not a possible destination until the Messiah (who Christians believe was Jesus Christ) comes. Instead, they live the most devout lives they can now, so that when the Messiah does come, they will be granted immediate access into Heaven.
How Jewish People Practice Their Faith
The ways in which a Jewish person practices their faith can vary according to how traditional they are. Some live very ascetic lives, incorporating their faith into every aspect of their lives, while others live the lives of any other person you might pass on the street, merely celebrating Jewish holidays and traditions as they come up and attending Temple weekly.
Temple takes place on Saturdays because, as the Jewish faith discerns from the Torah, Saturday was the seventh and final day of God’s creation of the world, the day which he deemed a day of rest. Jewish people are not supposed to do anything except attend Temple on Saturdays--not even cook. Instead, they should spend the earlier days of their weeks hard at work, making sure that everything is prepared for a nice, relaxing Saturday.
The word “Islam” translates to mean something akin to “submission” or “surrender.” Like the majority of those religions practiced within the United States, Islam is also a monotheistic faith that believes in a single God, or Allah.
What Muslims Believe
Muslims (pronounced Moose-lims) actually share very similar beliefs to the Judeo-Christians they reside in this country with. Allah is their one God, and they also believe that he has had a number of prophets over the years--the most important one being Muhammad. Other significant prophets include Abraham, Moses, Noah, David, Jesus, and interestingly, Adam--the first man.
They subscribe to what is called “Sharia law,” which is composed of a series of ethics, political beliefs, and religious observances that should play a role in every aspect of their lives. Many other countries who have Islam as their national religion also incorporate Sharia law into their legal systems.
According to Muslims, the Quran--on which they base their faith--is full of all the divine words and revelations they will ever need. These revelations have been passed onto the world from Allah via his various prophets and then been transcribed into their holy book for them to follow.
How Muslims Practice Their Faith
As a part of their everyday practice of their faith, Muslims typically attend a mosque for religious services. They also perform a ritual prayer, called the Salah (sometimes Salat) five times throughout the day, in which they should always face towards their holy city, Mecca.
Also included among their practices are the Five Pillars of Islam, which include the Shahada, the Salat (or Salah), Zakat, Sawm, and Hajj. The Shahada, similar the submission to God many Protestants go through, is a statement of faith that all Muslims must recite at least one time in their lives.
Zakat is a tax Muslims must pay, a sort of required offering they must make that goes directly towards helping their local poor or people in need. Sawm is a fast that is carried out over the course of Ramadan. It’s usually around a month long, although it is not required of any Muslim if it is outside the parameters of their health to participate. The Hajj is a pilgrimage. Something that every Muslim must complete at least once in their lives, it’s a trek to the holy city, Mecca, which must take place during one of the designated times on the Islamic calendar.
Regardless of who you are or where you come from or what you believe, faith is a very personal journey. Some people find that faith in the world; others find it in religion. Either way, whatever it is that you believe, whatever it is that your neighbors believe, if it helps you answer the toughest questions about life, well, you’ve done a pretty good job.