I’m currently wrapping up a Masters of Divinity. I only have a couple of months to go before three and a half years worth of work is complete. As might be expected, religion is something that I find fascinating; both on a personal and social level. Of course, there are the big faiths that people know about like Roman Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on. But something I find really fascinating are smaller, lesser-known religions. I don’t mean just religions in and of themselves with smaller numbers of adherents, but also smaller denominations and groups within much larger religions as well.
I find them interesting, because I think it really goes to show the incredible diversity of faith and religious belief there is in the world. Most people already know of the much bigger traditions and denominations, so I figure it would be cool to highlight some others.
With that said, here’s a brief run-down of five lesser known religion you may not have heard of (in alphabetical order).
1.) Cao Dai
Cao Dai is a religion which started in southern Vietnam in the 1920s. It’s a syncretic religion that mixes elements of other faiths into its own theology. Notably, it mixes elements of Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and even some elements of Christianity. For ample, Buddha and Christ are considered saints in this religion, as it Victor Hugo. Allegedly Charlie Chaplin and Winston church are included in this, but I couldn’t find anything verification on that.
It’s own theology and ethics reflect the religions that it’s inspired from. From Taoism, it holds that the Tao existed before all things. From there you get the main God and Holy Mother, from whom all things exist and come from. There is the belief of karma and reincarnation, and from what I could gather, heaven and hell that are ultimately the places where all people go after death. The social order strongly reflects it’s Confucian influence, where people have a duty to themselves, their family, society; as well as to slowly overtime detachment from materialism.
Cosmologically, time is divided into three eras, of which we are currently living in the third one. Through out the first two eras, God revealed its will to many historical figures, but the teachings were corrupted. The third era in which we currently live is one where God is revealing the whole truth to humanity and humanity will be fully susceptible to it.
Something to note is that Cao Dai has a strong nationalist angle to it. Since its inception in 1926, Cao Dai actually organized armies to fight against both the French and Japanese. It’s also hard to find Caodaists who aren’t ethnically Vietnamese.
After the union of North and South Vietnam, Cao Dai was actually banned by the government, but it continued to function under the radar. It wasn’t until 1997 when it was unbanned.
Ismailism is a branch of Shia Islam and is, in fact, the second largest Shia group after the Twelvers. In total, Ismailis number about 25 million worldwide and are split into different groups; the largest being the Nizari. Or, somewhat pejoratively referred to as, the “Aga Khanis.”
Shia Islam, as a whole, teaches that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin, was the legitimate successor to the Prophet. From there, there is a succession of Imams that will conclude with the twelfth Imam Mahdi – hence the name “Twelvers.”
Both Twelvers and Ismailis believe in the same first 6 imams, beginning with Ali and going up to Jafar al Sadiq. In the most simplified way I can put it, Twelvers believed that Jafar’s son 3rd Musa was the rightful successor and thus the linage continued. Ismailis believe that Jafar’s oldest son should have been the successor. The oldest son died before his father, so his son was named as a successor. From there we get splits and schisms, and breakaways until we get a bunch of groups that call themselves Ismailis.
So unlike the Twelvers, the Nizari believe that they have a living Imam: the Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV – hence the nickname “Aga Khanis.
Ismailis believe a lot of the standard Islamic theology such as revelation and the oneness of God. However, have a few that make them stand out on their own. First, they have seven pillars of Islam as opposed to five; with the shahada (proclamation of faith) being the foundation which the pillars stand. Ismailism teaches that there is both an apparent and hidden meaning to the Quran, and some Islamilis believe in reincarnation.
A feeling I get is that, online anyway, a lot of Muslims don’t really like Ismailis very much. That they see them as heretics, not following the teaching of the Quran, don’t practice the right, rituals, snd so forth. I can’t say for sure, because I don’t know that many Muslims in real life, and the internet tends to bring out the worst in people.
A contemporary of Buddhism and Hinduism, it shares many similar tenets to those two, such as reincarnation and karma. But there are a couple of characteristics that make it unique.
The first is that, from a western perspective, it is a non-theistic religion. I mean, there are the Hindu Gods who occasionally make an appearance, and Jainism does have it’s own central figures who attained enlightenment called the Tirthankaras. Tirthankaras are said to possess grace that can be given to all living beings, and are generally the object of veneration. However, there is no creator God. Rather, the universe has always existed and is comprised of souls who have existed. The idea is that the soul can perfect itself and become liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. So, this isn’t a religion without divine beings, because, well, they are everywhere.
Second, it’s strict adherence to Ahimsa (non-violence). Ahimsa is a staple in practically all of the Indian religions, but Jainism really steps up it’s game. Jainism advocates for strict vegetarianism that borderlines on vegan. No eggs, no root vegetables, no onions, no fungus or anything of that sort. Many Jains will also do everything they can to not even step on insects or even pick fruits off of trees. Do all Jains do this? No, but it is still an ideal that the religion calls for.
It’s said that there’s about 5 million Jains worldwide, but that number is hard to calculate since many Jains also assimilate to Hindu culture and practice.
I might be kind of cheating with this one, since depending on who you ask, this is either it’s own religion or a sect of Shintoism.
Konkokyo was founded in the 19th century by Bunjirō Kawate – who is believed to have received a revelation to be a mediator between God and humanity. God, called Tenchi Kane No Kami, is seen in a more Pantheistic manner., meaning that all of existence is God. The universe, nature, you – all are a part of God. Because of this, it is beleived that people and Kami are intertwined. One cannot exist with the other. Konkokyo teaches the soul cen be realized and liberated if a person fulfills their duty on earth. They can become an Ikikami – or a living kami. That does not mean a person literally becomes a deity, but that exalt qualities that reflect God on earth. Qualities like compassion and love for others.
Like traditional Shintoism, there is ancestral veneration and saying certain prayers for certain wishes, and the Kami are technically a part of Konkokyo. Given the pantheistic nature of the religion, they are seen as a part of God, rather than separate entities. But there are some differences. There isn’t as big of an emphasis on unlucky days and years, and KonKoKyo, while having its roots in Shintoism, isn’t as ritualistic as Shintoism. It has its own rituals, including its own form of meditation, and it isn’t adverse to adding new rituals or practices – especially in communities overseas.
This one might also be a little cheating, since it’s probably the most well known “obscure” religion, but I think it’s still worth talking about.
The teachings of Zoroastrianism are attributed to Persian prophet by the name of Zoroaster and is generally considered to be one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world.
The God of Zoroastrianism is Ahura Mazda and is the source for all things good in the universe. Likewise, there is an opposite force of evil known as Angra Mainyu, who is the source of all evil in the universe. In Zoroastrian cosmology, these two are in a constant fight with one another, Ahura Mazda will ultimately win out in the end. It is up to the choice of humanity as to whether or not they will follow good or evil, and to ultimate perfect themselves and the world. The core of this teaching is summed up into this phrase: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. This, of course, is combined with rituals, rites, and keeping oneself pure.
Unfortunately, despite being such an ancient and deeply rich religious tradition, there aren’t that many Zoroastrians left in the world. Official estimates put the worldwide number of Zoroastrians at less than 200,000 – with most living in India and Iran. Zoroastrians in India, called Parsis, don’t even allow conversion, while Zoroastrians in Iran and abroad sometimes do.
As time goes on, it seems like it’s becoming less likely for people to be religiously literate or to consider religious studies as something worth knowing. This applies to major world religions; let alone lesser known ones.
In a more diversifying world which is becoming more connected by global connections and tools like the internet, it’s considerably more important to learn of the beliefs of our neighbors and of those we don’t understand. That doesn’t mean we have to accept or like certain cultural practices or theologies, but it’s still important to know where beliefs and values come from and to contextualize them. That, and it’s just really interesting to learn of faith traditions that we here in the west may not know about.