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  1. Plural of religion

Extensive Definition

The world's principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups or world religions. According to the 2005 survey of Encyclopædia Britannica, the vast majority of religious and spiritual adherents follow Christianity (33.06% of world population), Islam (20.28%), Hinduism (13.33%), Chinese folk religion (6.27%) or Buddhism (5.87%). The irreligious and atheists are 14.27% and 3.97% follow indigenous tribal religions.
These spiritual traditions may be either combined into larger super-groups, or separated into smaller sub-denominations. Christianity, Islam and Judaism (and sometimes the Bahá'í Faith) are summarized as Abrahamic religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are classified as Indian religions (or Dharmic religions). Chinese folk religion, Confucianism, Taoism and Shintō are classified as East Asian religions (or Far Eastern, Chinese, or Taoic religions).
Conversely, the major spiritual traditions may be parsed into denominations:
For a more comprehensive list of religions and an outline of some of their basic relationships, please see the article list of religions.

World religions

Historical notions

The concept of "world religion" is historically based on a subjective perception of temporal or theological importance, usually from a Western, "Christian" (or at least "Abrahamic") perspective.
Early Christian scholars, the earliest known classifiers of major religions, recognized two "proper" religions, Christianity and Judaism, besides heretical deviations from Christianity, and idolatrous relapse or paganism. Islamic theology recognizes Christians and Jews as "People of the Book" rather than idolaters, although Christians are criticized for worshiping Christ as a god rather than following Christ as a prophet and messenger. The Christian view long classified Islam as one heresy among others.
Views evolved during the Enlightenment however, and by the 19th century Western scholars considered the five "world religions" to be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. These remain the classic "world religions."

Modern classifications

Modern classifications typically list major religious groups by number of adherents, not by historical or theological notability. Most dramatically, this affects Judaism, which holds the position of "world religion" as the foundational tradition of the "Abrahamic" group, but which in terms of adherents ranks below 0.25% of world population, behind Sikhism.
The remaining four classic world religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, are the largest contemporary religions by far. They each have more than 300 million adherents, more than ten times the number of the next largest organized religion (Sikhism, ca. 19 million per the Christian Science Monitor source cited below).
An example of a modern listing of "world religions" is that of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, listing twelve "long established, major world religions, each with over three million followers", alphabetically:
Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Vodou.
The list of "twelve classical world religions" is nearly identical, but replaces Vodou with Zoroastrianism.
The "World's Major Religions" list published in the New York Public Library Student's Desk Reference omits Vodou and Zoroastrianism, as well as Jainism and Sikhism, but lists the Eastern Orthodox Church, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as separate religions.
The Christian Science Monitor, in a 1998 article "Top 10 Organized Religions in the World," provides a listing of the largest "organized religions"
In comparison with the Ontario Consultants list above, the Christian Science Monitor omits Taoism and Vodou as "non-organized."
Other "major religions" listed by (2007), not found on the above lists, are:


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 India and Far Eastern religions in East Asia. Another group with supra-regional influence is African diasporic religions, which have their origins in Central and West Africa.
Demographic distribution of the major super-groupings mentioned is shown in the table below:

Religious demographics

splitsection Religious demographics see List of religious populations 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 USA 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:
  • Whether to count "historically predominant religious culture[s]"
  • Whether to count only those who actively "practice" a particular religion
  • Whether to count based on a concept of "adherence"
  • Whether to count only those who expressly self-identify with a particular denomination
  • Whether to count only adults, or to include children as well.
  • Whether to rely only on official government-provided statistics
  • Whether to use multiple sources and ranges or single "best source(s)"

Largest religions or belief systems by number of adherents

This listing includes both organized religions, which have unified belief codes and religious hierarchies, and informal religions, such as Chinese folk religions. For completeness, it also contains a category for the non-religious, although their views would not ordinarily be considered a religion.
  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion, with major branches as follows:
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion, with major branches as follows:
  3. Secular/irreligious/agnostic/atheist/antitheistic/antireligious: 1.1 billion
    • Category includes a wide range of beliefs, without specifically adhering to a religion or sometimes specifically against dogmatic religions. The category includes humanism, deism, pantheism, rationalism, freethought, agnosticism and atheism. Broadly labeled humanism, this group of non religious people are third largest in the world. For more information, see the discussion of this category and the note below. 
  4. Hinduism: 900 million, with major branches as follows:
  5. Chinese folk religion: 394 million
    • Not a single organized religion, includes elements of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and traditional nonscriptural religious observance (also called "Chinese traditional religion").
  6. Buddhism: 376 million, with major branches as follows:
  7. Primal indigenous (tribal religions): 300 million
    • Not a single organized religion, includes a wide range of traditional or tribal religions, including animism, shamanism and paganism. Since African traditional and diasporic religions are counted separately in this list, most of the people counted in this group are in Asia.
  8. African traditional and diasporic: 100 million
    • Not a single organized religion, this includes several traditional African beliefs and philosophies such as those of the Yoruba, Ewe (Vodou) and the Bakongo. These three religious traditions (especially that of the Yoruba) have been very influential to the diasporic beliefs of the Americas such as Condomble, Santeria and voodoo. The religious capital of the Yoruba religion is at Ile Ife.
  9. Sikhism: 23 million
  10. Juche (North Korean Communism) 19 million
  11. Spiritism: 15 million
    • Not a single organized religion, includes a variety of beliefs including some forms of Umbanda.
  12. Judaism: 14 million, with major branches as follows:
  13. Bahá'í Faith: 7 million
  14. Jainism: 4.2 million, with two significant branches:
  15. Shinto: 4 million
    • This number states the number of actual self-identifying practising primary followers of Shinto. If everyone were included who is considered Shinto by some people due to ethnic or historical categorizations, the number would be considerably higher — as high as 100 million (according to the source used for the statistics in this section).
  16. Cao Dai: 4 million
  17. Zoroastrianism: between 150,000-250,000, substantiated by the following lists at 12, but elsewhere accidentally inserting one zero too many. The breakdown by major communities is as follows:
    • In India (the Parsis): est. 65,000 (2001 India Census: 69,601); Estimate of Zoroastrians of Indian origin: 100,000-110,000.
    • In Iran: est. 20,000 (1974 Iran Census: 21,400)
  18. Tenrikyo: 2 million
  19. Neopaganism: 1 million
  20. Unitarian Universalism: 800,000
  21. Rastafari: 600,000
  22. Scientology: 500,000
  • a) The source for most of these statistics is, updated 2008. These statistics are reportedly based on analysis of a range of sources on religious populations, for more on the methodology, please see's explanation.
  • b) Falun Gong itself claims 100 million followers worldwide, including 70 million in China. In contrast, the New York Times reports "over 70 million." Both numbers are from 1999. counts it as part of Chinese religion
  • c) Unlike the source site, this list classifies Juche under the secular/non-religious category, since it does not fit most definitions of religion and is considered secular by its followers.
  • d) Ahmadiyya consider themselves Muslim, but are not considered Muslim by the mainstream. includes Druze as Muslim, but they are usually considered a distinct religious community based mostly in the Middle East who are an offshoot of Islam.

Trends in adherence

Since the late 19th century the demographics of religion have changed a great deal. Some countries with a historically large Christian population have experienced a significant decline in the numbers of professed active Christians. 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. At the same time, 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, particularly in the forms of Neopaganism and Far Eastern religions.
Within the world's four largest religions, Christianity currently has the greatest growth by numbers and Islam has the fastest growth by percentage. Hinduism is undergoing a revival and a globalization, and many temples are being built, both in India and in other countries. Analyzing percentage growth is a difficult matter - see this article for a discussion. However, the World Christian Encyclopedia and World Christian Trends reported these numbers from growth from 1990-2000:
  • 2.65% - Zoroastrianism
  • 2.28% - Bahá'í Faith
  • 2.13% - Islam
  • 1.87% - Sikhism
  • 1.69% - Hinduism
  • 1.36% - Christianity
  • 1.09% - Buddhism
(The annual growth in the world population over the same period is 1.41%.)
A 2002 Pew Research Center study found that, generally, poorer nations had a larger proportion of citizens who found religion to be very important than richer nations, with the exception of the United States.


  •, Religions By Adherents
  • Tomoko Masuzawa, The invention of world religions, or, How European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism, Chicago University Press 2005

External links

religions in Bengali: প্রধান ধর্মাবলম্বী গোষ্ঠীসমূহ
religions in Danish: Verdensreligion
religions in German: Weltreligion
religions in Estonian: Maailmareligioon
religions in Esperanto: Religio#Listo_de_religioj_la.C5.AD_grandeco
religions in Korean: 세계의 주요 종교
religions in Italian: Religioni maggiori
religions in Dutch: Wereldreligie
religions in Japanese: 世界宗教
religions in Norwegian: Verdensreligion
religions in Norwegian Nynorsk: Verdsreligion
religions in Portuguese: As dez maiores religiões
religions in Russian: Мировая религия
religions in Simple English: Major world religions
religions in Slovenian: Glavne svetovne religije
religions in Swedish: Världsreligion
religions in Turkish: Dinler
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