One of Mackenzie's favorite things to do on summer vacation is to go out to the lake late at night after her bedtime, sit with her mommy and daddy, and gaze up at the stars. On clear nights when there were no clouds, she would beg her mommy and daddy to go out on the dock after her brother Jordan went to bed to stare up at the heavens.
Tonight was a clear night, so Mackenzie asked her mom and dad after dinner, "Can we go out tonight and look at the stars after Jordan goes to bed?"
Her mom looked at her dad and said, "Sure, honey, but we think Jordan is old enough now to join us." Even though Mackenzie wanted to have this special time with just her mom and dad, she decided it was okay as long as she could go see the magic in the sky again this year.
They went out to the dock and got settled into their chairs and blankets. Everyone sat quietly as they looked up at the Milky Way which was like a large white cloud crossing the night sky. After several minutes, Mackenzie asked, "Daddy, where do the stars come from?"
"Well, honey, that's a good question. The stars come from the universe," Dad answered.
"Daddy, what's the universe?" Mackenzie asked.
"The universe is everything that you see - everything up in the sky and on Earth. Everything around us is all part of the universe," Dad said.
Mackenzie was still confused. "But, Daddy, where does the universe come from?"
Her dad responded, "That's a good question, too, honey, and a hard one to answer. Different people have different ideas about where the universe comes from, but nobody really knows. Many people believe science and scientists can help answer that question. And many people believe their religions help answer that question."
"What's religion?" Jordan asked.
His mom answered, "Well, honey, a religion is a set of beliefs that tries to answer the hard questions of life, like - Where did the universe come from? How did we get here? What happens to us when we die? Most religions believe there is a god - a superior being or spiritual power - who created the universe.
Religions also try to teach people how they are supposed to live their lives and treat other people. Each religion has different teachings and different rules of life."
Mackenzie wanted to know more. "How many religions are there?"
"Oh, honey, I don't really know," said Dad. "I would guess there are probably more than a hundred different religions."
This really puzzled Jordan. "Why are there so many religions?" he asked.
Dad said, "Goodness, kids, you are both asking a lot of hard questions tonight. Let's see. One reason might be because most religions started a long time ago in different parts of the world, before we had TV or the Internet. People back then could not talk to other people who lived far away about their religion. So people in different parts of the world developed different religions to help answer the hard questions of life."
Mackenzie turned to her Mom. "Mommy, tell me about some of these religions."
"Well, you know your friend David? David and his family are Jewish. The Jewish religion is called Judaism. Judaism is one of the oldest religions on Earth. It began in a place called the Middle East. Judaism teaches that a spiritual power – God – created the universe, the Earth, and people."
Dad added, "One of the greatest Jewish leaders was a man named Moses, who helped write a set of rules called the Ten Commandments. The commandments have ten rules of life that Jewish people are supposed to follow."
"What are some of the rules?" Mackenzie asked.
"Well, one of these commandments teaches that you should not steal. Another tells you that you should honor your mother and your father. And a third one teaches that you should not kill someone," Dad replied.
Mom added, "Most religions have special holidays when family and friends gather to celebrate. An important Jewish holiday is called Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, many Jews go to their place of worship, called a synagogue, to pray. Many Jewish families also fast for Yom Kippur. A fast is where you don't eat anything all day. While you fast, you are supposed to think about your life, how you treat other people, and how you can be a better person."
Mackenzie's dad turned to her and said, "Christianity is another religion that started a long time ago in the Middle East with a man named Jesus Christ. Jesus was a great teacher. He was also Jewish. After he died, his followers started a new religion based on his teachings called Christianity."
"Jesus taught people to love one another," Mom said. "His most important rule is the Golden Rule which teaches that you should treat other people just like you want them to treat you. The book of Christian teachings is called the Bible. The first part of the Bible is actually an important Jewish book called the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. The second part of the Bible is called the New Testament and contains the story of Jesus's life and teachings. Christians also believe that God created the universe. Christians believe that if you live a good life, you will go to a place called heaven when you die."
Mackenzie had heard people talk about heaven, but she really didn't understand what it meant. "Mommy, what's heaven?" she asked.
"Well, some religions believe that when you die, your soul, or spirit, continues to live and goes to a special place called heaven, where other souls have also gone."
Dad continued. "One of Christianity's most important holidays is Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus. Many Christians decorate their homes with Christmas trees and lights and go to their place of worship, called a church, to pray and be thankful. Christmas is a time to spend with family and friends and to be generous by giving gifts to the people you love."
Jordan asked, "Mommy, is my friend Amelia a Christian?
"No, honey," his mom said. "Amelia is a Muslim, which means her family believes in a religion called Islam. Islam is another one of the world's great religions, and it also started a long time ago in the Middle East. Islam is based on the lessons of another great teacher named Mohammad. A Muslim's place of worship is called a mosque."
Dad said, "Mohammad taught that all religions come from the same god, who Muslims call Allah. Mohammad taught that Allah sent many teachers or prophets to Earth, including Moses and Jesus, to teach people how they should live. Mohammad's teachings are found in a book called the Koran, which has a set of rules called the Five Pillars. One of these rules teaches Muslims to pray every day. Another teaches them not to be selfish and to help the poor. Like Jesus, Mohammed said that if you live a good life and treat people well, you will be rewarded when you die by going to heaven."
"Islam has a very special month called Ramadan," added Mom. "Remember how we said Jews fast on Yom Kippur? Well, during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast every day until sundown. During Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to think about their lives and pray and remind themselves to be better people. Ramadan ends with a three-day festival or holiday called Eid al-Fitr, when Muslims celebrate with friends and family, decorate their homes, dress up in nice clothes, eat special food, and give to the poor."
Mackenzie asked, "Daddy, did all of the world's religions start in the Middle East?"
"Well, honey, I can see why you ask that, but no. Religions come from all over the world. For example, Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions, and it started in a place called India. People who believe in Hinduism are called Hindus. Hindus are taught that being kind to other people is one of the most important things in life. Hindus are also taught that all living things, not just people, are sacred and must not be hurt or killed."
Mom continued. "Hindus believe that every person has a soul or spirit inside their body that makes them who they are. They call this spirit atman. Hindus believe that when you die, your soul leaves your body and is reborn in a new person, or an animal. This rebirth is called reincarnation. Hindu children are taught that if they are good people and treat other living things well, they may someday be reunited with the creator, or God.
"One of the Hindus' most important holidays is called Diwali, or the Festival of Light. During Diwali, family and friends get together to celebrate. They hang lights in their homes, dress in new clothes, give each other gifts and sweets, and light firecrackers."
"Mommy, are their lights just like Christmas lights?" Jordan asked.
"No honey, not exactly. But isn't it interesting that so many religions have so many things in common?"
Mom turned to Mackenzie and began talking about another religion. "Another very old religion is Buddhism which was also started in India by a man named Siddhartha. Siddhartha was a prince from a wealthy family. When he was little, his parents didn't let him leave home. When he got older, Siddhartha went outside his palace and saw many people who were very poor and hungry and had hard lives. When he became a young man, he left his family to go teach people to help the poor and to love each other. He became known as the Buddha, which means "one who is awakened." That is where the name Buddhism comes from.
"Buddhist children are taught to be loving and kind. Some of the most important rules of Buddhism are that you must not kill, must not steal, should not drink alcohol or use drugs, and should not use harmful or hurtful language."
"But aren't those rules a lot like the rules of other religions?" Jordan asked.
"Yes, Jordan," Mom replied. "Many religions have very similar rules and teachings."
"Buddhism's most celebrated holiday is called Vesak, which celebrates Buddha's birth, just like Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus," Dad said. "Buddhists celebrate by eating special vegetarian food and by going to their place of worship, called a temple, where they give gifts to their teachers, called monks. Buddhists also honor Buddha's birthday by meditating, which is when you sit very still and think about your life and how you can be a better person."