Major religious groups

Major religious groups

The world's principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups, although this is by no means a uniform practice. This theory began in the 18th century with the goal of recognizing the relative levels of civility in non-European societies.[1]

For a more comprehensive list of religions and an outline of some of their basic relationships, please see the article list of religions.


History of religious categories

An 1883 map of the world divided into colors representing "Christians, Buddhists, Hindoos, Mohammedans, Fetichists".

In world cultures, there have traditionally been many different groupings of religious belief. In Indian culture, different religious philosophies were traditionally respected as academic differences in pursuit of the same truth. In Islam, the Qur'an mentions three different categories: Muslims, the People of the Book, and idol worshipers. Initially, Christians were aware of a number of competing belief systems that were current then, including various other sects of Judaism, Roman state paganism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, etc.; Church fathers of the early centuries also spoke out against "heresies" associated with Christianity, such as Montanism or Arianism. In the 18th century, following the Protestant Reformation, there were attempts to extend "heresy" to include Judaism and Islam; along with paganism, this created a fourfold classification discernible in such works as John Toland's Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity, which represented the three Abrahamic traditions as different "nations" or sects within religion itself, the true monotheism.

Daniel Defoe described the original definition as follows: "Religion is properly the Worship given to God, but 'tis also applied to the Worship of Idols and false Deities." At the turn of the 19th century, in between 1780 and 1810, the language dramatically changed: instead of "religion" being synonymous with spirituality, authors began using the plural, "religions", to refer to both Christianity and other forms of worship. Therefore, Hannah Adams's early encyclopedia, for example, had its name changed from An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects... to A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations.[2]

In 1838, the four-way division of Christianity, Judaism, "Mahommedanism" and Paganism was multiplied considerably by Josiah Conder's Analytical and Comparative View of All Religions Now Extant among Mankind. Conder's work still adheres to the four-way classification, but in his eye for detail he puts together much historical work to create something resembling our modern Western image: he includes Druze, Yezidis, Mandeans, and Elamites under a list of possibly monotheistic groups, and under the final category, of "polytheism and pantheism", he lists Zoroastrianism, "Vedas, Puranas, Tantras, Reformed sects" of India as well as "Brahminical idolatry", Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Lamaism, "religion of China and Japan", and "illiterate superstitions".[3]

Even through the late 19th century, it was common for Christians to view these "pagan" sects as dead traditions which preceded Christianity, "the final, complete word of God". This in no way reflected the reality of religious experience: Christians supposed these traditions to have maintained themselves in an unchanging state since whenever they were "invented", but actually all traditions survived in the words and deeds of people, some of whom could make radical new inventions without needing to create a new sect. The biggest problem in this approach was the existence of Islam, a religion which had been "founded" after Christianity, and which had been experienced by Christians as intellectual and material prosperity. By the 19th century, however, it was possible to dismiss Islam as a revelation of "the letter, which killeth", given to savage desert nomads.[4]

The modern meaning of the phrase "world religion", putting non-Christians at the same, living level as Christians, began with the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago, Illinois. This event was sharply criticized by European Orientalists up until the 1960s as "unscientific", because it allowed religious leaders to speak for themselves instead of bowing to the superior knowledge of the Western academic. As a result its approach to world religions was not taken seriously in the scholarly world for some time. Nevertheless, the Parliament spurred the creation of a dozen privately funded lectures with the intent of informing people of the diversity of religious experience: these lectures funded researchers such as William James, D.T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts, who greatly influenced the public conception of world religions.[5]

In the latter half of the 20th century, the category of "world religion" fell into serious question, especially for drawing parallels between vastly different cultures, and thereby creating an arbitrary separation between the religious and the secular.[6] Even history professors have now taken note of these complications and advise against teaching "world religions" in schools.[7] Others see the shaping of religions in the context of the nation-state as the "invention of traditions.

Western classification

Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. Abrahamic religions originate in the Middle East, Indian religions in India and Far Eastern religions in East Asia. Another group with supra-regional influence are African diasporic religions, which have their origins in Central and West Africa.

Religious demographics

Major denominations and religions of the world

One way to define a major religion is by the number of current adherents. The population numbers by religion are computed by a combination of census reports and population surveys (in countries where religion data is not collected in census, for example USA or France), but results can vary widely depending on the way questions are phrased, the definitions of religion used and the bias of the agencies or organizations conducting the survey. Informal or unorganized religions are especially difficult to count.

There is no consensus among researchers as to the best methodology for determining the religiosity profile of the world's population. A number of fundamental aspects are unresolved:

  • Whether to count "historically predominant religious culture[s]"[9]
  • Whether to count only those who actively "practice" a particular religion[10]
  • Whether to count based on a concept of "adherence"[11]
  • Whether to count only those who expressly self-identify with a particular denomination[12]
  • Whether to count only adults, or to include children as well.
  • Whether to rely only on official government-provided statistics[13]
  • Whether to use multiple sources and ranges or single "best source(s)"

Largest religions or belief systems by number of adherents

The table below lists religions classified by philosophy; however, religious philosophy is not always the determining factor in local practice. Please note that this table includes heterodox movements as adherents to their larger philosophical category, although this may be disputed by others within that category. For example, Cao Đài is listed because it claims to be a separate category from Buddhism, while Hoa Hao is not, even though they are similar new religious movements.

The population numbers below are computed by a combination of census reports, random surveys (in countries where religion data is not collected in census, for example USA or France), and self-reported attendance numbers, but results can vary widely depending on the way questions are phrased, the definitions of religion used and the bias of the agencies or organizations conducting the survey. Informal or unorganized religions are especially difficult to count. Some organizations may wildly inflate their numbers.

Religious category Number of followers
(in millions)
Cultural tradition Main regions covered
Christianity 2,000–2,200 [14] Abrahamic religions Predominant in the Western world (Europe, the Americas, Oceania), Sub-Saharan Africa, the Philippines, and East Timor in Southeast Asia. Minorities worldwide, see Christianity by country.
Islam 1,300–1,650 [15][16]
Abrahamic religions Middle East, Northern Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, Western Africa, Malay Archipelago with large population centers existing in Eastern Africa, Balkan Peninsula, Russia and China.[18]
Hinduism 828–1,000 [19] Indian religions South Asia, Bali, Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname, and among the overseas Indian communities.
Buddhism 400–500 [20]
Indian religions South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and some regions of Russia.
Folk religions 400-500 [nb 1] Folk religions Africa, Asia, Americas
Chinese folk religions (including Taoism and Confucianism) 400-500
[nb 1]
Chinese Religions East Asia, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.
Shinto 27–65 [24] Japanese Religions Japan
Sikhism 24–28 [25]
Indian religions Indian subcontinent, Australasia, Northern America, Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom and Western Europe.
Judaism 14–18 [20] Abrahamic religions Israel and the worldwide Jewish diaspora (mostly North America, South America, Europe, and Asia).
Jainism 8–12 [nb 2] Indian religions India, and East Africa.
Bahá'í Faith 7.6–7.9 [26]
Abrahamic religions[nb 3] Noted for being dispersed worldwide[28][29] but the top ten populations (amounting to about 60% of the Bahá'í World Faith adherents) are (in order of size of community) India, United States, Vietnam, Kenya, DR of the Congo, Philippines, Zambia, South Africa, Iran, Bolivia[30]
Cao Dai 1–3 [31] Vietnamese Religions Vietnam.
Cheondoism 3 [32] Korean Religions North and South Korea
Spiritism 2.5 [33] Humanism Brazil.
Tenrikyo 2 [34] Japanese Religions Japan, Brazil.
Wicca 1 [35] New Religious Movements United States, Australia, Europe, Canada.
Church of World Messianity 1 [36] Japanese Religions Japan, Brazil
Seicho-no-Ie 0.8 [34] Japanese Religions Japan, Brazil.
Rastafari movement 0.7 [37] New religious movements, Abrahamic religions Jamaica, Caribbean, Africa.
Unitarian Universalism 0.63 [38] New religious movements United States, Canada, Europe.

By region

Trends in adherence

Since the late 19th century, the demographics of religion have changed a great deal. Some countries with a historically large Christian population have experienced a significant decline in the numbers of professed active Christians: see demographics of atheism. Symptoms of the decline in active participation in Christian religious life include declining recruitment for the priesthood and monastic life, as well as diminishing attendance at church. On the other hand, since the 19th century, large areas of sub-saharan Africa have been converted to Christianity, and this area of the world has the highest population growth rate. In the realm of Western civilization, there has been an increase in the number of people who identify themselves as secular humanists. In many countries, such as the People's Republic of China, communist governments have discouraged religion, making it difficult to count the actual number of believers. However, after the collapse of communism in numerous countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, religious life has been experiencing resurgence there, both in the form of traditional Eastern Christianity and particularly in the forms of Neopaganism and Far Eastern religions.[citation needed]

Following is some available data based on the work of the World Christian Encyclopedia:[39]

Trends in annual growth of adherence
1970–1985[40] 1990–2000[41][42] 2000–2005[43]
3.65%: Bahá'í Faith 2.65%: Zoroastrianism 1.84%: Islam
2.74%: Islam 2.28%: Bahá'í Faith 1.70%: Bahá'í Faith
2.34%: Hinduism 2.13%: Islam 1.62%: Sikhism
1.67%: Buddhism 1.87%: Sikhism 1.57%: Hinduism
1.64%: Christianity 1.69%: Hinduism 1.32%: Christianity
1.09%: Judaism 1.36%: Christianity
1.09%: Buddhism
The annual growth in the world
population over the same period
is 1.41%.

Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center have found that, generally, poorer nations had a larger proportion of citizens who found religion to be very important than richer nations, with the exceptions of the United States[10] and Kuwait.[44]

Maps of self-reported adherence

See also


  1. ^ a b The number of people who consider themselves party to a "folk tradition" is impossible to determine.
  2. ^ Figures for the population of Jains differ from just over six million to twelve million due to difficulties of Jain identity, with Jains in some areas counted as a Hindu sect. Many Jains do not return Jainism as their religion on census forms for various reasons such as certain Jain castes considering themselves both Hindu and Jain. Following a major advertising campaign urging Jains to register as such, the 1981 Census of India returned 3.19 million Jains. This was estimated at the time to still be half the true number. The 2001 Census of India had 8.4 million Jains.
  3. ^ Historically, the Bahá'í Faith arose in 19th century Persia, in the context of Shi'a Islam, and thus may be classed on this basis as a divergent strand of Islam, placing it in the Abrahamic tradition. However, the Bahá'í Faith considers itself an independent religious tradition, which draws from Islam but also other traditions. The Bahá'í Faith may also be classed as a new religious movement, due to its comparatively recent origin, or may be considered sufficiently old and established for such classification to not be applicable.


  1. ^ Masuzawa, Tomoko (2005). The Invention of World Religions. Chicago University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226509891. 
  2. ^ Masuzawa 2005. pp. 49–61
  3. ^ Masuzawa 2005, 65-6
  4. ^ Masuzawa 2005, 82-3
  5. ^ Masuzawa 2005, 270–281
  6. ^ Stephen R. L. Clark. "World Religions and World Orders". Religious studies 26.1 (1990).
  7. ^ Joel E. Tishken. "Ethnic vs. Evangelical Religions: Beyond Teaching the World Religion Approach". The History Teacher 33.3 (2000).
  8. ^ Brodd, Jefferey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5. 
  9. ^ Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart (2007-01-06), [ Sacred and Secular, Religion and Politics Worldwide], Cambridge University Press, pp. 43–44,, retrieved 2006-12-29 
  10. ^ a b Pew Research Center (2002-12-19). "Among Wealthy Nations U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  11. ^ (2005-08-28). "Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents". Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  12. ^ (2005-06-28). "World Values Survey". Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  13. ^ (2007.01.06). "United Nations Statistics Division - Demographic and Social Statistics". United Nations Statistics Division. Retrieved 2007-01-06. 
  14. ^ World Christian Database Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary Centre for the Study of Global Christianity
  15. ^
  16. ^ 2010 World Muslim Population pdf Dr. Houssain Kettani January 2010
  17. ^ "Mapping the Global Muslim Population". Retrieved 2009-10-08. 
  18. ^ "World distribution of muslim population". Pew Centre. October 2009. Retrieved 26 December 2009. 
  19. ^ [Clarke, Peter B. (editor), The Religions of the World: Understanding the Living Faiths, Marshall Editions Limited: USA (1993); pg. 125]
  20. ^ a b c "World". CIA World Factbook, 2010
  21. ^ Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, et al. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy & Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen. Shambhala: Boston (English: pub. 1994; orig. German: 1986); pg. 50.
  22. ^ a BBC News article
  23. ^
  24. ^ Japanese government
  25. ^ Indian Registrar General & Census Commissioner. "Religious Composition". Census of India, 2001
  26. ^ "World Religions (2005)". QuickLists > The World > Religions. The Association of Religion Data Archives. 2005. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  27. ^ "World: People: Religions". CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. 2007. ISSN 1553-8133. Retrieved 2009-09-06. 
  28. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (2002). "Worldwide Adherents of All Religions by Six Continental Areas, Mid-2002". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. ISBN 0852295553. 
  29. ^ MacEoin, Denis (2000). "Baha'i Faith". In Hinnells, John R.. The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions: Second Edition. Penguin. ISBN 0140514805. 
  30. ^ "Most Baha'i Nations (2005)". QuickLists > Compare Nations > Religions >. The Association of Religion Data Archives. 2005. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  31. ^ Sergei Blagov. "Caodaism in Vietnam : Religion vs Restrictions and Persecution". IARF World Congress, Vancouver, Canada, July 31st, 1999.
  32. ^ Self-reported figures from 1999; North Korea only (South Korean followers are minimal according to self-reported figures). In The A to Z of New Religious Movements by George D. Chryssides. ISBN 0-8108-5588-7
  33. ^ "Brazil". CIA World Factbook, 2011, based on the 2000 Brazilian Census
  34. ^ a b Self-reported figures printed in Japanese Ministry of Education's 宗教年間 Shuukyou Nenkan, 2003
  35. ^ Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2004) p. 82
  36. ^ Clarke, Peter B. (editor), The Religions of the World: Understanding the Living Faiths, Marshall Editions Limited: USA (1993); pg. 208. "Sekai Kyuseikyo has about one million members, a growing number of them in the west and the third world, especially Brazil and Thailand. "
  37. ^ Leonard E. Barrett. The Rastafarians: Sounds of Cultural Dissonance. Beacon Press, 1988. p. viii.
  38. ^ American Religious Identification Survey
  39. ^ The results have been studied and found "highly correlated with other sources of data", but "consistently gave a higher estimate for percent Christian in comparison to other cross-national data sets." Hsu, Becky; Reynolds, Amy; Hackett, Conrad; Gibbon, James (2008-07-09). "Estimating the Religious Composition of All Nations" (PDF). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 
  40. ^ International Community, Bahá'í (1992). "How many Bahá'ís are there?". The Bahá'ís: pp. 14. .
  41. ^ Barrett, David A. (2001). World Christian Encyclopedia. pp. 4. ISBN 0195079639. 
  42. ^ Barrett, David; Johnson, Todd (2001). "Global adherents of the World's 19 distinct major religions". William Carey Library. Archived from the original on 2008-02-28. Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  43. ^ Staff (May 2007). "The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions". Foreign Policy (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). 
  44. ^ Pew Research Center (2008-01-01). "Income and Religiosity". Retrieved 2009-09-14. 

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