In my last blog entry, I continued to ask (or perhaps dance around) the simple question: How many religions are there in the world? Now, at last, I shall meet the question head on.
Never mind about all of the myriad bygone religions of the remote past. We touched upon them briefly in Part One; let’s just focus instead upon asking how many religions exist in the world today.
Never mind about the fact that many people tend to think exclusively of their own religion alone as solely and genuinely qualifying as “authentic” religion, regarding all other faiths as something less than “true” religion. The trouble is, every religion can think like this (which gets us nowhere fast). We also covered that in Part One.
And never mind about those Christians who sometimes object to calling their religion a “religion” at all, arguing instead that Christianity is “not a ‘religion,’ but a ‘relationship’.” It’s still a religion. We covered that in Part Two.
And never mind about those faithful who assert that their own religion is uniquely unlike all other religions because their own religion is “not just a religion, but a ‘complete way of life’.” Of course, the obvious problem here is simply that other religions are also “complete ways of life,” too. We covered this in Part Three.
And lastly, never mind about those who tend to regard each and every single separate sect, subgroup, school, subdivision, branch, movement, or denomination within all of the major religions as if they each constituted “religions” of their own. (They don’t.) We covered all of that in Part Four. For our purposes here, counting denominations as separate standalone “religions” per se would vastly overinflate (and distort) any answer that we might give as to how many actual religions (not sects, branches, or denominations of religions) in fact exist in the contemporary world.
So, with all of these preliminary “never minds” finally out of the way at last, we can now begin to respond directly to that seemingly simple question: how many religions are there, in the world today?
Whenever the topic comes up in the popular press, or in informal (yet fairly informed) casual conversation, the “big five” are perhaps the most commonly mentioned: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These five highly prominent and influential global faiths are probably what most people think of first, when they set out to enumerate the major living religions of the world.
Those who are also familiar with the ancient and venerable religious traditions native to China will be quick to add two more to the list: Confucianism and Taoism. This brings our total to seven major world faiths.
Of course, there is also Shinto, the major native faith of Japan. And we certainly must not neglect two additional smaller but important and influential faith traditions of India: Jainism and Sikhism. Additionally worth mentioning is Zoroastrianism, today a tiny and dwindling minority religion but once the religion of the mighty Persian Empire.
So, that brings us to a grand total of eleven major world religions (“major” whether in terms of sheer size, or in terms of sheer historical significance and cultural impact). Is that it?
Not quite. These eleven may be widely considered to be the “major players” among the world’s global faith traditions, but by no means are they whole story when it comes to contemporary organized human religiosity.
For instance, there are also the many new religious movements currently carving out their own modest niches on the contemporary religious scene.
Far younger (and generally much smaller) than the long-established “mainstream” world religions, these numerous newer “alternative” or “emergent” faiths run the gamut from Baha’i (founded in the mid-1800s, with perhaps 7 million adherents) to Rastafarianism (founded in the 1930s, with about 1 million followers today) to Scientology (founded 1954 and today claiming 8 million members, although critics suggest the actual number to be as low as 100,000 or less) to Wicca (a 20th century revival or reconstruction of ancient European paganism, with perhaps 1 million followers today), to name just a few of the biggest and best-known.
Such often-marginalized “new religions” may number in the hundreds or even thousands worldwide — depending, of course, upon how one defines, classifies, or counts each one — and bearing also in mind that a great many of them are exceedingly small and obscure, so that the total global number of adherents of such young “minority” faiths still remains quite small, compared to the much older and far larger major faiths. (One source estimates the total combined population of all such “new religions” as these at only about 100 million people, or so.)
Even so, if we are merely concerned with counting up the actual total number of religions that currently exist in the world, then the vast diversity of all of these innumerable smaller and younger faiths increases that bottom-line total exponentially.
And then there are still the innumerable individual indigenous religions which are scattered across the planet today. These are the many native, local, ethnic, or “tribal” folk religious traditions of the many so-called “indigenous” cultures found worldwide: the various Native American religions, the varied African traditional religions, Australian aboriginal religions, Siberian shamanists, and so forth.
Each of the aforementioned broad regional categories also masks a vast amount of underlying diversity; many of the numerous individual tribes or other subgroups within each such broad category have quite distinct religious beliefs, practices, and traditions of their own.
Additionally, the transatlantic African slave trade (during the New World’s colonial period) eventually resulted in syncretic Afro-Caribbean blendings of traditional indigenous West African religions with the Catholicism of the colonists. This creative blending process gave birth to such altogether new religions as Santeria (in Cuba), Candomble (in Brazil), and Voudun or Voodoo (in Haiti).
Given the immense number of unique indigenous cultures worldwide, the number of corresponding indigenous religions (also numbering in the thousands) once again raises our cumulative grand total of currently extant religions to an increasingly uncertain (but certainly vastly higher) final number.
As you can see, it’s complicated — perhaps too complicated to supply a single, clearcut, precise, universally agreeable, conclusive total.
But whatever that grand total number of religions in the world might actually be, it’s clearly immense. Religious diversity is probably far more complex and variegated than most people ever imagine.