Major Religions of the World
Ranked by Number of Adherents
(Sizes shown are approximate estimates, and are here mainly for
the purpose of ordering the groups, not providing a definitive
number. This list is sociological/statistical in perspective.)
Christianity: 2.1 billion
Islam: 1.3 billion
Hinduism: 900 million
Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
Buddhism: 376 million
primal-indigenous: 300 million
African Traditional & Diasporic: 100
Sikhism: 23 million
Juche: 19 million
Spiritism: 15 million
Judaism: 14 million
Baha'i: 7 million
Jainism: 4.2 million
Shinto: 4 million
Cao Dai: 4 million
Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
Tenrikyo: 2 million
Neo-Paganism: 1 million
Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
Scientology: 500 thousand
The adherent counts presented in the list above are current estimates of the
number of people who have at least a minimal level of self-identification as
adherents of the religion. Levels of participation vary within all groups.
These numbers tend toward the high end of reasonable worldwide estimates. Valid
arguments can be made for different figures, but if the same criteria are used
for all groups, the relative order should be the same. Further details and
sources are available below and in the Adherents.com main
A major source for these estimates is the detailed country-by-country
analysis done by David B. Barrett's religious statistics organization,
whose data are published in the Encyclopedia Britannica (including
annual updates and yearbooks) and also in the World Christian Encyclopedia
(the latest edition of which - published in 2001 - has been consulted).
Hundreds of additional sources providing more thorough and detailed
research about individual religious groups have also been consulted.
This listing is not a comprehensive list of all religions, only
the "major" ones (as defined below). There are distinct
religions other than the ones listed above. But this list accounts
for the religions of over 98% of the world's population. Below
are listed some religions which are not
in this listing (Mandeans, PL Kyodan, Ch'ondogyo, Vodoun, New
Age, Seicho-No-Ie, Falun Dafa/Falun Gong, Taoism, Roma), along
with explanations for why they do not qualify as "major world
religions" on this list.
This world religions listing is derived from the statistics data
in the Adherents.com database. The list was created
by the same people who collected and organized this database, in
consultation with university professors of comparative religions
and scholars from different religions. We invite additional input.
The Adherents.com collection of religious adherent statistics now
has over 43,000 adherent statistic citations, for over 4,300 different
faith groups, covering all countries of the world. This is not
an absolutely exhaustive compilation of all such data, but it is
by far the largest compilation available on the Internet. Various
academic researchers and religious representatives regularly share
documented adherent statistics with Adherents.com so that their
information can be available in a centralized database.
Statistics and geography citations for religions not on this list, as well
as subgroups within these religions (such as Catholics, Protestants, Karaites,
Wiccans, Shiites, etc.) can be found in the main Adherents.com database.
This document is divided into the following sections:
Main list of major religions of the world
Links to alternative lists of world
The Classical World Religions List
Parameters of this list
Parameter 1: What is a religion? (for
-- Classical World Religions Ranked by Internal
Parameter 2: How is size determined? (for
Brief discussion of how the size and boundaries
of specific religions was determined
Religious groups not included on the
Alternative summary listings of major world religions and numbers
Christian Science Monitor (1998): Top
10 Organized Religions in the World
Encyclopedia Britannica's Adherents
of All Religions by Six Continents
10 Religions - A casual but insightful attempt divided along
the lines of functional religious cultures rather than classical
Minnesota State University's "Religions of the World" website
lists the "world's six major religions" as: Islam, Judaism,
Buddhism, Animism, Christianity and Hinduism. Read the site's introduction
(from: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/ religion/) here
The Classical World Religions List
There are twelve classical world religions. This is the list of
religions described most often in surveys of the subject, and studied
in World Religion classes (some of them more for historical rather
than contemporary reasons):
The "World's Major Religions" list published in the
New York Public Library Student's Desk Reference is typical of
world religion lists which are functionally-oriented, yet still
strongly classical (New York: Prentice Hall, 1993; pg. 271):
Orthodox Eastern Church
In modern Western thought, the first writers to divide the world
into "world religions" were Christians. Originally, three
religions were recognized: Christians, Jews and pagans (i.e., everybody
After many centuries, with the increased Western awareness of Eastern history
and philosophy, and the development of Islam, other religions were added to
the list. Many Far Eastern ways of thought, in fact, were given the status
of "world religion" while equally advanced religious cultures in
technologically less developed or pre-literate societies (such as in Australia,
Africa, South America, and Polynesia) were grouped together as pagans or "animists," regardless
of their actual theology. It's true that by the standards applied at the time,
the Far Eastern religions Westerners encountered were often in a different
category altogether than the religions they classified as pagan. One can not
directly compare, for example, the local beliefs of the Polynesian islands
of Kiribati during the 1500s to the organizational, political, literary and
philosophical sophistication of Chinese Taoism during the same period. But
one could certainly question whether Japanese Shintoism, as an official "world
religion", was theologically or spiritually more "advanced" than
African Yoruba religion, which was classified simply as animism or paganism.
During the 1800s comparative religion scholars increasingly recognized Judaism,
Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as the most significant "world
religions." Even today, these are considered the "Big Five" and
are the religions most likely to be covered in world religion books.
Five smaller or more localized religions/philosophies brought the list of world
religions to ten: Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, Shinto and Zoroastrianism.
Beginning around 1900 comparative religion writers in England began to take
note of the Sikhs which had begun to immigrate there from India (part of the
British Empire at the time). Sikhs, if mentioned at all, had been classified
as a sect of Hinduism during the first three hundred years of their history.
But after the influential British writers began to classify Sikhism as a distinct,
major world religion, the rest of the world soon followed their example.
Baha'is are the most recent entrant to the "Classical" list. The
religion is only about 150 years old. On their official website, Baha'is claim
5 million adherents worldwide, established in 235 countries and territories
throughout the world. While most comparative religion textbooks produced during
this century either ignore them or group them as a Muslim sect, the most recent
books give them separate status and often their own chapter. Baha'is have achieved
this status partially through their worldwide geographical spread and increasing
numbers, and partially by constantly insisting that they are indeed the "newest
The classical set of twelve is not necessarily the most accurate reflection
of the present, real-world religious situation. (This fact is briefly addressed
below.) We agree with the prominent comparative religion scholar Irving Hexham
(an Evangelical Christian, and a professor at the University of Calgary) who
...there is an overemphasis on certain narrowly defined academic
traditions in Religious Studies to the neglect of studies dealing
with religion as it actually occurs in the world. In other words
academics are happy to study other academics regardless of what
is actually happening in everyday life. Thus, for example... I
believe that the founder of [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints], Joseph Smith, is a far more influential figure and deserves
as much attention as the father of modern theology, Freidrich Schleiermacher,
yet current textbooks and course offerings invariably mention Schleiermacher
but rarely pay any attention to Joseph Smith. By recognizing the
importance of living religions, popular piety and sociological
studies I hope more balance will enter Religious Studies. [Source:
Irving Hexham, Concise
Dictionary of Religion, 1998.]
The Adherents.com "Major Religions" list presented on this web page
differs from classical lists because it draws more from an extremely large
body of contemporary affiliation data, rather than relying heavily on the lists
and texts of past commentators (Hudson Smith, Noss, Barrett, etc.).
There are many distinct religions or religious movements which have more adherents
than some of the classical world religions, but which are not part of the classical
list for various reasons. These reasons include:
the religions which are not included on the classical list are
too new (Scientology, Neo-Paganism)
they are concentrated in only one country (Cao Dai, Ch'ondogyo,
they lack identifiable central organizations or unifying scriptural
literature (Neo-Paganism, New Age, Spiritism)
their adherents primarily name a different, more established traditional
religion as their religious preference (most practitioners of Vodoun
are nominal Catholics, practitioners of New Age religions are often
nominally Protestant, Catholic or Jewish)
their religion is still strongly associated with a major religion
from which it arose, but no longer wishes to be an official part
of (Tenrikyo and many other Japanese New Religious Movements, as
well as many religions emerging from Indian/Hindu environments)
Parameters of this List
In order to rank religions by size, two parameters must be defined:
What constitutes a "religion"?
How is "size" determined?
With a working definition of "a religion" and a method
for measuring size, criteria for what constitutes a "major" religion
must be determined, otherwise this list could be impractically
inclusive and long.
"Major religions", for the purposes of this list, are:
Large - at least 500,000 adherents
Widespread - appreciable numbers of members live and worship in
more than just one country or limited region
Independent - the religion is clearly independent and distinct
from a broader religion
What is a "religion" for the purposes of this list?
There are countless definitions of religion. But only one can
be used in making a ranked list.
We are using the groupings most described used in contemporary comparative
religion literature (listed above). Each of these "world religions" is
actually a classification of multiple distinct movements, sects, divisions,
denominations, etc. None of these world religions is a single, unified, monolithic
organization. The diversity within these groupings varies. Hinduism is often
described as a collection very different traditions, bound by a geographical
and national identity. So broad is this religious "umbrella" that
it includes clearly polytheistic, tritheistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, nontheistic,
and atheistic traditions.
The Babi & Baha'i tradition, on the other hand, is probably the most unified
of the classical world religions. It is almost entirely contained within one
very organized, hierarchical denomination, the Bahai Faith, based in Haifa,
Israel. But there are small schismatic groups, such as the Arizona-based "Orthodox" Baha'is,
Azali Babis (probably defunct), and four or five others.
All adherents of a single religion usually share at least some commonalities,
such as a common historical heritage and some shared doctrines or practices.
But these rules can't be pushed too far before being overburdened by exceptions.
A listing of doctrinally and organizationally meaningful divisions or denominational "branches" (such
as Catholic, Eastern/Orthodox Christian, Sunni Islam, Shiite Islam, Evangelical
Christian, Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, etc.) would clearly be useful,
but that is the subject of a different list: Major
Branches of Major World Religions.
In the following list the classical world religions are listed with the most
cohesive/unified groups first, and the religions with the most internal religious
diversity last. This list is based primarily on the degree of doctrinal/theological
similarity among all the various sub-groups which belong to these classifications,
and to a lesser extent based on diversity in practice, ritual and organization.
(Obviously these classifications include both majority manifestations of these
religions, as well as subgroups which larger branches sometimes label "heterodox.")
Classical World Religions Ranked by Internal Religious Similarity:
Most Unified to Most Diverse
No "value judgement" is implied by this list. There
are adjectives with both positive and negative connotations which
describe both ends of this spectrum. From an academic, comparative
religions viewpoint, there is no basis for "prescribing" whether
it is better for a religion to be highly unified, cohesive, monolithic,
and lacking in internal religious diversity, or whether it is better
to be fragmented, schismatic, diverse, multifaceted and abounding
in variations on the same theme.
In a practical sense, most people actually practice only one form of whatever
religion they belong to. Buddhism, for example, if viewed as a whole, can be
understood to have a large amount of internal variation, including the Theravada
and Mahayana branches, all of their sub-schools, various revivalist sects,
as well as Tibetan and modern Western forms. But most actual Buddhists are
not actually involved in all of these; rather they practice one, internally
cohesive, fairly unified form, such as the Geluk order of Tibetan Buddhism,
or Japanese Amida-Buddha worship.
How is classification done for official government figures? It is important
to note that data for the size of various religions within a given country
often come from government census figures or official estimates. Such governmental
endeavors are interested primarily in physical population demographics, such
as how many people live in a household and how many telephones there are per
person. These studies are not theological treatises. They merely classify Hindus
as all people who call themselves Hindu, Muslims as all people who call themselves
Muslim, Christians as all people who call themselves Christian.
From a sociological and historical perspective, most religions have arisen
from within existing religious frameworks: Christianity from Judaism, Buddhism
from Hinduism, Babi & Baha'i faiths from Islam, etc. For the purposes of
defining a religion we need to have some cutoff point. Should Sikhism be listed
as a Hindu sect (as in many older textbooks), or a world religion in its own
To manage this question we have chosen once again to use the most commonly-recognized
divisions in comparative religion texts. These definitions are primarily sociological
and historical, NOT doctrinal or theological in nature.
We recognize that within many religious traditions there are deeply felt arguments
for excluding certain groups from their description of their religion. For
example, councils of Muslim leaders have voted to no longer accept Ahmadis
as valid Muslims, although Ahmadis consider themselves orthodox Muslims. Many
Evangelical Protestants churches exclude all non-Evangelical or non-Protestant
groups from their definitions of Christianity. On the other hand, some Hindu
writers are so inclusive that they claim as Hindus adherents of any religion
that arose in a Hindu environment, including Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. These
definitions are theological in nature and of little use in this statistical
Groups such as Rastafarians, Mandeans, Tenrikyo, and the Church of Scientology
are too small, too new or too unimportant in world history to be included in
most surveys of "major world religions." Thus, in including such
groups in this listing it is not always possible to appeal to a consensus within
comparative religion literature. Where classification is unclear, we've used
1. Does the faith group consider itself to be part of (or the
definitive version of) a larger religion?
2. Does the larger religion consider the faith group to be part
of its tradition?
If the answer to both of these questions is no, then the faith
group is probably a distinct religion. If the answer to both questions
is yes, the faith group is a division within the larger religion
(and thus not a world religion, but a division of a world religion).
If the answer to only one of the questions is yes, there is a judgment
call to be made, but of course we give more weight to a group's
For example, Tenrikyo arose in the 1830s in Japan in a Shinto context. The
founder explained that her new revelations came from various Shinto kami (gods).
Thus, Tenrikyo was classified by the Japanese ministry of religion as a Shinto
sect for about one hundred years. Then the leaders of Tenrikyo asked that the
faith no longer be classified as a Shinto faith. Outsiders would agree that
Tenrikyo has emerged as something identifiably distinct from traditional Shinto
religion, although many world religion writers include Tenrikyo in chapters
on Shinto or Japanese religion for simplicity's sake. (These books can only
have a limited number of chapters.) Based on these facts (and because we have
no limit on the number of religions we can include on this list), we include
Tenrikyo as a distinct religion.
Even fairly contemporary and progressive writers have a "youth cut-off" requirement
for their listings of major world religions. Many writers will classify newer
movements as NRMs ("New Religious Movements"), and reserve the label
of "world religion" for "long established" religions. (Given
the content of these lists, one must assume "long established" means "at
least as old as the Babi & Baha'i faiths.") This is a valid criterion,
although for the most part we are not using it here. Many of the movements
that seem like distinct new religions may die out within a few generations.
Many of the most recent movements, such as Seicho-No-Ie, Ananaikyo, Ch'ondogyo
and other Asian new religious movements are overtly syncretistic or universalist,
similar in some ways to but originating many years later than the Baha'i faith.
Other new religious movements of this century have primarily remained within
established world religions, such as new Buddhist (Western Buddhist Order),
Hindu (Hare Krishna), Muslim (Nation of Islam), Jewish (Reconstructionism),
and Christian (Pentecostalism, neo-Evangelicalism, Calvary Chapel) movements
and denominations. Other new religious movements of the 20th century, especially
recently, have been new formulations of long-dormant faiths, such as Neo-Pagan
and neo-Shamanist groups. Scientology, is one of the few movements of the 20th
century that has grown large enough and escaped its predecessor religious matrix
thoroughly enough to be considered a distinct world religion. Even its oft-criticized
differences lend credence to the notion that it is truly a unique, new religion,
and not a part of Hinduism, Buddhism or some other faith.
But Ahmadiyya (a recent offshoot of Islam), is not included on this list as
a separate religion because its adherents claim to be Muslim, view themselves
as completely Muslim, and wish to be classified as part of Islam.
Also, in keeping with the sociological perspective of Adherents.com, we are
applying Emil Durkheim's classical definition of religion as "a unified
system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say,
things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite into one
single moral community..."
To this definition, we add its more recent reformulation describing religion
as an ultimate concern with transformational/motivational effect. With these
sociological (non-theological) definitions we could include in this list schools
of thought which aren't always considered "religions," such as atheism,
humanism, Communism/Marxism/Maoism, and Confucianism.
Those interested in reading further about the sociological definition of religion
and its relationship to culture may read Denise Cush's article in DISKUS (vol.
5, 1999): "Potential
Pioneers of Pluralism: The Contribution of Religious Education to Intercultural
Education in Multicultural Societies." Useful information about cultures
can also be found in John B. Gatewood's Intracultural
Variability and Problem-Solving, which repeats the Kluckhohn-Murray aphorism
Every human is in certain respects
a. like all other humans.
b. like some other humans.
c. like no other human.
How is the size of a religion determined for the purposes of this
When referring to the "size" of a religion, what is
usually meant is its number of adherents. Other measurements, such
as how many churches or meeting places a faith group owns or how
many congregations/meeting groups there are, can also be instructive,
but are usually not used as a measure of overall size. Measures
of religiosity and the degree to which a religious tradition has
a meaningful impact on its adherents may be more important than
raw adherent counts, but such measures are not as readily available
nor are they easily comparable between groups.
A detailed description of what an adherent is, and the different types/levels
of adherents can be found on the FAQ page.
How are adherents counted?
There are five main methods for determining the number of adherents
in a faith group:
Organizational reporting: Religious bodies (such as churches or
denominations) are asked how many adherents or members they have.
This is the simplest and least expensive method, but it can be
highly unreliable. Different faith groups measure membership differently.
Some count as members only those who are actively attending services
or who have passed through a lengthy initiation process. Others
groups count all who have been baptized as infants and are thus
on the church records, even though some of those people may have
joined other faith groups as adults. Some groups over-report membership
and others under-report membership. When asked what religion they
consider themselves to be a part of, many may name a religion that
does not have them on their rolls. In the United States, for instance,
three times as many people claim to be Unitarian Universalists
than are actually on church records.
Census records: Many countries periodically conduct a comprehensive
household-by-household census. Religious preference is often a
question included in these census counts. This is a highly reliable
method for determining the religious self-identification of a given
population. But censuses are usually conducted infrequently. The
latest census may be too old to indicate recent trends in religious
membership. Also, many countries either have no accurate census
data, or do not include questions regarding religious affiliation.
It has been over fifty years since the United States included such
a question in its national census, but Canada, India, New Zealand,
Australia and other countries have very thorough, recent census
data on the topic.
Polls and Surveys: Statistical sampling using surveys and polls
are used to determine affiliation based on religious self-identification.
The accuracy of these surveys depends largely on the quality of
the study and especially the size of the sample population. Rarely
are statistical surveys of religious affiliation done with large
enough sample sizes to accurately count the adherents of small
minority religious groups.
Estimates based on indirect data: Many adherent counts are only
obtained by estimates based on indirect data rather than direct
questioning or directly from membership roles. Wiccan groups have
traditionally been secretive and often their numbers can only be
estimated based on magazine circulations, attendance at conferences,
etc. The counts of many ethnic-based faith groups such as tribal
religions are generally based on the size of associated ethnic
groups. Adherents of some tribal religions (such as Yoruba) are
sometimes counted simply by counting the members of the tribe and
assuming everybody in it is an adherent of the religion. Counts
of Eastern Orthodox religious bodies are often done the same way.
Such estimates may be highly unreliable.
Field work: To count some small groups, or to count the number
of adherents a larger group has within a specific geographical
area, researchers sometimes do "field work" to count
adherents. This is often the only way to count members of small
tribal groups or semi-secretive, publicity-shy sects. Field work
may involve contacting leaders of individual congregations, temples,
etc., conducting interviews with adherents, counting living within
enclaves of the group, or counting those participating in key activities.
There is substantial overlap between "estimates" and "field
For the purposes of this list of major religions, we have used
adherent counts or estimates based on self-identification. We have
also favored inclusive rather than exclusive adherent counts (meaning
all people who are part of a religious community, children as well
as adults, rather than "full communicants"). It should
be remembered, however, that self-identification is not the only
legitimate measure of a religious group's size. In collecting census
or survey data based on self-identification statisticians find
that nearly everybody claims to belong to a religion. Some people
claiming membership in a certain denomination may actually attend
religious services regularly, contribute resources to the group,
and be influenced by its teachings. Other people may name the denomination,
but choose it as their religion only because they recall its name
as the church their grandfather attended as boy. Detailed analysis
of the size of individual groups requires a knowledge of both self-identification
data as well as data based on organizational reporting.
Finally, let me make it clear that these definitions are simply working definitions
for the purposes of making this list. They should not be taken as definitive
outside of this context. Many of our reasons for defining the parameters as
we have done have to do with the availability of data. Other definitions and
parameters may be more meaningful or useful in other situations.
Notes on the Size of Specific Religions
NOTE: The following material is not intended to provide descriptions
or summaries of these religions. This material is only intended
to describe the reasoning for listing groups as "major religions" and
determining their general size. (To learn more about these faith
groups, we suggest the Adherents.com links
page, which will direct you to other web sites.)
Christianity: David B. Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia (1994 update)
gives an oft-cited figure of 1.9 billion Christians (or about 33% of the world
population), and projected that by the year 2000 there will be 2.1 billion
Christians in the world. The 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia
stated there were 2.1 billion Christians in the world, or 33% of the total
population. Regardless of the degree of accuracy of this figure, Christianity,
if taken as a whole, is unarguably the largest world religion - the largest
religion in the world. (Keep in mind that although Christianity is the world's
largest religion, it is an umbrella term that comprises many different branches
See also: The Christian
Family Tree by Rev. Epke VanderBerg (Episcopal minister, Grand Rapids,
MI); Classifying Protestant Denominations (General
Social Survey project directed by James A. Davis and Tom W. Smith. Funded by
the National Science Foundation.); Largest
Christian Populations (lists the Top 10 Countries with the Most Christians
and the Top 10 U.S. Most Christian U.S. States); Famous
For statistical purposes: Groups which self-identify as part of
Christianity include (but are not limited to): African Independent
Churches (AICs), the Aglipayan Church, Amish, Anglicans,
Armenian Apostolic, Assemblies
of God; Baptists, Calvary
Science, the Community of
Christ, the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints ("Mormons"), Coptic Christians, Eastern
Orthodox churches, Ethiopian Orthodox, Evangelicals, Iglesia
ni Cristo, Jehovah's Witnesses,
the Local Church, Lutherans, Methodists,
Monophysites, Nestorians, the New Apostolic Church, Pentecostals,
Plymouth Brethren, Presbyterians,
the Salvation Army, Seventh-Day
Adventists, Shakers, Stone-Campbell churches (Disciples of
Christ; Churches of Christ;
the "Christian Church and Churches of Christ"; the International
Church of Christ); Uniate churches, United
Church of Christ/Congregationalists, the Unity Church, Universal
Church of the Kingdom of God, Vineyard churches and others. These
groups exhibit varying degrees of similarity, cooporation, communion,
etc. with other groups. None are known to consider all other Chrisian
sub-groups to be equally valid. David Barrett, an Evangelical Christian
who is the compiler of religion statistics for the Encyclopedia
Britannica and the World Christian Encyclopedia, includes all of
the groups listed above in the worldwide statistics for Christianity.
Contemporary sociolgists and religious leaders generally consider
pan-denominational classifications based not on historical denominational
divisions but on current theological positions, organizational
alignments, etc. to be more relevant. Such groupings include: Evangelicals,
Pentecostals, "Great Commission Christians", "C.
S. Lewis Christians", Liberal Protestants, Conservative Protestants,
Islam: Contemporary figures for Islam are usually between 900
million and 1.4 billion, with 1 billion being a figure frequently
given in comparative religion texts, probably because it's such
a nice, round number. The largest and best known branches of Islam
are Sunni and Shi'ite. More.
Many Muslims (and some non-Muslim) observers claim that there
are more practicing Muslims than practicing Christians in the world.
Adherents.com has no reason to dispute this. It seems likely, but
we would point out that there are different opinions on the matter,
and a Muslim may define "practicing" differently than
a Christian. In any case, the primary criterion for the rankings
on this page is self-identification, which has nothing to do with
Smaller groups within Islam include Sufis (although some Sufis
regard their practice of Sufism as pan-denominational or non-denominational),
Druze, the U.S.-based Nation of Islam (previously known as "Black
Muslims"), and Ahmadiyya. As is true with all major religions,
there are adherents within all branches of Islam who consider some
of or all of the other branches heterodox or not actually part
of their religion. But these classifications are based primarily
on historical lineage and self-identification. Protestations and
disagreements based on exclusivistic internal concepts of belief
or practice are normal, but are largely immaterial with regards
to historical, taxonomic and statistical classification.
Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: This is a highly disparate group and
not a single religion. Although atheists are a small subset of this grouping,
this category is not synonymous with atheism. People who specify atheism
as their religious preference actually make up less than one-half of one
percent of the population in many countries where much large numbers claim
no religious preference, such as the United States (13.2% nonreligious according
to ARIS study of 2001) and Australia (15% nonreligious).
Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman compiled country-by-country
survey, polling and census numbers relating to atheism, agnosticism,
disbelief in God and people who state they are non-religious or
have no religious preference. These data were published in the
chapter titled "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns" in
The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge
University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). Different type of data
collection methodologies using different types of questions showed
a consistent pattern: In most countries only a tiny number of people
(zero to a fraction of 1 percent) will answer "atheism" or "atheist" when
asked an open-ended question about what their religious preference.
A slightly larger number of people will answer "yes" if
asked pointedly if they are an atheist. A slightly larger number
than that will answer "no" when asked if they believe
in any type of God, deities, or Higher Power. A slightly larger
number answer "no" when asked simply if they "believe
in God" (omitting wording indicating more nebulous, less anthropomorphic
conceptions of divinity). Finally, a larger number of people answer "none" or "non-religious" when
asked asked an open-ended queston about what their religious preference
is. Although figures vary for each country, average numbers indicate
that roughly half of the people who self-identify as "nonreligious" also
answer "yes" when asked if they believe in God or a Higher
One portion of this broad grouping includes those who are best described as "nonreligious," i.e.,
those who are essentially passive with regards to organized religion, generally
affirming neither belief nor disbelief. They may be neither contemplative about
philosophy and spirituality nor involved in a religious/faith/philosophical
community. Although a certain percentage of people in many countries classify
themselves as nonreligious in surveys, there are few data indicating how many
of these fit the passive "nonreligious" criteria described above,
versus those who actually do contemplate such matters, but simply have their
own personal philosophy and no stated affiliation with an organized religion.
For the purposes of this list, this grouping also includes more proactive or
well-defined philosophies such as secular humanism, atheism, agnosticism, deism,
pantheism, freethought, etc., most of which can be classified as religions
in the sociological sense, albeit secular religions. A minority among atheists
are quite fervent in their beliefs and actively endeavor to proselytize atheism.
The "Secular/Nonreligious/etc." category is probably the most speculative
estimate in this list, as this segment of society is difficult to count. The
vast majority in this grouping are not aligned with any kind of membership
organization. Most figures come from census and survey data, which most countries
conduct only infrequently.
The highest figure we have for "Nonreligious" is 20% of the world
population, or about 1.2 billion: "Over 20 percent of the world's population
does not claim any allegiance to a religion. Most are agnostics. Others are
atheists, who deny the existence of God." (O'Brien, Joanne & Martin
Palmer. The State of Religion Atlas. Simon & Schuster: New York (1993).
Pg 41.) But such a high figure is difficult to support with current country-by-country
statistics, and perhaps reflects Communist-era official government statistics.
Most current estimates of the world number of secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist/etc.
are between 800 and 1 billion.
Estimates for atheism alone (as a primary religious preference) range from
200 to 240 million. But these come primarily from China and former Soviet Union
nations (especially Russia). Prior to Communist takeovers of these regions
and government attempts to eradicate religion, both places had very high levels
of affiliation with organized religions (especially Islam, Christianity, Buddhism
and Taoism), as well as high levels of participation in and belief in traditional
local traditions such as shamanism, ancestor ceremonies, spiritism, etc. Since
the fall of Communism in former Soviet nations and the relaxation of anti-religious
policies in China, observed religious affiliation and activity has increased
dramatically, especially in Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.
China probably does have the largest number of actual atheists of any country
in the world and many Russians clearly remain atheists. But at this point,
it is difficult to accurately determine how many of those classified as atheists
or nonreligious during Communist-era USSR and by the current Chinese government
are actually atheists according to their personal beliefs, and how many are
unregistered religious adherents or participants in less-organized traditional
systems that are oriented around ancestors, animism, shamanism, etc. Many people
are unaware, for instance, that China has one of the largest, most active Christian
communities in the world, and that in many former Soviet nations religions
such as shamanism, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy remained even while official
government reports announced the elimination of religion in these regions.
In the Western world, Europe is by far the place with the most self-avowed
nonreligious, atheists and agnostics, with the nonreligious proportion of the
population particularly high in Scandinavia. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports
approximately 41 million atheists in Europe. The self-described nonreligious
segment of society in Australia and New Zealand is also high, at around 15%.
In Australia less than a tenth of one percent described themselves as atheists
in the latest national census (1996). In the U.S. about 13.2% of the population
describe themselves as nonreligious, 0.5% describe themselves as agnostic,
and a smaller number describe themselves as atheist (Kosmin, ARIS/American
Religious Identification Survey, City University of New York, 2001).
Zuckerman (2005) compiled numbers of people who don't believe in God, based
primarily on polling and survey data, for every country in the world. He totaled
the survey-based and poll-based estimates of non-believers from the top 50
countries with the highest proportion of people who do not believe in God,
and added to this number the non-believers from highly populous countries (Mexico,
Poland, Moldova Romania, Georgia, Uzbekistan, India, Ireland, and Chile). The
remaining countries had proportionately miniscule populations of atheists/agnostics/non-believers.
Zuckerman concluded, "the grand total worldwide number of atheists, agnostics,
and non-believers in God is somewhere between 504,962,830 and 749,247,571.
These minimum/maximum numbers are conservative estimates; were one to factor
in a mere .25% of such highly populated countries as Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia,
Nigeria, Burma, Tanzania, and Iran, as non-believers in God, estimates would
be significantly larger. Also, these numbers are only for non-believers of
God, specifically. Were one to include all 'non-religious' people in general,
the numbers would nearly double... nonbelievers in God as a group come in fourth
place after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900
million) in terms of global ranking of commonly-held belief systems."
Zuckerman states that adding the "non-religious" segment of the world
population would to his calculated maximum of 749,247,571 (about 750 million)
atheists, agnostic and non-believers in God would yield a number nearly twice
as large -- just under 1.5 billion. This number is not, however, the number
of people who should be classified in the "Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist" category,
because half of this larger number is based solely on belief in a single theological
proposition (belief/non-belief in God), rather than on a person's religious
affilation/religious preference. A large proportion of people in the surveys
Zuckerman combined to arrive at this total expressly are adherents of named
religions (such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Chinese traditional religion,
Unitarianism and Christianity). Many of these people who do not believe in
God, deities, or a Higher Power are nevertheless devout adherents of their
various faiths, or even clergy. They are enumerated in the list above as adherents
of those faiths, and not counted among nonreligious, atheists or agnostics
because their primary religious identity is not atheism or agnosticism. It
should be remembered that not all strains of all religions entail belief in
God, a Higher Power or deities.
It can not be said based on Zuckerman's analysis that "1.5 billion people
do not believe in God." A large proportion of the people classified as "non-religious" expressly
do believe in God or a Higher Power. The 750 million figure is already an attempt
to estimate the total population of people who do not believe in God.
For the year 2000, David B. Barrett (Encyclopedia Britannica and World Christian
Encyclopedia, 2001) classified 150,089,508 (2.5% of world's population) as
atheists, and 768,158,954 people as "Nonreligious" (12.7% of the
world) for a total of 918,248,462 (15.2% of the world). These calculations
by Barrett include all agnostics and others in our "Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist" category.
Our figure of 1.1 billion in this category is considerably higher, and takes
into consideration Zuckerman's analysis as well. Of the people in this grouping,
it is estimated that 40 to 50% have a stated traditionally "theistic" belief
in God, deities or a Higher Power.
A country-by-country breakdown of statistics atheists, agnostics, people who
do not believe in God, and self-described non-religious people, with figures
based mostly on surveys and polling data, can be found online in the Adherents.com
main database. A summary page shows data for the 50
countries with the most atheists.
All those who profess religious belief are not necessarily registered members
of a church or denomination, but in the U.S. the majority of professed Christians
and adherents of other religions are also officially affiliated with an organization.
The majority of agnostics, atheists and of course nonreligious are not members
of an organization associated with their position.
It may also be noted that the estimated figures presented in this particular "Major
Religions" summary list are based on self-identification. Among all groups
there exists a proportion (sometimes significant and sometimes small) which
are only nominal adherents. This segment may identify themselves as members
of a certain religion and accept the religion as their primary philosophical
system, yet not actively practice the religion in the normative sense. This
segment may be thought of as being functionally nonreligious or "secularized," but
this segment is not what is meant by the "nonreligious" category
on this Major Religious list. Accurate estimates of the size of this group
are difficult to obtain because national government censuses only ask about
preferred affiliation, not about religious practice. There are data available
from non-census sampling surveys that ask about practice and belief, but these
are usually limited in scope to narrow questions such as church attendance,
and do not entirely reveal the proportion of society which is non-attending,
but nevertheless privately practicing and/or believing. In many countries (Germany
is a good example) there is also segment of the population which is counted
as adherents of a religion, but which do not personally profess belief in that
religion. (Adherents.com has some such data in its main list
under "attendance" and under "poll".)
The use of the term "nonreligious" or "secular" here refers
to belief or participation in systems which are not traditionally labeled "religions." Of
course, in the absence of traditional religions, society exhibits the same
behavioral, social and psychological phenomena associated with religious cultures,
but in association with secular, political, ethnic, commercial or other systems.
Marxism and Maoism, for instance, had their scriptures, authority, symbolism,
liturgy, clergy, prophets, proselyting, etc. Sports, art, patriotism, music,
drugs, mass media and social causes have all been observed to fulfill roles
similar to religion in the lives of individuals -- capturing the imagination
and serving as a source of values, beliefs and social interaction. In a broader
sense, sociologists point out that there are no truly "secular societies," and
that the word "nonreligious" is a misnomer. Sociologically speaking, "nonreligious" people
are simply those who derive their worldview and value system primarily from
alternative, secular, cultural or otherwise nonrevealed systems ("religions")
rather than traditional religious systems. Like traditional religions, secular
systems (such as Communism, Platonism,
Freudian psychology, Nazism, pantheism, atheism, nationalism, etc.) typically
have favored spokespeople and typically claim to present a universally valid
and applicable Truth. Like traditional religions, secular systems are subject
to both rapid and gradual changes in popularity, modification, and extinction.
These are some of the factors which make estimating the size of the secular
(nonreligious, agnostic, atheist, etc.) segment of society difficult.
Detailed statistics on atheism can be found in papers by Phil Zuckerman (Atheism:
Contemporary Rates and Patterns) and Andrew Greeley and Wolfgang Jagodzinski
(The Demand for Religion:
Hard Core Atheism and "Supply Side" Theory).
Hinduism: The highest figure we've seen for Hinduism (1.4 billion,
Clarke, Peter B., editor), The Religions of the World: Understanding
the Living Faiths, Marshall Editions Limited: USA (1993); pg. 125.)
is actually higher than the highest figure we've seen for Islam.
But this is an abberation. World Hinduism adherent figures are
usually between 850 million and one billion. More.
Buddhism: World estimates for Buddhism vary between 230 and 500 million, with
most around 350 million. More.
Chinese traditional religion: In older world religion books the estimates of
the total number of adherents of Confucianism range up to 350 million. Other
books, including older versions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, have listed
Chinese religionists under "Taoism," with adherent estimates up
to about 200 million. But these figures are all based on counts of the same
segment of Chinese people throughout the world -- people practicing what
is, sociologically, more accurately called Chinese traditional religion,
and often called Chinese folk religion. The word "traditional" is
preferable to "folk" because "folk" might imply only
the local, tribal customs and beliefs such as ancestor worship and nature
beliefs. But "Chinese traditional religion" is meant to categorize
the common religion of the majority Chinese culture: a combination of Confucianism,
Buddhism, and Taoism, as well as the traditional non-scriptural/local practices
and beliefs. For most religious Chinese who do not explicitly follow a different
religion such as Islam or Christianity, these different ancient Chinese philosophies
and traditions form a single, seamless composite religious culture and worldview.
Communist laws banning most religion and recent rapid changes introducing increasing
openness make accurate estimates difficult to obtain. Recent figures for the
number of "Chinese religionists" include 220 and 225 million. Barrett
(World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001) classified 384,806,732 "Chinese folk-religionists," 6,298,597 "Confucianists" and
2,654,514 "Taoists," or about 394 million total.
In comparative religion texts Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism are
sometimes addressed in three separate chapters, and sometimes treated in one
chapter as "Chinese religion." Even today there are very valid reasons
for distinguishing Taoism from Confucianism, and distinguishing both from Chinese
Buddhism and non-scriptural Chinese folk religion. For religious, philosophical,
historical and scriptural purposes, distinguishing between these separate traditions
is quite manageable. There are a number of people who identify themselves specifically
as "Taoist" (In 1990-1991 there were 23,000 in the U.S., 1,720 in
Canada, and 324 in New Zealand, for example.) There are a smaller number of
people, including non-Chinese, who consciously practice a "pure" form
of Taoist religion (often Tao-Te-Ching-based), unconcerned with Confucianism,
Chinese folk practices, ancestor devotion, etc.
Fifty years ago religious Taoism was one of the largest, strongest institutions
in China. Since the Cultural Revolution and the government's campaign to destroy
non-Communist religion, Taoism lost, for the most part, the main mechanism
through which it remained distinct from the larger Chinese religious environment:
its large numbers of temples and Taoist clergy. Although Islam, Buddhism and
Christianity have bounced back and even surpassed pre-Communist levels in China,
Taoism has not. Today, despite the existence of some self-identified Taoists
and pure Taoists in the West, Taoism is difficult to isolate as a large, independent
religion from a statistical and sociological perspective. Hence, in this list,
which is explicitly statistical and sociological in perspective, Taoism should
be thought of as a major branch of Chinese traditional religion.
The situation is similar with Confucianism. In the latest edition of the Encyclopedia
Britannica lists over 5 million Confucianists in its summary table of world
religions. Their note explains that these are Confucianists outside of China,
mostly in Korea. (The Encyclopedia lists "Chinese folk religion" separately.)
It is true that recent census data show about five million Koreans name Confucianism
as their religion, and there are even some Confucian schools and institutes
in Korea. But the Adherents.com list leaves these Confucianists under the "Chinese
traditional religion" grouping, rather than separating them based only
on what country they live in.
primal-indigenous: Alternatively termed "tribal religionists, "ethnic
religionists," or "animists," estimates range from 100 million
to 457 million. (457 million is the combined total for "Ethnoreligionists," "Animists," and "Shamanists" from
Barrett's 2001 world religion calculations. But this total includes all African
Traditional religionists, which we have listed as a separate category.) This
group also includes, but is not limited to, people whose native religion is
a form of shamanism or paganism (such as millions of people in traditional
Siberian shamanist cultures). Obviously this is broad classification, not a
single religion. This grouping includes thousands of distinct religious traditions,
mostly the religious-cultural worldviews of peoples who have been grouped together
in one category because they are pre-literate or less advanced technologically
than Western/European cultures. There are similarities among many primal-indigenous
religions/cultures, such as use of an oral rather than written canon, and a
lack of rigid boundaries between the sacred and secular (profane) aspects of
life. But few, if any, generalizations hold for all groups.
Previously, adherents of African traditional religion were grouped
here, and many religious statisticians would continue to do so.
But adherents of African traditional religions and diasporic derivatives
are currently listed ennumerated separately on this page. [See below.]
Most remaining primal-indigenous religionists are in Asia (including
African Traditional & African Diasporic Religions: It may seem incongruous
to distinguish African primal (traditional) religions from the general primal-indigenous
category. But the "primal-indigenous" religions are primarily tribal
and composed of pre-technological peoples. While there is certainly overlap
between this category and non-African primal-indigenous religious adherents,
there are reasons for separating the two, best illustrated by focusing specifically
on Yoruba, which is probably the largest African traditional religious/tribal
complex. Yoruba was the religion of the vast Yoruba nation states which existed
before European colonialism and its practitioners today -- certainly those
in the Caribbean, South America and the U.S.-- are integrated into a technological,
industrial society, yet still proclaim affiliation to this African-based religious
system. Cohesive rituals, beliefs and organization were spread throughout the
world of Yoruba (and other major African religious/tribal groups such as Fon),
to an extent characteristic of nations and many organized religions, not simply
tribes. Historians might point to Shinto and even Judaism as the modern manifestations
of what originally began as the religions of tribal groups who then became
Just as Yoruba may legitimately be distinguished from the general "primal-indigenous" classification,
valid arguments could be made that other religious traditions such as Native
American religion (less than 100,000 self-identified U.S. adherents) and Siberian
shamanism should also be separate. But African traditional religion has been
singled out because of its much larger size, its considerable spread far beyond
its region of origin and the remarkable degree to which it remains an influential,
identifiable religion even today.
African Diasporic Religions are those which have arisen, typically in the Western
hemisphere, among Africans who retained much of their traditional culture and
beliefs but adapted to new environments. These include Santeria, Candomble,
Vodoun, Shango, etc. In many areas or subgroups the African elements exist
alongside an overlay of European-based elements borrowed from the economically
dominant culture, from influences such as Catholicism and Kardecian spiritism.
The fact that these religions exist within technologically advanced cultures
alongside "classical" organized religions (such as Christianity)
is one of the reasons for grouping these adherents separately from the general "primal-indigenous" category.
Adherents of African diasporic religions typically have no real tribal affiliation,
may be converts to African-based religion, and are not necessarily African
or black in their race and ethnicity.
Regarding Santeria alone: It is difficult to determine worldwide numbers of
Santerians, as the religion is syncretistic, goes by different names (including
Lukumi, and Camdomble in Brazil) and has been actively suppressed by the Communist
government in the country where it is perhaps the largest: Cuba. Estimates
of Santerians include 800,000 in the U.S. and one million in Brazil, plus 3
million in Cuba (although many Cuban practitioners identify themselves officially
as Catholics or Communists/atheists). A worldwide number of people who at least
sometimes self-identify as adherents of this loosely-organized religious category
might be 3 million, but this is just an estimate.
Regarding Vodoun: For the most part, Voodoo (or "Vodoun") is not
an organized religion, but a form of African traditional religion practiced
primarily in Haiti, Cuba and Benin. Often blended with Catholicism. Other methods
of counting adherents could count practitioners as general primal-indigenous
religionists (tribal) and/or Christians. Vodoun is typically classified as
an Afro-Caribbean and/or Afro-Brazilian syncretistic religion, along with Santeria
(Lukumi) and Candomble. Some sources refer to Vodoun as the Haitian form of
Santeria; other sources refer to Santeria as a form of Vodoun. From a worldwide
and historical perspective, Vodoun is properly classified as a branch of African
diasporic religion, in the same way that Lutheranism is a subset of Christianity.
Regarding the number of practitioners, the ReligiousTolerance.org web page
about Vodoun states: "50 million. Estimates of the number of adherents
are hopelessly unreliable. Some sources give numbers in the range of 2.8 to
3.2 million." A figure of 50 million is doubtful because this is primarily
a Caribbean religious movement and there are only 30 million people in the
Caribbean, the majority of whom are clearly self-identified Christians.
In the Americas (especially the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States), there
is a large number of people who practice some form of Yoruba diasporan religion,
especially forms of Santeria and Vodoun. But it should be noted that many practitioners
of Voodoo would name something else, i.e. Catholicism, as their religion. Even
those who practice Santeria or Voodoo more often then they practice Catholicism
mostly identify themselves as Catholic.
We asked an expert for feedback about our comments on Yoruba religion. Osunmilaya,
a practitioner and scholar on the subject wrote:
I would make only a few changes. Instead of the term "Santerian" perhaps
the term "ab'orisha," which refers to both initiated
and uninitiated devotees, would be more acceptable. Some practitioners
don't like the term Santeria at all because it implies that the
tradition is a minor, heretical sect of Catholicism.
Vodoun is more properly classified as Dahomean and Fon in origin, not Yoruba.
It does not appear in Brazil in the Haitian form, to my admittedly limited
knowledge of this tradition. However, some Candomble houses may identify as
A critical component of the spiritist influence upon the Yoruba traditions
as practiced in the Western hemisphere is the pervasive influence of the BaKongo
tradition, known as Palo Monte and Umbanda. What I have seen in practice has
a lot of Kardecian influence, but I expect to see what I observed with the
Santeria tradition: that as one becomes more immersed into the actual tradition,
that the outer layer of Catholicism peels away to reveal a tradition that,
in reality, is very much unsyncretized. (See Wande Abimbola's discussion in
Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World.)
Osunmilaya's comments are very helpful. The only comment we might add is that
there are knowledgeable historians of Yoruba religion in the West who believe
Yoruba, in addition to the Dahomean and Fon traditions, played a major role
in the development of modern Africa-Haitian religion.
The point about use of the term "Santerian" is an important one to
keep in mind. Although "Santeria" is commonly used in comparative
religion/academic literature, and it is becoming increasingly accepted among
practitioners of the Western Yoruba/Orisha religious tradition, it is a term
imposed by outsiders and its etymological roots have meaning that many in the
tradition find offensive or at least inaccurate.
Spiritism: According to the 1997 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year,
there were 10,292,500 adherents of "Spiritism" in the world. But
a recent census from Brazil indicates 15 million professed spiritists (practitioners
of Umbanda, for instance), as well as a fringe following (not officially
professed, but possibly quite avid) of up to 50 million. But many of those
can be classified in the Yoruba religion category. As a newer and somewhat
less organized grouping than some other "major religions," accurate
numbers for Spiritism are difficult to come by. An estimate of 20 million
worldwide seems justifiable--a grouping which would include but not be limited
to strictly Kardecian groups. But a worldwide number which eliminated adherents
who are primarily Yoruba religionists more so than Spiritists would be smaller,
and more in line with the Encyclopedia Britannica estimate. Key aspects of
Spiritism, or Spiritualism, are widely accepted in popular society in many
countries beyond the bounds of those who are officially adherents of these
movements. The boundaries between Spiritism and other categories, especially
Christianity (especially Catholic and Baptist), Yoruba religion and primal-indigenous
religions, can be quite uncertain.
Sikhism: In the late 1990s the highest estimate we had for the number of Sikhs
in the world was 20 million, from www.sikhs.org. Most estimates were between
16 and 18 million. About 80% of the world's Sikhs live in the province of
Punjab, in India. Barrett's latest publications estimate 23 million Sikhs
Juche: This section moved to separate Juche page
due to length.
Judaism: Estimates of the world's Jewish population range from about 12 million
to over 17 million. On the high end of realistic estimates of how many people
would consider themselves Jews seems to be about 15 million, but a figure
this high would include a large number of non-practicing, purely ethnic Jews.
Judaism is far more important in areas such as history, literature, science,
politics, and religion, than its relatively small numbers might suggest.
The American Jewish Year Book published in 2000 by the American Jewish Committee,
reports there are currently 5.7 million Jews in the United States, 362,000
in Canada, and 13,191,500 worldwide. More.
Babi & Baha'i faiths: At least 98% of the adherents of the Babi & Baha'i
faiths belong to the same church/denomination/religious body, the Baha'i World
Faith (or simply "Baha'i Faith") with headquarters in Haifa, Israel.
One might think that this should make Baha'i records fairly straightforward
and easily obtainable. But statistical practices differ in each country and
figures are not always released to the public. Most recent published estimates
of the world Baha'i population are about 6.5 million. This is the figure provided
in current Baha'i publications. A recent, updated estimate in the 1998 Encyclopedia
Britannica is reportedly 7.67 million, higher than any Baha'i-provided figure
we have seen. The accuracy of all of these figures is difficult to determine,
and the organization does not provide a breakdown of membership data for each
As with most religious groups, organizationally reported adherent counts include
significant numbers of nominal members, or people who no longer actively participate,
yet still identify themselves as adherents. There are valid arguments that
some of the "mass conversions" have resulted in adherents with little
or no acculturation into the new religious system. As is typical with a religious
group made up primarily of converts, Baha'is who drift from active participation
in the movement are less likely to retain nominal identification with the religion
-- because it was not the religion of their parents or the majority religion
of the surrounding culture. On the other hand, there are no countries in which
people are automatically assigned to the Baha'i Faith at birth (as is the case
with Islam, Christianity, Shinto, Buddhism, and other faiths), so their numbers
aren't inflated with people who have never willingly participated in or been
influenced by the religion while adults.
On balance, while official Baha'i figures are not a measure of active participants,
the proportion of participating adherents among claimed adherents is thought
to be higher than average among the "major religions" on this list.
The Baha'i community is remarkably active and influential in religious matters
on both global and local levels, especially given their relatively small numbers
compared to some other religions. More.
Jainism: The highest published figure we've seen for Jainism is 10 million,
but this is clearly incorrect. Almost all estimates for the world population
are under 5 million. This religion is almost entirely confined to India and
to ethnic Jains. It's importance historically and philosophically far outstrips
its relatively small number of adherents. More.
Shinto: Shinto is one of the "classic" eleven or twelve "major
world religions." But adherent counts for this religion are problematic
and often misunderstood. In a nutshell, Shinto is simply the indigenous ethnic
practice of Japan and its importance is almost entirely historical and cultural,
not contemporary. The number of adherents of Shinto are often reported as being
around 100 million, or around 75 to 90% of the Japanese population. These figures
come from the Shukyo Nenkan (Religions Yearbook), put out by the Ministry of
Education & Bureau of Statistics, and they obtain their figures by asking
religious bodies for statistics. The Shinto religious bodies have on record
most Japanese citizens because of laws established in the 17th Century which
required registration with the Shinto shrines. Essentially everybody within
local "shrine districts" were counted as adherents. This is comparable
to certain Catholic and Protestant nations in Europe where the majority of
people have been Christianed or otherwise counted as a member of the state
church, but where large proportions of the population are non-practicing.
The difference is that in those European countries, those people are at least
nominally adherents of the religion that claims them. "Nominally" here
means if asked their religion, they can recall the name of the church they
were baptized into as an infant, and don't mind citing that as their religious
preference. In Japan, the majority of adherents of Shinto, as claimed by the
Shinto organizations, don't even consider themselves adherents, even nominally.
In polls, only about 3.3% of the Japanese people give Shinto as their religion.
A high world-wide figure for people who consider themselves primarily practitioners
of Shinto would be about 4 million. Certainly most Japanese people participate
in holidays which have Shinto roots, but in this list we are trying to track
self-identification, not general vestigial influence. Also, the strongest active
religions which have Shinto roots (such as Tenrikyo) no longer claim to be "branches" of
Shinto, and can be listed separately.
Zoroastrianism: This religion is in every major comparative religion text book,
yet during the 1990s and for a few years thereafter it was actually listed
in the Guiness Book of World Records as the "major religion nearest
extinction." The Zoroastrians (or "Parsis") are sometimes
credited with being the first monotheists and having had significant influence
in the formation of current, larger world religions. To whatever degree that
is true, some observers believed Zoroastrianism was in a precarious state
and its position as a "major" contemporary world religion was tenuous.
Prior to some increased reforms, most Zoroastrians did not believe in allowing
conversion. They had even stricter rules than Jews about whether or not children
of mixed marriages would be considered Zoroastrians. Until about 2002, most
published estimates for the world total of Zoroastrians were 100 to 125 thousand.
More recent publications of many major encyclopedias an world alamanacs include
population estimates of 2 to 3.5 million. The government of India has actively
encouraged the growth of its Zoroastrian population. Since the terrorist
attacks of September 11, 2001 and subsequent U.S.-led intervention in the
Middle East, the Parsees of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been
receiving less persecution than before, and have been less reticent about
identifying themselves, and there seems to be an increased respect for and
interest in this classical Persian religion which was once one of the largest
in the world. The current estimate posted on this page of millions of Zoroastrians
in the world (rather than 100,000 to 150,000) is still under evaluation.
The number does not represent an exponential explosion the number of actual
Zoroastrians (although there has been some growth in numbers), but is a result
of re-evaluation of the existing population. The majority of the world's
Zoroastrians are Parsees who now thought to live in the Middle East. Years
of suppression under Muslim-dominated cultures and governments has doubtless
led to erosion in some aspects of their community, relative to their co-religionists
in India and even among expatriate populations in places such as the United
States and the United Kingdom - places with far greater levels of continuous
Cao Dai: Most of the figures for this group are around 2 million, but we've
seen some that say around 8 million. It's almost entirely a Vietnamese movement,
and not even as important there as it used to be. The official Cao Dai website
states that there are about 6 million adherents worldwide, and elsewhere
states that there are 5 million in Vietnam, but points out that the religion
is largely paralyzed there due to repression by the government.
Tenrikyo: The description of Tenrikyo on the Tenrikyo University website (http://www.tenri-u.ac.jp/en/history/tenrikyo.html)
states: "Tenrikyo has spread throughout Japan and also to various countries
around the world. At present, there are about two million followers and more
than 17,000 churches. Moreover, churches and mission centers have been established
in about 30 countries around the world." It has missions all over the
world and a strong evangelical ethic. Outside of Japan the countries with
the most adherents seem to be the U.S. (especially Hawaii), South Korea,
Brazil, and Taiwan, although only in Japan do Tenris make up an appreciable
proportion of a country's total population. In January 1999 Tenrikyo published
country-by-country statistics showing nearly 1,000 churches or mission stations
outside of Japan (in over 30 different countries), and over 37,000 in Japan.
These figures dwarf the international statistics of some "classical
world religions," such as Zoroastrianism and Jainism.
Tenrikyo is probably one of the largest, most fully-developed independent modern
religious systems which most Westerners know nothing about. Tenrikyo offers
impressive opportunities for sociological, historical and comparative religion
research which are relatively unexplored by the academic community. One of
the most famous modern adherents of Tenrikyo was the author Avram Davidson. More
Scientology: One often sees Scientology listed in books and newspapers as having
over 8 million adherents. Where does this figure come from? It comes from
the Church of Scientology, just as most church membership figures come from
churches themselves. Our data indicate that they cite this figure because
it is the total number of people who have participated in Church of Scientology
activities since the inception of the church. But their figure does not include
people who have only received services from their drug rehab groups and other
non-Church facilities. Narconon's clientele are not counted as Church members
unless and until they become Scientologists. As Narconon's mission is drug
rehabilitation and not Church recruitment, the percentage of Narconon clients
who become Church members is small.
The latest edition of the organization's publication What Is Scientology?
lists 373 churches and missions (plus hundreds of "related
organizations" which are not directly comparable to congregations)
in 129 countries. (Four new countries, for a total of 133, have
been opened since the publication of the book, according to a church
spokesperson.) According to church officials, this publication
states that in 1997 the number of people who participated in Scientology
services for the first time was 642,596 internationally and that
the circulation of internal Church magazines which are sent to
their members was 6,630,000. Hartley Patterson, a critic of Scientology,
has speculated that the circulation figure may be based on the
total press run for three publications.
Adherents.com has no argument with Scientology statistics, but
for the purposes of this list of "Major Religions of the World
Ranked by Size," we use a different standard of counting adherents
than they have used to arrive at their 8 million figure. (Figures
presented here are generally estimates of primary, self-identified
religious affiliation.) There are not 8 million people who, if
taking a survey, would name Scientology as their religious preference.
One might generously estimate up to one million worldwide, but
the actual number who would fit this criterion is probably under
a half million. Adding up organizationally-reported membership
on a state-by-state, country-by-country basis would yield a current
membership figure of about 750,000, according to a church critic.
As with all religions, the complete body of adherents represent
a spectrum of participation, including fully active members as
well as non-attending or disengaged sympathizers.
Realistically, a figure lower than 750,000 seems be more reasonable
for this page's listing. Some documents suggest that even the tabulation
of 750,000 based on country-by-country/state-by-state organizationally-provided
data is quite out of date. Internal documents suggest 100,000 active
members -- which would easily yield an estimate of a total of 600,000
or more, including one-time members, lapsed members, and strong
This might cause some people to think the church's figures are
inaccurate, or it might seem like we are being harsh to ignore
their figure and estimate such a low one. To put these figures
into perspective, compare them to those of other major religions.
There is no reason to believe that less than 8 million people have
willingly participated in Scientology activities and actively studied
at least some of its teachings. Large numbers of people have derived
benefit from participation in church activities and church-sponsored
programs. But people rarely call themselves Scientologists mainly
because their parents don't call themselves Scientologists. Membership
in the Church of Scientology does not necessarily preclude membership
in another religious organization. A percentage of the claimed
members will indeed affirm membership in the organization, while
at the same time citing another religion as their primary religious
If one eliminated from the total number of Christians in the world
all those who are counted as Christians only because they identify
themselves as such in a survey or census, even though they never
actually attend Christian services, study Christian literature,
or make behavioral changes based on Christian teachings beyond
general societal norms, one might obtain a similar downgrade in
actual number of effective adherents.
Despite such a "downgrade" from official Church of Scientology
estimates, it may be noted that in a recent large-scale independent
survey of religious identification (NSRI, Barry Kosmin et al, City
University of New York 1990), enough people in the United States
named Scientology as religion that it was among the top 10 largest
religions in the country, with more members than the Baha'i Faith,
Sikhism or Neo-Pagan/Wiccan groups. Independent sources indicate
that the strongest communities of Scientologists are in California
and the United Kingdom, as well as in Clearwater, Florida (where
the main training center is located).
Some people have commented on the fact that this page lists an
estimate of 500,000 (previously 750,000) Scientologists worldwide,
while the Religion in the U.S. web page
refers to 45,000 Scientologists in the U.S. Some people have mistakenly
concluded that this means the overwhelming majority of Scientologists
live outside the U.S., or that one of the figures is simply "wrong." The
two figures are not directly comparable. Simply put, these two
figures are from different sources and are based on different methodologies
and critera. The U.S. figure of 45,000 comes directly from the
Kosmin NSRI survey of 1990. The worldwide figure is as a conglomerate
figure, using different criteria (as explained elsewhere on this
page), based on official organizational as well as critical sources.
The larger figure would include lapsed members, as well as people
who are are adherents of Scientology, but also identify with another
religious group, and name that group in a survey or census.
Unitarian-Universalism: Being completely opposed to fixed doctrine (which they
refer to as "dogma"), but affirming certain principles, the Unitarian
Universalists (or simply "Unitarians" as they prefer to be called
in some countries) are quite different from other major religions. Since
1995 the primary UU organization has affirmed officially that it is not a
subset of Christianity (although its roots are Christian), but encompasses
spirituality from all the major world religions as well as primal-indigenous/tribal
faiths. But it should be kept in mind that there are self-avowed Christian
Unitarians, Buddhist Unitarians, Pagan Unitarians, etc. In 1990, 500,000
Americans claimed to be Unitarian-Universalists, three times the official
organizational count of enrolled members, loosely indicating that Unitarian-Universalism
is the general preferred philosophy of far more people than actually participate
in or contribute to the congregations and organizations. More.
Rastafarian: Because of the loosely-organized structure of Rastafarianism,
and because many Rastafarians are nominal but non-participating members of
larger religious groups, precise size estimates are difficult. We've seen
total world estimates of about 200,000. We've seen an estimate of 700,000
in a couple of places. Leonard E. Barrett, author of The Rastafarians, estimates
there are 800,000 Rastas worldwide, more than 2 million if one counts followers
of the lifestyle but not the faith. Based on other data we believe a figure
as high as this would have to include many Jamaicans who are strong Rastafarian
supporters or enthusiasts, but who are also at least partially or nominally
adherents of mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations as well.
There are multiple reasons why Rastafarians are typically not counted as one
of the major world religions: They are relatively new, having originated only
in this century. They aren't particularly widespread worldwide. (They are mostly
in Caribbean nations, esp. Jamaica, as well as the United Kingdom and the U.S.)
They are sometimes classified as a Christian sect because they use the Bible
as their primary religious text (but they generally use the Hebrew Bible).
They are smaller than religious groups usually listed as "major world
Neo-Paganism: Neo-Paganism is an umbrella term for modern revivals of ancient
ethnic and magickal traditions. These are usually polytheistic, but many
Neo-Pagans consider their faith pantheistic, and many other concepts of deity
can be found among Neo-Pagans as well. Subdivisions within Neo-Paganism include
Wicca, Magick, Druidism, Asatru, neo-Native American religion and others.
Only recently has Neo-Paganism become a movement of any significant
size and visibility. Solid statistics on Neo-Paganism on a worldwide
scale are essentially non-existent, but it is a rapidly growing
religion/religious category. Estimates regarding its worldwide
size range widely--from under one hundred thousand to over four
million. Independent surveys and government-based figures are not
indicative of the higher estimates provided by Neo-Pagan and Wiccan
organizations, but there may be a variety of reasons for this.
There are two reasons why some might argue that Neo-Paganism should
not be listed as a major religion on this page: 1) It might be
said that Neo-Paganism is not a single religion, but an umbrella
term for many disparate religions. But upon closer examination
of the movement, one finds that despite drawing upon such disparate
sources as European witchcraft, Norse mythology, Druidism, and
Egyptian, Greek, and Native American ancient religions, Neo-Pagans
as a whole have a remarkably cohesive, identifiable culture and
generally shared value set, even more so than religions such as
Christianity, Islam or Judaism when taken as a whole. 2) It could
also be said that Neo-Paganism could be classified as a subset
of primal-indigenous religion. Though it has roots in primal ethnic
religions, Neo-Paganism is something distinct, clearly drawing
much of its identity from Gardnerian principles introduced in the
1930s. Neo-Paganism is distinct from the primal ethnic religions
of ancient pre-industrial societies just as Buddhism has roots
in, but is distinct from, Hinduism. So we are including Neo-Paganism
on this list because the most recent sociological work in the field
indicates it is a distinct religion, and because it is increasingly
There were 768,400 Neo-pagans (largest subset were Wiccans) in
the U.S. in the year 2000, according to the Wiccan/Pagan Poll,
conducted by the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) beginning in late
July, 1999. [Online source: http://www.cog.org/cogpoll_final.html]
Researchers may also be interested in Isaac Bonewits' succinct
web page, How
Many "Pagans" Are There? Bonewits identifies reasons
for enumeration, difficulties in doing so, and concludes by estimating
the Neopagan population at "from half a million to several
million people in the USA and Canada."
Groups Not Included in This List of World Religions
The following groups are religions, but have not been included
in this list of major religions primarily for one or more of the
They are not a distinct, independent religion, but a branch of
a broader religion/category.
They lack appreciable communities of adherents outside their home
They are too small (even smaller than Rastafarianism).
Mandeans: The Encyclopedia Britannica lists Mandeans separately,
but they only have about 45,000 adherents in two countries, meaning
they're far smaller than many new religious movements the Encyclopedia
lumps together under "New Religionists." As small as
the Mandeans are, we are not listing them as one of the largest "Major
Religions." Britannica's decision to list Mandeans separately,
while not listing larger but newer religions is due the their list's
criteria, which emphasizes long-established yet post-literate religions.
This Adherents.com listing, on the other hand, is based on contemporary
size, without regard to age.
PL Kyodan: They currently claim about 1 million adherents and 500 churches
in 10 countries. But they're almost entirely in Japan. The group has a few
branches in North America and Europe, and perhaps twenty in South America.
So there is some spread beyond its home country, but with only about 500 branches
worldwide, and with some question as to whether it has really emerged from
it's original Shinto matrix, it may be inappropriate to call it a distinct
Ch'ondogyo: About 3 million adherents total. Their numbers are almost entirely
confined to Korea, however. Apparently a fusion of Christianity and traditional
Korean religion. In North Korea, once Ch'ondogyo's center, where it was, for
a time, the country's second or third largest religion, it has essentially
been co-opted by the government and turned into a hollow appendage of Juche.
Wonbulgyo: Another new Korean religion. The claim about 400 branches in Korea,
and 30 in North America and Europe. They make some claims to be an emerging
world religion, but as they call themselves "Won Buddhism," we include
them within the greater body of Buddhism. Lively, but probably less than 150,000
adherents, making it even smaller than Zoroastrianism.
Vodoun: Vodoun is classified here as a subset of African
New Age: New Age is an incredibly eclectic category, not a single religion.
Although a large number of people hold beliefs which have been categorized
as New Age, or participate in New Age practices, only a tiny percentage of
people actually identify "New Age" as their religion. At this point "New
Age" is more the umbrella term for a broad movement, rather than a religion.
Some previous enthusiasts of New Age movements now prefer to be called pagans
Seicho-No-Ie: This organization is large (perhaps 2 to 3 million members) and
appears somewhat like a typical New Asian syncretistic religion, but its literature
states that it is an interdenominational organization and not a religion. Furthermore,
it does not seem to have spawned a distinctive religious culture anywhere outside
of Japan, and perhaps not even in Japan -- certainly not to the degree that
groups such as PL Kyodan and Tenrikyo have.
Falun Dafa/Falun Gong: This is a relatively new movement (started in the mid-1980s)
from China which purports to have 100 million adherents worldwide, 70 million
in China. These numbers are obviously inflated; it is not true that 1 in every
58 people on the planet are adherents of Falun Dafa. A reasonable worldwide
number that some newspapers have used is 10 million, but this is only a guess.
The current crackdown on the movement by the Communist government is likely
to increase the movement's growth both within and outside of China. Its status
as a full-fledged "religion" is questionable, and it does not claim
to be one in the traditional sense. For most practitioners it is more of a
technique than a religion. However, the movement's literature states that deriving
full benefit from the techniques precludes membership in other religions, and
there are people who consider Falun Dafa their primary or only religion. But
exclusive followers of this sort are in the minority.
Furthermore, Falun Dafa is properly classified as a subset of Chinese traditional
religion and not as a distinct religion, so it would not be classified as a "major
world religion" even if it did have 100 million followers. Although the
movement is verifiably large and widespread, its adherents appear to be almost
uniformly ethnic Chinese. Their involvement with the movement is not really
conversion to a different or foreign religion, but rather involvement in an
evangelical/reform movement within their existing religious system. Sociologically,
the Falun Dafa movement has many parallels to the Pentecostal movement and
Billy Graham revivals within Christianity.
Taoism: Included as a subset of Chinese traditional religion because of the
impossibility of separating a large number of Taoists from traditional Chinese
religionists in general. See note under Chinese traditional
Confucianism: See Chinese traditional religion.
Roma: There are an estimated 9 to 12 million Roma (Gypsies; also "Rroma")
in the world, concentrated in Europe, but also in North America, Australia
and elsewhere. There is clearly a distinct set of Roma religious beliefs and
practices, which scholars frequently describe as Aryan/Indian/Hindu in origin
with an overlay of local (esp. European) religious culture (often Catholic).
But the Roma are primarily classified as an ethnic or cultural group. Many
clearly have a strong ethnic identity as Roma and a self-identified religious
identity as Catholic or Protestant. The Roma illustrate how arbitrary the dividing
lines between ethnicity, culture, and religion can be.
Animal Rights: Although the Animal Rights movement (along with ethical vegetarianism,
Veganism, PETA, etc.) is a large and rapidly growing socio-cultural-religious
group, its proponents do not generally call it their "religion." Reliable
statistics for the number of adherents for whom Animal Rights constitutes primary
cultural/religious/philosophical identity, versus those who simply support
certain positions of the movement, are unavailable. AR is a religion, but for
the majority of Animal Rights supporters, AR functions as a movement and/or
lifestyle choice, not their primary religion. (This is similar to the current
broad support for the "Free Tibet" movement, most of which comes
Other movements and groups which are not listed on this page but which function
as the sociological equivalent of traditionally recognized religions are listed here.
Please feel free to send comments, questions, adherent statistics,
spelling corrections, etc. to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Webpage created circa January 2000. Last modified 28 August 2005.
Copyright © 2005 by Adherents.com.
< Return to Adherents.com homepage
Other Primary-Identity Sub-Cultures and Movements
This document lists major primary-identity sub-cultures and movements
which function in the same sociological niche as religions, but
which are not usually classified as religions. The purpose here
is to provide a statistically more complete picture of religious
demographics from a sociological perspective.
animal rights; evangelistic vegetarianism; Vegans; PETA, etc.
Communism; Marxism; Marxist-Leninism; Maoism; Juche; etc.
gun rights; survivalists
racial supremacists; racial separatists (Nazis, Ku Klux Klan,
skinheads, Black Panthers, etc.)
GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) community
science fiction (including comics, Star Trek, Star Wars)
occult, tarot; astrology; etc.
sports and fitness
Conservative / Liberal *
Goth; Rave; Vampire; etc.
Religions and other primary-identity sub-cultures fill an identical
sociological niche because they:
Provide a source of group identity, individual identity, and social
Provide a philosophical and ethical framework, and the language
through which philosophy, ethics and community issues can be discussed
Inspire imagination, art, literature and other creative outlets*
Serve as a source of goals, effort, volunteerism and accomplishment
for individuals and the group
Provides a source of unity necessary for defense of the community
and the community ideals
Address universal experiences such as death, sexuality, family
* Art and imagination: An example is the Animal
Rights Counterculture web page, which states that its purpose
is to "create and allow access to a repository of freely-distributable,
original artistic works which promote the abolition of animal
exploitation." It has a "Songs and Stories page" and
encourages the "submission of original creative works."
There is no value judgment involved in recognizing that a group or movement
is culturally distinct, and that it functions as the sociological equivalent
of a religion (for at least a proportion of its core constituents). "Religion," used
in this broader sociological sense, pertains to human interaction and motivation.
It is unrelated to issues such as "non-rational versus rational" or "revealed
or faith-based versus empirical" -- characteristics sometimes used in
definitions of religion in a theological sense.
Furthermore, not everybody who supports a particular movement
or engages in a particular activity is considered an "adherent" in
a socio-religious sense. Many people read science fiction or play
sports, but for only a few do these activities constitute their
primary source of socialization, goals, and/or philosophy. Many
people support feminism in general, or many of the social ideas
articulated by the feminist movement. For only a minority of people
who consider themselves feminists does feminism constitute their
primary philosophical system and outlet for volunteerism and social
action, i.e., their religion.
Additional Comments Regarding Inclusion on this List
Sociologists have defined religion as being the "ultimate
reality" that people believe in, or the primary motivating
factor in their lives. One homey saying has it that "Your
religion is whatever you do on the sabbath."
Such definitions are potentially very broad and can pertain to
anything at all. Thus defined, "making lots of money" could
be a person's religion, or a person's family, or even their car,
could be their religion. A definition this broad is not as useful
in classifying distinctive religious groups and cultures, however.
Movements and sub-cultures have been listed on this page because
they meet certain additional criteria:
The movement or sub-culture forms the primary cultural identity
for a large number of people. It fulfills a sociological niche
similar to that filled by religion, tribe or ethnicity by contributing
to the beliefs, philosophy, behavior, artistic expression, social
interaction and goals of its adherents.
The sub-culture is not already included among lists of movements
traditionally recognized as religions ("Catholic", "Muslim", "Hindu", "New
Age", "Neo-Pagan", etc.)
Participation in the sub-culture is voluntary, and not merely
a function of non-voluntary conditions such as geography (Welch,
Mexican); ethnicity (Mayan, black, Han Chinese); economic status
("the poor", "middle-class"); or biology (old,
children, cancer patient, schizophrenic, blind, short, overweight,
male, female, sexual orientation).
Participation in the sub-culture is not simply a function of occupation.
Participants/adherents represent diverse occupational background.
All professions form occupational cultures ("writer culture", "politician
culture", "teacher culture", etc.), but that is
not the subject of this list, and that phenomenon is sociologically
distinct from religion.
Factors which are not criteria for including movements and sub-cultures
on this list. Movements and sub-cultures have not been listed here
because they are controversial, "liberal" or "conservative",
desirable or undesirable, etc. Some movements and sub-cultures
have been associated more frequently with "liberal" or "left-wing" individuals
and groups (e.g., environmentalism and the animal rights movement).
Other movements and sub-cultures have more frequently been associated
with "conservative" or "right-wing" individuals
and groups (e.g., radical gun rights advocates and survivalists).
But these movements are not primarily political in nature and a
strong association with them is usually not motivated solely by
where they fall on a left-right political spectrum as seen by outsiders.
For example, a person who considers herself generally liberal
and is a frequent participant in animal rights activism may also
be strongly pro-life (opposed to abortion) -- a position labelled
as conservative. It would be rare for one person to lend substantial
time and support to both movements simultaneously, but their involvement
is not based simply on what is considered "liberal" or "conservative." Somebody
else, active in the gay and lesbian community (considered a "liberal" movement)
may be strongly opposed to the animal rights movement because they
perceive it as slowing down AIDS research by preventing the use
of laboratory animals by pharmaceutical companies. They may also
be fiscally conservative and participate in Republican politics.
Once again, their membership in a sub-culture is not necessarily
based on its position on a political spectrum.
To reiterate, inclusion of a particular movement or sub-culture
on this list implies neither approval nor disapproval. Nor does
it imply any parallel to any particular religion. A direct parallel
to religion in general is not implied, except in a sociological
Why these are not typically classified as religions
Clearly there must be reasons why some movements, sub-cultures
and groups are generally regarded as religions while other movements
which fulfill similar sociological functions are not regarded as
One popular and often useful notion is that a "religion" addresses
the issues of deity and the afterlife. But these are only two possible
topics among the endless possible topics for humans to be concerned
about yet unable to quantify mathematically. Also, for many people
and groups, religion and spirituality has little to do with deity
and the afterlife. There are forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism
(Zen, tantrism, Reconstructionists) that focus little or not at
all on deities or the afterlife, but are nevertheless classified
In a theological discussion, addressing specific concepts may
be a useful criteria for what constitutes a religion. But a sociological
definition is based on the impact a movement has in people and
groups, not on the content of its message.
Some of the general differences are summarized below, although
for each point there are many exceptions.
TABLE: Some differences between "religions" (in the
sociological sense) which are traditionally labelled as "religions," and
those which are not.
Traditionally Recognized Religions
Other Primary-Identity Sub-cultures
Usually calls itself a church or religion.
Outsiders usually call it a church or religion
Those within and without the movement do not
call it a religion (although sociologists recognize it can
function as one)
Provides rituals and other markers to observe
universal "life-cycle" events, such as birth, coming-of-age,
marriage, and death
Do not mark life-cycle events
Usually have a single, identifiable founder
Recognize persons of historical or contemporary
importance to the movement, but usually do not recognize
a single worldwide founder.
Address the nature of deity and the afterlife
as central components of their overall philosophy
Primarily "religious" topics such
as deity, and the afterlife are not central to the philosophy.
If addressed, these topics are ancillary and subservient
to the core issue(s)
Written scriptures, revelation or oral tradition
are important source of authority and overall philosophy,
and important in framing discussion
Sources of authority and direction in the
community are primarily contemporary and philosophical
Involvement with laws and the broader culture
may be present, but is secondary. Primary focus is their
Some groups or movements in this category
strongly desire to influence the laws, behaviors, policies,
etc. of the entire geographical population, not just within
Expansion of influence occurs primarily through
expansion of the group's voluntary membership and/or natural
increase and retention of adherents.
Expansion of influence occurs primarily through
the spread of specific ideas and policies into the broader
culture (government, mass media, academia, corporate practices)
Distinctive artistic traditions, which may
include their own forms of music, writing, oratory, drama,
Successfully convey their message through
art forms and mediums found in the broader cultures, but
rarely develop distinctive styles and forms.
Affiliation with the religion is marked with
a formal ceremony or recognition of affiliation; distinction
between adherents and non-adherents fairly clear, although
levels of participation vary
Affiliation less formal, no ceremony to mark
affiliation with the movement; levels of participation are
extremely varied; many supporters and peripheral participants
whose primary-identity culture or religion is elsewhere
One indicator that a group or movement is functioning as the sociological
equivalent of a religion is that its constituents strongly object
to being classified as a religion. To say that something clearly
non-religious such as "being blonde" or "being a
Michael Jordan fan" is a religion would incite little or no
protest. Blonde people and Michael Jordan fans have little group
identity associated with blondeness or with Michael Jordan. Such
a statement may appear to have so little meaningful truth in it,
or be so innocuous, that they feel no need to counter it.
On the other hand, to say that the environmentalism is a religion
is likely to draw protests by proponents who do not wish their
movement to be associated with religions they or others don't like
("unwanted baggage"), who do not wish to think of themselves
as a "member" of a religion other than another one they
identify with, or who do not wish to lose the advantages a non-religious
movement has in dealing with the public sphere (schools, government,
media, etc.). Transcendental meditation is one recent example of
a religious movement which had considerable latitude in introducing
itself into public schools and government programs, until it was
recognized as a religion. Essentially all religions have adherents
who claim that their religion is not a religion.
Animal Rights groups
and statistics; More
Subcultures Directory -
More on GLBT as a human cultural construct
Conservative / Liberal. The inclusion of Conservatism and Liberalism on this
list should be explained. Nobody who considers themselves generally conservative
or liberal would say that their "Conservatism" or "Liberalism" is
their religion. Most people would like to think that they make a reasonable
decision regarding various political, ethical, moral and social topics, regardless
of where their decision falls on a "left-right" or "liberal-conservative" spectrum.
Most people, if they list enough issues, would be able to list at least some
views which are considered conservative and some which are considered liberal.
Furthermore, on any given issue there will usually be somebody more liberal
or conservative. A person may think their stance on gun control is conservative,
for instance, because they oppose additional restrictions on gun purchases.
But an even "more conservative" ("far-right") position
might call for eliminating on all legal restrictions on gun sales, and support
for marksmanship classes in high schools. Most people fall "somewhere
in between" on most issues. Certainly, many people are generally conservative
or generally liberal, as the terms are commonly understood, but these are relative
terms. The terms "conservative" and "liberal," as described
here, are not religions or primary-identity sub-cultures.
"Conservatism" or "Liberalism" operate as
de facto religion for people who are commonly called "knee-jerk
liberals" or "knee-jerk conservatives." These are
people who lend essentially unquestioning allegiance to whichever
viewpoints are associated with their favored point on the ideological
spectrum. They are the type of people who take a liberal stance
on gun control, affirmative action, and welfare reform. Then, because
identify so strongly with liberalism, they support the "liberal" position
on the magnet schools, tort reform and Surinamese water rights.
Yet there may not actually be an inherently "liberal" or "conservative" position
on many issues.
A person who is authentically influenced by a particular religious
or ethical philosophy, such as Catholicism, Buddhism, Islam or
Humanism, will have viewpoints which are on both ends of the "liberal-conservative" spectrum.
This is because traditional religions are not based on contemporary
local social debates. Any person who supports all liberal causes
or all conservative causes carte blanche may be said to be an adherent
of Liberalism or Conservatism in an essentially religious or tribal
sense. [Related article.]