Religion 101

Religion 101

How MANY Religions Are There? (Part Five: The Hard Numbers)

posted by Reed Hall

In my last blog entry, I continued to ask (or perhaps dance around) the simple question: How many religions are there in the world? Now, at last, I shall meet the question head on.

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 also “complete ways of life,” too. We covered this in Part Three.

And lastly, never mind about those who tend to regard each and every single separate sect, subgroup, school, subdivision, branch, movement, or denomination within all of the major religions as if they each constituted “religions” of their own. (They don’t.) We covered all of that in Part Four. For our purposes here, counting denominations as separate standalone “religions” per se would vastly overinflate (and distort) any answer that we might give as to how many actual religions (not sects, branches, or denominations of religions) in fact exist in the contemporary world.

So, with all of these preliminary “never minds” finally out of the way at last, we can now begin to respond directly to that seemingly simple question: how many religions are there, in the world today?

Whenever the topic comes up in the popular press, or in informal (yet fairly informed) casual conversation, the “big five” are perhaps the most commonly mentioned: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These five highly prominent and influential global faiths are probably what most people think of first, when they set out to enumerate the major living religions of the world.

Those who are also familiar with the ancient and venerable religious traditions native to China will be quick to add two more to the list: Confucianism and Taoism. This brings our total to seven major world faiths.

Of course, there is also Shinto, the major native faith of Japan. And we certainly must not neglect two additional smaller but important and influential faith traditions of India: Jainism and Sikhism. Additionally worth mentioning is Zoroastrianism, today a tiny and dwindling minority religion but once the religion of the mighty Persian Empire.

So, that brings us to a grand total of eleven major world religions (“major” whether in terms of sheer size, or in terms of sheer historical significance and cultural impact). Is that it?

Not quite. These eleven may be widely considered to be the “major players” among the world’s global faith traditions, but by no means are they whole story when it comes to contemporary organized human religiosity.

For instance, there are also the many new religious movements currently carving out their own modest niches on the contemporary religious scene.

Far younger (and generally much smaller) than the long-established “mainstream” world religions, these numerous newer “alternative” or “emergent” faiths run the gamut from Baha’i (founded in the mid-1800s, with perhaps 7 million adherents) to Rastafarianism (founded in the 1930s, with about 1 million followers today) to Scientology (founded 1954 and today claiming 8 million members, although critics suggest the actual number to be as low as 100,000 or less) to Wicca (a 20th century revival or reconstruction of ancient European paganism, with perhaps 1 million followers today), to name just a few of the biggest and best-known.

Such often-marginalized “new religions” may number in the hundreds or even thousands worldwide — depending, of course, upon how one defines, classifies, or counts each one — and bearing also in mind that a great many of them are exceedingly small and obscure, so that the total global number of adherents of such young “minority” faiths still remains quite small, compared to the much older and far larger major faiths. (One source estimates the total combined population of all such “new religions” as these at only about 100 million people, or so.)

Even so, if we are merely concerned with counting up the actual total number of religions that currently exist in the world, then the vast diversity of all of these innumerable smaller and younger faiths increases that bottom-line total exponentially.

And then there are still the innumerable individual indigenous religions which are scattered across the planet today. These are the many native, local, ethnic, or “tribal” folk religious traditions of the many so-called “indigenous” cultures found worldwide: the various Native American religions, the varied African traditional religions, Australian aboriginal religions, Siberian shamanists, and so forth.

Each of the aforementioned broad regional categories also masks a vast amount of underlying diversity; many of the numerous individual tribes or other subgroups within each such broad category have quite distinct religious beliefs, practices, and traditions of their own.

Additionally, the transatlantic African slave trade (during the New World’s colonial period) eventually resulted in syncretic Afro-Caribbean blendings of traditional indigenous West African religions with the Catholicism of the colonists. This creative blending process gave birth to such altogether new religions as Santeria (in Cuba), Candomble (in Brazil), and Voudun or Voodoo (in Haiti).

Given the immense number of unique indigenous cultures worldwide, the number of corresponding indigenous religions (also numbering in the thousands) once again raises our cumulative grand total of currently extant religions to an increasingly uncertain (but certainly vastly higher) final number.

As you can see, it’s complicated — perhaps too complicated to supply a single, clearcut, precise, universally agreeable, conclusive total.

But whatever that grand total number of religions in the world might actually be, it’s clearly immense. Religious diversity is probably far more complex and variegated than most people ever imagine.

 

 

How MANY Religions Are There? (Part Four: “Religions” vs. Denominations, Sects, etc.)

posted by Reed Hall

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.)

 

 

How MANY Religions Are There? (Part Three: “Religion” vs. “Way of Life”?)

posted by Reed Hall

In my previous blog entry, I again asked the seemingly simple question: How many religions are there in the world, today?

(Popular objections that Christianity somehow doesn’t count because “it’s a relationship, not a ‘religion’” notwithstanding, it does count. It’s a religion. We covered that in Part Two.)

Before proceeding further in addressing the opening question, however, there’s perhaps just one last “never mind about” item still to be gotten out of the way, right up front.

I’m speaking of the whole “it’s not a ‘religion,’ but an entire way of life” thing.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard, or read, the common claim that “X is not a religion; X is a complete way of life.”

Very often, it seems, religions seek to distinguish themselves from other faiths by arguing that they, themselves, are not “just a religion” (like all those other “mere” religions out there), but something uniquely more — “a complete way of life,” in fact.

One encounters such religious rhetoric all of the time:

“Islam is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.” 

“Hinduism is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.” 

“Judaism is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.” 

“Buddhism is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.” 

“Christianity is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.” 

“Rastafarianism is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.” 

“Scientology is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.”

“Wicca is not just a religion, but a complete way of life.”

Okay, hang on a minute! If they’re all “complete ways of life,” then where are the plain old “religions”? (You know, the ones that aren’t “complete ways of life”? Do any exist?)

You can see the problem here.

The problem at hand is, of course, precisely that every religion is, in fact, a “complete way of life.”

(Or at least every religion can be a complete way of life, if only its adherents take it sufficiently seriously to fully abide by all of its principles, and to live their daily lives accordingly.)

So, for Religion Z to claim that it is “not just a religion, but a complete way of life” is actually neither very informative nor helpful. It certainly does not succeed in distinguishing Religion Z from Religions A through Y, since all of them are also “complete ways of life.”

Each religion seems to want to assert itself as somehow “more than a religion” — as a “complete way of life.” But if all religions are already complete ways of life anyway, then what is gained by making such an assertion?

If religions, whatever else they might be, are also “complete ways of life,” then such claims as these amount merely to asserting (or admitting) that they actually are “religions,” after all!

Okay, end of final rant. Now, back once again to our opening question: How many “religions” are there in the world, today?

(To be continued, in Part Four.)

 

 

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