The Religious Society of Friends is a religious movement whose members are known as Friends or Quakers. The roots of this movement are with some 17th century Christian English dissenters, but today the movement has branched out into many independent organizations, called Yearly Meetings, which, while sharing the same historical origins, have a variety of names, beliefs and practices. Therefore it is very difficult to accurately describe beliefs and practices of the Religious Society of Friends generally, as these differ considerably between different Yearly Meetings. Most groups of Friends meet for regular worship, but the form this takes differs considerably between different Yearly Meetings and traditions, ranging from silent meetings with no leader and no fixed plan of what will happen, to services led by a pastor with readings and hymns (similar to conventional church services). The theological beliefs of the different Yearly Meetings also vary, from some holding very strong evangelical Christian beliefs through the spectrum to others holding predominantly universalist or Christian universalist beliefs.
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In the public eye, Quakers are known for their social activism, having been instrumental in the campaign against the transatlantic slave trade, as well as campaigning for the rights of minorities such as women, prisoners, and homosexuals. A number of prominent charities today were founded with participation from Quakers, such as and Amnesty International.
The Religious Society of Friends was founded in England in the 1650s, as a Nonconformist breakaway movement from English Puritanism. As the movement grew, it faced opposition and persecution. Friends were jailed and beaten in Great Britain, Ireland and the British colonies. William Penn was imprisoned in England several times. In the 1670 "Hay-market case", Penn was accused of the crime of 'preaching Quakerism to an unlawful assembly', and while he freely admitted his guilt he challenged the righteousness of such a law. The jury, recognizing that Penn clearly had been preaching in public, refused to find him guilty of speaking to an unlawful assembly, but rather attempted to find Penn guilty of "speaking in Gracechurch-street". The judge, unsatisfied with this consensus, withheld food, water, and toilet facilities from the jurors for three days. The jurors finally decided to return a "not guilty" verdict overall, and while the decision was accepted, the jurors were fined. One of the jurors appealed this fine, and Chief Justice Sir John Vaughn issued a historically-important ruling: that jurors could not be punished for their verdicts. This case is considered a major milestone in the history of jury nullification.
In the Massachusetts Bay colony, Friends were banished on pain of death, and some (most famously Mary Dyer) were hanged on Boston Common for returning to preach their beliefs. In England, Friends were effectively banned from sitting in Parliament at Westminster from 1698-1833. William Penn founded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to provide a safe place for Friends to live and practice their faith. Despite persecution, the movement grew at a steady rate.
The Friends movement and its adherents have many names to which they are reffered. These include:
In the beginning years of the movement, Quakers thought of themselves as part of the restoration of the true Christian church after centuries of apostasy. For this reason, they often referred to themselves as simply the "saints" during these first two years. Other common names in the early days were "Children of the Light" and "Friends of the Truth", reflecting the central importance in early Quaker theology of Christ as an Inner light that shows people their true condition.
The nickname "Quaker" was first used in 1650, when George Fox was brought before Justice Bennet of Derby on a charge of blasphemy. According to Fox's journal, Bennet "called us Quakers because we bid them tremble at the word of God," a phrase from a scriptural reference (e.g., Isaiah 66:2, Ezra 9:4). Therefore, what began apparently as a way to make fun of Fox's admonition by those outside the Society of Friends became a nickname that Friends even use for themselves.
The title "Religious Society of Friends" came many years later, in the 18th century. This remains the movement's most widely-accepted name to this day, although often "Quakers" is added in parentheses for the sake of clarity. However, there are some Friends who are fond of other names: some evangelical Friends' organizations use the term "Friends Church", and some Friends (usually in unprogrammed meetings) object to the word "religious" and refer to themselves as part of the "Society of Friends". For this reason, some monthly meetings do not include "religious" in their name, while most larger Quaker organizations, such as yearly meetings, use the full name.
In 1827 a division occurred within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting when its members could not agree on who was to fill the position of clerk. The issue involved the visits and preaching of Elias Hicks in violation of the will of numerous meetings; some members claimed his views were universalist and contradicted the historical tradition of Friends. The same year, a number of Friends in sympathy with Hicks separated to form a parallel system of yearly meetings in America, referred to as Hicksite and those who did not were called Orthodox; ultimately five yearly meetings divided.
The split in New York and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings was overcome in 1955 when in each yearly meeting the Orthodox and Hicksite meetings merged; Baltimore's division ended a decade later.
The Beaconite Controversy arose from the book "A Beacon to the Society of Friends," published by Isaac Crewdson in 1835. He was a minister in the Manchester Meeting. The controversy arose in 1831 when doctrinal differences amongst the Friends culminated in the winter of 1836-1837 with the resignation of Crewdson and of 48 fellow members of the Manchester Meeting. About 250 others left in various localities in England including outstanding members. A number of these members joined themselves to the Plymouth Brethren and brought influences of simplicity of worship to that society. Notables among the Plymouthists who were former Quakers included John Eliot Howard of Tottenham and Robert Mackenzie Beverley.
The Orthodox Friends in America were exercised by a transatlantic dispute between John Wilbur of Rhode Island and Joseph John Gurney of England. Gurney put his emphasis on scriptural authority and favored working closely with other Christian groups. In response, Wilbur defended the authority of the Holy Spirit as primary, and worked to prevent what he saw as the dilution of Friends tradition of Spirit-led ministry. In 1842 Wilbur was expelled from his yearly meeting in a questionable proceeding. Over the next several decades, multiple Wilburite-Gurneyite separations occurred. The Wilburite tradition continues today to varying degrees by the conservative yearly meetings of Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina; Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) is generally considered the most traditional in this regard, retaining more rural Quakers who use the plain language and continue wearing plain dress more than the other two.
Joel Bean, an Orthodox Friend, opposed the extreme evangelicalism that was creeping into his branch of Quakerism. He formed a new branch of Quakerism in the western United States when his membership was terminated and his meeting was laid down by Iowa Yearly Meeting.
The "Beanite" (or independent) Quakers resemble an amalgam of Hicksite and Wilburite Quakerism. In the 1980s some of them adopted the label "Christ-Centered Universalism".
George Fox and the other early Quakers believed that direct experience of God was available to all people, with or without mediation (e.g., through hired clergy, or through outward sacraments). Fox described this by writing, "Christ has come to teach His people Himself."
Since Friends believe that each contains God, much of the Quaker perspective is centered on trying to hear God and to allow God's Spirit free action in the heart. In 1670, Isaac Penington wrote: "It is not enough to hear of Christ, or read of Christ, but this is the thing — to feel him my root, my life, my foundation..."
The theological beliefs of different Yearly Meetings vary considerably, ranging from evangelical Christianity to universalist and new thought beliefs. Some Yearly Meetings (especially those in parts of the US and Africa affiliated to Friends United Meeting) consider Christ their teacher and Lord. Other yearly meetings (especially those in parts of the US, Asia and Central America which are affiliated to Evangelical Friends Church International) regard Christ as their Lord and savior. Other yearly meetings, especially those in parts of the US which are affiliated to the wider fellowship of conservative Friends, trust in the immediate guidance of an inward Christ. There is often a large variety of theological belief in some other yearly meetings (often termed liberal yearly meetings such as those in parts of the US affiliated to Friends General Conference, many yearly meetings in Europe and Australia/New Zealand and the Beanite yearly meetings in western United States), with meetings often having a large proportion of liberal Christians and universalist Christians some of whom trust in the guidance of an inward Christ or inner light, with some non-theists, agnostics, and, as well as some who are also members of other religions, although even amongst liberal yearly meetings this is controversial. Common ideas among members of these liberal Yearly Meetings include a belief of "that of God in everyone", and shared values (such as to peace, equality and simplicity).
The predominant theological beliefs of different Yearly Meetings do not tally exactly with the style of service, but there is often some co-relation, with many Yearly Meetings that hold programmed worship having more evangelical theological beliefs, and those with unprogrammed worship tending to have more liberal theological beliefs.
Modern Friends, particularly those in the liberal Yearly Meetingss, often express their beliefs in many ways, including the attitude of trying to see or appeal to "[the light] of God in everyone"; finding and relating to "the Inner light", "the inward Christ", or "the spirit of Christ within." Early Friends more often used terms such as "Truth", "the Seed", and "the Pure Principle", from the idea that each person would be transformed as Christ formed and grew in them. The intention to "see the light" or see "that of God in everyone" is an effort in Quakers to cast aside more superficial differences and focus on the good that they believe all people have in common.
Unlike other Christian denominations, some branches of Quakerism completely reject all forms of religious symbolism and outward sacraments, such as baptism or celebrating the Eucharist. Quakers also believe in continuing revelation, with the idea that God speaks directly to any person, without the need for any middle-man. For this reason, many deny the idea of priests or holy people, but believe in the priesthood of all believers, and reject the doctrine of sola scriptura. The idea of an inner light (or inward light) of Christ is important to many Quakers: the idea that there is that of God within everyone, guiding them through their lives.
Quakers try to bear witness or testify of their beliefs in their every day life - an expression of "spirituality in action". The ways in which they testify are often known as Quaker testimonies or Friends' testimonies - these are not a formal, static set of words, but rather a shared view or attitude of how many Quakers relate to God and the world. This leads each Quaker to have an individual understanding of what the testimonies are, and while the ideologies remain quite similar for all Quakers, they go by different names, and different values are included throughout the Religious Society of Friends. The testimonies are interrelated and can be seen as a cohesive philosophical system, even outside Christian theology. The testimonies have not always been consistent, but throughout their history they have challenged and provided guidance to Friends.
The list of testimonies is, like all aspects of Friends theology, constantly evolving — so as to be relevant to today, but the following are common:
Some Friends also include other testimonies, including Unity, Community, Compassion, Justice, Truth, Stewardship, Sustainability, and the testimony against time and season. In the United States, Children and Friends school students are often taught the acronym SPICES, which stands for Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality and Stewardship. In the United Kingdom, the acronym STEP is used, or more affectionately, PEST, which includes the testimonies to Peace, Equality, Simplicity and Truth. Truth tends to be the more common name of the integrity testimony in the United Kingdom, although Integrity is also sometimes added as a fifth testimony. Similarly, in recent years the environment has also come to be regarded by some in the United Kingdom as an "emerging testimony", one that is respected and valued, but has not traditionally been prioritized.
An interesting example of Quaker attitudes is in Some Fruits of Solitude In Reflections And Maxims, a collection of epigrams written by William Penn in his retirement. One excerpt from this work reads, "The Wise Man is Cautious, but not cunning; Judicious, but not Crafty; making Virtue the Measure of using his Excellent Understanding in the Conduct of his Life. "
Early Friends rejected the mainstream Protestant idea of sola scriptura, that the Bible is God's written word and therefore self-authenticating, clear and its own interpreter; instead, they believed that Christ, rather than the Bible, is the Word of God. Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology that the scriptures "are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners." Similarly, George Fox recounted an incident in his Journal in which a minister claimed that the scriptures were authoritative: Fox "...was commanded to tell them God did not dwell in temples made with hands. But I told them what it was, namely, the Holy Spirit, by which the holy men of God gave forth the scriptures, whereby opinions, religions and judgments were to be tried; for it led into all Truth, and so gave the knowledge of all Truth."
Early Friends believed that Christ would never lead them in ways that conflicted with the Bible; this belief prevented contradictions between Friends' leadings and their understanding of the Bible.
Later, conflicts began to arise between what the Bible appeared to teach and how many Friends believed they were being led by the Spirit. Some Friends decided that the Bible should be authoritative in such cases.
Partly under the influence of movements such as liberal Protestantism, other Friends decided that it was possible to be truly led in ways contrary to scripture, and that in such cases scripture should give way. Still other Friends rejected (or neglected) the Bible altogether; hence in many liberal Friends meetings one might encounter non-Christian Friends or those who question some — or all — of the traditional doctrines of Christianity. In practically all cases, modern Friends believe in the necessity of being continually guided by God. Divine revelation is therefore not restricted to the Bible, but rather continues even today. This doctrine is known as continuing revelation.
A common set of practices which spoke of key principles and beliefs held by Friends emerged. These are "testimonies," for Friends believe these principles and practices should be expressed (testified as truth) among Friends as well as to others, in both words and deeds. Rooted in the immediate experience of the community of Friends, for many Friends these values are verified by the Bible, especially in the teachings and life of Jesus.
Generally, Quakerism has no creed but has always had doctrines. George Fox dismissed theologians as "notionists" but accepted the Robert Barclay's Catechism and Confession of Faith. Some modern Quakers are generally less concerned with theology and more concerned with acting in accordance with the leading of the Spirit. Quakers historically have preferred an understanding coming from God's Spirit over the knowledge derived from objective logic or systematic theology. Avoiding notions of "authoritative" doctrines, diverse statements of "faith and practice" and diverse understandings of the "leading of the spirit" have always existed among Friends. The leading to lay down all sense of authoritative theology (notions thereof) results in broad tolerance within the Society for earnest expressions of "the light within."
Liberal Friends believe a formal creed would be a hindrance—both to authentic listening and to the recognition of new insight. On the other hand, Orthodox Friends have enumerated and subscribed to a set of doctrines, such as the Richmond Declaration or the "Beliefs of Friends" stated by Evangelical Friends International, both of which are comparable to mainstream Christianity testimonies of faith.
Robert Griswold's pamphlet on this subject expounds Friends' historic witness against creeds—not just as a principle of individual religious integrity, but as an implied statement that Friends, having encountered and experienced God, found creeds not just injurious, but irrelevant. Doctrinal statements which seek to objectify deity fail to communicate the essence of the "holy spirit", "inner light", or "that of God within us" that "speaks to us" and can also compel to "witness."
As a public statement of faith, many Yearly Meetings publish their own version of a Book of Discipline - often called Faith and Practice - which expresses their own sense of truth and purpose; these documents generally are revised every few years.
Early Friends did not believe in the reliance upon practice of the outward rites and sacraments, believing that holiness can exist in all the activities of one's life, for all of life is sacred. Their experience of baptism by the Holy Spirit was an inward, transforming experience and they knew communion with Christ in the midst of gathered worship in the expectant silence. Thefefore, they did not perform baptism as a rite of membership. These Friends also believed that any meal that included others could be a form of communion.
At various times, some individuals or small groups of Friends have published corrective cautions against adopting the prohibition of some rite as itself being creedal. The focus should be upon God as Present Teacher, rather than on some human ritual, or the absence thereof. Thus, most Friends do not prohibit rites or ceremonies, but they do counsel against allowing these human inventions to take the place of direct experience and leading by God.
Friends have traditionally shunned the traditional church calendar, not observing religious festivals such as Christmas, Lent, or Easter at particular times of the year, but instead believing that Christ's birth, crucifixion and resurrection should be commemorated every day of the year, not just on certain days, and that if something should or should not be done on certain days, this should be done all the year around and not just on those days. For example, many Quakers feel that fasting at Lent but then eating in excess at other times of the year is an act of hypocrisy, and therefore many Quakers, rather than observing Lent, live a simple lifestyle all the year round. These beliefs tie in with Friends' beliefs on sacraments and the belief that all of life is sacred.
Similarly, Friends traditionally are non-Sabbatarians, holding that "every day is the Lord's day", and that what should be done on a First Day (Sunday) should be done each day of the week. Meeting for Worship is often held on a First Day (Sunday); however, this is more because of convenience rather than because it is believed that Sunday is Sabbath, and many Friends hold Meeting for Worship on other days of the week.
These beliefs are often called the testimony against time and season.
Quakerism is unusual because of its emphasis on one's personal experience with God. However, it differs from other mystical religions in at least two significant ways. For one, Quaker mysticism is primarily group-oriented rather than based on the individual. The Friends' traditional meeting for worship may be considered an expression of that group mysticism, where all the members of the meeting listen together for the Spirit of God, speaking only when that Spirit moves them. On the other hand, it is also possible to consider the Quakers as a special kind of religious order (like the Franciscans, who also practise group mysticism), living the mystic and monastic tradition in their own way. For example, this idea is represented by the Anglican minister and Quaker, Paul Oestreicher. Additionally, Quaker mysticism as it has been expressed after the late 1800s includes a strong emphasis on its outwardly-directed witness. Rather than seeking withdrawal from the world, the Quaker mystic converts his or her mysticism into action. They believe this action leads to greater spiritual understanding — both by individuals and by the congregation as a whole. It is also possible to consider the Quakers as a sort of humanistic religion in the sense of Erich Fromm. In this view, mysticism includes social and political activities. For instance, the German Quaker Heinz Röhr saw himself as a Friend between Marx and mysticism.
Most groups of Quakers meet regularly for worship. In some traditions, this is called a meeting for worship and in others it is a Friends Church service. In yearly meetings in Europe, Asia, southern Africa, Oceania and parts of the US, worship is most often unprogrammed. This, constituting about 11% of Quakers worldwide, is based in silence; it is generally held with others, and those who feel "moved to speak" can minister for as long as they feel is right. There is usually time to reflect between spoken contributions, and the meetings normally last for one hour. There is no leader in such a service because Quakers who worship in this tradition often believe that each person is equal before God and is capable of knowing "the light" directly. In many yearly meetings in Africa, Asia and parts of the US, worship is based on a program. This constitutes around 50% of Quakers internationally. In these meetings, there is often a prepared message, which may be delivered by an individual with theological training.
There may be prayers, hymns, a sermon, Bible readings, and a period of silent worship. There is often a paid pastor responsible for care of the members of the local church. In addition to these, around 40% of Quakers worldwide are evangelical and may have grown apart from unprogrammed worship.
Friends treat all functions of the church as a form of worship, including business, marriage, and memorial services, in addition to regular meetings for worship. The two main types of Quaker worship are often referred to as "programmed" and "unprogrammed".
While the different styles of worship generally reflect the theological splits, with unprogrammed Friends churches generally being more theologically liberal and programmed meetings more theologically conservative, this is not a strict rule. Many meetings hold services or other activities that are both programmed and unprogrammed . Some "Conservative" meetings are unprogrammed yet would generally be considered to be theologically closer to most programmed meetings.
Unprogrammed worship is the more traditional style of worship among Friends and remains the norm in Britain, Ireland, continental Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and parts of the United States (particularly Yearly Meetings associated with Friends General Conference). During an unprogrammed meeting for worship, Friends congregate in "expectant waiting" for divine leadings. Sometimes a meeting is entirely silent, and sometimes quite a few people speak. Meeting for Worship generally lasts close to an hour.
When they feel they are led by the spirit, a participant will rise and share a message (give "vocal ministry") with those gathered. Typically, messages, testimonies, or ministry are not prepared as a "speech." Speakers are expected to recognize the source of their inspiration — divine or self. After someone has spoken, it is expected that several moments will pass in silence before further Ministry; there should be no spirit of debate.
Unprogrammed worship is generally deemed to start as soon as the first participant is seated, with others entering the room in silence. The Meeting for Worship ends when one (usually predetermined) person shakes the hand of another person present. All the members of the assembly then shake hands with their neighbors, after which one member usually rises and extends greetings and makes announcements.
Programmed worship is similar to a typical Protestant worship service in the United States. This tradition arose among Friends in the United States in the 1800s in response to large numbers of converts to Quakerism during the national spiritual revivalism of the time. Typically, there are readings from scripture, hymns, and a sermon from the pastor. A period of silence (similar in practice to that of unprogrammed meetings, though generally quite shorter) is included in some Programmed Friends worship services. Most Friends in the southern and central United States worship this way.
The Friends meetings started in Africa and Latin America were generally started by Friends from programmed elements of the society. Therefore, most African and Latin American Friends worship in a programmed style.
Some Friends also hold what is called Semi-Programmed Worship, which brings programmed elements like hymns and readings into an otherwise unprogrammed worship service.
Quakers do not practice any form of water baptism, Christening ceremony, or other ceremony for the birth of a child. The child is welcomed into the meeting by everyone present at their first attendance. Formerly, it was the practice that children born to Quaker parents automatically became members of the Religious Society of Friends (sometimes called Birthright membership). However, this is no longer the case in most areas, and most parents now leave it up to the child to decide whether to become a member when they are an older child or adult.
A marriage in a Friends meeting is similar to most other unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, which can be very different from the experience expected by non-Friends. Quakers have their own officers to sanction the union. The ceremony is conducted exactly as a normal meeting for Worship and the pair marry one another before God and the attending witnesses. After exchanging vows, the meeting returns to open worship and guests are free to speak as they are impressed. At the rise of meeting, all the witnesses, including the youngest children in attendance, are asked to sign the wedding certificate.
In the early days of the United States, there was doubt whether a marriage solemnized in such a manner was entitled to legal recognition, leading at least one jurisdiction, Florida, to enact special legislation on the matter.
In recent years, Friends in Australia, Britain and some meetings in North America have celebrated weddings or civil unions between partners of the same sex. At the Yearly Meeting in 2009 in Britain the Quakers decided to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, making them the first mainstream religious body in the UK to do so. However as same-sex marriage in not legal in the United Kingdom these marriages will not be legally valid, however, they stated that the law do not preclude from "playing a central role in the celebration and recording" of them and asked the government to change the law so that they would be recognised in the same way as opposite-sex marriages in Quaker meetings are.
Traditional Quaker memorial services are also held as one form of worship and are known as memorial meetings. Friends gather for worship and offer remembrances about the person who has passed away. Because Friends believe that the spirit is more important than the body, the coffin or ashes of the deceased are not present; rather, burial takes place separately. Memorial meetings can last over an hour, particularly if there is a large number of people in attendance. Memorial services give every attendant a chance to remember the lost individual in their own way, thus bringing comfort to those present, and re-affirmation of the larger community of Friends.
Business decisions on a local level are conducted at a monthly "Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business", or, simply, "Business Meeting". A business meeting is a form of worship, and all final decisions are reached so that they are consistent with the guidance of the Spirit.
Instead of voting, the Meeting attempts to gain a sense of God's will for the community. Each member of the meeting is expected to listen to "that of God within" themselves and, if led, to contribute it to the group for reflection and consideration. Each member listens to others' contributions carefully, in an attitude of seeking Truth rather than attempting to prevail or to debate.
A decision is reached when the Meeting, as a whole, feels that the "way forward" has been discerned (also called "coming to unity"), or there is a consensus. On some occasions a single Friend will hold up a decision because they feel the meeting is not following God's will. Occasionally, some members of the Meeting will "stand aside" on an issue, meaning that these members do not share in the general sense of the meeting yet are willing to allow the group to move forward.
Many Quakers define the search for unity as the gathering of believers who "wait upon the Lord" to discover God's will. When seeking unity, Friends do not attempt to seek a position with which everyone is willing to live (as is often the case in consensual models) but rather to determine God's will. It is assumed that if everyone is listening to God's Spirit, the way forward will become evident.
The business carried out "in the manner of Friends" can seem time-consuming and impractical. The process can be frustrating and tedious, but Friends believe it works well, allowing the group to come to decisions even around the most difficult matters. By the time a decision is finalized, the important issues have been worked out and the group supports the decision; there is no "losing" side.
Many non-Friends express doubts as to whether this process of decision making can work in a larger group, although many yearly meetings have successfully employed this practice for generations. Some Quaker-related organizations, such as Haverford College in Philadelphia and Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, also make use of traditional Quaker form practices of governance.
Friends have founded many schools and colleges around the world; however, Friends have often cautioned against the admission of education credentials as either a form of honouring humans instead of God or as a substitute for a relationship with God. Several organizations centered on education have continued amongst Friends, including Friends Council on Education (FCE) an organization supporting Friends schools (typically primary through secondary, often boarding) and Friends Association for Higher Education (FAHE), which supports Friends post-secondary institutions and those who resonate with Friends' teaching and traditions who serve in higher education.
Many Quakers feel their faith does not fit within traditional Christian of Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant categories, but is another way of experiencing God.
Although all Quakers in previous centuries (and most today) recognize Quakerism as a Christian movement, a few Friends (principally in some Liberal Meetings in the United States and the United Kingdom) now consider themselves universalist, agnostic, atheist, secular humanist, postchristian, or Nontheist Friend, or do not accept any religious label at all. Calls for Quakerism to include non-Christians go back at least as far as 1870, but this phenomenon has become increasingly noticeable during the latter half of the 20th century and the opening years of the 21st century, and is still controversial among Friends. An especially notable example of this is that of Friends who actively identify as members of a faith other than Christianity, such as Buddhism or Islam.