Universalizing Religions

Christian church buildings are a common sight throughout the United States. That's to be expected since around 65% of adults in the United States practice Christianity! Many people in the United States even link their religious convictions with their nationality.

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    But, like any universalizing religion, Christianity was not conceived as the creed of any one specific people. Rather, universalizing religions are designed to cross ethnic and national boundaries. Read on to learn more about major universalizing Religions, the definition, and more.

    Universalizing Religions Definition

    The "universal" in a universalizing religion more or less designates it as a religion for everyone.

    Universalizing religion: a type of religion that is meant to be universally applicable to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or geographic location.

    Most, but not all, universalizing religions are exclusive religions. An exclusive religion holds that it alone is true relative to other religions. An exclusive universalizing religion is designed to be practiced by every single person on Earth!

    Universalizing Religions and Ethnic Religions

    While ethnic religions may have some universal elements (and even some non-ethnic converts), they typically develop within the context of one ethnic group's collective efforts to develop their cultural identity in relation to the world around them.

    Universalizing religions, on the other hand, typically develop in response to a perceived spiritual or religious need that is not being satisfied either by the prevailing culture or by a specific ethnic religion. For this reason, many universalizing religions are either explicit expansions or rejections of ethnic religions. Universalizing religions can also usually be traced back to specific founders rather than an ethnic collective.

    Additionally, universalizing religions usually place a greater emphasis on individual spirituality (such as personal salvation or personal enlightenment) to create a community of like-minded believers across ethnic backgrounds.

    Universalizing Religions as Ethnic Identities

    That's not to say universalizing religions are free of any ethnic-specific elements. Islam, for example, is deeply rooted in Arab culture. Universalizing religions often emerge from one ethnic group, but are meant to be applied to all ethnic groups.

    Universalizing Religions, Universalizing Religions Definition, Cathdral de Cadiz, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Many Christian churches and cathedrals remain major cultural landmarks in Europe, like this cathedral in Cádiz, Spain

    Conversely, universalizing religions are frequently incorporated into ethnic identities. This is especially common if a universalizing religion completely supplants an ethnic religion within a culture. Think, for example, about the historic relationship between Christianity and Western Europe. Christianity thoroughly replaced the European paganism that preceded it, and many Europeans linked their ethnic identities to their participation in Christianity. Even now, as religiosity decreases all over Europe, Christian iconography, architecture, and symbolism remain cultural cornerstones of European culture.

    Major Universalizing Religions

    Most of the largest religions today are universalizing religions. The four largest universalizing religions are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Take a look at the table below.

    ReligionFounderFounding DatePopulation SizeMajor ScriptureCore Premise
    ChristianityJesus of Nazareth1st century CE2.6 billionThe Holy BibleFaith in Jesus will lead to salvation
    IslamMuhammad610 CE2 billionThe QuranFaith in God through Islam will lead to Paradise
    BuddhismSiddhārtha GautamaAround the 5th century BCE520 millionPāli Canon; hundreds of other sutrasFollowing the Eightfold Path will lead to Nirvana
    SikhismGurū Nānak1526 CE30 millionGurū Granth SāhibUnity with God leads to Enlightenment

    Other major universalizing religions include the Baháʼí Faith, Taoism, Spiritism, Confucianism, and Jainism.

    Universalizing Religions Examples

    The three largest universalizing religions are described below.


    Christianity emerged during the Roman occupation of Judea (in and around present-day Palestine and Israel). Desiring independence, Jews prayed for the coming of a Messiah (Khristós or "Christ" in Greek): a hero sent by God (YHWH) who would unite the Jewish people, overthrow their enemies, and restore the nation of Israel.

    Against this setting, Jesus of Nazareth emerged as an itinerant preacher. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was this long-awaited Messiah. Rather than assembling an army to overthrow the Romans, Jesus called on the Jews to redirect their energy toward spiritual renewal through unification with the "Kingdom of Heaven." Christians would come to associate the Kingdom of Heaven with an afterlife that can only be reached through faith in Jesus.

    Christian scriptures state that Jesus began performing miracles and strongly criticizing traditional Jewish authorities. Jesus also claimed to be the Son of God. Incensed at this outrageous blasphemy, Jewish leadership beseeched the Romans for help, and Jesus was crucified—only to be resurrected, Christians believe, three days later. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus ordered his followers to travel across the world and spread his teachings to all people in a commandment known as the Great Commission. Jesus would one day return, and would separate those who accepted his message from those that denied it.

    Universalizing Religions, Universalizing Religions Examples, Christianity, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Jesus' crucifixion contains great meaning for many Christians

    Christianity quickly grew from a small Jewish sect to a major interethnic faith in its own right. Disciples like Paul and Peter were particularly instrumental in incorporating non-Jews (Gentiles) into the faith. Missionaries traveled as far as Ethiopia and India. However, Christianity was illegal throughout the Roman Empire for the first three hundred years of its existence.

    Christianity's indelible relationship with Europe properly began when Roman Emperor Constantine legalized and converted to Christianity in 313 CE. In 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of Rome. A hundred years later, the Western Roman government collapsed, but the Christian Church survived. European rulers, eager to be seen as the legitimate successors of the Roman emperors, embraced Christianity. Over the following 1,000 years, Europeans brought Christianity with them wherever they went, often resorting to violence or coercion to enact the Great Commission.


    In 610 CE, according to Islamic teachings, Muhammad, an Arab merchant, began receiving visions from the angel Gabriel: God (al-Ilah, or Allah), the same God of the Jews and Christians, had chosen Muhammad to be his final prophet. Through Muhammad via Gabriel, God would deliver his ultimate message to humanity. Muhammad recorded and compiled Gabriel's dictations to him in a book called the Quran.

    What emerged from Muhummad's interactions with Gabriel was a reframing of the Abrahamic tradition. All of the major figures in Judaism and Christianity, including Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, had actually been part of a long line of prophets sent by God to teach humanity the truth of Islam, submission to God's will. But their messages had all been ignored or corrupted. Muhammad was meant to set things right. Only by submitting to the will of God through Islam could a person hope to lead a meaningful life on Earth and enter Paradise after death. Those who rejected God would face eternal punishment.

    Muhammad began preaching publicly a few years after first encountering Gabriel. By and large, most Arabs practiced traditional polytheistic ethnic religions, especially in and around the city of Mecca, and were not interested in Islam. While Islam did win converts, Muhammad was frequently rejected, ostracized, and persecuted.

    In 624, Muhammad began leading Muslims in armed conflict. Muhammad and his army battled throughout the Arabian peninsula, gaining major victories, killing, enslaving, or forcibly converting the losers. In 630, with an army 10,000 strong, Muhammad conquered Mecca. Not long after that, he conquered virtually the entire Arabian peninsula, uniting the various Arab tribes under Islam. Muhammad died in 632, but his followers continued what he started, spreading Islam throughout Asia, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula.

    Universalizing Religions, Universalizing Religions Examples, Islam, National Mosque of Malaysia, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The National Mosque of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur

    Today, Islam is the second-largest religion in the world. Religious practice is centered around the Five Pillars of Islam:

    1. The Declaration of Faith: Muslims must profess that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his messenger.

    2. Prayer: Muslims must pray five times a day at set intervals facing the city of Mecca.

    3. Almsgiving: Muslims must help the needy and donate money to the maintenance of Muslim facilities.

    4. Fasting: Muslims must fast, especially during the month of Ramadan.

    5. Pilgrimage: Muslims must visit the city of Mecca at least once.


    Setting out from his palace sometime in the 5th century BCE, Siddhārtha Gautama saw endless suffering everywhere he looked. According to Buddhist tradition, he returned to his palace, and, disgusted by the ostentatious wealth, became totally disillusioned. Gautama then set out on a religious quest, seeking to disassociate himself from banal pleasure and discover the root cause of suffering. But his quest offered him no solutions. Letting go of the extremes of both hedonism and asceticism, Gautama meditated under a bodhi tree along the Niranjana River. It was there that he attained enlightenment (nirvana) and became the Buddha. Buddha realized that the root cause of suffering (dukkha) was attachment (tanha). This attachment was the driving mechanism behind the Hindu cycle of rebirth, which was perpetuating suffering. Only by relinquishing all attachment could one be free of suffering and escape the endless cycle of reincarnation.

    Universalizing Religions, Universalizing Religions Examples, Buddha, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Buddha gained enlightenment while meditating

    Buddha believed that his realization would be too complex for the common person to understand. However, Buddhist scriptures state that the Hindu deity Brahmā convinced Buddha to begin preaching. Buddha summarized his teaching in the Four Noble Truths:

    1. All life involves suffering.

    2. The cause of suffering is attachment and desire.

    3. There is a way to end suffering.

    4. The way to end suffering is by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

    The Noble Eightfold Path is a guideline for moral behavior: right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

    While Buddhism was deeply connected to the theology and imagery of Hinduism, Buddha placed a greater emphasis on philosophy and righteousness than on deity worship. For this reason, rather than supplanting ethnic religions, Buddhism became incredibly syncretic as it spread in all directions; people were able to incorporate Buddhist ideas into already-existing belief structures, often radically reshaping Buddhism to fit the local culture.

    Diffusion of Universalizing Religions

    Universalizing religions can spread through two main methods: expansion diffusion and relocation diffusion.

    Expansion Diffusion

    Most universalizing religions come with a built-in imperative for their followers to convert others to their faith, as we covered above. Conversion involves adopting a new religious identity, usually at the expense of a previous identity. The increase of a religion's population via conversion is called religious expansion.

    Because most modern governments guarantee religious liberty, conversion nowadays is typically voluntary. However, voluntary conversion and religious liberty are not the norms everywhere in the world, nor were they the norm in many periods of history. Some countries, confessional states, have state religions and restrict religious liberties for some or all of the population. Historically, confessional states often revolved around the inclinations of the ruling class: if the king was a Christian, for example, his subjects were obliged to be Christians as well.

    The state religion of Malaysia is Islam. It is illegal for ethnic Malays to practice any religion but Islam.

    Additionally, at one point or another, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism were all spread or enforced through coercion—especially violent coercion, wherein people were given the choice between death or conversion. In the 17th century, Japanese Christians were ordered to convert to Buddhism or face execution.

    Relocation Diffusion

    Universalizing religions can also spread through relocation diffusion. Practitioners of a certain faith—be it ethnic or universalizing—are likely to bring their religious beliefs with them when they migrate from one place to another.

    Universalizing Religions, Diffusion of Universalizing Religions, Relocation Diffusion, StudySmarterFig. 5 - This small Buddhist temple in Seattle was founded by Japanese immigrants but now attracts many other people

    Once a universalizing religion has been introduced into a new area through relocation diffusion, followers may engage in expansion efforts amongst the local population.

    Overview of Universalizing Religions - Key takeaways

    • Universalizing religions are meant to be universally applicable to all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or geographic location, though universalizing religions can become associated with ethnic identities.
    • Major universalizing religions include Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, the Baháʼí Faith, Taoism, Spiritism, Confucianism, and Jainism.
    • The three largest universalizing religions are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.
    • Universalizing religions can spread through religious expansion via conversion or through relocation diffusion.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Universalizing Religions

    What are 4 examples of universalizing religions? 

    The four largest universalizing religions are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism. 

    How do universalizing religions diffuse? 

    Universalizing religions diffuse through expansion in the form of religious conversion (voluntary or involuntary) and through relocation diffusion. 

    Is Christianity ethnic or universalizing? 

    Christianity is a universalizing religion. 

    Is Buddhism universal or ethnic? 

    Buddhism is a universalizing religion. 

    Is Islam universalizing or ethnic? 

    Islam is a universalizing religion. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following statements apply to the development of a universalizing religion? Select all that apply. 

    Which of the following is NOT a universalizing religion? 

    Christianity emerged from which ethnic religion? 


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