Religion 101

In my last several blog entries, I have been asking (or perhaps dancing around) the simple question: How many religions are there in the world?

Never mind about all of the myriad bygone religions of the remote past. We touched upon them briefly in Part One; let’s just focus instead upon asking how many religions exist in the world today.

Never mind about the fact that many people tend to think exclusively of their own religion alone as solely and genuinely qualifying as “authentic” religion, regarding all other faiths as something less than “true” religion. The trouble is, every religion can think like this (which gets us nowhere fast). We also covered that in Part One.

And never mind about those Christians who sometimes object to calling their religion a “religion” at all, arguing instead that Christianity is “not a ‘religion,’ but a ‘relationship’.” It’s still a religion. We covered that in Part Two.

And never mind about those faithful who assert that their own religion is uniquely unlike all other religions because their own religion is “not just a religion, but a ‘complete way of life’.” Of course, the obvious problem here is simply that other religions are “complete ways of life,” too. We covered this in Part Three.

So, with some of those preliminary “never minds” out of the way, we can at last begin to consider more directly that seemingly simple question: how many religions are there, in the world today?

However, further complicating this question is the fact that many people today loosely regard each of the various (and numerous) individual branches, sects, or denominations found within any given major religion as themselves being individual “religions,” in their own right. Under such loose usage, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism, Episcopalianism, and all of the many other Christian denominations would each be considered a different “religion” altogether.

According to this line of thinking, then, Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism would be thought of (wrongly, in my own view) not simply as two movements or subgroups within contemporary Judaism, but as two completely different religions. Hasidic Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism would not be seen as two divisions within the same single religion (Judaism), but as two distinctive “religions,” period.

Following this same logic, Sunni Islam and Shia Islam are not simply two branches of one religion (Islam), but two separate and distinct religions. Even the Wahhabi movement within Sunni Islam, and the various Shiite sects — “Twelvers,” “Seveners,” “Fivers,” and others — would likewise each be very loosely labeled (far too loosely, in my view) as different “religions,” rather than simply as different sects or branches.

Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Vajrayana Buddhism would amount to three different “religions,” rather than as the three main branches of a single major religion (Buddhism). Pure Land Buddhism, Nichiren Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism would likewise be three individual “religions,” rather than just three sects or schools within the Mahayana wing of Buddhism.

Within Hinduism, worshippers of Vishnu (known as Vaishnavites) would be regarded as belonging to an entirely different “religion” altogether than that of those Hindus who instead focus their own worship upon Shiva (and who are thus known as Shaivites). And of course Vaishnavism and Shaivism would both, in turn, be considered separate from still other Hindus (known as Shaktas) who instead worship Shakti (the Goddess, whether as Kali or Durga or in some other form of the Divine Feminine or Great Mother), and who would thereby be thought of as adherents of yet a third distinctive religion, that of Shaktism.

Things soon get even more complicated than that, if each and every sub-subgroup (and sub-sub-subgroup) found within each major religion is also accounted as a “religion” itself. Consider just Christianity alone, for a moment: are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism really three different “religions,” rather than merely three main branches of a single religion (“Christianity”)?

Eastern Orthodoxy further subdivides into Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, and a dozen more nationally-titled churches. Are all of them to be regarded as so many individual “religions,” per se?

Protestantism is even more fragmented, further splitting and splintering into innumerable denominations and non-denominational churches. Are Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians all members of genuinely different faiths? Are Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and Pentecostals all adherents of completely different “religions” altogether?

It has been estimated that there may be upward of some 34,000 separate Christian groups alone currently in existence (granted, many of them are miniscule individual groups and independent churches). Are all of these to be regarded as some 34,000 different “religions”? Or simply as 34,000 different varieties of the same single religion?

You can see how unhelpful such an approach is, needlessly multiplying the major religions into innumerable additional “religions” (which in reality are better understood as merely being just so many subgroups, branches, sects, schools, denominations, movements or subdivisions within them). It also exponentially (and misleadingly) inflates the real number of “religions” per se which actually exist in the world today, thereby muddying the waters further and making an accurate estimate of that final grand total all the more vague and difficult to arrive at.

(To be continued — and concluded, I promise — in Part Five.)




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