Religion 101

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

(Never mind about all the myriad bygone religions of the remote past. And never mind how many people think exclusively of their own religion alone as solely and genuinely qualifying as “authentic religion,” thereby deeming all other faiths to be something less than “true religion.” We covered all of that in Part One.)

Before proceeding further in addressing the opening question, however, there’s yet another “never mind about” item which should perhaps be addressed and gotten out of the way, right up front.

Christianity sometimes wants to be taken as being the one and only “true” religion in the world, in contradistinction to all of the other (allegedly “false”) religions with which it shares that world.

At other times, however, Christianity often seems to want to paint “religion” itself as being some sort of negative, emphasizing instead that Christianity is “true” precisely because it is, itself, not really a “religion,” after all.

(If correct, then whenever we do finally get around to actually counting up all of the world’s religions, the total number will end up being shorter than most people would probably otherwise expect– shorter, that is, by exactly one religion — if indeed Christianity is not really a “religion,” per se.)

Where am I getting all of this? From that fairly sizable (and rather vocal) contingent within contemporary evangelical Christianity who often stridently insist to all within earshot that “Christianity isn’t a religion — it’s a relationship.”

The implication here is that Christianity is somehow special (distinctly different from all of those “mere religions” out there), and somehow unique by comparison.

I have never quite gotten the logic of this particular way of thinking.

Many Christians today certainly do tend to regard their Christianity primarily in terms of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and to emphasize how unique that makes Christianity. However, I fail to see how this can in any way fundamentally differentiate Christianity from all other entities commonly known as “religions.”

Firstly, every religion is unique, in one way or another, differing from all other religions in certain respects. So, any religion can easily point to something (anything) that happens to be unique about itself and say, “Aha! See? This is what makes us uniquely special! This is why we’re not ‘just a religion,’ but something else (and something far superior) altogether!”

Secondly, yes, many Christians today think of Christianity as being all about “a relationship with Jesus Christ,” period (and as if this somehow has nothing to do with “religion”). In this view, “religions” are just false manmade edifices constructed of vain beliefs and practices, rather than any sort of “living relationship.”

However, such a view seems to overlook the fact that even Christianity as a presumed “relationship” (rather than a “religion”) is itself likewise predicated upon a set or system of certain highly specific beliefs, practices, scriptures, and institutions that can be only characterized as essentially and inarguably religious in character.

For Christianity to be “not a religion” but instead primarily just “a relationship” already implies the affirmation of certain very specific religious beliefs. For instance, there is obviously a belief that there is, in fact, Someone out there (e.g., that Jesus Christ exists at all), a belief that Jesus Christ is who and what the Bible seems to say he is (as per the believing reader’s interpretation of Christian scripture), a belief that Jesus Christ actually exists in the particular manner, and with the particular characteristics, that the believer believes he does, a belief that such a “personal relationship” is even possible at all, and of course a belief that such a “relationship” is supremely desirable and infinitely beneficial — including also specific beliefs regarding precisely what the beneficial effects of such a relationship will be for the believer (eternal salvation, spiritual fulfillment, etc.).

In addition to an entire package of quite specific and detailed religious beliefs being implicit within the seemingly simple claim that Christianity is “not a religion, but a relationship” (specific beliefs about the very nature of that relationship, how it is established, what its value and meaning are, etc.), religious practices, religious scriptures, and religious institutions are also seldom very far away, either.

After all, even those Christians who insist that Christianity is best understood as a “relationship” (rather than as a “religion”) nevertheless themselves follow any number of related and clear practices — practices that can only be construed as essentially and undeniably “religious” in character. They certainly pray, for example, in order to actively participate in that “relationship”; they may seek to emulate the central object of their relationship, by attempting to behave or be more “Christ-like” in character themselves; they may observe certain traditional Christian religious holidays, or other Christian religious traditions; and they may also actively seek to spread the word of the gospel message as they understand it, attempting to recruit others to this “relationship” (or this “religion”) that they enjoy.

Additionally, even those who maintain that theirs is a “relationship” rather than a “religion” do other things which adherents of admitted and avowed “religions” also do: they read, study, and abide by what they believe to be holy scripture (there are a whole host of additional implicit religious beliefs regarding the nature and status of the Bible, by the way, which they also accept on faith).

And they may even be involved, to varying degrees, in highly structured and institutionalized aspects attaching to this “relationship.” They may affiliate with a local church, for example. It may be a church which is part of an established Christian denomination (each of which also has characteristic and quite specific religious beliefs and practices of its own), or it may be a so-called “non-denominational” church (which will of course still have specific beliefs, doctrines, practices, etc.). Or they may choose not to attend a formal church, but may instead perhaps opt for an informal Bible study or a “home church” (in which case they are still part of a “church” or worshipping community, if in a somewhat looser sense). Even if all they do is watch Christian televangelists on TV, or listen to Christian radio, they are still watching or listening to undeniably and inescapably religious broadcasting.

So, this whole “not a religion, but a relationship” thing has always struck me as not very well thought out, and not particularly well supported by the bigger picture (which is already implicit within that particular Christian catchphrase, as a moment’s reflection will reveal).

Okay, end of rant.

Now, back once again to our opening question: How many “religions” are there in the world today?

(To be continued, in Part Three.)



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.)



Today (October 1, 2012), Jews worldwide are observing the first day of a joyous, seven-day-long holiday (a holy week, actually, rather than a literal “holy day”) known as Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles (or the Festival of Booths). For the first two days of this festival, no work is permitted.

Since Judaism reckons a day as beginning not at 12:00 midnight but instead at sunset, Sukkot technically began at sunset last night (September 30). Sukkot will last for seven days, before concluding at sunset on October 7.

Originally an autumn harvest celebration, Sukkot is also a commemoration of the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, following their exodus from Egypt.

In ancient times, in order to extend the length and productivity of harvest workdays during the fall harvest season, families traditionally slept outdoors in small shelters or huts (called sukkot in the plural, or sukkah in the singular). And during those forty years spent wandering in the desert after the exodus, the Israelites also built temporary booths or shelters (sukkot) which could be moved from place to place during their wanderings.

Today, this “Feast of Booths” is celebrated by constructing and dwelling in temporary booths or shelters (sukkot) for the seven days of the festival. A canvas-walled structure with an “organic” roof of loose boards or branches will do, and “dwelling” in it need not necessarily mean sleeping in it every night (although this would be optimal); it is sufficient to simply take one’s meals in one’s sukkah.

On the Jewish religious calendar, Sukkot always begins on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (five days after Yom Kippur, which is always on the 10th of Tishrei). However, that fixed date of 15 Tishrei as the first day of Sukkot does not always coincide with September 30 on the secular Western (Gregorian) calendar.

The Jewish lunar calendar counts and calculates its lunar months quite differently, such that there is a certain amount of drift from year to year, relative to the widely-used Gregorian calendar. For instance, last year, the first day of Sukkot (15 Tishrei 2011) began at sunset on October 12. Next year, on the other hand, Sukkot (15 Tishrei 2013) will begin instead at sunset on September 18.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish my Jewish readers around the globe Chag Sameach! (Hebrew for “Joyous Festival”), a traditional Sukkot festival greeting.