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Religion is commonly defined as a group of beliefs concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine, and the moral codes, practices, values, institutions, and rituals associated with such belief. It is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system." In the course of the development of religion, it has taken many forms in various cultures and individuals.

Occasionally, the word "religion" is used in the more restrictive sense of "organized religion" — that is, an organization of people supporting the exercise of some religion, often taking the form of a legal entity (see religion-supporting organization).


Definition of religion


There are many definitions of religion, and most have struggled to avoid an overly sharp definition on the one hand, and meaningless generalities on the other. Some have tried to use formalistic, doctrinal definitions and others have tried to use experiential, emotive, intuitive, valuational and ethical factors.

Sociologists and anthropologists see religion as an abstract set of ideas, values, or experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. Primitive religion was indistinguishable from the sociocultural acts where custom and ritual defined an emotional reality.

Other religious scholars have put forward a definition of religion that avoids the reductionism of the various sociological and psychological disciplines that relegate religion to its component factors. Religion may be defined as the presence of an awareness of the sacred or the holy. For example Rudolf Otto's "The Idea of the Holy," formulated in 1917, defines the essence of religious awareness as awe, a unique blend of fear and fascination before the divine. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the late 18th century defined religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence."

William Alston has suggested that the presence of a number of the following characteristics would make a set of practices a religion: 1) Belief in supernatural beings (gods), 2) a distinction between sacred and profane objects, 3) ritual acts focused on sacred objects, 4) a moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods, (5) characteristically religious feelings, 5) prayer and other forms of communication with gods, 6) a world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein, 7) a more or less total organization of one's life based on the world view 8), a social group bound together by the above (Alston 1967, pp. 141–142).

While the above indicates a set of beliefs and practices, Asian religious traditions, on the other hand, generally emphasize an inner state of realization instead of a merely instrumental rite or doctrine.

The Encyclopedia of Religion describes religion in the following way:

"In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels — a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience — varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture."
(Winston King, Encyclopedia of Religion, p 7693)


Image:Supplicating Pilgrim at Masjid Al Haram. Mecca, Saudi Arabia.jpg

The etymology of the word "religion" has been debated for centuries. The English word clearly derives from the Latin religio, "reverence (for the gods)" or "conscientiousness". The origins of religio, however, are obscure. Proposed etymological interpretations include:

From Relego

  • Re-reading–from Latin re (again) + lego (in the sense of "read"), referring to the repetition of scripture.
  • Treating carefully–from Latin re (again) + lego (in the sense of "choose"–this was the interpretation of Cicero) "go over again" or "consider carefully".

From Religare

  • Re-connection to the divine–from Latin re (again) + ligare (to connect, as in English ligament). This interpretation is favoured by modern scholars such as Tom Harpur, but was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius.
  • To bind or return to bondage–an alternate interpretation of the "reconnection" etymology emphasizing a sense of servitude to God, this may have originated with Augustine. However, the interpretation, while popular with critics of religion, is often considered imprecise and possibly offensive to followers.

From Res + legere

  • Concerning a gathering — from Latin res (ablative re, with regard to) + legere (to gather), since organized religion revolves around a gathering of people.

Development of religion

Image:Dome of the rock distance.jpg Template:Main There are a number of models regarding the ways in which religions come into being and develop. Broadly speaking, these models fall into three categories:

  • Models which see religions as social constructions;
  • Models which see religions as progressing toward higher, objective truth;
  • Models which see a particular religion as absolutely true;

The models are not mutually exclusive. Multiple models may be seen to apply simultaneously, or different models may be seen as applying to different religions.

Religion as a social construction

This group of models holds that religion is a social construction, rather than referring to actual supernatural phenomena, that is, phenomena beyond the natural world that we measure using the scientific method. Some of these models view religion as nonetheless having or having had a mostly positive effect on society, the individual, and civilization itself, and others view it as having or having had a mostly injurious or destructive effect. Many of these views have their origins in the field of the sociology of religion.

Models that view religion as a social construction include the "Dogma Selection Model," which holds that religions, although untrue in themselves, encode instructions or habits useful for survival, that these ideas "mutate" periodically as they are passed on, and they spread or die out in accord with their effectiveness at improving chances for survival. Another model is that religion is the "Opium of the Masses Model," which states, according to Bertrand Russell, that "[r]eligion in any shape or form is regarded as pernicious and deliberate falsehood, spread and encouraged by rulers and clerics in their own interests, since it is easier to control over the ignorant" (Wisdom of the West, ISBN 0517690411). Furthermore, the "Theory of Religion Model" states that religion arose from some psychological or moral pathology in religious leaders and believers.

Another theory states that spirit-based religions found in many indigenous tribes may originate in dreams. A dead person seen in a dream is, in some sense, not really dead, and so may be able to do good or harm. Some anthropologists see in this the origin of a belief in ghosts and in those religions in which ancestors are worshiped[1].

Religions as progressively true

Image:Babshrinenight.jpg In contrast to the above models, the following models see religion as "progressively true." Within these models religions reflect an essential Truth to one degree or another. The development of religion is therefore the course of religions aligning themselves more closely with the Truth.

Models which view religion as progressively true include the Bahá'í Prophecy Model which holds that God has sent a series of prophets to Earth, each of which brought teachings appropriate for his culture and context, but all originating from the same God, and therefore teachings the same essential message. The A Study of History Model holds that prophets are given to extraordinary spiritual insight during periods of social decay and act as "surveyors of the course of secular civilization who report breaks in the road and breakdowns in the traffic, and plot a new spiritual course which will avoid those pitfalls." Another model, the Great Awakening Model, states that religion proceeds along a Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, in cycles of approximately 80 years as a result of the interaction between four archetypal generations, by which old religious beliefs (the thesis) face new challenges for which they are unprepared (the antithesis) and adapt to create new and more sophisticated beliefs (the synthesis).

Religions as absolutely true

In the following models, religions are seen as absolutely and unchangingly True. They contrast with both the first group of models (which held religion to be false), and the second group (which held religion to develop over time).

Models which view a particular religion as absolutely true include the Jewish Model which holds that God relates to humanity through covenants; that he established a covenant with all humanity at the time of Noah called the Noahide Laws, and that he established a covenant with Israel through the Ten Commandments. The Ayyavazhi Model states that "All religions had their own truth on their own point and the one and same God himself incarnates in different parts and by destroying the evil forces, saved the people and thereby formed different scriptures; the Ayyavazhi models states currently the Akilattirattu Ammanai (scripture of Ayyavazhi) is currently the only living scripture and all others are dead. Exclusivist Models hold that one particular set of religious doctrines is the "One True Religion," and all others are false, so that the development of the True Religion is tied inexorably to one prophet or holy book. In this model, all other religions are seen as either distortions of the original truth or original fabrications resulting from either human ignorance or imagination, or a more devious influence, such as false prophets or the influence of another rival supernatural entity (such as Satan).



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 in 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, Eastern Orthodox Christianity has been experiencing considerable resurgence there.

Islam is currently the fastest-growing religion, and is nearly universal in many countries from western Africa to Indonesia, where there are close ties between government and religion. With the influx of Muslim immigrants to Western countries, Islam has grown in significance and in popular awareness even in countries where it is still a minority religion.

Hinduism is undergoing a revival, and many temples are being built, both in India and in other countries. In the Far East, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shintoism are the religions with the largest number of adherents and have greatly influenced spirituality in the West, particularly in the United States. Among major world religions, Hinduism is fastest-growing religion in the United States.

Present day adherence

The following statistics show the number of adherents in all known approaches, both religious and irreligious worldwide. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are the largest world religions today. Approximately 75% of humanity belongs to one of these 4 religions. Christianity is the religion with the largest number of professed religious adherents, followed by Islam. The third-largest group of approximately 1 billion people adhere to irreligious approaches which include Humanism, Atheism, Rationalism, and Agnosticism. Hinduism with 1 billion adherents is the third largest religion followed by 19 smaller groups of religious adherents. These figures are necessarily approximate.[2]. They are as of 2005.


  1. Christianity 2.14 billion
  2. Islam 1.5 billion
  3. Secular/Irreligious/Agnostic/Atheist 1.1 billion
  4. Hinduism 1.02 billion (see below)
  5. Buddhism 376 million, discluding Chinese folk Religion (see also Buddhism by country)
  6. Chinese folk religion 394 million
  7. Primal indigenous 300 million
  8. African traditional and diasporic 100 million
  9. Sikhism 23 million
  10. Spiritism 15 million
  11. Judaism 15 million
  12. Mormonism 12 million
  13. Bahá'í Faith 7 million
  14. Jehovah's Witnesses 6.7 million
  15. Jainism 4.2 million
  16. Shinto 4 million (see below)
  17. Cao Dai 4 million
  18. Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
  19. Tenrikyo 2 million
  20. Neopaganism 1 million
  21. Unitarian Universalism 800,000
  22. Rastafari movement 600,000
  23. Scientology 500,000
  • In its Yoga stream, Hinduism is even more widespread all over the world with 20 million practitioners in the United States alone[3]. There are more than 100 million who practise Hinduism in Yoga form worldwide. After including them, Hinduism has around 1.1 billion followers worldwide.
  • It should also be noted that many consider Mormonism to be a distinct denomination of Christianity because of their fundamental belief in Jesus Christ. However, it has been deemed appropriate to list Mormonism as a separate religion for practical purposes.
  • Shinto is a special case due to shrine-reporting versus self-reporting. Since the 17th century, there have been laws in Japan requiring registration with Shinto shrines. Because of this, 75-90% of all Japanese are listed on shrine rolls, greatly inflating the apparent number of adherents. When asked in polls, only about 3.3% of Japanese people identify themselves as "Shinto."[4] However, many who do not consider themselves "Shintoists" still practice Shinto rituals.

In ranking religious denominations, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest single denomination within Christianity, Sunni Islam within Islam, and Vaishnavism within Hinduism. It is difficult to say whether there are more Roman Catholics or Sunnis, as the numbers are roughly equal, and exact counts are impossible.

Religious belief


Religious belief usually relates to the existence, nature and worship of a deity or deities and divine involvement in the universe and human life. Alternately, it may also relate to values and practices transmitted by a spiritual leader. Unlike other belief systems, which may be passed on orally, religious belief tends to be codified. Religious beliefs are found in virtually every society throughout human history. They are a force for good, and, sometimes, ill in the world.

Related forms of thought

Religion and science

Image:God the Geometer.jpg

Main article: The relationship between religion and science

Religious knowledge, according to religious practitioners, may be gained from religious leaders, sacred texts (scriptures), and/or personal revelation. Some religions view such knowledge as unlimited in scope and suitable to answer any question; others see religious knowledge as playing a more restricted role, often as a complement to knowledge gained through physical observation. Some religious people maintain that religious knowledge obtained in this way is absolute and infallible (religious cosmology). The particulars of religious knowledge vary from religion to religion, from sect to sect, and often from individual to individual.

In contrast, the scientific method gains knowledge by testing theories by interaction with the world (checking it against facts or experiments) and thus only answers cosmological questions about the physical universe. It develops theories of the world which best fit physically observed evidence. All scientific knowledge is probabilistic and subject to later improvement or revision in the face of better evidence. Scientific theories that have an overwhelming preponderance of favorable evidence are often treated as facts.

Many early scientists held strong religious beliefs (see Scientists of Faith and List of Christian thinkers in science) and strove to reconcile science and religion. Isaac Newton, for example, believed that gravity caused the planets to revolve about the Sun, but credited God with the design. In the concluding General Scholium to the Principia Mathematica, he wrote: "This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being." Nevertheless, conflict arose between religious organizations and individuals who propagated scientific theories which were deemed unacceptable by the organizations. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has historically reserved to itself the right to decide which scientific theories are acceptable and which are unacceptable. In the 17th century, Galileo was tried and forced to recant the heliocentric theory. The modern Roman Catholic Church accepts most common current scientific theories, to the extent that they can be shown not to conflict with the Church's doctrine.

Many theories exist as to why religions sometimes seems to conflict with scientific knowledge. In the case of Christianity, a relevant factor may be that it was among Christians that science in the modern sense was developed. Unlike other religious groups, as early as the 17th century the Christian churches had to deal directly with this new way to investigate nature and seek truth. The perceived conflict between science and Christianity may also be partially explained by a literal interpretation of the Bible adhered to by many Christians, both currently and historically. This way to read the sacred texts became especially prevalent after the rise of the Protestant reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible as the only authoritative source concerning the ultimate reality.Template:Fact

Image:Emblem of Ayyavazhi.jpg

Some Christians have disagreed or are still disagreeing with scientists in areas such as the validity of Keplerian astronomy, the theory of evolution, the method of creation of the universe and the Earth, and the origins of life. On the other hand, scholars such as Stanley Jaki have suggested that Christianity and its particular worldview was a crucial factor for the emergence of modern science.

Proponents of Hinduism claim that Hinduism is not afraid of scientific explorations, nor of the technological progress of mankind. According to them, there is a comprehensive scope and opportunity for Hinduism to mold itself according to the demands and aspirations of the modern world; it has the ability to align itself with both science and spiritualism. This religion uses some modern examples to explain its ancient theories and reinforce its own beliefs. For example, some Hindu thinkers have used the terminology of quantum physics to explain some basic concepts of Hinduism such as the Maya or the illusory and impermanent nature of our existence.

The philosophical approach known as pragmatism, as propounded by the American philosopher William James, has been used to reconcile scientific with religious knowledge. Pragmatism, simplistically, holds that the truth of a set of beliefs can be indicated by its usefulness in helping people cope with a particular context of life. Thus, the fact that scientific beliefs are useful in predicting observations in the physical world can indicate a certain truth for scientific theories; the fact that religious beliefs can be useful in helping people cope with difficult emotions or moral decisions can indicate a certain truth for those beliefs. (For a similar postmodern view, see grand narrative).

Religion, metaphysics, and cosmology


Religion and philosophy overlap in several areas, notably in the study of metaphysics and cosmology. In particular, a distinct set of religious beliefs will often entail a specific metaphysics and cosmology. That is, a religion will generally have answers to metaphysical and cosmological questions about the nature of being, of the universe, humanity, and the divine.

Esotericism and mysticism


Mysticism, in contrast with philosophy and metaphysics, denies that logic is the most important method of gaining enlightenment. Rather, physical disciplines such as yoga, starvation, self-strangulation, whirling (in the case of the Sufi dervishes), or the use of Psychoactive drugs such as LSD, lead to higher states of consciousness that logic can never hope to grasp.

Mysticism ("to conceal") is the pursuit of communion with, or conscious awareness of ultimate reality, the divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct, personal experience (intuition or insight) rather than rational thought. Mystics believe in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible through personal experience. They believe that such experience is a genuine and important source of knowledge.

Esotericism claims to be more sophisticated than religion, to rely on intellectual understanding rather than faith, and to improve on philosophy in its emphasis on techniques of psycho-spiritual transformation (esoteric cosmology). Esotericism refers to "hidden" knowledge available only to the advanced, privileged, or initiated, as opposed to exoteric knowledge, which is public. It applies especially to spiritual practices. The mystery religions of ancient Greece and the modern religion of Scientology are examples of Esotericism.



Members of an organized religion may not see any significant difference between religion and spirituality. Or they may see a distinction between the mundane, earthly aspects of their religion and its spiritual dimension.

Some individuals draw a strong distinction between religion and spirituality. They may see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven), but not feel bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. They choose the term spirituality rather than religion to describe their form of belief, perhaps reflecting a disillusionment with organized religion (see Religion in modernity), and a movement towards a more "modern" — more tolerant, and more intuitive — form of religion. These individuals may reject organized religion because of historical acts by religious organizations, such as Islamic terrorism, the marginalisation and persecution of various minorities or the Spanish Inquisition.

Mohandas Gandhi, who was born a Hindu, wrote the following about religion in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth

"Thus if I could not accept Christianity either as a perfect, or the greatest religion, neither was I then convinced of Hinduism being such. Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it could but be a rotten part or an excrescence. I could not understand the raison d'etre of a multitude of sects and castes. What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran? As Christian friends were endeavouring to convert me, so were Muslim friends. Abdullah Sheth had kept on inducing me to study Islam, and of course he had always something to say regarding its beauty."

He then went on to say:

"As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. Man, for instance, cannot be untruthful, cruel or incontinent and claim to have God on his side."

He also said the following about Hinduism:

"Hinduism as I know it entirely satisfies my soul, fills my whole being... When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita, and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of tragedies and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita."

Later in his life when he was asked whether he was a Hindu, he replied:

"Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew."

Guru Nanak the founder of Sikhism (1469) was once asked who is superior Hindu or Muslim to which he replied if they don't practice what their religion preaches both may cry as none is superior. Guru Nanak said,"there is only one universal creator"


The word myth has two main meanings:

  1. A traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon;
  2. A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence.

Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia, are categorized under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development, are similarly called myths in the anthropology of religion. The term "myth" can be used pejoratively by both religious and non-religious people. But by defining another person's religious stories and beliefs as mythology, one implies that they are less real or true than one's own religious stories and beliefs. Joseph Campbell often made the statement "Mythology is popularly defined as 'other peoples' religions'...but actually religion is misinterpreted mythology".

The term myth in sociology, however, has a non-pejorative meaning. There, myth is defined as stories that are important for the group and not necessarily untrue. Examples include the death and resurrection of Jesus, which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin, as well as being ostensibly a historical event. But from a mythological outlook, whether or not a death and resurrection actually occurred or not is unimportant. Instead, the symbolism of a death to an old "life" and the start of a new "life" is more important than the religious dogma of the actual historical authenticity.


Main articles: Religious cosmology, Philosophy, Metaphysics, Esotericism, Mysticism, Spirituality, Mythology, Science

Humans have many different methods which attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it (cosmology). What is reality? How can we know? Who are we? Why we are here? How should we live? What happens after we die? Religion is only one of the methods for trying to answer one or more of these questions. Other methods include science, philosophy, metaphysics, esotericism, and mysticism. Many people use more than one of these methods.

See also

Template:Religion-related topics


  • Saint Augustine; The Confessions of Saint Augustine (John K. Ryan translator); Image (1960), ISBN 0-385-02955-1.
  • Descartes, René; Meditations on First Philosophy; Bobbs-Merril (1960), ISBN 0-672-60191-5.
  • Durant, Will (& Ariel (uncredited)); Our Oriental Heritage; MJF Books (1997), ISBN 1567310125.
  • Durant, Will (& Ariel (uncredited)); Caesar and Christ; MJF Books (1994), ISBN 1567310141
  • Durant, Will (& Ariel (uncredited)); The Age of Faith; Simon & Schuster (1980), ISBN 0671012002.
  • Gonick, Larry; The Cartoon History of the Universe; Doubleday, vol. 1 (1990) ISBN 0-385-26520-4, vol. II (1994) ISBN#0-385-42093-5, W. W. Norton, vol. III (2002) ISBN 0-393-05184-6.
  • Lao Tzu; Tao Te Ching (Victor H. Mair translator); Bantam (1998).
  • The Holy Bible, King James Version; New American Library (1974).
  • The Koran; Penguin (2000), ISBN 0140445587.
  • The Origin of Live & Death, African Creation Myths; Heinemann (1966).
  • Poems of Heaven and Hell from Ancient Mesopotamia; Penguin (1971).
  • The World Almanac (annual), World Almanac Books, ISBN 0-88687-964-7.
  • The Serotonin System and Spiritual Experiences - American Journal of Psychiatry 160:1965-1969, November 2003.
  • United States Constitution
  • "Selected Works" Marcus Tullius Cicero
  • The World Almanac (for numbers of adherents of various religions), 2005
  • Religion [First Edition]. Winston King. Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Vol. 11. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. p7692-7701.

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