How Many Religions Are There in the World?
Pinpointing precisely how many religions there are in the world today is next to impossible, although some estimate the number exceeds four thousand. The vast majority of those faiths are contained within a handful of major religious groups.
The most widely recognized world religions are Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life (Pew Research), more than eight in ten people, or about 85 percent of the world’s population, identify with a religious group. About 95 percent of those people adhere to one of the religions (or one of its subgroups) explored below.
Religions of the World
- About 85 percent of the world’s population identifies with a religious group.
- The five most predominant religions globally are Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
- Religions serve several purposes in society, including maintaining social structure by teaching moral virtues and actions and offering answers to existential questions about life, God, and relationships.
What Is Religion?
Religion can briefly be defined as a specific belief system about God or gods expressed through a code of conduct, ethics, forms of worship, and rituals. Religion includes social, ethical, and ceremonial elements combined with the belief in an unseen world and often a deity.
Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day gives this general definition: “Religion is an organized system of beliefs that answers ultimate questions and commends certain actions or behaviors based on the answers to those questions.”
The English word “religion” originates from the Latin term religio, which has a variety of definitions, including “to bind” and “awe or fear of a god or spirit.” Most, but not all, religions include belief in and worship of God, a god, gods, or spirits. Nearly all acknowledge a supernatural realm.
In broad terms, the role of religion is to help people understand the reasons and purpose for their existence in the world, answer questions about the origins of life, explain the afterlife and spiritual realm, define the nature of deity, clarify if God exists, who He is, and how humans can relate to Him. In essence, religions provide humans with the ties that bind us to God and interconnect us to one another.
Some religions were founded on the teachings of one individual, while others seem to have spontaneously occurred. Many religious groups use identifying symbols, such as the cross in Christianity and the star of David in Judaism. A typical element in most religions is a sacred book or a set of texts containing the group’s central beliefs and worship practices.
The three chief Abrahamic religions are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These faiths identify Abraham as their first prophet, patriarch, and founding earthly father. All originated in the Middle East and are monotheistic, meaning they believe in one God. Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and then Islam developed from them.
Both Judaism and Christianity trace their beginnings to the Hebrew Bible and the book of Genesis. Islam, the religion practiced by Muslims, dates back to their founder Muhammad (circa 570–632 AD).
While vastly different in their doctrines and worship practices, these three religions all share a belief in one God who is Creator. They also believe in prophets and a final judgment.
Judaism is the oldest monotheistic religion, believing in a single deity—the one true God. Judaism began with the biblical figure Abraham. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, God chose Abraham to become the father of a great nation that He would claim as his own, treasured covenant people (Genesis 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 7:6). The name Judaism comes from the tribe of Judah, one of the twelve clans of Israel.
The most sacred text of Judaism is the Torah, which contains the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Torah means “teaching.” The writings of the Torah form the foundation of Judaism. Jews believe these are the Laws of God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. They are also called the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch.
The Jewish Bible is called the Tanakh in Hebrew. The Decalogue is another name for the Ten Commandments. The Mishnah is a collection of oral teachings, while the Talmud contains written teachings and scriptural commentary.
Jews believe in One true God who chose Israel and the Jewish people to be his representatives on the earth. Out of love, God selected them to be his witnesses to the world through pure and holy living and obedience to his laws. Those who live according to God’s standard will receive an eternal reward. Jews live in expectation of God sending a Savior, the Messiah, who will appear at the end of the age. He will rule and reign over the world with peace and prosperity.
Various subgroups of Judaism include Orthodox Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Reform Judaism, and Conservative Judaism. Roughly 14 million people, or about .2% of the global population, practice Judaism.
Islam began in the seventh century when its founding prophet, Muhammad, claims he was visited by the angel Gabriel delivering to him the words of Allah (the Arabic word used by Muslims for “God”). The angel continued to visit Muhammad for the next two decades until his death. Believing he had been chosen to bring Allah’s message to the world, Muhammad began dictating by scribe these sacred messages into the holy text of the Qur’an. Within 100 years of his death, the religion of Islam stretched both east and west from the Arabian Peninsula.
Muslims abide by the teachings of the Qur’an and strive to keep the Five Pillars of Islam—a set of religious duties that are performed regularly and provide the basic structure of Muslim life. The doctrines of Islam are contained in six articles of faith. Muslims believe in a single God, Allah, who is eternal, creator and sovereign; angels; prophets; revelations of Allah; final judgment; and predestination.
The word Islam means “submission” and “peace.” Muslim means “one who submits to Allah.” The religion teaches that to experience peace, one must submit to Allah in heart, soul, and deed. The town of Mecca is Islam’s holy city and center for pilgrimage.
Two main branches of Islam exist, Sunni and Shia. According to Pew Research, “the overwhelming majority (87-90%) of Muslims are Sunnis; about 10-13% are Shia Muslims.”
Islam is the world’s fastest-growing religion today, consisting of about 23% of the global population. It is the dominant religion of Northern Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Christianity gets its name and foundation from one person, Jesus Christ. The earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth were called Christians (Acts 11:26), which means “little Christs.” Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God and promised Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures.
The religion took root in first-century Jerusalem as an extension of Judaism when a Jewish man named Jesus Christ (meaning “the anointed one”) started his ministry. His remarkable life and teachings sparked a movement that spread rapidly throughout the entire ancient world.
The monotheism of Christianity is unique in its understanding of the trinity—that God is one in three persons, God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As Israel’s promised Messiah, Jesus Christ fulfilled all the law’s requirements and the Old Testament prophesies. He sacrificed his body on the cross and then resurrected to life again so that all who repent and put their faith in him receive forgiveness by God’s grace and mercy. As such, their sins are forgiven, and they are granted new life, eternal life in Christ, and restored fellowship with God. Believers become citizens of God’s Kingdom and look forward to spending all eternity in the presence of God.
The sacred canon of Christianity (the Christian Bible) incorporates the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and the New Testament Gospels of Jesus Christ, the Book of Acts, and the Epistles.
As of 2015, Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, consisting of nearly one-third (31%) of the global population of 7.3 billion people. The major branches of Christianity are Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Under these three subgroups, the religion further divides into literally countless sects and denominations. Christianity’s influence on history and its impact on the world today is perhaps more dramatic than any other faith on the planet.
The predominant Indian religions include Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. These religions are referred to as Dharmic religions and share a connection through India’s history with the Vedic religion, or ancient Hinduism of the Vedic age (circa 1200–400 B.C.). Dharma means “the way” or “the religion,” and is the name Hindus use to refer to their faith.
Hinduism is the third-largest religion and perhaps the world’s oldest. Major traditions within Hinduism include Shaivism, Shaktism, Smartism, and Vaishnavism. The largest group is Vaishnavism, which is dedicated to worshipping the god Vishnu.
Hinduism incorporates an array of philosophies, spiritual traditions, and cultural ideals. Hindus practice their religion as a way of life. The central aims and goals of this way of life are summed up in the Four Purusarthas: Dharma (ethics and duties), Artha (prosperity and work), Kama (desires and passions), and Moksha (liberation and salvation). Karma is another vital concept of Hinduism born of the Vedic theory of “moral law of cause and effect.” Samsara is the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Hindus engage in the spiritual discipline of yoga to train the mind, body, and consciousness for wellness, tranquility, and spiritual insight. Bhakti refers to prayer and worship.
The sacred texts of Hinduism are classified as Shruti (the scriptures that are “not made of man”) and Smriti (the secondary, human-made scriptures of lesser authority). The oldest among these Hindu scriptures is the Rig Veda, dating well before B.C. 6500.
About 1 billion Hindus exist today, making up about 15% of the global population. Ninety-nine percent of these are concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region.
East Asian Religions
The predominant East Asian religions are Taoism, Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Shinto. All of these religions blend various aspects of each other into their beliefs and practices.
Shinto is the indigenous Japanese religion based on rituals and practices that date back to Japan’s ancient, prerecorded history. Taoism (also spelled Daoism) is an ancient Chinese philosophy and religion usually considered part of the blended Chinese religion that includes Confucianism and Buddhism. The concept of yin and yang makes its strongest impact In Taoism, which means “following the way.”
Confucianism is a philosophy of life with roots in ancient China. It developed from the teachings of Chinese philosopher Confucius (BC 551–479). Buddhism is founded on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (circa BC 563–483), who is called the Buddha, meaning “enlightened one.”
Buddhism today consists of three primary branches: Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism is a philosophy of life and religion. Generally speaking, Buddhists seek enlightenment as the ultimate goal in life.
There are nearly 500 million Buddhists in the world, representing 7% of the global population. The overwhelming majority dwell in the Asia-Pacific region.
Folk Religions, Cult Groups, and Other Religions
Folk religions consist of those closely associated with a particular people group, ethnicity, or tribe. In addition to the many faiths already covered, more than 400 million people worldwide (6% of the global population) practice folk or traditional religions, including indigenous South American religions, African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions, and Australian aboriginal religions.
Approximately 58 million people (less than 1% of the global population) follow other alternative religious groups like Baha’i, Tenrikyo, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism.
World religions is an expansive topic worthy of a lifetime of study. Admittedly, the faiths assembled here only scratch the surface of the total number of religions practiced by the people of our planet. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the global population of religious adherents conforms to one of these classifications or subgroups.
By Mary Fairchild