Major religious groups

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Religions of the world, mapped by distribution, with no sects.
Predominant religions of the world, mapped by state
Map showing relative importance of religion by country. Based on a 2006-2008 worldwide survey by Gallup.
Map showing the prevalence of "Abrahamic religion" (purple), and "Indian religion" (yellow) religions in each country.
Map showing the relative proportion of Christianity (red) and Islam (green) in each country.

The world's principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups or world religions. According to the 2005 survey of Encyclopædia Britannica, the vast majority of religious and spiritual adherents follow Christianity (33% of world population), Islam (20%), Hinduism (13%), Chinese folk religion (6.3%) or Buddhism (5.9%). The irreligious and atheists make up about 14%, and about 4% follow indigenous tribal religions. A number of classical "world religions" (including Sikhism, Judaism, Bahá'í, Jainism, Shinto and others) are each followed by under 0.5% of the world's population; they are sometimes considered world religions in terms of cultural significance and historic recognition, but are not deemed to be "major religious groups" due to their size.

These spiritual traditions may be either combined into larger super-groups, or separated into smaller sub-denominations. Christianity, Islam and Judaism (and sometimes the Bahá'í Faith) are summarized as Abrahamic religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are classified as Indian religions (or Dharmic religions). Chinese folk religion, Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto are classified as East Asian religions (or Far Eastern, Chinese, or Taoic religions).

Conversely, many major spiritual traditions may be parsed into denominations:

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


[edit] World religions

[edit] Historical notions

The concept of "world religion" is historically based on a subjective perception of temporal or theological importance, usually from a Western, "Christian" (or at least "Abrahamic") perspective.[citation needed]

Early Christian scholars, the earliest known classifiers of major religions, recognized two "proper" religions, Christianity and Judaism, besides heretical deviations from Christianity, and idolatrous relapse or paganism. Islamic theology recognizes Christians and Jews as "People of the Book" rather than idolaters, however, Christians are criticized for believing in Christ as God incarnate, rather than considering Christ as one prophet and/or messenger along with others (especially Muhammad in particular). The Christian view long classified Islam's rejection of Christ's divinity as one heresy among others. The concept of the Trinity is often seen as a fundamental conflict between Islam and some interpretations of Christianity to this day.[citation needed]

Attempts to identify and classify additional religions expanded during the Enlightenment however, and by the 19th century Western scholars considered the five "world religions" to be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. These remain the classic "world religions."[citation needed]

[edit] Modern classifications

Modern classifications typically list major religious groups by number of adherents, not by historical or theological notability. Most dramatically, this affects Judaism, which holds the position of "world religion" as the foundational tradition of the "Abrahamic" group, but which in terms of adherents ranks below 0.25% of world population, behind Sikhism.[1]

The remaining four classic world religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, are the largest contemporary religions by far. They each have more than 300 million adherents, more than ten times the number of the next largest organized religion (Sikhism, ca. 19 million per the Christian Science Monitor source cited below).

A person is typically considered an adherent or follower of a particular religion if the person would self-identify the religion as the primary characterization of their religious perspective.[2] Similarly, a religion is typically considered to fall within a larger religious category (e.g., Protestantism falling within Christianity) if the followers of the religion self-identify that classification as appropriate.

An example of a modern listing of "world religions" is that of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, listing twelve "long established, major world religions, each with over three million followers", alphabetically:

Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Vodun/Vodou (and related religions).

The "World's Major Religions" list published in the New York Public Library Student's Desk Reference[3] omits Vodou and Zoroastrianism, as well as Jainism and Sikhism, but lists the Eastern Orthodox Church, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as separate religions.

The Christian Science Monitor, in a 1998 article "Top 10 Organized Religions in the World," provides a listing of the largest "organized religions":[4]

# Religion Number of Adherents 
1 Christianity 1.9 billion
2 Islam 1.1 billion
3 Hinduism 781 million
4 Buddhism 324 million
5 Sikhism 19 million
6 Judaism 14 million
7 Bahá'í Faith 6.1 million
8 Confucianism 5.3 million
9 Jainism 4.9 million
10 Shinto 2.8 million

In comparison with the Ontario Consultants list above, the Christian Science Monitor omits Taoism and Vodun as "non-organized."

Other major religions, not found on the above lists, are:

[edit] 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.

The generally agreed upon demographic distribution of the major super-groupings mentioned is shown in the table below:

Cultural tradition Religious category Number of followers Date of origin Main regions covered
Abrahamic religions
3.6 billion
Christianity 1.9-2.1 billion[7] 1st c. Worldwide except Northwest Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Central, East, and Southeast Asia.
Islam 1-1.3 billion[7] 7th c. Middle East, Northern Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, Western Africa, Indian subcontinent, Malay Archipelago with large population centers existing in Eastern Africa, Balkan Peninsula, Russia, Europe and China.
Judaism 14.5 million[7] 1300 BCE Israel and Jewish diaspora (meaning mostly North America and Europe)
Bahá'í Faith 7.4 million[7] 19th c. Dispersed worldwide with no major population centers
Rastafari movement 700,000[8] 1930s Jamaica, Caribbean, Africa
Indian religions
1.4 billion
Hinduism 828 million[7] Varies by tradition Indian subcontinent, Fiji, Guyana and Mauritius
Buddhism 364 million[7] c. 500 BCE Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Indochina, regions of Russia.
Sikhism 23.8 million[7] 15th c. Indian subcontinent, Australasia, Northern America, Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom and Western Europe.
Jainism 4.3 million[7] c. 800 BCE India, and East Africa
Far Eastern religions Taoism Varies[9] Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC-481 BC) China and the Chinese diaspora
Confucianism China, Korea, Vietnam and the Chinese and Vietnamese diasporas
Chinese folk religions Varies[9] Varies by tradition China
Shinto traditions Varies by tradition Japan
African traditional and diasporic religions 100 million[10] Varies by tradition Africa, Americas
Other ethnic religions 300 million[10] Varies by tradition India, Asia
each over 500 thousand
Juche 23 million[11] 1955 North Korea
Chondogyo 3 million[12] 1812 Korea
Tenrikyo 2 million[13] 1832 Japan, Brazil
Cao Đài 2 million[14] 1925 Vietnam
Ahl-e Haqq 1 million[15] 14th century Iraq, Iran
Seicho-No-Ie 800,000[13] 1929 Japan
Yazidism 700,000[16] 12th century or older mainly Iraq
Unitarian-Universalism 630,000[17] 1961 United States, Europe

[edit] Religious demographics

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]"[18]
  • Whether to count only those who actively "practice" a particular religion[19]
  • Whether to count based on a concept of "adherence"[20]
  • Whether to count only those who expressly self-identify with a particular denomination[21]
  • Whether to count only adults, or to include children as well.
  • Whether to rely only on official government-provided statistics[22]
  • Whether to use multiple sources and ranges or single "best source(s)"

[edit] Largest religions or belief systems by number of adherents

This listing[a] includes both organized religions, which have unified belief codes and religious hierarchies, and informal religions, such as Chinese folk religions. For completeness, it also contains a category for the non-religious, although their views would not ordinarily be considered a religion.

  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion, with major branches as follows: [b]
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion, with major branches as follows:[d]
  3. Secular/irreligious/agnostic/atheist/antitheistic/antireligious: 1.1 billion
    • Category includes a wide range of beliefs, without specifically adhering to a religion or sometimes specifically against dogmatic religions. The category includes humanism, deism, pantheism, rationalism, freethought, agnosticism and atheism. Broadly labeled humanism, this group of non religious people are third largest in the world. For more information, see the note below. [c]
  4. Hinduism: 900 million, with major branches as follows:
  5. Chinese folk religion: 394 million
    • Not a single organized religion, includes elements of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and traditional nonscriptural religious observance (also called "Chinese traditional religion").[f]
  6. Buddhism: 376 million, with major branches as follows:
  7. Primal indigenous (tribal religions): 300 million
    • Not a single organized religion, includes a wide range of traditional or tribal religions, including animism, shamanism and paganism. Since African traditional and diasporic religions are counted separately in this list, most of the people counted in this group are in Asia.
  8. African traditional and diasporic: 100 million
    • Not a single organized religion, this includes several traditional African beliefs and philosophies such as those of the Yoruba, Ewe (Vodun) and the Bakongo. These three religious traditions (especially that of the Yoruba) have been very influential to the diasporic beliefs of the Americas such as Condomble, Santeria and Vodou. The religious capital of the Yoruba religion is at Ile Ife.
  9. Sikhism: 23 million
  10. Judaism: 14 million, with major branches as follows:
  11. Bahá'í Faith: 7 million
  12. Jainism: 4.2 million, with significant branches as follows:
  13. Shinto: 4 million
    • This number states the number of actual self-identifying practising primary followers of Shinto. If everyone were included who is considered Shinto by some people due to ethnic or historical categorizations, the number would be considerably higher — as high as 100 million (according to source).
  14. Cao Dai: 4 million
  15. Tenrikyo: 2 million
  16. Neopaganism: 1 million
  17. Unitarian Universalism: 800,000
  18. Rastafari: 600,000
  19. Scientology: 500,000
  20. Zoroastrianism: 150,000-250,000,[23][24][25][26][27][28], although in its top-level overview list the same source provides a substantially different estimate.[e] The breakdown by major communities is as follows:
    • In India (the Parsis): est. 65,000 (2001 India Census: 69,601); Estimate of Zoroastrians of Indian origin: 100,000-110,000.
    • In Iran: est. 20,000 (1974 Iran Census: 21,400)
  • a)^  The source for most of these statistics is [3], updated 2008. These statistics are reportedly based on analysis of a range of sources on religious populations, for more on the methodology, please see [4].
  • b)^  Spiritism is often considered to fall within the Christianity category. This is the approach taken in the list above, which differs from the categorization used at [5].
  • c)^  This list classifies Juche under the secular/non-religious category, since it does not fit most definitions of religion and is considered secular by its followers.
  • d)^  Ahmadiyya consider themselves Muslim, but they are not considered Muslim by the mainstream. [6] includes Druze as Muslim, but they are often considered by other sources to be a distinct religious community that is an offshoot of Islam.
  • f)^  The New York Times reported in 1999 that Falun Gong itself claimed "more than 100 million followers" and reported a Chinese government estimate of 70 million for the group. The source for data in this table, which includes Falun Gong as part of Chinese religion, mentions 10 million as a potentially more reasonable "guess".

[edit] By region

[edit] Trends in adherence

World map based on the results of a 2002 Pew Research Center study on the percentage of people who regard religion as "important"
World map showing the percentages of people who regard religion as "non-important"

The general trend is that the religious belief is decreasing over time and throughout the world as a whole. This is the process that is called secularization. The process of secularization has not stopped; the number of religious adherents worldwide continue to decrease as a share of total populations. This trend includes the United States. However, secularization has slowed down in comparison to some earlier estimates.[29] Religions that have increased in absolute or relative numbers have largely done so through differences in birth-rates.

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. 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. At the same time, 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, particularly in the forms of Neopaganism and Far Eastern religions.

Within the world's four largest religions, Christianity currently has the greatest growth by numbers and Islam has the fastest growth by percentage.[30] Following is some available data based on the work of World Christian Database and its predecessor, the World Christian Encyclopedia:

1970-1985[31] 1990-2000[30][32] 2000-2005[33]
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%.

While controversial in some respects, 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" according to one study.[34]

A 2002 Pew Research Center study found that, generally, poorer nations had a larger proportion of citizens who found religion to be very important than richer nations, with the exception of the United States.[35]

[edit] References

  1. ^ [1]Religions of Today's World a geographic tally
  2. ^ Remarks on the concepts of adherence and self-identification method of religious classification
  3. ^ New York: Prentice Hall (1993) p. 271
  4. ^ Christian Science Monitor, 1998, [2]
  5. ^ separate "African Traditional & African Diasporic Religions" from "Primal-Indigenous", admitting large overlap. Only very rough estimates for the size of these groups are possible in any case.
  6. ^ Brodd, Jefferey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Compilation of almanacs at
  8. ^ New Religious Movements Online
  9. ^ a b The adherent counts of Far Eastern traditions vary depending on how "belief" is determined, but each has definitely more than 500,000.
  10. ^ a b 1999 Encyc. Britannica Book of the Year
  11. ^ Belke, Thomas J. Juche: A Christian Study of North Korea's State Religion. Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Books Co. (1999); pg. 1.
  12. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica 1998 (Micropaedia, Vol. 3): "Ch'ondogyo ".; pg. 260-261.
  13. ^ a b Japanese Ministry of Education. 'Shuukyou Nenkan, 1998
  14. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica 1998 (Micropaedia, Vol. 2): "Cao Dai "; pg. 822.
  15. ^ Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2004) p. 82
  16. ^ International Committee for European Security & Cooperation: statement presented by J.B.Daud Baghistani, ICESC Deputy Permanent Representative to the Commission on Human Rights... 10 Feb. 1995
  17. ^ American Religious Identification Survey
  18. ^ Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart (2007-01-06), [ Sacred and Secular, Religion and Politics Worldwide], Cambridge University Press, p. 43-44,, retrieved on 2006-12-29 
  19. ^ Pew Research Center (2002-12-19). "Among Wealthy Nations U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion". Pew Research Center. Retrieved on 2006-10-12. 
  20. ^ (2005-08-28). "Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents". Retrieved on 2006-10-12. 
  21. ^ (2005-06-28). "World Values Survey". Retrieved on 2006-10-12. 
  22. ^ (2007.01.06). "United Nations Statistics Division - Demographic and Social Statistics". United Nations Statistics Division. Retrieved on 2007-01-06. 
  23. ^ Melton, J. Gordon & Baumann, Martin, eds. (2002), Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, Oxford: ABC-CLIO, ISBN 1-57607-223-1, p. 634
  24. ^ Hopfe, Lews M. & Woodward, Mark R, eds. (2003), Religions of the World, New York: Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-183007-4, p. 313
  25. ^ Eliade, Mircea & Couliano, Ioan P., eds. (1991), The Eliade Guide to World Religions, San Francisco: Harper Collins, ISBN 0-06-062145-1, p. 254
  26. ^ Palsetia, Jesse S. (2001) The Parsis of India, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-12114-5, p. 1 n. 1.
  27. ^ Discussion of Zoroastrianism
  28. ^ Additional discussion of Zoroastrianism
  29. ^ Norris & Inglehart (2006). Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide.
  30. ^ a b Barrett, David A. (2001). World Christian Encyclopedia. pp. 4. 
  31. ^ International Community, Bahá'í (1992), "How many Bahá'ís are there?", The Bahá'ís: 14, .
  32. ^ Barrett, David; Johnson, Todd (2001). "Global adherents of the World's 19 distinct major religions". William Carey Library. Retrieved on 2006-10-12. 
  33. ^ Staff (May 2007). "The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions". Foreign Policy (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). 
  34. ^ Hsu, Becky; Reynolds, Amy; Hackett, Conrad; Gibbon, James ((accepted for publication) December 2008), "Estimating the Religious Composition of All Nations", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 
  35. ^ Pew Research Center (2002-12-19). "Among Wealthy Nations U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion". Pew Research Center. Retrieved on 2006-10-12. 

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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