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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.
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; 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.
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 adhered 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 listed 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".
The modern meaning of the phrase "world religion", putting non-Christians at the same 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.
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. Even history professors have now taken note of these complications and advise against teaching "world religions" in schools. Others see the shaping of religions in the context of the nation-state as the "invention of traditions".
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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.
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:
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 Christianity with counted with over 2 billion followers overlap those are culturally Christian as well as indigenous people combining folk religions or shamanism with either Christianity or Islam.
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.
|Religion||Number of followers|
|Christianity||2,200||Abrahamic religions||Levant region|||
|Islam||1,600||Abrahamic religions||Arabian Peninsula|||
|Hinduism||1,100||Indian religions||Indian subcontinent|||
|Buddhism||488||Indian religions||Indian subcontinent|||
The following are medium-sized world religions:
|Religion||Number of followers|
|Shinto||100[nb 1]||Japanese religions||Japan|||
|Judaism||14||Abrahamic religions||Levant region|||
|Korean shamanism||5-15||Korean religions||Korea|||
|Caodaism||5-9||Vietnamese religions||Vietnam, 20th century|||
|Bahá'í Faith||5-7.3||Abrahamic religions||Iran, 19th century||[nb 2]|
|Jainism||4.2||Indian religions||Indian subcontinent, 7th to 9th century BC|||
|Cheondoism||3-4||Korean religions||Korea, 19th century|||
|Hoahaoism||1.5-3||Vietnamese religions||Vietnam, 20th century|||
|Tenriism||5||Japanese religions||Japan, 19th century|||
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.
|1970–1985||1990–2000||2000–2005||% change 1970–2010 (40 yrs)|
|3.65%: Bahá'í Faith||2.65%: Zoroastrianism||1.84%: Islam||9.85%: Daoism|
|2.74%: Islam||2.28%: Bahá'í Faith||1.70%: Bahá'í Faith||4.26%: Bahá'í Faith|
|2.34%: Hinduism||2.13%: Islam||1.62%: Sikhism||4.23%: Islam|
|1.67%: Buddhism||1.87%: Sikhism||1.57%: Hinduism||3.08%: Sikhism|
|1.64%: Christianity||1.69%: Hinduism||1.32%: Christianity||2.76%: Buddhism|
|1.09%: Judaism||1.36%: Christianity||2.62%: Hinduism|
|1.09%: Buddhism||2.60%: Jainism|
|across 40 yrs, world total 2.16%|
|0.37%: unaffiliated (inc. atheists, agnostics, religious but not affiliated)|