Major religious groups

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Major religious groups worldwide, by percentage, according to The World Factbook (2012)[1]

  Christians (31.59%)
  Muslims (23.2%)
  Hindus (15.0%)
  Buddhists (7.1%)
  Non-religious (11.67%)
  Other (11.44%)

The world's principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups, although this is by no means a uniform practice. This theory began in the 18th century with the goal of recognizing the relative levels of civility in societies.[2]

History of religious categories

An 1821 map of the world, where "Christians, Mahometans, and Pagans" correspond to levels of civilization (The map makes no distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism).
An 1883 map of the world divided into colors representing "Christians, Buddhists, Hindoos, Mohammedans, Fetichists".

In world cultures, there have traditionally been many different groupings of religious belief. In Indian culture, different religious philosophies were traditionally respected as academic differences in pursuit of the same truth. In Islam, the Quran mentions three different categories: Muslims, the People of the Book, and idol worshipers. Initially, Christians had a simple dichotomy of world beliefs: Christian civility versus foreign heresy or barbarity. In the 18th century, "heresy" was clarified to mean Judaism and Islam;[citation needed] along with paganism, this created a fourfold classification which spawned such works as John Toland's Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity, which represented the three Abrahamic religions as different "nations" or sects within religion itself, the "true monotheism."

Daniel Defoe described the original definition as follows: "Religion is properly the Worship given to God, but 'tis also applied to the Worship of Idols and false Deities." At the turn of the 19th century, in between 1780 and 1810, the language dramatically changed: instead of "religion" being synonymous with spirituality, authors began using the plural, "religions", to refer to both Christianity and other forms of worship. Therefore, Hannah Adams's early encyclopedia, for example, had its name changed from An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects... to A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations.[3]

In 1838, the four-way division of Christianity, Judaism, Mahommedanism (archaic terminology for Islam) and Paganism was multiplied considerably by Josiah Conder's Analytical and Comparative View of All Religions Now Extant among Mankind. Conder's work still adheres to the four-way classification, but in his eye for detail he puts together much historical work to create something resembling our modern Western image: he includes Druze, Yezidis, Mandeans, and Elamites[clarification needed] under a list of possibly monotheistic groups, and under the final category, of "polytheism and pantheism", he lists Zoroastrianism, "Vedas, Puranas, Tantras, Reformed sects" of India as well as "Brahminical idolatry", Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Lamaism, "religion of China and Japan", and "illiterate superstitions".[4]

The modern meaning of the phrase "world religion", putting non-Christians at the same, living level as Christians, began with the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. The Parliament spurred the creation of a dozen privately funded lectures with the intent of informing people of the diversity of religious experience: these lectures funded researchers such as William James, D. T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts, who greatly influenced the public conception of world religions.[5]

In the latter half of the 20th century, the category of "world religion" fell into serious question, especially for drawing parallels between vastly different cultures, and thereby creating an arbitrary separation between the religious and the secular.[6] Even history professors have now taken note of these complications and advise against teaching "world religions" in schools.[7] Others see the shaping of religions in the context of the nation-state as the "invention of traditions".

Western classification

Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. Abrahamic religions originate in the Middle East, Indian religions in the Indian subcontinent and East Asian religions in East Asia. Another group with supra-regional influence are Afro-American religion, which have their origins in Central and West Africa.

Religious demographics

One way to define a major religion is by the number of current adherents. The population numbers by religion are computed by a combination of census reports and population surveys (in countries where religion data is not collected in census, for example the United States or France), but results can vary widely depending on the way questions are phrased, the definitions of religion used and the bias of the agencies or organizations conducting the survey. Informal or unorganized religions are especially difficult to count.

There is no consensus among researchers as to the best methodology for determining the religiosity profile of the world's population. A number of fundamental aspects are unresolved:

Largest religions

The table below lists religions classified by philosophy; however, religious philosophy is not always the determining factor in local practice. Please note that this table includes heterodox movements as adherents to their larger philosophical category, although this may be disputed by others within that category. For example, Cao Đài is listed because it claims to be a separate category from Buddhism, while Hòa Hảo is not, even though they are similar new religious movements.

The population numbers below are computed by a combination of census reports, random surveys (in countries where religion data is not collected in census, for example the United States or France), and self-reported attendance numbers, but results can vary widely depending on the way questions are phrased, the definitions of religion used and the bias of the agencies or organizations conducting the survey. Informal or unorganized religions are especially difficult to count. Some organizations may wildly inflate their numbers.

ReligionNumber of followers
(in millions)
Cultural traditionFoundedReferences
Christianity2,000–2,200Abrahamic religionsLevant region[14]
Islam1,570Abrahamic religionsArabian Peninsula[15][16]
Hinduism1,083–1,101Indian religionsIndia[17]
Buddhism500–1,500Indian religionsIndia[18][19][20][21]
Folk religionsHundredsFolk religionsWorldwide[nb 1]
Chinese folk religions
(including Taoism and Confucianism)
HundredsChinese religionsChina[nb 1]
Shinto27–65Japanese religionsJapan[22]
Sikhism24–28Indian religionsIndia[19][23]
Judaism14–18Abrahamic religionsLevant region[19]

Medium-sized religions

The following are medium-sized world religions:

ReligionNumber of followers
(in millions)
Cultural traditionFoundedReferences
Bahá'í Faith7.6–7.9Abrahamic religionsIran, 19th century[24][25][nb 2]
Jainism5-8Indian religionsIndia, 4th century BC[nb 3][26]
Cao Đài1–3Vietnamese religionsVietnam, 20th century[27]
Cheondoism3Korean religionsKorea, 19th century[28]
Tenrikyo2Japanese religionsJapan, 19th century[29]
Wicca1NeopaganBritain, 20th century[30]
Church of World Messianity1Japanese religionsJapan, 20th century[31]
Seicho-no-Ie0.8Japanese religionsJapan, 20th century[29]
Rastafari movement0.7New religious movements, Abrahamic religionsJamaica, 20th century[32]
Unitarian Universalism0.63New religious movementsUnited States, 20th century[33]
Scientology0.5New religious movementUnited States, 1953[34][34]
Zoroastrianism0.15 - 0.2Iranian religionsIran, 10th - 15th century BC[35]
Eckankar0.05 - 0.5New religious movementsUnited States, 1973[36]
LaVeyan Satanism0.03 - 0.1New religious movementUnited States, 1966[37]
Raëlism0.08 - 0.085UFO religionFrance, 1974[38][39]
Druidry0.050NeopaganismBritain, 18th century[40]

By region

Trends in adherence

Since the late 19th century, the demographics of religion have changed a great deal. On the one hand, since the 19th century, large areas of Sub-Saharan Africa have been converted to Christianity, and this area of the world has the highest population growth rate. On the other hand, some countries with a historically large Christian population have experienced a significant decline in the numbers of professed active Christians: see demographics of atheism. Symptoms of the decline in active participation in Christian religious life include declining recruitment for the priesthood and monastic life, as well as diminishing attendance at church. In the realm of Western culture, there has been an increase in the number of people who identify themselves as secular humanists. In many countries, such as the People's Republic of China, communist governments have discouraged religion, making it difficult to count the actual number of believers. However, after the collapse of communism in numerous countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, religious life has been experiencing resurgence there, both in the form of traditional Eastern Christianity and particularly in the forms of Neopaganism and East Asian religions.[citation needed] Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center have found that, generally, poorer nations had a larger proportion of citizens who found religion to be very important than richer nations, with the exceptions of the United States[10] and Kuwait.[41]

World Christian Encyclopedia

Following is some available data based on the work of the World Christian Encyclopedia:[42]

Trends in annual growth of adherence
3.65%: Bahá'í Faith2.65%: Zoroastrianism1.84%: Islam
2.74%: Islam2.28%: Bahá'í Faith1.70%: Bahá'í Faith
2.34%: Hinduism2.13%: Islam1.62%: Sikhism
1.67%: Buddhism1.87%: Sikhism1.57%: Hinduism
1.64%: Christianity1.69%: Hinduism1.32%: Christianity
1.09%: Judaism1.36%: Christianity
1.09%: Buddhism
The annual growth in the world
population over the same period
is 1.41%.

World Religion Database

According to World Religion Database we have the following from 1970–2010:

World Religion Database, 1970–2010[47]
Religion1970 population (millions)2010 population (millions) % change since 1970/year (40 yrs)
unaffiliated (inc. atheists, agnostics, religious but not affiliated)708.1813.60.37%
Chinese Folk Religionists228.8436.32.27%
New religionists39.4631.50%
World total3696.26895.92.16%

Maps of self-reported adherence

Map showing self-reported religiosity by country. Based on a 2006–2008 worldwide survey by Gallup. 
World map showing the percentages of people who regard religion as "non-important" according to a 2002 Pew survey 
Religions of the world, mapped by distribution. 
Predominant religions of the world, mapped by state 
Map showing the prevalence of "Abrahamic religion" (purple), and "Indian religion" (yellow) religions in each country. 
Map showing the relative proportion of Christianity (red) and Islam (green) in each country as of 2006 and excludes South Sudan 

See also


  1. ^ a b The number of people who consider themselves party to a "folk tradition" is impossible to determine.
  2. ^ Historically, the Bahá'í Faith arose in 19th century Persia, in the context of Shia Islam, and thus may be classed on this basis as a divergent strand of Islam, placing it in the Abrahamic tradition. However, the Bahá'í Faith considers itself an independent religious tradition, which draws from Islam but also other traditions. The Bahá'í Faith may also be classed as a new religious movement, due to its comparatively recent origin, or may be considered sufficiently old and established for such classification to not be applicable.
  3. ^ Figures for the population of Jains differ from just over six million to twelve million due to difficulties of Jain identity, with Jains in some areas counted as a Hindu sect. Many Jains do not return Jainism as their religion on census forms for various reasons such as certain Jain castes considering themselves both Hindu and Jain. Following a major advertising campaign urging Jains to register as such, the 1981 Census of India returned 3.19 million Jains. This was estimated at the time to still be half the true number. The 2001 Census of India had 8.4 million Jains.


  1. ^ "People and Society". The World Factbook. CIA. 2012. 
  2. ^ Masuzawa, Tomoko (2005). The Invention of World Religions. Chicago University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-50989-1. 
  3. ^ Masuzawa 2005. pp. 49–61
  4. ^ Masuzawa 2005, 65-6
  5. ^ Masuzawa 2005, 270–281
  6. ^ Stephen R. L. Clark. "World Religions and World Orders". Religious studies 26.1 (1990).
  7. ^ Joel E. Tishken. "Ethnic vs. Evangelical Religions: Beyond Teaching the World Religion Approach". The History Teacher 33.3 (2000).
  8. ^ Brodd, Jefferey (2003). World Religions. Winona, Minnesota: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5. 
  9. ^ Pippa Norris, Ronald Inglehart (2007-01-06), Sacred and Secular, Religion and Politics Worldwide, Cambridge University Press, pp. 43–44, retrieved 2006-12-29 
  10. ^ a b Pew Research Center (2002-12-19). "Among Wealthy Nations U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  11. ^ (2005-08-28). "Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents". Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  12. ^ (2005-06-28). "World Values Survey". Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  13. ^ (2007.01.06). "United Nations Statistics Division - Demographic and Social Statistics". United Nations Statistics Division. Retrieved 2007-01-06. 
  14. ^ World Christian Database Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary Centre for the Study of Global Christianity
  15. ^ Miller, Tracy, ed. (10 2009). Mapping the Global Muslim Population: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Muslim Population (PDF). Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2009-10-08. 
  16. ^ "The World Factbook". CIA Factbook. Retrieved 2010-12-08. 
  17. ^ Clarke, Peter B. (editor), The Religions of the World: Understanding the Living Faiths, Marshall Editions Limited: USA (1993); pg. 125
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b c "World". CIA World Factbook, 2010
  20. ^ Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, et al. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy & Religion: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Zen. Shambhala: Boston (English: pub. 1994; orig. German: 1986); pg. 50.
  21. ^ a BBC News article(Vietnamese)
  22. ^ Japanese government
  23. ^ Indian Registrar General & Census Commissioner. "Religious Composition". Census of India, 2001
  24. ^ "World Religions (2005)". QuickLists > The World > Religions. The Association of Religion Data Archives. 2005. Retrieved 2009-07-04. 
  25. ^ "World: People: Religions". CIA World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. 2007. ISSN 1553-8133. Retrieved 2009-09-06. 
  26. ^ Jainism in Westminsters retrieved 11 November 2012
  27. ^ Sergei Blagov. "Caodaism in Vietnam : Religion vs Restrictions and Persecution". IARF World Congress, Vancouver, Canada, July 31, 1999.
  28. ^ Self-reported figures from 1999; North Korea only (South Korean followers are minimal according to self-reported figures). In The A to Z of New Religious Movements by George D. Chryssides. ISBN 0-8108-5588-7
  29. ^ a b Self-reported figures printed in Japanese Ministry of Education's 宗教年間 Shuukyou Nenkan, 2003
  30. ^ Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa (Detroit: Thompson Gale, 2004) p. 82
  31. ^ Clarke, Peter B. (editor), The Religions of the World: Understanding the Living Faiths, Marshall Editions Limited: USA (1993); pg. 208. "Sekai Kyuseikyo has about one million members, a growing number of them in the west and the third world, especially Brazil and Thailand. "
  32. ^ Leonard E. Barrett. The Rastafarians: Sounds of Cultural Dissonance. Beacon Press, 1988. p. viii.
  33. ^ American Religious Identification Survey
  34. ^ a b Major religions ranked by size retrieved 11 November 2012
  35. ^ Zoroastrianism religionfacts retrieved 11 November 2012
  36. ^ The big religion chart retrieved 11 November 2012
  37. ^ The Devil's Party: Satanism in Modernity - Page 5, Per Faxneld, Jesper Aa. Petersen - 2013
  38. ^ Rael Press retrieved 12 November 2012
  39. ^ Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America: African diaspora traditions and other American innovations, Eugene V. Gallagher, W. Michael Ashcraft - 2006
  40. ^ The Everything Paganism Book, Selene Silverwind - 2011
  41. ^ Pew Research Center (2008-01-01). "Income and Religiosity". Retrieved 2009-09-14. 
  42. ^ The results have been studied and found "highly correlated with other sources of data", but "consistently gave a higher estimate for percent Christian in comparison to other cross-national data sets." Hsu, Becky; Reynolds, Amy; Hackett, Conrad; Gibbon, James (2008-07-09). "Estimating the Religious Composition of All Nations" (PDF). Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 
  43. ^ International Community, Bahá'í (1992). "How many Bahá'ís are there?". The Bahá'ís. p. 14 .
  44. ^ Barrett, David A. (2001). World Christian Encyclopedia. p. 4. ISBN 0-19-507963-9. 
  45. ^ Barrett, David; Johnson, Todd (2001). "Global adherents of the World's 19 distinct major religions". William Carey Library. Archived from the original on 2008-02-28. Retrieved 2006-10-12. 
  46. ^ Staff (May 2007). "The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions". Foreign Policy (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace). 
  47. ^ Grim, Brian J (2012). "Rising restrictions on religion". International Journal of Religious Freedom 5 (1): 17–33. ISSN 2070-5484. Retrieved April 25, 2013. 

External links