Beliefnet
Religion 101

It seems a simple enough question. How many religions are there, in the world?

Let’s immediately narrow things down a bit further, just by additionally refining that question slightly: How many religions are there in the world, today?

That last qualifier is important, since it rules out (while it also tellingly reminds us of) the many, many religions of the past which have long since “become extinct,” as it were, and so are no longer practiced today.

The sheer number of such ancient and long-vanished religions alone is staggering enough. Think of the ancient religions of classical antiquity, each with their own unique pantheons of deities — the Greek gods and goddesses (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Apollo, Athena, Hermes, etc.), and their Roman counterparts (Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Venus, Mars, Minerva, Mercury, etc.).

Or think of the many gods and goddesses of the Norse pantheon (Odin, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Freya, Tyr, Hel, etc.). Or the numerous gods of ancient Egypt, in vogue during the era of its pharoahs (Amun, Ra, Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set, Thoth, Anubis, Ptah, etc.).

Many of us today often look back upon these ancient religions, with their pantheons of deities, and regard them somewhat dismissively — as being nothing more than mere “mythology,” perhaps. It may be wise to remember, however, that one person’s “mythology” is quite often someone else’s “religion” — and vice versa.

Some of the most deeply cherished stories and sincerely held beliefs found at the heart of many of today’s major world religions — Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. — are quite often dismissed as mere “mythology” by the adherents of other religions, as well as by followers of no religion at all.

So, perhaps the differences between “mere myth” and “real religion” often exist largely in the eye of the beholder.

Be that as it may, the degree of religious diversity which existed in the past must surely compete with the degree of religious diversity that currently exists today. In addition to ancient Greece and Rome, or ancient Egypt and Scandinavia, one has only to reflect also upon the vast multitude of other ancient and now-long-vanished civilizations (and religions, and deities) — from the Sumerians, Canaanites, Assyrians and Babylonians, to the Aztecs, Mayans and Incans, to the Celts and Goths, and many others, besides — to gain a sobering sense of the profound multiplicity that is characteristic of human religiosity, back then as well as now.

The number of religions which once thrived upon this planet, but which are no more, is probably just as staggering as the number of religions which thrive on this planet today. Of course, this also depends largely upon how broadly (or how narrowly) one defines the very term or category of “religion.”

For some people today, there is only one “real” religion — their own. All other “religions” are, in their view, merely false religions, scarcely even worthy of the term.

But once again, of course, the spectre of relativity raises its head. Religion X may firmly insist that it, and it alone, is the One True Religion, with all other pretenders being utterly and tragically false. However, Religion Z may in turn insist just as firmly upon precisely the same thing: it is actually the One True Faith, which makes Religion X (along with all other religions, of course) hopelessly false.

Short of decisive and definitive proof either way, it seems (at least from an outsider’s perspective) that  the distinction between “true religion” vs. “false religions” — like that of “real religion” vs. “mere mythology” — may ultimately lie in the eye of the beholder.

So, in attempting to even begin to answer the question as to just how many religions there actually are in the world, we must first decide: what counts as a “religion”?

(To be continued, in Part Two.)

 

 

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