Using the basics of these five major religions as a starting point—and explaining those basics so that no prior knowledge is needed—Professor Kimball plunges deeply into each to reveal and clarify the essential structural components shared by all faiths:
- Creation myths and sacred stories
- Concepts of the divine
- Lifecycle- and calendar-based rituals
- Various types of sacred people, texts, objects, and spaces
- Religion's ultimate goals—the reasons its adherents give them such importance
You learn, for instance, how different religions conceive of a God, or gods, or even no god, and how some emphasize the idea of an afterlife and the beliefs required and rules for conducting your life in preparation for it.
At the same time, you also see how religions offer distinct perspectives, such as the cyclical concepts of life and rebirth held by Hindus or Buddhists, which differ so markedly from the linear understanding of life and its purpose seen in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And you see how even an idea so apparently fundamental as the human predicament can vary dramatically from one religion to another.
In Judaism and Christianity, for example, sin lies at the heart of that predicament. But where the Judaic tradition saw people born in innocence, the early Christian tradition came to see sin as "original," with reconciliation with God occurring not through observance of personal sacrificial traditions, as was the belief in Judaism, but by the sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of humankind.
And while the Islamic tradition also considers humans to be sinful, its view of the fundamental problem is one of forgetfulness, with people easily distracted from a knowledge of God they already possess. It is this failing that the ritual devotional duties known as the "Five Pillars of Islam" are designed to guard against through constant reminders of God, such as the five-times-daily prayers with which non-Muslims might be most familiar.
In contrast, Hinduism and Buddhism see the major human problem as what Professor Kimball characterizes as the "illusion of reality in this world." His presentation of some of the basic ways these two linked and complex religions endeavor to penetrate that illusion through cycles of death and rebirth underscores how different religions address the many questions with which all faiths must contend.