Universalism in Various Religions: Miscellany

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths.  There are other important religious traditions to consider, but the remaining ones, by and large, cannot be grouped together as we’ve done in the last two posts.  Therefore, this post will be a bit of a grab bag.  The order in which I consider the various religions with which I’m dealing here will be broadly by type or cultural zone (e.g. I’ll look at the Chinese religions together); but once more, there will be no formal grouping of religions by category as before.  Therefore, go below the cut tag and we’ll begin!


Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of the Iranian peoples, believed to be over 3000 years old.  It survives today among some 70,000 Parsis in India, between 25,000 and 60,000 in Iran (depending on whose statistics you believe), and a diaspora in other areas of the world totaling between 20,000 and 30,000.  Though vanishingly small in numbers, by world standards, Zoroastrians have had a profound influence on world religions, far disproportionate to their numbers.  We will see the reason for this soon.

Before we can proceed, we’ll need to look at a painfully brief outline of the Zoroastrian faith.  Zoroastrianism teaches that there is one god, perfect and all-good, known as Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”).  Ahura Mazda created the world, and all good things within it, including the human race.  Among his creations are lower spirit beings known as ahuras and yazatas, which serve Ahura Mazda and which serve as intercessors between humans and Ahura Mazda.  Ahura Mazda is opposed by the supreme embodiment of evil, Angra Mainyu.  Angra Mainyu is assisted by his demonic legions of daevas.

Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, along with their minions, are locked in an eternal cosmic struggle.  Man, though essentially good, has been given free will, and must choose which side to serve by his thoughts and deeds.  Ahura Mazda makes himself known to mankind through his prophet, Zarathushtra (known also in the West as Zoroaster).  His teachings, expressed though the Gathas and the Avesta (the holy writings of Zoroastrianism) are the basis of the Zoroastrian faith.  At the end of time, a descendant of Zoroaster, known as the Saoshyant (“Savior”) will be born of a virgin.  The Saoshyant will lead the last battle of Good against Evil, in which Good will triumph.  The power of Angra Mainyu will be broken forever, and Ahura Mazda will restore order and peace to the cosmos.

At death, the souls of the departed must cross the Chinvat Bridge.  For the righteous, the bridge will be wide and they will easily cross over to be in the presence of Ahura Mazda.  For the wicked, the bridge will contract to the width of a knife edge, and they will fall into a place of punishment, the druj-demana (“House of Lies”).  At the end of time,

The yazatas Airyaman and Atar will melt the metal in the hills and mountains, and the molten metal will then flow across the earth like a river. All mankind—both the living and the resurrected dead—will be required to wade through that river, but for the righteous (ashavan) it will seem to be a river of warm milk, while the wicked will be burned. The river will then flow down to hell, where it will annihilate Angra Mainyu and the last vestiges of wickedness in the universe. (from here)

I trust the parallels with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are evident.  Many scholars believe that the Abrahamic religions were strongly influenced by Zoroastrian thought.  The Jews, after all, spent the last part of their Babylonian exile under the authority of the Persian Empire, ruled by Cyrus, an explicitly Zoroastrian king.  It is quite possible that Judaism absorbed ideas from Zoroastrianism, later to pass them on to its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam.  In fairness, there has been debate as to which direction the influences went–Zoroastrian records from that time period are spotty, as a result of the destruction wreaked by Alexander the Great when he conquered Persia, and it’s possible that the Zoroastrians picked up ideas from the Jews.  Still, I’m inclined to think the influence went from the Zoroastrians to the Jews, rather than the other way around, especially since the themes of good vs. evil, a coming savior, and so on are not present in other Semitic mythologies.

In any case, Zoroastrianism seems clearly to be non-universalist, as the wicked are either punished eternally or destroyed (it’s hard to tell).  Some sources indicate that only the evil parts of the wicked will be burned off; but that’s not what the majority of texts seem to say.  Thus, I think it’s fair to say that universalism is not part of Zoroastrian teaching.


Confucianism, the great and enduring tradition of China, is more a philosophy and system of ethics than a religion in the sense in which we usually mean that term.  Still, it is often classified as a religion, so we’ll look at it here.  There’s not much to say, actually.  Confucius attached great importance to the rites, that body of traditional Chinese cultural activities and customs that, in Confucius’s view, were necessary to the stability of society.  Many of the rites had religious overtones; but Confucius was adamant in his lack of interest in metaphysical and theological speculation.  Famously, it was said of him, “The Master did not speak of strange events, violence, riots and supernatural things.” (Analects 7:21)  He also said, when asked about death, “When you do not yet understand life, how could you understand death?” (Analects 11:12)  Thus, Confucius clearly had no interest in speculation about the afterlife.  Confucianism therefore cannot be categorized as universalist or non-universalist, but at best agnostic.

Taoism and Shinto

Taoism (also spelled Daoism) is the other great stream of Chinese thought. The term itself is somewhat ambiguous–“Taoism” can mean a philosophical system, a practical system of meditation and exercises (such as taijiquan–also spelled t’ai chi ch’üan–Traditional Chinese Medicine, and so on), or the traditional religious practices of the Chinese people.  Philosophical Taoism and Practical Taoism have little to say of an afterlife (aside from the claims that proper application of Taoist alchemy can make one physically immortal).  Thus, what I want to discuss here is Religious Taoism, what I described here as

[T]he vast panoply of traditional folk practices of Chinese culture, including various shrines to deities, the complex rituals of ancestor veneration, exorcisms, shamanistic practices of priests, and many other folk practices….

Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan.  Though it has been influenced by Chinese thought, including Taoism, it is a distinct tradition.  However, if one substitutes “Japanese” for “Chinese” in the block quote immediately above, one would get a fair characterization of Shinto.  Shinto has a distinctly Japanese air to it, as Taoism is distinctly Chinese; but both are similar in that they lack any systematic dogmatic systems, institutions, or canons, like religions such as Christianity or Buddhism.  Thus, despite their differences, I think it is fair to treat them together.

Religious Taoism and Shinto are both overwhelmingly interested in the here-and-now.  The various major and minor deities are invoked at significant points in the lives of an individual or family–births, coming of age, weddings–and there are many blessings, invocations for long life and good luck, and various local celebrations and festivals.  Neither religion has much to do with death or the afterlife.  Particularly in Japan, funerals are considered to be the “job” of Buddhist priests, while Shinto priests deal with affairs of life.  This is to some extent true in China as well.  In this context it’s important to point out that the traditional Sino-Japanese religions and Buddhism are not seen as exclusive.  Whereas the Abrahamic faiths are insistently exclusive–you can’t be a Christian and a Muslim, or a Muslim and a Jew, or any of the above and fill-in-the-blank, at the same time–the Eastern religions are seen as complimenting each other.  Therefore, individuals typically participate in Taoist, Shinto, and Buddhist practices, depending on the context, with no one considering this to be inconsistent.

The one  place in which Taoism and Shinto have some (vague) implications as to the afterlife is in what Westerners misleadingly call “ancestor worship”.  Both religions have a strong tradition of veneration of ancestors.  In China, in fact, many families have ancestral shrines of the family lineage.  The details of ancestor veneration are quite complex.  Broadly, though, in both Taoism and Shinto, the spirits of the ancestors are thought to be active in the affairs of the living, for good (if they are properly honored and propitiated) and for ill (if they are neglected).  There is no strong moral content to the concept of venerating ancestors–whether one’s distant or more proximal kin were “good” or “bad” is not relevant to their right to veneration.  To the extent that Buddhist ideas mix in with Taoist and Shinto notions, it would appear to be contradictory, since in Buddhist thought, the ancestors would be reborn, and thus would not be hanging around as spirits influencing the living.  Once more, though, there is much more comfort with apparent contradictions in many Eastern religious systems than is typical in the West.  In some interpretations, the veneration of the dead helps them gain better rebirth.  Specifics are not considered important, though.

Thus, it’s hard to apply the category of “universalism” in either a positive or negative way to the traditional religions of China and Japan, since Western ideas of “salvation” and “damnation” are more or less alien to those faiths.  To the extent that such a category could be used, one might perhaps say that they are loosely universalistic in the same sense that Hinduism is–that is, all would eventually either become a venerated ancestor, and/or achieve liberation from birth or rebirth.  Still, neither Taoism nor Shinto can be said to be universalist–or non-universalist–properly-so-called.

Traditional Religions

By this term I mean the ancient religions of Europe, Africa, and Western Asia–the Greco-Roman religion, the religion of the various Germanic tribes, the Celtic religions, the religions of the Slavs, the Sumero-Babylonian religion, the various religions of the Semitic peoples, and the ancient Egyptian religion–and also the modern traditional religions of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia, Polynesia, and parts of Asia.

Obviously there is a dizzying variety of beliefs about the afterlife in these varied faiths.  The Greco-Roman religion evolved from the belief in a vague, shadowy existence for all the dead, good and bad, in Hades; to a notion of reward (the Elysian Fields) and punishment (Tartarus) for the extraordinarily good or evil; to a vague notion of reincarnation (held by Pythagoras and suggested by Plato in the “Myth of Er” in the Republic); to a Neoplatonic view of the cycle of birth and rebirth much like Hinduism.  Roman writers consistently said that the Celts believed in reincarnation, but we have no details.  The Germans–at least the Vikings, the only sub-group of Germans for whom we have a comprehensive record of mythology, in the form of the Eddas and other documents–held that most go to a shadowy existence in Hel, while the bravest of warriors go to Valhalla (more properly Valhöll), to fight during the day and drink and carouse at night, while preparing for Ragnarök, the Last Battle.

We know very little of the pre-Christian Slavic religions, since little or nothing was written down of their lore before they were converted in the 9th Century.  The Sumerian and various Semitic religions seem to have had little notion of an afterlife–a Hades or Hel-like shadowy existence, if anything.  Gilgamesh famously sought–and failed to obtain–the secret of immortality, thus being doomed to death.  Ancient Egyptian religion, of course, had a highly developed concept of the afterlife.  Originally possible only for kings and nobles, the afterlife was later believed to be available to all who could perform the proper funerary rites.  There was a judgement by weighing of the heart of the deceased soul against the feather of Ma’at (Truth).  If the heart was as light as the feather of Ma’at, the soul would proceed to the Egyptian equivalent of Heaven; else, if the  heart was weighed down by sin, it would be devoured by the monstrous Ammut.

Modern traditional religions vary widely, but veneration of ancestors, much as in Taoism and Shinto, is very common (it also figured in some of the aforementioned religions, e.g. the Manes of Roman religion).  There is by and large no uniform belief in judgement and post mortem reward or punishment.

Thus, to make a terribly broad summary, while some traditional religions have loose equivalents of Heaven and Hell, and others do not, there is, as far as I know, no idea of universalism in the sense in which we’ve discussed it in this series.


Finally, an excruciatingly brief look at modern Neopagan religions, such as Wicca, Ásatrú, the Kemetic religion, and so on.  Some of these are reconstructionist (that is, they attempt to restore the religion in question as it was practiced in ancient times), some are more syncretistic and modernized, and some are, quite frankly (with no offense intended) more or less made up.  As one might imagine, the beliefs on the afterlife are bewildering in their variety.  Speaking very, very broadly, some common themes are

  • Denial of heaven and hell of the type traditionally believed by the Abrahamic religions
  • Belief in reincarnation of some sort (often, but not always, a belief in some form of karma is imported from the Dharmic religions)
  • A tendency to emphasize the present life and to downplay notions of the afterlife

No generalization can be made about the concept of universalism.  For some Neopagan faiths, as with Taoism and Shinto, it’s not really an issue either way; for some, there may be reward and punishment; for some, there is a vague idea that all the dead ultimately reach their final goal, however that is conceived.  On the whole, one cannot say that Neopaganism, by and large, is or is not universalist, though perhaps universalist ideas are more common than in ancient religions or existing traditional folk religions.


The categories of “universalist” and “non-universalist”, by and large, cannot be applied to most of the religions we’ve looked at here.  For those to which these categories can be fairly clearly applied–Zoroastrianism and the ancient religion of Egypt–“non-universalist” seems to be the most accurate designation.  There are some vaguely universalist notions in some of the other religions we’ve looked at, most notably the various forms of Neopaganism; but on the whole, the category is not a good fit for these faiths.

Having looked at the various world religions with respect to the notions of universalism, we’ve come up with a wide variety of results.  So what does it all mean?  We’ll briefly look at that next time.

Part of the series “Universalism (What the Hell?!)


Posted on 05/02/2018, in paganism, religion, religions, Taoism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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