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world religions: grades 8-12 activity ideas

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Introducing World Religions

Most of the people on Earth live with other people in some sort of organized or implied culture. There are a number of traits prevalent in those cultures that meet the basic needs of the people. Among the traits we might identify are food, shelter, clothing, education, traditions, government, economics, family life, and, of course, religion. Although the basic traits are common to the cultures, the practice and rituals play out differently in each one. The cultures are not static so the traits may change with time. For example, we might now include the use of technology as a predominant trait of our Western culture.

Religion has always been a very major part of culture, influencing governments, families, daily habits, and more. Jews and Muslims are forbidden to eat pork; The Holy Koran has become the foundation of civil law in Saudi Arabia; conflict can erupt when people feel their religion is threatened as seen in the ongoing upheaval in Sri Lanka between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils. Religion can also provide a code of behavior in a person's relationship with other people. For example, almost every major religion promotes a tenet resembling the Golden Rule of "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you."

This activity will introduce students to major world religions in both a textual and visual format. It could be coordinated with the art department at your school to enhance the visual presentations.

Using the overview above, introduce the idea of religion as a part of cultures around the world. Ask students for the names of some world religions. Write these on the board. Note: It may be necessary to lead a discussion on the difference between the words religion and denomination or sect. Students should be clear on the names of the world religions and the names of divisions within those religions. Suggested world religions to use for this activity might include: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Shinto, Confucianism, Animism/Ethnic.

Divide students into groups and assign each group one of the major religions. Ask groups to research the basic tenets of the assigned religion, symbols or colors that have special significance, the founder and origin, and the major part(s) of the world where it is practiced today.

After the information has been collected, students should design a poster that will present the material visually. You might want to set standards for the size of the posters, depending on your display areas; font size for headlines and text; and/or limit the amount of text. Each poster should include: the visual symbol for the religion (such as the cross for Christianity), a brief text telling about the basics of the religion (such as the Five Pillars of Islam), a picture of the founder and some date that approximates the founding, and the world map showing today's areas of practice. Supply students with a small world map or the source for a map so that all posters will display the same scale. Be sure students understand that there should be some uniformity in the content of the posters. They should be designed to help their classmates learn about the religions.

Ask groups to choose one or more spokespeople to present their religion to the whole group using the poster as a visual aide, or regroup students so that at least one representative of each of the religions is included in a new group. Either in a whole class discussion or group discussion, solicit answers to the following questions:

  • Which religion was founded first and where? Why there?
  • How do the rest follow in chronological order?
  • Where were the others founded? Why there?
  • Which one has the largest following today?
  • Which ones seem to have spread the most? Speculate on why that might be true.
  • Are any of them decreasing in number of followers? Why?
  • Are there similarities in their basic tenets?

Display the posters in chronological order of founding.

For older students posters could certainly be more elaborate and might include another world map showing the historical spread of the religion since its founding.

Web Resources:

Graphing World Religions

Do you ever notice how a picture catches your eye more quickly than text? Graphics are all around us and have great influence on how we live, what we buy, and how we learn. For example, if we wanted to compare the number of people who profess belief in various world religions, we could look at long lists of numbers in a table. Most of us are not very good at remembering long lists of numbers. That's where graphs or pictograms are of great help.

Coordinating this lesson for math and social studies classes would be ideal. Any type of graph could be acceptable, although bar graphs are probably most definitive for this data. Computer-generated graphs are certainly in order. If students are not proficient in using computer applications to construct graphs, this would be an excellent activity to start them on their way.

The research should not be a burden since this data is published regularly in the World Almanac. The U.S. Census Bureau Web site listed below produces excellent population pyramids for most all countries of the world; however, students may need a review or a lesson on how a population pyramid reveals data.

Form student pairs and ask each pair to research the information that would be needed to create a graph illustrating one of the following topics:

  • Followers of Eight Major Religions Worldwide
  • Followers of Eight Major Religions by Continental Area
  • Followers of Eight Major Religions in the USA

The religions to be considered are Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Confucianism, and Ethnic religions. The continental areas to be used are North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.

After the pairs have collected the necessary data, they should decide whether to create the graph on the computer or by hand. Graphs should be drawn on 8 1/2 x 11 paper so that there is some uniformity for comparison. Arrange to display the graphs in groups by title and ask students to compare and contrast the results. Are all of the graphs accurate? Does the scale used on the graphs lead to inaccurate conclusions? Are the graphs a better way to display the information than a table of statistics?

Distribute copies of various population pyramids from around the world or ask students to look at the U.S. Census Web site and to choose some countries to examine. Relate the data in the population pyramids to the possible growth of various religions. Be sure the students understand that this is only a way to estimate growth.

Distribute world outline maps and colored pencils. Ask students to make a key using a different color for each world religion or perhaps the 4 or 5 major ones. Ask students to color the map in approximation to the dominance of world religions around the world. Ask students to pair up, to compare their maps with a classmate's map, and to discuss any differences.

With all students having access to the three graphs completed, open a discussion on where the religions seem most prevalent. Some discussion points might include:

  • Why might the religions dominate where they do?
  • Is the area of dominance related to the area of founding?
  • Are there areas where two or more religions seem prevalent?
  • Do you know of any religious conflicts that have arisen in those areas?
  • How do religions travel? Missionaries? Immigration? Modern technology?
  • Will a higher birthrate in one area affect the religion's growth?


The Architecture of Worship

Throughout the history of the world's religions, the followers have built structures and monuments to enhance the rituals and ceremonies of worship. Some of these structures are very simple and others have, as the worship became more complex, developed into styles of religious architecture that are very familiar today. For example, today's Gothic cathedrals are easily identified as part of the Christian tradition. Of course, these styles have borrowed from the past, selected parts of older styles such as the classical Greek and Roman, and even sometimes simply converted older structures to fit a new religion.

Divide students into groups and assign one of the following groups of structures or monuments. Ask students to research the structures and to find a picture of each that they can print from the Internet or copy from a book. Students should cut poster board into "pages" to create a viewbook to hold their pictures, leaving enough room on each page to accommodate an informative caption about each picture.

Create a cover for the viewbook. On the last page of the book, students should include a paragraph or two discussing the similarities and differences that seem to emerge from their pictures. Books should be shared and students should be available to answer questions about their work.


  • National Cathedral, Washington D.C.
  • Notre Dame, Paris, France
  • Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
  • St. Peter's Basilica, Rome


  • Blue Mosque, Istanbul
  • The Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
  • The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
  • Taj Mahal, Agra, India


  • The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem
  • Touro Synagogue, Rhode Island
  • Beth Sholom Synagogue, Elkins Park, PA


  • Angkor Wat, Cambodia
  • Temple Complex, Kanchipuram, India
  • Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, India


  • The Potala, Lhasa, Tibet
  • Dalada Maligawa, The Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka
  • Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, Kelaniya, Sri Lanka

Note: Of course, students should be encouraged to include more structures than those on these lists or to substitute similar buildings. For example, a Vermont village church should probably be added to the Christian list. This lesson might also be adapted to include structures and monuments related to these world religions in the local community. Students then would go to the site to photograph the structures and to visit the inside if that is appropriate. Photos could then be collected in a view book similar to the one above.

Web Resources (General):






Finding Common Ground: Comparing World Religions

Religious scholars who study the doctrines and practice of the world religions tell us that there are five characteristics that world religions seem to share. Those categories are:

  • a belief in some kind of deity or supreme being (ex. God or Jehovah)
  • a code of conduct for individuals and groups of people (ex. prohibition against murder)
  • religious rituals or ceremonies (ex. baptism or marriage)
  • a doctrine of salvation (ex. being forgiven for sins)
  • a sacred text of stories of a holy book (ex. Bible or Quran)

That's a lot to have in common. Now we need to find out if the commonality is deeper than just the list above, using a short cut that you may not have have employed before. A concordance is a kind of index where one can look up a word or phrase and get a reference to a citation in a book or group of books for which the concordance has been written. In the past they were most commonly used for the Bible. Modern technology has made that possible for many books, and because most religions have sacred texts, we are able to compare what they say about most any topic.

Have students work in pairs if enough computer space is available. Ask them to prepare a rough draft of a table with five religions across the top and topics along the side. The religions should be Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Taoism. Review with the students the names of the sacred texts for these religions:

  • Book of Chuang Tzu for Taoism
  • The Bible (Old Testament) or Torah for Judaism
  • The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) for Christianity
  • The Bhagavad Gita or Hindu Texts for Hinduism
  • Tripitaka or The Gospel of Buddhism (in translation) for Buddhism

Now we need some topics to compare. Solicit from the students areas they think the religions might have in common. They may offer ideas such as salvation, conduct, sin, redemption, confession, war/conflict, baptism, neighbor, love, marriage, etc. Do not limit these or assign specific ones to the pairs; hopefully, they will think of some unique areas to explore. Each pair should try to think of a few that no one else has compared. Set a minimum number to be investigated.

Students should come back to class ready to contribute their results to a larger table set up in the classroom, either on the board or on a big pad on an easel. After the entries have been combined, initiate a discussion about how much the religions have in common. Why, then, does there seem to be so much strife and animosity among the religions? Perhaps the discussion will lead to an investigation of how contrasts are created when political and economic factors are added to the basic religious tenets.

Religious Conflict

The major world religions seem to share many beliefs. In every day practice, however, some of those religions appear to be in great conflict. How do people regard the religious part of their culture? Does religion make the rules for everything? Does religion tell them how to treat other people? Is God on their side? Are they tolerant of other religions? When they use violence against other people, do they believe it to be justified?

Conduct an introductory discussion with the class about religious conflict in the world today. Make a list on the board of the conflicts they are able to name and which religions are involved. That list might include:

  • Arab/Israeli in the Middle East
  • Taliban/less conservative Muslim/Western in Afghanistan
  • Muslim/Sikh/Hindu in Kashmir
  • Catholic/Protestant in Northern Ireland
  • Fundamental Christian/Chinese Communist in China
  • Fundamentalist Muslim/Copts/Egyptian government in Egypt
  • Tibetan Buddhists/Chinese government in Tibet
  • Hindu Tamil/Sinhalese Buddhist in Sri Lanka
  • Muslims/Christians in Eastern Europe

Divide students into groups of three and ask them to do some research on one of those conflicts. The trios should then consolidate their research notes and share what they have found with the rest of the class. Some questions to ask as they research:

  • Who is involved and in what part of the world?
  • What are the characteristics of the place where the conflict is taking place?
  • How and when did the trouble begin?
  • What is the basis of the conflict?
  • Have attempts been made to make peace?
  • Have others tried to help bring about a truce? Why?
  • What is the prospect for peace? Is this conflict likely to continue?
  • If the conflict continues, might it expand to include others? Who?

Below are some quotations from a diverse group of people who have something to say about how religion guides our actions and even creates violence. You may have other quotations to add to the list. Ask students to read through the list. Do any of these quotations speak particularly to the religious conflicts in the world today? Might any of these speakers look at today's situation and say, "See, I told you so"?

From Thomas Paine, 1737-1809, early American patriot.

  • "My country is the world and my religion is to do good."
  • "Every religion is good that teaches man to be good."
  • "....I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy."

From Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745, British author and novelist.

  • "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."

From Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662, famous French mathematician, philosopher, physicist, and religious scholar.

  • "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

From James Madison, 1751-1836, early American patriot. From the Federalist Papers of 1787.

  • "A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points......have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good."

From Wendall Phillips, 1811-1884, Massachusetts abolitionist, active during US Civil War.

  • "Difference of religion breeds more quarrels than difference of politics."

From George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, British dramatist and critic born in Ireland.

  • "There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it."
  • "Religion is a great force--he only real motive force in the world; but what you fellows don't understand is that you must get at a man through his own religion and not through yours."

From Ch'en Tu-hsiu, 1856-1950, early Chinese Communist who helped to found the Chinese Communist Party but was expelled in 1927.

  • "All religions, laws, moral and political systems are but necessary means to preserve social order."

From Vine Victor Deloria, Jr., 1933- , a Standing Rock Sioux Indian who is now Professor of American Indian Studies, History, Law, and Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Custer Died for Your Sins.

  • "Religion cannot be kept within the bounds of sermons and scriptures. It is a force in itself and it calls for the integration of lands and peoples in harmonious unity. The lands wait for those who can discern their rhythms. The particular genius of each continent, each river valley, the rugged mountains, the placid lakes, all call for relief from the constant burden of exploitation."
  • "As the long-forgotten peoples of the respective continents rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage, they will discover the meaning of the lands of their ancestors."

Published: March 2002