Major Religious Groups

The world’s principal religions (or major religious groups) 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.

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 1821 map of the world, where “Christians, Mahometans, and Pagans” correspond to levels of civilization (the map makes no distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism).

History of religious categories

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 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” as others.

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.”


Further information: Comparative religion and Sociological classifications of religious movements

Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. Abrahamic religions originate in West Asia, Indian religions in the Indian subcontinent (South Asia) 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.

  • Abrahamic religions are the largest group, and these consist mainly of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith. They are named for the patriarch Abraham, and are unified by the practice of monotheism. Today, at least 3.8 billion people are followers of Abrahamic religions and are spread widely around the world apart from the regions around East and Southeast Asia. Several Abrahamic organizations are vigorous proselytizers.
    • Western Religions refers to religions that originated within Western culture, and are thus historically, culturally, and theologically distinct from the Eastern religions. The term Abrahamic religions is often used instead of using the East and West terminology.
  • Iranian religions, partly of Indo-European origins, include Zoroastrianism, Yazdânism, Uatsdin, Yarsanism and historical traditions of Gnosticism (Mandaeism, Manichaeism).
  • Indian religions, originated in Greater India and partly of Indo-European origins, they tend to share a number of key concepts, such as dharma, karma, reincarnation among others. They are of the most influence across the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Southeast Asia, as well as isolated parts of Russia. The main Indian religions are Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
  • East Asian religions consist of several East Asian religions which make use of the concept of Tao (in Chinese) or  (in Japanese or Korean). They include many Chinese folk religions, Taoism and Confucianism, as well as Korean and Japanese religion influenced by Chinese thought.
  • African Religions:
    • The religions of the tribal peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa, but excluding ancient Egyptian religion, which is considered to belong to the ancient Middle East;
    • African diasporic religions practiced in the Americas, imported as a result of the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th to 18th centuries, building on traditional religions of Central and West Africa.
  • Indigenous ethnic religions, found on every continent, now marginalized by the major organized faiths in many parts of the world or persisting as undercurrents (folk religions) of major religions. Includes traditional African religions, Asian shamanism, Native American religions, Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal traditions, Chinese folk religions, and postwar Shinto. Under more traditional listings, this has been referred to as “paganism” along with historical polytheism.
  • New religious movement is the term applied to any religious faith which has emerged since the 19th century, often syncretizing, re-interpreting or reviving aspects of older traditions such as Ayyavazhi, Mormonism, Ahmadiyya, Pentecostalism, polytheistic reconstructionism, and so forth.
World map color-coded to denote religion affiliations of the majority population in each country (as of 2011)

World map color-coded to denote religion affiliations of the majority population in each country (as of 2011)

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:

  • 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 religious groups

Religion Number of followers 
(in millions)
Cultural tradition Founded
Christianity 2,420 Abrahamic religions Middle East
Islam 1,800 Abrahamic religions Middle East
Hinduism 1,150 Indian religions (Dharmic) Indian subcontinent
Buddhism 520 Indian religions (Dharmic) Indian subcontinent
Folk religion 400 Depends on the region All around globe

Medium-sized religions

The following are medium-sized world religions:

Religion Number of followers 
(in millions)
Cultural tradition Founded
Taoism 12–173 Chinese religions China
Shinto 100 Japanese religions Japan
Falun Gong 80–100 Chinese religions China, 20th century
Sikhism 30 Indian religions (Dharmic) Indian subcontinent, 15th century
Judaism 14.5 Abrahamic religions Levant (Middle East)
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
Tenriism 5 Japanese religions Japan, 19th century
Jainism 4 Indian religions (Dharmic) Indian subcontinent, 7th to 9th century BC
Cheondoism 3–4 Korean religions Korea, 19th century
Hoahaoism 1.5–3 Vietnamese religions Vietnam, 20th century

By region

  • Religions by country according to The World Factbook – CIA
  • Religion by region
  • Religion in Africa
  • Religion in Antarctica
  • Religion in Asia
    • Religion in the Middle East
    • Muslim world (SW Asia and N Africa)
  • Religion in Europe
    • Religion in the European Union
  • Religion in North America
  • Religion in Oceania
  • Religion in South America

Trends in adherence

World Christian Encyclopedia

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

Trends in annual growth of adherence
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
2.50%: Zoroastrianism
across 40 yrs, world total 2.16%
2.10%: Christianity
0.83%: Confucianism
0.37%: unaffiliated (inc. atheists, agnostics, religious but not affiliated)
-0.03%: Judaism
-0.83%: Shintoism

See also


  • Anthony, David W. (2007), The Horse, the Wheel and Language: how Bronze-Age riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the modern world, Princeton University Press
  • Samuel, Geoffrey (2010), The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge University Press
  • Voorst, Robert E. Van (2014), RELG: World (2 ed.), Cengage Learning, ISBN 978-1-285-43468-1

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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