The religions of the world help to bind people together through common beliefs and practices. They also try to help people gain a better understanding of the world and promote cooperation which is necessary for a civilized society. Religions and their core beliefs have been tested over the course of history. Two major world religions, Catholicism and Hinduism, continue to be challenged today. What it means to be a Catholic in the United States or a Hindu in India today is different than what it meant centuries ago. In both instances, some of the core beliefs have been challenged and, in some cases, altered as the religions have adapted to the modern world.
Roman Catholicism is one of the three main branches of Christianity today and the basis for all Christian religions. As stated in the Nicene Creed, Catholics believe in one God as maker of all things, and Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died for our sins. The Bible is the word of God and is seen as a source of authority for its followers. All three branches of Christianity, Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, believe in the same core beliefs, but have differing views, observe separate traditions and worship in distinct ways. Throughout the 1900’s in the United States, Catholics were in the minority among Christians and faced a lot of discrimination. During the Cold War period, Protestants were in the majority and Catholics were ranked below the national average in education, occupation, and income with only about 20 percent of the United States population identifying as Catholics. Around the 1960’s and 70’s Catholics and Protestants started to become more tolerant of each other. When John F. Kennedy ran for president as Catholic, he encountered anti-Catholicism criticism, but not nearly as intense as it had been in the past. American Catholics today no longer face anti-Catholic sentiments and exclusion from society as they did in the early 20th century. However, modern day culture has led to a shift in demographics and a decrease in participation in traditional devotional activities. There has also been a shortage of priests in the United States. This has restricted some Catholics from being able to receive the Holy Eucharist on a daily basis and has caused the priests that do serve to be in high demand.
While Catholicism is widely accepted and practiced in the United States, the secular world challenges it because its core beliefs are at odds with modern culture and politics. The separation of church and state allows for differing ideas to coexist in American society. It is very rare for a member of the Catholic community to cast a ballot that is entirely in agreement with both their political views and Church teachings. Catholic beliefs oppose abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and support immigration rights and programs to provide affordable and accessible health care. They also define marriage as between a man and a woman which excludes same sex marriage. Most Catholics identify as democrats, but many social issues have forced people to choose between their religious beliefs and their political views. This conflict has resulted in tension within the Church. Today, the views of many American Catholics tend to be more closely aligned with their political party than their religious beliefs. A majority of democratic Catholics believe that, on many social issues, their conscience is more important than the teaching of the Church. For example, about 87 percent of Catholics support the death penalty for people convicted of premeditated murder and about 83 percent believe a woman should have the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Both of these stances oppose the Church’s ideals.
In today’s world, Catholics have a very conventional and ordinary lifestyle that mainly involves family life and work. Going to Church every Sunday and finding help through prayer and sacraments are parts of daily life. The modern-day world challenges the gender roles traditionally defined by the Catholic Church. It is a patriarchal religion in which women cannot enter priesthood, be fully ordained members of the clergy, preach, or preside over sacraments. Jesus’ disciples, the authors of scripture, and God’s Son himself were all male. While women can become nuns, they still do not possess the same opportunities as males to participate fully in the Catholic community or to lead and shape Church policies. This puts the Church at odds with women’s rights groups who feel that women should be entitled to equal roles and positions.
Hinduism is one of the oldest of the world religions even though the term “Hinduism” was not used to describe the religion until the nineteenth century. It remains lively to this day and has flourished in India and spread to other parts of the world as well. Hinduism is thought to be a way of life rather than a religion. They believe in Brahman as the one true God. Hindus believe in an undying soul known as the atman that moves from body to body and the course of which is determined by karma. The atman moves through the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth with the ultimate goal of moksha, or liberation. A person’s situation at any given moment in time and the nature of their incarnations is the result of their previous actions. In the past, conversion into Hinduism was seen as impossible because one becomes Hindu by being born into it due to their karma. However, new movements have started missions to non-Hindus to recruit Westerners. Hinduism today has spread all over the world, but the vast majority resides in India where eighty percent of the population is Hindu, and numbers continue to grow. Its practice has tended to move away from strict religious behavior and has returned to traditional Hinduism.
In India, the term secular does not mean separation of church and state as it does in Western culture. It means, instead, the equal treatment of all religions. In practice, laws are enforced based on the religion of the offender. Since Hinduism is so widespread in India, the Hindu religion is an integral part of politics in that country and India is no longer seen as a religiously neutral nation. Hindu nationalistic parties believe that their religious beliefs and values should dominate, and they promote the Hinduization of Indian culture. This politicization has appealed to the majority of the Indian population, mostly in rural areas. However, this development has caused tension in some areas of India where different faith communities live together. The modern world does still pose challenges to core Hindu beliefs. Societal pressures have led to laws that grant rights to lower castes and women, which are not allowed by traditional Hindu beliefs.
Hindus live their modern daily lives following their moral and ethical values, but they are forced to cope with discrimination within their religion. The caste system is still implemented, but it has adapted to be more in line with modern ideals. Indian laws have granted rights to the lowest class – the untouchables - in areas of education and employment and have removed restrictions which made their entry into a temple illegal. Untouchables are also building temples and worshipping Hindu deities in an attempt to gain a higher status within their community and are demanding entry into the priesthood. However, caste wars continue, and a lot of employment opportunities are still based on one’s caste. The traditional view of women in Hinduism was that they were domesticated and served their fathers and husbands, but these images are changing rapidly. Modern Hindu women do not adhere to these norms, and they are now competing against men in traditionally male occupations and are well represented in the government. In addition, quotas have been set for the number of women involvement in the parliament. These changes are modifying the influence of Hinduism on modern day life in India.
Modern society in both the United States and India continue to challenge Catholicism and Hinduism, respectively. The main difference in how the religions have responded to these pressures stems from the difference in the integration of church and state in each nation. In the United States where church and state are separated, the Catholic Church has modernized some of their traditions, but has held fast to their core beliefs. This has perhaps resulted in a decline in numbers as members find that their modern beliefs are at odds with the teachings of the Church. In India, where church and state are more integrated, there have been shifts in the implementation of the caste system and the roles of women in modern day society. This has resulted in a societal change that has affected the practice of Hinduism in India.