Western Religions

The 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 (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) is often used instead of using the East and West terminology.

Western culture itself was significantly influenced by the emergence of Christianity and its adoption as the state church of the Roman Empire in the late 4th century and the term “Christendom” largely indicates this intertwined history. Western Christianity was significantly influenced by Hellenistic religion (notably Platonism) as well as the Roman imperial cult. Western Christianity is based on Roman Catholicism (Latin Rite), as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy, from which it was divided by the Great Schism of the 11th century, and further includes all Protestant traditions splitting off Roman Catholicism from the 16th century.

Since the 19th century, Western religion has diversified into numerous new religious movements, including Occultism, Spiritism and diverse forms of Neopaganism.

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Main articles: Ancient Greek religionReligion in ancient RomeHellenistic religionPlatonism, and Hellenistic Judaism
Further information: Celtic polytheism, Germanic Paganism, and Slavic polytheism

The West” as a culture or civilization historically evolved out of Greco-Roman classical antiquity. These cultures had polytheistic religions, viz. Greek polytheism and Roman polytheism. “Eastern” influences on these religions are evident from the earliest times, the Orientalizing period at the very beginning of Greek antiquity.

During Hellenism and the Roman Empire period, “Eastern” (Oriental) religions exerted a considerable influence on “Western” religion, giving rise to Persian influenced traditions like Gnosticism and Mithraism, as well as Egyptian and “Chaldean” influence on mystery religions (Orphism), astrology and magic. Early Christianity itself is a further example of Orientalizing influence on the later Roman Empire.

During the same period, inherited traditions of native Roman religion were marginalized or overlaid by interpretatio graeca, and the Roman imperial cult evolved into a civil religion which involved state ritual rather than religious faith or experience. Celtic and Germanic religion was described by Roman ethnography as primitive, but at the same time as pure or unspoiled compared to the so-called urban decadence of Rome.

Western Christianity

Main article: Western Christianity
See also: Catholic Church, Germanic Christianity, Celtic Christianity, Eastern Catholic Churches, Puritans, Anabaptists, MethodismPentecostalismEvangelicalism, Protestantism, and Mormonism

Western Christianity is based on Roman Catholicism (Latin Rite), as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy, from which it was divided by the Great Schism of the 11th century. Western Christianity itself was divided by the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and pronouncedly “Western” forms of Christianity include Puritanism and Evangelicalism, movements resulting from the various “Great Awakenings” in the 18th to 20th century English-speaking world and popularly practiced in the United States.

For at least a millennium and a half, Europe has been nearly equivalent to Christian culture. The Christian culture was the predominant force in Western civilization, guiding the course of philosophy, art, music, science, social structure and architecture.

Renaissance magic

Main articles: Renaissance magic, Alchemy and Western esotericism

Renaissance humanism (15th and 16th century) saw a resurgence in hermeticism and Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic.

The seven artes magicae or artes prohibitae, arts prohibited by canon law, as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456, their sevenfold partition reflecting that of the artes liberales and artes mechanicae, were:

  1. nigromancy (“black magic“, demonology, derived, by popular etymology, from necromancy)
  2. geomancy
  3. hydromancy
  4. aeromancy
  5. pyromancy
  6. chiromancy
  7. scapulimancy
Madonna and Child, by Filippo Lippi

Madonna and Child, by Filippo Lippi

The division between the four “elemental” disciplines (viz., geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy) is somewhat contrived. Chiromancy is the divination from a subject’s palms as practiced by the Romani (at the time recently arrived in Europe), and scapulimancy is the divination from animal bones, in particular shoulder blades, as practiced in peasant superstition. Nigromancy contrasts with this as scholarly “high magic” derived from High Medieval grimoires such as the Picatrix or the Liber Rasielis.

Alchemy (Arabic: al-kīmiyā) is an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, originating in Greco-Roman Egypt in the first few centuries.

Alchemists attempted to purify, mature, and perfect certain materials. Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of “base metals” (e.g., lead) into “noble metals” (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent. The perfection of the human body and soul was thought to permit or result from the alchemical magnum opus and, in the Hellenistic and Western mystery tradition, the achievement of gnosis. In Europe, the creation of a philosopher’s stone was variously connected with all of these projects.


Further information: SecularismFreedom of religionReligious pluralism, and History of atheism

Following the religious wars of the 16th to 17th centuries, the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century paved the way for a detachment of society and politics from religious questions. Inspired by the American Revolution, the French Revolution brought the idea of secularization and a laicist state granting freedom of religion to Europe. After the turmoils of the Napoleonic Wars, this development caught hold in other parts of Europe, utilizing the German mediatization and the separation of church and state in various European constitutions drawn up after the revolutions of 1848.

New religious movements

Main articles: New religious movement, OccultismSpiritismNew Age, and Modern Paganism

The principle of religious freedom introduced in Western society in the early 19th century facilitated the emergence of various new religious movements. First examples were derived from western occultism and the tradition of secret societies such as the Freemasons, but from the later 19th century, the influence of Eastern religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism played an increasing role. From the mid 20th century, Eastern and Western spiritual traditions were increasingly syncretized in the various movements associated with the New Age and Neopagan countercultures.

Religions in the Western world today

Main articles: Religion in EuropeReligion in the United StatesReligion in CanadaReligion in AustraliaReligion in New Zealand, and Religion in Brazil
See also: Post-Christianity and Irreligion

The Western world, taken as consisting of Europe, the Americas, Australia-New Zealand and (in part) South Africa and Philippines, remains predominantly Western Christian: 77.4% in North America (2012), 90% in Latin America (2011), close to 76.2% in Europe (2010), (includes 35% of European Christians who are Eastern Orthodox especially in Eastern Europe, 76%, not properly part of “Western religion“, 46% of European Christians are Roman Catholic, 18% of European Christians are Protestant), 61.1% in Australia-New Zealand (2011), 79% in South Africa and 90% in the Philippines.

The second largest religions in all these regions are smaller by at least an order of magnitude, Islam in Europe (6%) with about 4%, Islam in Canada with about 3%, Judaism in the United States with about 1.7%, and Islam in Australia with about 1.7%.

Most non-Christians in the Western world are irreligious, 22% in Australia, 40% in New Zealand, 18.2% in Europe, 16.4% in the USA and 16% in Canada, (Latin America, South Africa and Philippines are more religious). This is a reflection of the tradition of secular humanism which culminated in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment.

Throughout the Western world paganism is becoming increasingly popular.

There remains a minority of the order of 5% of the population in the Western world which adheres to non-Western religions, mostly due to recent immigration, but to some extent also due to proselytization, notably conversion to various sects of Buddhism and Hinduism in the context of the New Age movement in the later part of the 20th century.


Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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