I've been for awhile interested in the definitional fundamentals of belief systems (and to a lesser extent, their adequacy in establishing a boundary).
Christians have long debated the essentials of belonging to their faith, and have produced endless creeds, belief systems, and the like. One of the simplest and earliest, courtesy of Wikipedia, is the Apostle's Creed. It can be summarized as follows:
- Belief in the entity of father, who made everything
- Belief in entity of son, named Jesus, born of mary and the holy spirit
- That Jesus died in crucifiction
- That Jesus rose from the dead, went to heaven, and is there with the father
- That Jesus will come forth someday and judge the dead
- Belief in the holy spirit, the church, forgiveness of sins, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and eternal life after death
Later creeds get into more specific details on the nature of the trinity, and have divided christian-family faiths ever since. Note that it has very little to say about ethics -- a christian is someone who believes certain things, but if we are to accept this as definition, a christian need not necessarily be trying to act a certain way or living according to a certain code. Of course, I don't believe in any of this. I believe that Jesus was a political dissident and folk-religion person during times of Roman imperialism, and said and did some dumb things and managed to get killed. Some of his friends managed to keep his followers around long enough to develop a sect of Judaism that eventually became a separate religion that universalized the parts of Judaism they kept to people outside of the Hebrews, all of this happening as Judaism was undergoing an identity crisis and its own transformation. The rest is history. In sum, Jesus didn't have anything particularly interesting to say, nor was he anything more than a dissident who went up against the wrong people. His death was meaningless.
On to Judaism. The topic of who is a jew has been one that has been controversial for some time. According to the Orthodox and Conservative schools of thought, a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother, or who converts to Judaism. I think this is a bit self-serving and confusing -- the term Jew, as I have spoken of on my BLOG for some time, describes separate things that tend to come together, but it does so for propogandic things -- it is spoken of in one term because when used that way, it makes it difficult for them to be considered separately, and in fact lingually makes it difficult, a la 1984, to remember them separately. I speak of ethnicity, culture, and religion. I refer to the people as the Hebrew people, the culture as Jewish culture, and the religion as Judaism. I have a number of friends who are Judaist, and when on occasion I have talked about some of my other friends, the term "Atheist Jew" has been used, which tends to draw initial confusion -- they tend to see it as being contradictory, and prefer non-observant, although I would say that that non-observant itself is propogandic, because it contains in it the assumption that the only religion permissible for a hebrew person (I have known wiccan Hebrews) is Judaism, and that being observant is a natural and/or good state. Yes, I'm getting involved in linguistic deconstructionism here, but in this case I feel it's justified... Back to the topic, part of conversion is choosing to accept the mitzvot, or obligations, of which there are a large number. These, as I understand, contain in them some which are statements of faith, and also include a number of things that are more like obligations. Judaism thus has a lot more to say about how one acts (especially if one is Shomer Shabbat).
Another thing coming from Judaism is the Noahide Laws, a set of laws that are believed to apply, unlike the Mitzvot, to all of humanity. A few Christian churches, according to Wikipedia, have rejected the Nicene creed and the other creeds, and have instead re-based themselves on the Noahide Laws. The Noahide Laws are also supposed to be popular with Unitarians. According to Wikipedia, Islam is compatible with the Noahide Laws, and depending on interpretation of one of the laws, Christianity might be. The Noahide laws are sometimes stated as numbering in 7, but others make those seven just categories.
- Do not murder
- Do not steal people or things
- Do not worship false gods
- Do not practice sexual immorality
- Do not blaspheme
- Use Justice, establish courts
- Don't eat improper food
I don't think I could subscribe to those, but they are an interesting outreach. This is partly because I imagine being atheist and occasionally speaking against religion could be considered blasphemy, and partly because, by the standards of Judaism and Christianity, I have, in a colourful variety of ways, gone far beyond not being Shomer Negiah (which I'm uncertain if apply as part of the Noahide laws) in a variety of ways in sexual immorality. I am not ashamed of what I consider to be healthy sexuality, and if I felt it were not emotionally or situationally risky, would not be averse to more of the many different kinds of things that would be considered sexual sins by many religions.
Islam .. as far as I understand, generally sects of Islam consider each other to be heretical, and there are no common creeds between them. They do reserve a particular protected status for "people of the book", that is, other religions that are related to theirs historically -- they feel that those faiths have had their message corrupted over the years, but the faith is still recognized as a variant of Islam and so they're treated as a protected people with lesser rights but not none (as opposed to unrelated faiths).
It is tempting to think of Christianity as a society of belief, Judaism as a society of values, and Islam as a society of authority and history. This is a drastic oversimplification, but it is perhaps illuminating. I don't know to what degree Rabbinical Judaism preserves the traditions before it (as Islamohistory calls into doubt), but I think that a society of values, in the abstract is the most beautiful of the three. In any case, I don't find looking for the deepest historical roots to be that necessary or interesting because I believe that digging deep enough into any religion's past finds uncomfortable transformations in the creed that are at ends to the current fundaments, e.g. polytheism to monotheism, or Jesus as prophet to Jesus as aspect of divinity. It may be that Mohammed really didn't care who led Islam after him, or felt that the church did not need a leader, and that Sunnis and Shi have been fighting over uninteresting land, as perhaps poked fun of in Red Dwarf when the ancient Cat civilization fought over the colour of someone's hat and both got it wrong. This is, of course, not meant to suggest that nothing is meant by a religion, as several of my most liberal friends argue. Religions have content, and when the content contrasts with modern values, one should honestly dilute the religion or go against modernity.
I am tempted to think of a creed for a general outlook on life that presumably would be shared by similarly minded people.