2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious movements, traditions and organizations

Religious symbols, Left to right: Row 1. Christian, Jewish, Hindu    Row 2. Islamic, Buddhist, Shinto  Row 3. Sikh, Baha'i, Jain
Religious symbols, Left to right:
Row 1. Christian, Jewish, Hindu
Row 2. Islamic, Buddhist, Shinto
Row 3. Sikh, Baha'i, Jain

A religion is a set of beliefs and practices generally held by a community, involving adherence to codified beliefs and rituals and study of ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience. The term "religion" refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction.

All patriarchal religions present a common quality, the "hallmark of patriarchal religious thought": the division of the world in two comprehensive domains, one sacred, the other profane. Religion is often described as a communal system for the coherence of belief focusing on a system of thought, unseen being, person, or object, that is considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine, or of the highest truth. Moral codes, practices, values, institutions, tradition, rituals, and scriptures are often traditionally associated with the core belief, and these may have some overlap with concepts in secular philosophy. Religion is also often described as a " way of life".

The development of religion has taken many forms in various cultures. "Organized religion" generally refers to an organization of people supporting the exercise of some religion with a prescribed set of beliefs, often taking the form of a legal entity (see religion-supporting organization). Other religions believe in personal revelation and responsibility. "Religion" is sometimes used interchangeably with " faith" or " belief system," but is more socially defined than that of personal convictions.

Definition of religion

Religion has been defined in a wide variety of ways. Most definitions attempt to find a balance somewhere between overly sharp definition and meaningless generalities. Some sources have tried to use formalistic, doctrinal definitions while others have emphasized experiential, emotive, intuitive, valuational and ethical factors.

Sociologists and anthropologists tend to see religion as an abstract set of ideas, values, or experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. For example, in Lindbeck's Nature of Doctrine, religion does not refer to belief in "God" or a transcendent Absolute. Instead, Lindbeck defines religion as, "a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought… it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.” According to this definition, religion refers to one's primary worldview and how this dictates one's thoughts and actions.

Other religious scholars have put forward a definition of religion that avoids the reductionism of the various sociological and psychological disciplines that reduce religion to its component factors. Religion may be defined as the presence of a belief in the sacred or the holy. For example Rudolf Otto's "The Idea of the Holy," formulated in 1917, defines the essence of religious awareness as awe, a unique blend of fear and fascination before the divine. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the late 18th century defined religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence."

The Encyclopedia of Religion defines religion this way:

In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels — a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience — varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture."

Other encyclopedic definitions include: "A general term used... to designate all concepts concerning the belief in god(s) and goddess(es) as well as other spiritual beings or transcendental ultimate concerns" and "human beings' relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine."

Development of religion

There are a number of models regarding the ways in which religions come into being and develop. Broadly speaking, these models fall into three categories:

  • Models which see religions as social constructions;
  • Models which see religions as progressing toward higher, objective truth;
  • Models which see a particular religion as absolutely true.

The models are not mutually exclusive. Multiple models may be seen to apply simultaneously, or different models may be seen as applying to different religions.


Present day adherents

High range estimate for Christianity
High range estimate for Christianity
Dominant world religions, mapped by country.
Dominant world religions, mapped by country.
Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.
Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.

The following statistics show the number of adherents in all known approaches, both religious and irreligious worldwide. [Note: these statistics are taken from a single site (see Adherents), which also states that its total for Christianity is provided by a single source, David Barrett, described as an "Evangelical Christian", and elsewhere listed as "Research Professor of Missiometrics at Regent University". The term "adherents" is moreover not defined in this context and is not universally accepted as the most appropriate basis for ranking religions by size. For example:

Many Muslims (and some non-Muslim) observers claim that there are more practicing Muslims than practicing Christians in the world. has no reason to dispute this. It seems likely, but we would point out that there are different opinions on the matter, and a Muslim may define "practicing" differently than a Christian....

Other sources quoted in this article put the percentages of various countries' populations who rank Religion (any denomination) as "Very Important" at small fractions of those used to compile the table below]. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Chinese folk religion and Buddhism are the largest world religions today. Approximately 69-78% of humanity adheres to one of these five religions. Christianity is the religion with the largest number of adherents, followed by Islam, Hinduism, Chinese folk religion and Buddhism respectively. However, the third-largest "group" of approximately 1 billion people do not adhere to religious approaches. Their irreligious approaches include Humanism, Atheism, Rationalism, and Agnosticism. These figures are necessarily approximate: note that the figures in the following table total nearly 7 billion people, yet the world population was only 6.4 billion (2005), and a person can claim adherency to more than one religion.

  1. Christianity 2.1 billion (see below)
  2. Islam 1.3 billion (see below)
  3. Non-Adherent ( Secular/ Atheist/ Irreligious/ Agnostic/ Nontheist) 1.1 billion
  4. Hinduism 900 million (see below)
  5. Chinese folk religion 394 million (see below)
  6. Buddhism 376 million
  7. Primal indigenous (" Pagan") 300 million
  8. African traditional and diasporic 100 million
  9. Sikhism 23 million
  10. Juche 19 million
  11. Spiritism 15 million
  12. Judaism 14 million
  13. Bahá'í Faith 7 million
  14. Jehovah's Witnesses 6.5 million
  15. Jainism 4.2 million
  16. Shinto 4 million (see below)
  17. Cao Dai 4 million
  18. Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
  19. Tenrikyo 2 million
  20. Millenian 1.5 million
  21. Neo-Paganism 1 million
  22. Unitarian Universalism 800,000
  23. Rastafari movement 600,000

  • Christianity encompasses many different denominations but the statistics in the source for this document consider most of them all together for the purposes of analysis (except Unitarians and Rastafarians). The detailed country-by-country figures given by the primary source for this section sum to a range lower than the 2.1 Billion total cited in the summary "Major Religions of the World" list (itself derived from the World Christian Encyclopedia).
  • The high end estimate for Islam from the source for the table above is 1.4 billion:

Islam: Contemporary figures for Islam are usually between 900 million and 1.4 billion, with 1 billion being a figure frequently given in comparative religion texts, probably because it's such a nice, round number.

  • The high end estimate for Hinduism from the source for the table above is 1.4 billion:

Hinduism: The highest figure we've seen for Hinduism (1.4 billion, Clarke, Peter B., editor), The Religions of the World: Understanding the Living Faiths, Marshall Editions Limited: USA (1993); pg. 125.) is actually higher than the highest figure we've seen for Islam. But this is an aberration. World Hinduism adherent figures are usually between 850 million and one billion.

  • Shinto is a special case due to shrine-reporting versus self-reporting. Since the 17th century, there have been laws in Japan requiring registration with Shinto shrines. Because of this, 75-90% of all Japanese are listed on shrine rolls, greatly inflating the apparent number of adherents. When asked in polls, only about 3.3% of Japanese people identify themselves as "Shinto." However, many who do not consider themselves "Shintoists" still practice Shinto rituals.

In ranking religious denominations, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest single denomination within Christianity, Sunni Islam within Islam, and Vaishnavism within Hinduism. It is difficult to say whether there are more Roman Catholics or Sunnis, as the numbers are roughly equal, and exact counts are impossible, because some members though legally accepted in those denominations may have renounced their faith or have converted quickly.

Trends in adherence

World map based on the results of a 2002 Pew Research Center study on the importance of religion.
World map based on the results of a 2002 Pew Research Centre study on the importance of religion.
The largest religious gathering of humans on Earth [1]. About 70 million Hindus from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela in the Hindu holy city of Prayaga, India, which is also known as Allahabad.
The largest religious gathering of humans on Earth . About 70 million Hindus from around the world participated in Kumbh Mela in the Hindu holy city of Prayaga, India, which is also known as Allahabad.

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, Eastern Orthodox Christianity has been experiencing considerable resurgence there.

Within the world's four largest religions Christianity currently has the greatest growth by numbers and Islam has the fastest growth by percentage. Christianity is spreading rapidly in northern Africa and the Far East, in particular China and South Korea. Hinduism is undergoing a revival, and many temples are being built, both in India and in other countries. Analyzing percentage growth is a difficult matter - see this article for a discussion. However, the World Christian Encyclopedia and World Christian Trends reported these numbers from growth from 1990-2000:


(the annual growth in the world population over the same period is 1.41%)

A 2002 Pew Research Centre 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.

Religious belief

Religious belief usually relates to the existence, nature and worship of a deity or deities and divine involvement in the universe and human life. Alternately, it may also relate to values and practices transmitted by a spiritual leader. Unlike other belief systems, which may be passed on orally, religious belief tends to be codified in literate societies (religion in non-literate societies is still largely passed on orally ).

Religious beliefs are found in virtually every society throughout human history. Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise. The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation, to birth".

Related forms of thought

Religion and science

Religious knowledge, according to religious practitioners, may be gained from religious leaders, sacred texts ( scriptures), and/or personal revelation. Some religions view such knowledge as unlimited in scope and suitable to answer any question; others see religious knowledge as playing a more restricted role, often as a complement to knowledge gained through physical observation. Some religious people maintain that religious knowledge obtained in this way is absolute and infallible ( religious cosmology). While almost unlimited, this knowledge can be unreliable, since the particulars of religious knowledge vary from religion to religion, from sect to sect, and often from individual to individual.

Early science such as geometry and astronomy was connected to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this 13th Century manuscript is a symbol of God's act of creation.
Early science such as geometry and astronomy was connected to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this 13th Century manuscript is a symbol of God's act of creation.

The scientific method gains knowledge by testing hypotheses to develop theories through elucidation of facts or evalution by experiments and thus only answers cosmological questions about the physical universe. It develops theories of the world which best fit physically observed evidence. All scientific knowledge is probabilistic and subject to later improvement or revision in the face of better evidence. Scientific theories that have an overwhelming preponderance of favorable evidence are often treated as facts (such as the theory of gravity).

Many early scientists held strong religious beliefs (see Scientists of Faith and List of Christian thinkers in science) and strove to reconcile science and religion. Isaac Newton, for example, believed that gravity caused the planets to revolve about the Sun, and credited God with the design. In the concluding General Scholium to the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he wrote: "This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being." Nevertheless, conflict arose between religious organizations and individuals who propagated scientific theories which were deemed unacceptable by the organizations. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has historically reserved to itself the right to decide which scientific theories are acceptable and which are unacceptable. In the 17th century, Galileo was tried and forced to recant the heliocentric theory.

Many theories exist as to why religions sometimes seem to conflict with scientific knowledge. In the case of Christianity, a relevant factor may be that it was among Christians that science in the modern sense was developed. Unlike other religious groups, as early as the 17th century the Christian churches had to deal directly with this new way to investigate nature and seek truth. The perceived conflict between science and Christianity may also be partially explained by a literal interpretation of the Bible adhered to by many Christians, both currently and historically. This way to read the sacred texts became especially prevalent after the rise of the Protestant reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible as the only authoritative source concerning the ultimate reality. This view is often shunned by both religious leaders (who regard literally believing it as petty and look for greater meaning instead) and scientists who regard it as an impossibility.

Some Christians have disagreed or are still disagreeing with scientists in areas such as the validity of Keplerian astronomy, the theory of evolution, the method of creation of the universe and the Earth, and the origins of life. On the other hand, scholars such as Stanley Jaki have suggested that Christianity and its particular worldview was a crucial factor for the emergence of modern science. In fact, many of today's historians are moving away from the view of the relationship between Christianity and science as one of "conflict", a perspective commonly called the conflict thesis (or the Draper-White thesis). Gary Ferngren in his historical volume about Science & Religion states:

While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

In the Bahá'í Faith, the harmony of science and religion is a central tenet. The principle states that that truth is one, and therefore true science and true religion must be in harmony, thus rejecting the view that science and religion are in conflict. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the religion, asserted that science and religion cannot be opposed because they are aspects of the same truth; he also affirmed that reasoning powers are required to understand the truths of religion and that religious teachings which are at variance with science should not be accepted; he explained that religion has to be reasonable since God endowed humankind with reason so that they can discover truth. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, described science and religion as "the two most potent forces in human life."

Proponents of Hinduism claim that Hinduism is not afraid of scientific explorations, nor of the technological progress of mankind. According to them, there is a comprehensive scope and opportunity for Hinduism to mold itself according to the demands and aspirations of the modern world; it has the ability to align itself with both science and spiritualism. This religion uses some modern examples to explain its ancient theories and reinforce its own beliefs. For example, some Hindu thinkers have used the terminology of quantum physics to explain some basic concepts of Hinduism such as Maya or the illusory and impermanent nature of our existence.

The philosophical approach known as pragmatism, as propounded by the American philosopher William James, has been used to reconcile scientific with religious knowledge. Pragmatism, simplistically, holds that the truth of a set of beliefs can be indicated by its usefulness in helping people cope with a particular context of life. Thus, the fact that scientific beliefs are useful in predicting observations in the physical world can indicate a certain truth for scientific theories; the fact that religious beliefs can be useful in helping people cope with difficult emotions or moral decisions can indicate a certain truth for those beliefs. (For a similar postmodern view, see grand narrative).

Religion, metaphysics, and cosmology

Religion and philosophy meet in several areas, notably in the study of metaphysics and cosmology. In particular, a distinct set of religious beliefs will often entail a specific metaphysics and cosmology. That is, a religion will generally have answers to metaphysical and cosmological questions about the nature of being, of the universe, humanity, and the divine.

Mysticism and esotericism

Man meditating
Man meditating

Mysticism, in contrast with philosophy, denies that logic is the most important method of gaining enlightenment. Rather, physical disciplines such as yoga, stringent fasting, whirling (in the case of the Sufi dervishes), or the use of Psychoactive drugs such as LSD, lead to altered states of consciousness that logic can never hope to grasp.

Mysticism (to initiate) is the pursuit of communion with, or conscious awareness of ultimate reality, the divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct, personal experience (intuition or insight) rather than rational thought. Mystics speak of the existence of realities behind external perception or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible through personal experience. They say that such experience is a genuine and important source of knowledge.

Esotericism claims to be more sophisticated than religion, to rely on intellectual understanding rather than faith, and to improve on philosophy in its emphasis on techniques of psycho-spiritual transformation ( esoteric cosmology). Esotericism refers to "hidden" knowledge available only to the advanced, privileged, or initiated, as opposed to exoteric knowledge, which is public. It applies especially to spiritual practices. The mystery religions of ancient Greece are examples of Esotericism.


Members of an organized religion may not see any significant difference between religion and spirituality. Or they may see a distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of their religion and its spiritual dimension.

Some individuals draw a strong distinction between religion and spirituality. They may see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven), but not feel bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. They choose the term spirituality rather than religion to describe their form of belief, perhaps reflecting a disillusionment with organized religion (see Religion in modernity), and a movement towards a more "modern" — more tolerant, and more intuitive — form of religion. These individuals may reject organized religion because of historical acts by religious organizations, such as Islamic terrorism, the marginalisation and persecution of various minorities or the Spanish Inquisition.


The word myth has several meanings.

  1. A traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon;
  2. A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence; or
  3. A metaphor for the spiritual potentiality in the human being.

Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia, are usually categorized under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development, are similarly called "myths" in the anthropology of religion. The term "myth" can be used pejoratively by both religious and non-religious people. By defining another person's religious stories and beliefs as mythology, one implies that they are less real or true than one's own religious stories and beliefs. Joseph Campbell remarked, "Mythology is often thought of as other people's religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology."

Humanists believe that all religion is based on myth, meaning that it is based on legendary stories that are not in fact true.

In sociology, however, the term myth has a non-pejorative meaning. There, myth is defined as a story that is important for the group whether or not it is objectively or provably true. Examples include the death and resurrection of Jesus, which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin and is also ostensibly a historical event. But from a mythological outlook, whether or not the event actually occurred is unimportant. Instead, the symbolism of the death of an old "life" and the start of a new "life" is what is most significant.

Urarina shaman, 1988
Urarina shaman, 1988


Humans have many different methods which attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it ( cosmology). Religion is only one of the methods for trying to answer one or more of these questions. Other methods include science, philosophy, metaphysics, astrology, esotericism, mysticism, and forms of shamanism, such as the sacred consumption of ayahuasca among Peruvian Amazonia's Urarina. The Urarina have an elaborate animistic cosmological system, which informs their mythology, religious orientation and daily existence.

Given the generalized discontents with modernity, consumerism, over- consumption, violence and anomie, many people in the so-called industrial or post-industrial West rely on a number of distinctive religious worldviews. This in turn has given rise to increased religious pluralism, as well as to what are commonly known in the academic literature as new religious movements, which are gaining ground across the globe.


The etymology of the word "religion" has been debated for centuries. The English word clearly derives from the Latin religio, "reverence (for the gods)" or "conscientiousness". The origins of religio, however, are obscure. Proposed etymological interpretations include:

From Relego

  • Re-reading–from Latin re (again) + lego (in the sense of "read"), referring to the repetition of scripture.
  • Treating carefully–from Latin re (again) + lego (in the sense of "choose"–this was the interpretation of Cicero) "go over again" or "consider carefully".

From Religare

  • Re-connection to the divine–from Latin re (again) + ligare (to connect, as in English ligament). This interpretation is favoured by modern scholars such as Tom Harpur, but was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius.
  • To bind or return to bondage–an alternate interpretation of the "reconnection" etymology emphasizing a sense of servitude to God, this may have originated with Augustine. However, the interpretation, while popular with critics of religion, is often considered imprecise and possibly offensive to followers.

From Res + legere

  • Concerning a gathering — from Latin res (ablative re, with regard to) + legere (to gather), since organized religion revolves around a gathering of people.


The word critic comes from the Greek κριτικός, kritikós - one who discerns, which itself arises from the Ancient Greek word κριτής, krités, meaning a person who offers reasoned judgement or analysis, value judgement, interpretation, or observation. The term can be used to describe an adherent of a position disagreeing with or opposing the object of criticism.

Most western criticism of religion focuses on the Abrahamic religions — particularly Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — with titles such as Why I am not a Christian, The God Delusion and The End of Faith representing some popular published books. Not all the criticisms would apply to all religions: criticism regarding the existence of god(s), for example, has very little relevance to some forms of Buddhism.

Many people consider all religious faith essentially irrational. By definition, agnostics are skeptics of religion.

Many critics claim dogmatic religions are typically morally deficient, elevating to moral status ancient, arbitrary, and ill-informed rules that may have been designed for reasons of hygiene, politics, or other reasons in a bygone era. People who break these rules are often condemned and victimised even though they have only done wrong within a particular religion's idiosyncratic conception of what constitutes right and wrong.

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