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As an uncountable noun, religion is a "way of living" or the set of customs or rituals that follows from such beliefs. It is notoriously difficult to define what does and does not constitute a religion, due to the sheer variety of human religious beliefs and practices. Taoism and Confucianism, for instance, are sometimes described as philosophies rather than religions.

"religion is (1) a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents (3) who master people's existential anxienties, such as death and deception. [1]"


Many religions are subdivided into sects or denominations, resulting in a huge number of labels for the religious to choose from. The major world religions are typically, however, divided into three large groups:

  1. Abrahamic religions
  2. Dharmic religions
  3. Taoic religions

Role and origin

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There are many theories as to the origin of religion, including providing social cohesion, a tool of social control, being an evolutionary trait and being a by-product of the human cognitive system.

While religion may help to stabilize local communities, it often prevents larger civilizations forming because of conflicts caused by inter-community religious differences. [2]

Personal vs. politicized religion

Religion can manifest itself as an apolitical individual behaviour, be part of wider social movements or be the dominant political force a local area. Establishing a particular religion in the political sphere is opposed by secularists. Some theologians argue that religion is a private matter:

"[...] Christianity was a religion of inner morality – of good people, in their local congregations, who sought nothing more than personal transformation. They respected the state and didn’t cause trouble. It was, to use the language familiar today, religion as a private matter [3]"

Most Muslims and many Christians consider politics and religion to be inseparable:

"If politics is about leadership and authority, the ultimate reality of Jesus' spiritual kingship urges Christians to engage with politics. [4]"
"Islam cannot be separated from the state because it guides us through every detail of running the state and our lives. Muslims have no choice but to reject secularism for it excludes the law of Allah. [5]"

In extreme cases, religion takes on a radical or extremist form.

Largest world religions

The religious traditions with the most "adherents" around the world (including traditions outside of the three major divisions listed above) are: [6]

  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion
  2. Islam: 1.3 billion
  3. Non-religious, including secular, agnostic and atheist: 1.1 billion (reporting on this number can sometimes be problematic as some confusion arises over the term, as some religions support of allow atheism.)
  4. Hinduism: 900 million
  5. Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
  6. Buddhism: 376 million
  7. "primal-indigenous", including various tribal/ethnic religions and animism: 300 million
  8. African traditional and diasporic: 100 million
  9. Sikhism: 23 million
  10. Juche: 19 million
  11. Spiritualism: 15 million
  12. Judaism: 14 million
  13. Baha'i: 7 million
  14. Jainism: 4.2 million
  15. Shinto: 4 million
  16. Caodaism: 4 million
  17. Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
  18. Tenrikyo: 2 million
  19. Modern Paganism (Neo-Paganism): 1 million
  20. Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
  21. Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
  22. Scientology: 500 thousand

Major approaches to religion

Note that statements below about "God" can also generally be made about "gods".

Lack of (belief in / certainty about / support for) religion

  • Ignosticism — statements about God are ill-defined or meaningless
  • Agnosticism — lack of knowledge about God
  • Atheism — lack of belief in God; belief in the nonexistence of God
  • Antitheism — opposition to belief in God; belief in God seen as harmful
  • Humanism — supports reason and ethics; rejects superstition and the supernatural; humans have to solve their own problems

Forms of deism

  • Deism — God created the universe but is not presently active in it; typically rejects miracles and other supernatural events
  • Pandeism — the universe is God
  • Panendeism — the universe is part of God
  • Polydeism — multiple gods created the universe and are not presently active in it

Forms of theism

  • Theism — belief in one or more gods who are generally active in the universe and in human lives

Number of gods

  • Nontheism — no gods; encompasses atheism and agnosticism, but also religions having no gods (e.g., many Eastern religions)
  • Monotheism — belief in one god
  • Monolatrism — worship of one god among many, the others of whom are not worthy of worship
  • Henotheism — worship of one god among many, some of whom may also be worthy of worship
  • Kathenotheism — worship of "one god at a time" from among many
  • Duotheism — two complementary (often male and female) gods
  • Polytheism — worship of many gods

Number of aspects of a single god

Nature of God

  • Dystheism — God is partly or wholly evil
  • Pantheism — God is the universe
  • Panentheism — God is "immanent" in the universe but transcends it
  • Transtheism — One or more gods are "immanent" in the universe but transcend it
  • Transcendentalism — God transcends the physical universe and/or human understanding

Other ways of understanding/knowing God or the divine/spiritual

  • Acosmism — the observable world is an illusion
  • Animism — unification of matter and spirit; all material things have souls or spirits
  • Esotericism — knowledge of the divine is available to only a few enlightened individuals
  • Gnosticism — knowledge of God; more specifically, a diverse religious tradition in the first few centuries A.D. which stressed knowledge of the divine origins of the universe and human beings
  • Mysticism — stresses experience of the divine or "ultimate reality"
  • Natural theology — approach to knowledge of God stressing reason and rejecting the supernatural
  • New Age — diverse religious movement beginning in the late 20th century involving "an eclectic and individual approach to spiritual exploration" (Wikipedia:New Age)
  • Omnitheism — all religions have some appreciation of the inherent spirituality of existence; stresses reconciliation of different religious traditions and of religions with scientific understanding
  • Spiritualism — religious movement popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries centered around the possibility of contacting spirits of the dead
  • Theology — reasoned discourse concerning religion, spirituality and god(s), theistic, atheistic, theoretic/philosophical or otherwise.
  • Theosophy — a purported "body of truth" that forms the basis of all religions

See also


  1. Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, 2002
  2. [1]
  3. [2]
  4. [3]
  5. [4]

External links