65 13.1: Introduction to Religion in Families

Children in early childhood classrooms will come from families with a variety of religious beliefs. This chapter will introduce major religions in the U.S. First let’s look at the religious make-up of the United States based on a 2016 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Table 13.1 – Religious Affiliation in the U.S. [172]

Religious Affiliation

Percent of U.S. Population





Evangelical Protestant*


Mainline Protestant**


Black church






Jehovah’s Witnesses


Eastern Orthodox


Other Christian




Nothing in particular








Jewish (Judiasm)


Muslim (Islam)






Other non-Christian


Didn’t know/Didn’t answer


* Evangelic Protestants are found across many Protestant denominations. The main movements are Baptist churches, Pentecostalism, and Evangelicalism

**Mainline Protestant includes: Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, American Baptist, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Quakers, Reformed Church of America, and others [173]

Religion in California

In 2019, California had the following representations of religious beliefs:

  • Protestant (Christian) – 32%
  • Catholics (Christian) – 28%
  • Non-Religious (atheist, non-affiliated theists, and agnostics) – 27%
  • Jewish – 3.2%
  • Muslim – 1%
  • Other (Buddism, Shinto, Sikhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Mormon, and others) [174]


As shown in being the second most identified religious practice/belief in both the in the U.S. in general and specifically in California, it is important to note that every society also has nonbelievers, such as atheists, who do not believe in a divine being or entity, and agnostics, who hold that ultimate reality (such as God) is unknowable. While typically not an organized group, atheists and agnostics represent a significant portion of the population. It is important to recognize that being a nonbeliever in a divine entity does not mean the individual subscribes to no morality. [175]

A Quick Look at the Most Practiced Religions in the U.S.

Religions have emerged and developed across the world. Some have been short-lived, while others have persisted and grown. In this section, we will very briefly introduce the five most praticed religions in the U.S. This is not intended to be a replacement for learning more about world religions or about the specific religious views and practices of each of the families in your program.


Today the largest religion in the world, Christianity began 2,000 years ago in Palestine, with Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic leader who taught his followers about caritas (charity) or treating others as you would like to be treated yourself.

The sacred text for Christians is the Bible. Different Christian groups have variations among their sacred texts. For instance, Mormons, an established Christian sect, also use the Book of Mormon, which they believe details other parts of Christian doctrine and Jesus’ life that aren’t included in the Bible. Similarly, the Catholic Bible includes the Apocrypha, a collection that, while part of the 1611 King James translation, is no longer included in Protestant versions of the Bible. Although monotheistic (worshipping a single god), Christians often describe their god through three manifestations that they call the Holy Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a term Christians often use to describe religious experience, or how they feel the presence of the sacred in their lives. One foundation of Christian doctrine is the Ten Commandments, which decry acts considered sinful, including theft, murder, and adultery. [176]


After their Exodus from Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C.E., Jews, a nomadic society, became monotheistic, worshipping only one God. The Jews’ covenant, or promise of a special relationship with Yahweh (God), is an important element of Judaism, and their sacred text is the Torah, which Christians also follow as the first five books of the Bible. Talmud refers to a collection of sacred Jewish oral interpretation of the Torah. Jews emphasize moral behavior and action in this world as opposed to beliefs or personal salvation in the next world. [177]

Identifying Jewish is not necessarily indicative of religious beliefs or practices. Many people identify themselves as American Jews on ethnic and cultural grounds, rather than religious ones. [178]


Islam is monotheistic religion and it follows the teaching of the prophet Muhammad, born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 570 C.E. Muhammad is seen only as a prophet, not as a divine being, and he is believed to be the messenger of Allah (God), who is divine. The followers of Islam are called Muslims. [179]

Islam means “peace” and “submission.” The sacred text for Muslims is the Qur’an (or Koran). As with Christianity’s Old Testament, many of the Qur’an stories are shared with the Jewish faith. Divisions exist within Islam, but all Muslims are guided by five beliefs or practices, often called “pillars”: 1) Allah is the only god, and Muhammad is his prophet, 2) daily prayer, 3) helping those in poverty, 4) fasting as a spiritual practice, and 5) pilgrimage to the holy center of Mecca.

In example of how different cultural identities may intersect, Muslims are the most likely to be born outside of the U.S. and are the most diverse religious community. They are also the most likely religious group to report discrimination (which is referred to as Islamophobia). [180]


Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama around 500 B.C.E. Siddhartha was said to have given up a comfortable, upper-class life to follow one of poverty and spiritual devotion. At the age of thirty-five, he famously meditated under a sacred fig tree and vowed not to rise before he achieved enlightenment ( bodhi ). After this experience, he became known as Buddha, or “enlightened one.” Followers were drawn to Buddha’s teachings and the practice of meditation, and he later established a monastic order.

A family at a Buddhist temple
Figure 13.1: A family worshipping at a Buddhist temple. [181]

Buddha’s teachings encourage Buddhists to lead a moral life by accepting the four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering, 2) suffering arises from attachment to desires, 3) suffering ceases when attachment to desires ceases, and 4) freedom from suffering is possible by following the “middle way.” The concept of the “middle way” is central to Buddhist thinking, which encourages people to live in the present and to practice acceptance of others (Smith 1991). Buddhism also tends to deemphasize the role of a godhead, instead stressing the importance of personal responsibility (Craig 2002). [182]


The oldest religion in the world, Hinduism originated in the Indus River Valley about 4,500 years ago in what is now modern-day northwest India and Pakistan. It arose contemporaneously with ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. With roughly one billion followers, Hinduism is the third-largest of the world’s religions. Hindus believe in a divine power that can manifest as different entities. Three main incarnations—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—are sometimes compared to the manifestations of the divine in the Christian Trinity.

Multiple sacred texts, collectively called the Vedas, contain hymns and rituals from ancient India and are mostly written in Sanskrit. Hindus generally believe in a set of principles called dharma, which refer to one’s duty in the world that corresponds with “right” actions. Hindus also believe in karma, or the notion that spiritual ramifications of one’s actions are balanced cyclically in this life or a future life (reincarnation). [183]


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

CHD 216 Early Childhood Programs, Schools, and Social Change Course Materials Copyright © by Remixed by NOVA Online is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book