Religion 101

In my previous blog entry (Part One of this series), I remarked that if I were from Mars, and knew absolutely nothing about Earth’s religions, then in order to begin to familiarize myself with the spiritual “lay of the land,” I’d probably start out by asking about the broad outlines of human religiosity:

How MANY religions are there?

How BIG are these religions?

How OLD are these religions?

I’ve previously addressed the question, How many religions are there? elsewhere.

And in my last blog, I addressed the question, How big are these religions? by providing a bar graph displaying actual specific total populations or number of adherents within each of the major world religions.

Note that with the exception of Sikhism and Judaism, the scale here is one of billions, rather than of mere millions:

However, the above graph just shows how the major religions rank, in terms of their own population sizes (their individual total numbers of adherents, worldwide). What about some of the other religions out there — the smaller but nevertheless fairly well-known religions that also make up a part of the world’s religious landscape?

How do some of these widely-known religious alternatives to the mainstream, established religions rank in size? How do their own populations compare in size to those of the major global faiths?

Well, here’s a representative sampling of some of the best-known among them, similarly bar-graphed:

In the above chart, I’ve included both Sikhism (23 million Sikhs worldwide) and Judaism (14 million Jews worldwide) purely for purposes of comparison. You can clearly see that both of them — the two smallest among the long-established major world religions, both in fact so numerically small that they barely even registered on the previous chart — nevertheless tower conspicuously above such relatively well-known but nevertheless miniscule religions as Baha’i, Rastafarianism, Scientology, the Unification Church, and Wicca.

In this chart, we’re now talking just millions, not billions.

Jainism, like Sikhism, is a religion native to India which is not particularly familiar to most Westerners. It’s a non-theistic faith which affirms severe asceticism and strict ahimsa (“harmlessness,” nonviolence to all living beings) as the path to liberation from the cycle of rebirth or reincarnation. Perhaps in part because of its uncompromising commitment to such rigorous demands (its nonviolent ideals inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King), Jainism’s population is tiny when compared to the major global faiths. There are perhaps only 6 million Jains in the world today.

Shinto is the life-affirming and at times rather “nationalistic” indigenous religion of Japan, revering nature and seeking blessings from the many kami (gods and spirits) of the Japanese islands. Most Japanese observe both Buddhist as well as Shinto practices and traditions with no sense of discontinuity or self-contraction, making it tricky for pollsters to try and figure out how many Buddhists vs. how many Shintoists there actually are in Japan.

In one sense, most Japanese are both Shinto and Buddhist, at the same time, and this could inflate the total Shintoist numbers immensely (some sources claim 80% to 90% of Japan’s total population of 128 million are Shinto); however, many if not most Japanese today actually self-identify as nonreligious, and observe Shinto practices more as a matter of cultural tradition than of genuine religious commitment. The actual number of practicing and “believing” Shinto adherents is currently estimated to be only somewhere around 4 million Japanese.

Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, hangs by a thread today; only about 150,000 Zoroastrians remain in the world today, many of them in India (where they are known as Parsis or Parsees, “Persians”).

Wicca, the best-known of the various so-called “neo-Pagan” faiths, counts a total of perhaps 800,000 to 1 million Wiccan adherents (estimates vary, but this is probably a pretty close ballpark range, give or take).

Rastafarianism, popularly associated with reggae music, dreadlocks, and sacramental use of ganja (the holy herb marijuana), is estimated to have numbers roughly on par with that of Wicca — perhaps a million or so genuine adherents.

Scientology, despite its prominence in the media due to such high-profile celebrity adherents as Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, and John Travolta among others, is far smaller than one might expect. And while the Church of Scientology officially claims numbers in the region of 3.5 million, independent surveys tend not to support even such modestly high numbers; other sources suggest that the real number of actual Scientologists may be closer to the vicinity of only around 150,000 active adherents.

The Unification Church (whose members are sometimes unflatteringly referred to as “Moonies,” a term referencing the church’s Korean founder, the recently deceased Sun Myung Moon) also claims upwards of 3 million members, but outside observers again estimate a far lower total — perhaps only on the order of 500,000 actual adherents.

A relative giant among most of these smaller religions, the young Persian faith known as Baha’i (or more formally as the Baha’i Faith) is currently estimated to have somewhere in the neighborhood of perhaps up to 7 million followers worldwide.

Even bigger than the Baha’is are the Mormons, regarded by many pollsters, statisticians, and scholars of religion (not to mention, of course, by Mormons themselves) as a branch or form of Christianity, per se — at least in part because Mormons do self-identify as Christians, and despite the fact that many other Christians question or dispute the legitimacy of Mormon claims to be genuinely “Christian” in nature.

By far the largest Mormon sect is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or just LDS Church for short). With a current church membership of about 14 million, this main Mormon church has a total global population roughly equal to the total number of Jews in the world. (Within the U.S. alone, there are also about the same numbers of Jews as Mormons; each religion accounts for about 1.7% of American adults.)

So, there you have it: a look at how BIG many of the best-known religions — major and minor — actually are.

Next time: how OLD are all these religions? (Which of them are the oldest? Which are the youngest? How long ago were they each actually founded?)



The overarching purpose of this entire “Religion 101” blog of mine is primarily to introduce newcomers to the study of religion, as well as newbies just starting out on a personal spiritual search, to the wider world of global religion and spirituality. It’s also my own modest contribution to the wider “war on religious illiteracy.”

Many people embarking for the first time upon such religious studies or spiritual searches find themselves initially faced with sometimes some very unfamiliar terrain, and so through this blog I hope to help such people to find their initial bearings — to orient them to the broader religious and spiritual landscape that exists out there.

If I myself was utterly brand new to the study of religion — if I knew absolutely nothing, going in, regarding the bigger global picture of human religiosity and spirituality — then I know that I would probably need some sort of broad and general overall orientation to that bigger picture, before going on to explore the specific beliefs, practices, and fine points of each of the world’s religious traditions and spiritual pathways.

In other words, if I were from Mars, and knew nothing of Earth’s religions, then I’d probably want to start out by asking such broadly basic “overview” questions as:

How MANY religions are there?

How BIG are these religions?

How OLD are these religions?

(Then, once I had some grasp of the big picture, I would at least have some sense of the broader context within which all of these individual particular religions fit, as I then began to put each religion under my microscope — one by one — in order to examine the specific beliefs and practices of each of them.)

I recently concluded a five-part series which already asked the question, How many religions are there? So, I’d like to turn now to addressing the other two questions.

Actually, in other previous blog entries, I’ve also already touched upon the question, How big are the religions? In those previous posts, I presented both a global religious pie chart as well as a U.S. religious pie chart, which illustrated the population sizes of the various major religions relative to each other.

However, in those posts I merely ranked the religions by size, and presented only the percentage of the total human population — worldwide, or just that of the U.S. alone — that each religion represents or accounts for (e.g., Christianity represents 31% of the total world population, but 79% of the total U.S. population; Islam represents 22% of the global population, but less than 1% of the U.S. population; Judaism represents less than 1% of the world’s populace, and just under 2% of the U.S. populace; etc.).

However, I didn’t provide the actual specific population numbers (the total “head counts”) existing within each individual religion.

I also limited those pie charts to just the major religions alone, since so many other religions which might also have been included actually have populations of adherents that are so small that their respective individual slices of the total pie would have been too small even to register.

Now, I’d like to fill in those omissions. And instead of pie charts, I’ll do it with bar graphs.

Firstly, here is how just the major religions alone rank, in terms of their own population sizes (their individual total numbers of adherents, worldwide):

As you can see, Christianity is currently the world’s largest religion, with just over 2 billion followers worldwide. Islam takes second place, with about 1.5 billion adherents globally.

Hinduism comes in as the world’s third largest religion, with just under 1 billion followers. However, the third largest bar on the graph actually belongs to the religiously unaffiliated, who as a group currently number just over 1 billion non-adherents.

Buddhism pretty much ties with traditional Chinese religions (itself comprised of Confucianism, Taoism, and native Chinese folk religion), with each of these two subgroups comprising perhaps a little under half a billion followers each.

The diverse category of indigenous religions (Native American religions, traditional African religions, Australian aboriginal religion, etc.) is probably about on par with Buddhism or Chinese religion, with a collective total of perhaps nearly half a billion adherents worldwide.

Sikhism and Judaism, compared with all of these giants, scarcely even register on this scale, with perhaps 23 million Sikhs and only 14 million Jews in the world. (Note that we’re now talking in terms of millions, and not billions.)

(To be continued, and concluded, in Part Two.)



As I write, Hindus in India and beyond are preparing for the beginning of Navratri (or Navaratri, Sanskrit for “Nine Nights”), a major Hindu harvest-time religious festival.

As its name implies, Navratri is a celebration running nine nights in a row. Hinduism’s lunar calendar means that that the precise dates of the nine nights in question drift somewhat from year to year, relative to the Western (Gregorian) calendar. This year, Navratri will begin on October 16, with its ninth and final night falling upon October 24.

Over the course of these nine nights, the Divine is worshipped in nine different forms — nine different female forms, or goddesses.

Hinduism recognizes multiple forms or manifestations of God. Some Hindus worship God primarily in the form of Vishnu. Other Hindus instead worship God in the form of Shiva. Still other Hindus worship God as Goddess (Devi), as the Divine Feminine.

In keeping with Hinduism’s characteristic multiplicity and diversity, there are also many forms or manifestation of the Mother Goddess. Some devotees worship the Divine Feminine as the serene warrior goddess Durga, while others are devotees of the fearsome goddess Kali.

Even Vaishnavites (worshippers of Vishnu) and Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva) also recognize the important feminine aspects of Deity. Gods in Hinduism are frequently are accompanied by wives or consorts, referred to as shaktis. These shaktis are regarded as being the essential creative powers or enabling dynamic forces that actually empower and drive the Divine; without the creative energies of their respective shaktis, the gods would be inert and inactive. The shakti or female consort of Vishnu is Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, prosperity, luck, and beauty. Shiva, on the other hand, has as his shakti his wife Parvati, goddess of power and mother of the popular elephant-headed god Ganesha.

Each of the nine nights of Navratri celebrates one of nine such variant forms or aspects of the Great Goddess (Devi/Shakti). The first three days are dedicated to worshipping Durga (in her varied manifestations — as Kali, as Parvati, as Kumari); the next three days, to Lakshmi; the third three days, to Saraswati, goddess of wisdom. Fasting, feasting, dancing, and prayers characterize the activities of Navratri, as it celebrates the motherhood of God.