Revelation 22:7-10 (KJV)
7 Behold, I come quickly: blessed is he that keepeth the sayings of the prophecy of this book.
8 And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things.
9 Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God.
10 And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand.

James 1:19-27 (KJV)
19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:
20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.
23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:
24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.
25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain.
27 Pure
religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

[ri líjjən]

(plural re·li·gions)
1. beliefs and worship: people's beliefs and opinions concerning the existence, nature, and worship of a deity or deities, and divine involvement in the universe and human life
2. system: an institutionalized or personal system of beliefs and practices relating to the divine
3. personal beliefs or values: a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by
4. obsession: an object, practice, cause, or activity that somebody is completely devoted to or obsessed by
religious [ri líjjəss]
1.  relating to belief in religion, the teaching of religion, or the practice of a religion
2.  believing in and showing devotion or reverence for a deity or deities
3.  very thorough or conscientious

Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. © 1993-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.



Religion involves a system of beliefs and practices of a group of humans in relation to their God or god(s) (cf. Isaiah 46:5-10; Acts 17:22-23). Major religions are generally expressed through such means as sacred writings, worship, prayer, ritual, sacrifices, good works, and a priestly order. While Christianity has some general similarities with world religions, it remains unique in its trinitarian view of God and in its doctrine of the incarnate Christ as true Lord of the universe and sole Savior of mankind (Acts 10:36-43; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 1 Timothy 2:5). In the modern mind, religion generally connotes a form of self-salvation by human effort, which sharply contrasts with the Christian faith. Natural religion involves the worship of false gods (i.e., idols) in contrast to true religion based on Scripture and worship of the true God (cf. 1 Kings 18:20-40; Acts 14:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). While natural religion originates from man’s inherent religious nature (cf. Genesis 1:26-27), fallen man responds to divine truth by perverting it and substituting false gods for the true God (Romans 1:21-23). True religion (1) is divinely revealed (John 5:39; Acts 7:2; 2 Peter 1:19-21); (2) finds its complete authority in Scripture alone (Isaiah 8:20; John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:15-17); (3) offers salvation by grace through faith in Christ (Acts 16:31; Ephesians 2:8-9); (4) results in consistent ethical and moral behavior (Ephesians 2:10; James 1:27); and (5) is represented exclusively by biblical Christianity (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Romans 10:13-17; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; Galatians 1:15-17).

Jewish religion

Acts 25:19; 26:5 (cf. Galatians 1:13-14)

false (natural) religion

idolatrous practice of

Joshua 24:14-15; Judges 17-18; Isaiah 46:5-7; Acts 14:15; Romans 1:21-25

intense devotion to

Acts 17:22

worship in

Acts 17:23 (cf. John 4:20-24)

self-made origin of

Colossians 2:23

Worthless value of

James 1:26

true religion

James 1:27 (cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-15; Micah 6:6-8; Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-31) (cf. Romans 3:22-26; 10:1-17)

Holy Bible, New American Standard.

RELIGION. A term, when viewed etymologically, of uncertain derivation. Cicero refers it to religare, to read over again, to consider, and thus regards it as meaning attention to divine things. Lactantius and Augustine derive the word from religare, to bind back, thus representing religion as the ground of obligation. The word thus translated in the NT, where it occurs but three times, is threskeia, and it means outward religious service (see Acts 26:5; James 1:26-27). In philosophical, as well as in common use, the word has a variety of meanings, e.g., Schleiermacher defines religion as “the feeling of absolute dependence”; Kant, “the observance of moral law as a divine institution”; Fichte, “Faith in the moral order of the universe.” In general it refers to any system of faith and worship, such as the religion of the Jews, of pagan nations, or of Christians. In the popular language of believers in Christianity it means especially and almost exclusively the Christian religion. The term calls attention to the all-important fact that man is a religious being. There is that in his nature that prompts him to some sort of faith and worship. With or without special revelation from God, he requires the satisfaction and consolation and guidance that comes from faith in the unseen and the eternal. The limits of this article do not admit of representations of the various forms of religion that have appeared in the history of the race. For these see articles under their appropriate heads. Scientific research and comparative study in this direction began in the nineteenth century. The distinction between natural and revealed religion, their relative value and importance, the inadequacy of the one and the completeness of the other properly fall under the head of theology.

The New Unger's Bible Dictionary.


Usage Number: 1

Strong's Number: <G2356>

Original Word: θρησκεία, thrēskeia

Usage Notes: signifies "religion" in its external aspect (akin to thrēskos, see below), "religious worship," especially the ceremonial service of "religion;" it is used of the "religion" of the Jews, Acts 26:5; of the "worshiping" of angels, Col. 2:18, which they themselves repudiate (Rev. 22:8, 9); "there was an officious parade of humility in selecting these lower beings as intercessors rather than appealing directly to the Throne of Grace" (Lightfoot); in Jas. 1:26, 27 the writer purposely uses the word to set in contrast that which is unreal and deceptive, and the "pure religion" which consists in visiting "the fatherless and widows in their affliction," and in keeping oneself "unspotted from the world." He is "not herein affirming. … these offices to be the sum total, nor yet the great essentials, of true religion, but declares them to be the body, the thrēskeia, of which godliness, or the love of God, is the informing soul" (Trench).

Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old Testament and New Testament Words.


COMPARATIVE, RELIGION from International Standard Bible Encyclopedia


I. The Subject in General.

The science of comparative religion is perhaps the latest born of all sciences. Largely in consequence of this fact, our knowledge of what it really proves is still far from definite, and men draw most contradictory conclusions on this point. As in the case of all new sciences in the past, not a few people have endeavored under its shelter to attack Christianity and all revealed religion. These assaults already give signs of failure—as in similar cases previously—and a new evidence of Christianity is emerging from the conflict. It is only "a little learning" that is proverbially dangerous. The subject with which the science of comparative religion deals is religion in general and all the facts which can be learnt about all religions ancient and modern, whether professed by savages or prevalent among highly civilized communities, whether to be studied in sacred books or learnt orally from the people.

1. Universality of Religion:

In this way we learn first of all that religion is a universal phenomenon, found among all nations, in all conditions, though differing immensely in its teachings, ceremonies and effects in different places. It is perhaps the most powerful for good or evil of all the instincts (for it is an instinct) which influence mankind.

2. Theories of Origin and Growth of Religion:

To account for the origin and growth of religion various theories have been propounded: (1) "Humanism," which is the revival of the ancient view of Euhemeros (circa 400 BC) that all religion arose from fear of ghosts, and all the gods were but men who had died; (2) "Animism," which traces religion to early man's fancy that every object in Nature had a personality like his own; (3) the Astral Theory, which supposes that religion originated from worship of the heavenly bodies. It is clear that there are facts to support each of these hypotheses, yet no one of them satisfies all the conditions of the case. To (1) it has been replied that most tribes from the earliest times clearly distinguished between those deities who had been men, and the gods proper, who had never been men and had never died. Regarding (2), it should be observed that it admits that man's consciousness of his own personality and his fancy that it exists in other creatures also does not account for his worshipping them, unless we grant the existence of the sensus numinis within him: if so, then this explains, justifies, and necessitates religion. (3) The Astral Theory is in direct opposition to Euhemerism or Humanism. It ascribes personality to the heavenly bodies in man's early fancy; but it, too, has to presuppose the sensus numinis, without which religion would be impossible, as would be the science of optics if man had not the sense of sight.

3. Evolution:

It is often held that religion is due to evolution. If so, then its evolution, resulting ex hypothesi in Christianity as its acme, must be the working out of a Divine "Eternal Purpose" (próthesis tṓn aiṓnōn, Ephes. 3:11), just as has been the evolution of an amoeba into a man on the Evolutionary Theory. This would be an additional proof of the truth of Christianity. But, though doubtless there has been evolution—or gradual progress under Divine guidance—in religion, the fact of Christ is sufficient to show that there is a Divine self-revelation too. Hence, the claim of Christianity to be the absolute religion. "The pre-Christian religions were the age-long prayer, the Incarnation was the answer" (Illingworth). Christianity as revealed in Christ adds what none of the ethnic faiths could prove their claim to—authority, holiness, revelation.

II. Relation of Christianity to Ethnic Faiths and Their Tenets.

It is very remarkable that Christianity—though clearly not a philosophy but a religion that has arisen under historical circumstances which preclude the possibility of supposing it the product of Eclecticism—yet sums up in itself all that is good in all religions and philosophies, without the bad, the fearful perversions and corruptions of the moral sense, too often found in them. The more the study of comparative religion is carried on the more plainly evident does this become. It also supplements in a wonderful way the half-truths concealed rather than revealed in other systems, whether religious or philosophical. We subjoin a few instances of this.

1. Karma:

Karma is strongly insisted on in Hinduism and Buddhism. These teach that every deed, good or bad, must have its result, that "its fruit must be eaten" here or hereafter. So does Christianity quite as forcibly (Galatians 6:7-8). But neither Indian faith explains how sin can be forgiven, evil be overruled for good, nor how, by trampling under foot their vices, men may rise higher (Aug., Sermo iii, De Ascensione). They recognize, in some sense, the existence of evil, and illogically teach that rites and certain ascetic practices help to overcome it. They know of no Atonement, though modern Hinduism endeavors to propitiate the deities by sacrifices, as indeed was done in Vedic times. Conscience they cannot explain. Christianity, while showing the heinousness of sin as no other system does, and so supplementing the others, supplements them still further by the Atonement, showing that God is just, and teaching how His very righteousness can be brought to "justify" the sinner (Romans 3:26).

2. God:

Mahayana Buddhism proclaims an immanent but not transcendent being (Dharma-kaya), who is "the ultimate reality that underlies all particular phenomena" (Suzuki), who wills and reflects, though not fully personal. He is not the Creator of the world but a kind of Animus mundi. He is the sum total of all sentient beings, and they have no individual existence, no "ego-soul." The world of matter has no real existence but is his self-manifestation. Christianity supplements and corrects this by teaching the transcendence as well as the immanence (Acts 17:28) of the Creator, who is at least personal, if not something higher, who is the Source of reality though not Himself the sole reality, and of our personality and life, and "who only hath immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16).

3. The "Summum Bonum":

Vedantism and Cuffiism proclaim that ultimr~te absorption in the impersonal "It" is the summum bonum, and the Chandogya Upanishad says, "There is just one thing, without a second" (Book VI, 2 1, 2). Of this one thing everything is, so to speak, a part: there being no ultimate difference between the human and the Divine. Thus sin is denied and unreality proclaimed (Maya, illusion). The yearning for union with God underlying all this is satisfied in Christianity, which provides reconciliation with God and shows how by new spiritual birth men may become children of God (John 1:12-13) and "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), without being swallowed up therein like a raindrop in the ocean: the union being spiritual and not material.

4. Self-Revelation of God:

Orthodox (Sunni) Muslim theology declares God to be separated from man by an impassable gulf and hence, to be unknowable. Philosophically this leads to Agnosticism, though opposed to Polytheism. Among the Jews the philosophy of Maimonides ends in the same failure to attain to a knowledge of the Divine or to describe God except by negations (Ṣēpher Ha-maddāʿ, 1 11). The Bible, on the other hand, while speaking of Him as invisible, and unknowable through merely human effort (Job 11:7-8; John 1:18), yet reveals Him in Christ, who is God and man. Jewish mysticism endeavored to solve the problem of creation by the invention of the ʾĀdhām (archetypal man), and earlier by Philo's Logos doctrine and the Mēmrāʾ of the Targums. But these abstractions have neither reality nor personality. The Christian Logos doctrine presents no theoretical but the actual historical, eternal Christ (compare John 1:1-3; Hebrews 1:2).

5. Incarnation:

Heathenism seeks to give some idea of the Invisible by means of idols; Vaishnavism has its doctrine of avataras; Babiism and Bahaiism their dogma of "manifestations" (mazhar) in human beings; the `Ali-ilahis are so called because they regard `Ali as God. Instead of these unworthy theories and deifications, Christianity supplies the holy, sinless, perfect Incarnation in Christ.

6. Salvation:

Hinduism offers mukti (moksha), "deliverance" from a miserable existence; Christianity in Christ offers pardon, deliverance from sin, and reconciliation with God.

7. Faith:

Krishnaism teaches unreasoning "devotion" (bhakti) of "mind, body, property" to certain supposed incarnations of Krishna (Vishnu), quite regardless of their immoral conduct; Christianity inculcates a manly, reasonable "faith" in Christ, but only after "proving all things."

8. Approach to God:

Pilgrimages in Islam and Hinduism indicate but do not satisfy a need for approach to God; Christianity teaches a growth in grace and in likeness to Christ, and so a spiritual drawing near to God.


III. General Characteristics of Ethnic Faiths.

1. Tenets Common to All Religions:

In all religions we find, though in many various forms, certain common beliefs, such as: (1) the existence of some spiritual power or powers, good or bad, superior to man and able to affect his present and future life; (2) that there is a difference between right and wrong, even though not clearly defined; (3) that there is an afterlife of some sort, with happiness or misery often regarded as in some measure dependent upon conduct or upon the observance of certain rites here. In the main the fact of the all but universal agreement of religions upon these points proves that they are true in substance. Even such an agnostic philosophy as original Buddhism was, has been constrained by human need to evolve from itself or admit from without deistic or theistic elements, and thus Buddha himself has been deified by the Mahayana School. Yet no ethnic faith satisfies the "human soul naturally Christian," as Tertullian calls it (Liber Apologeticus, cap. 17), for none of them reveals One God, personal, holy, loving, just, merciful, omniscient and omnipotent. Even Islam fails here. Ethnic religions are either (1) polytheistic, worshipping many gods, all imperfect and some evil, or (2) mystical, evaporating away, as it were, God's Personality, thus rendering Him a mental abstraction, as in the Hindu philosophical systems and in Mahayana Buddhism. Christianity as revealed in Christ does just what all other faiths fail to do, reconciling these two tendencies and correcting both.

2. Tendency to Degradation, not to Progress, in Ethnic Faiths:

As a general rule, the nearer to their source we can trace religions, the purer we find them. In most cases a degradation and not to progressive improvement manifests itself as time goes on, and this is sometimes carried to such an extent that, as Lucretius found in Rome and Greece, religion becomes a curse and not a blessing. Thus, for example, regarding ancient Egypt, Professor Renouf says: "The sublimer portions of the Egyptian religion are not the comparatively late result of a process of development. The sublimer portions are demonstrably ancient, and the last stage of the Egyptian religion was by far the grossest and most corrupt" (Hibbert Lectures, 91). Modern Hinduism, again, is incomparably lower in its religious conceptions than the religion of the Vedas. In Polynesia the same rule holds good, as is evident from the myths about Tangaroa. In Samoa he was said to be the son of two beings, the "Cloudless Heaven" and the "Outspread Heaven." He originally existed in open space. He made the sky to dwell in. He then made the earth. Somewhat later he was supposed to be visible in the moon! But a lower depth was reached. In Hawaii, Tangaroa has sunk to an evil being, the leader of a rebellion against another god, Tane, and is now condemned to abide in the lowest depths of darkness and be the god of death. In South Africa, Australia and elsewhere, traditions still linger of a Creator of all things, but his worship has been entirely laid aside in favor of lower and more evil deities.

3. Mythology and Religion:

Almost everywhere mythology has arisen and perverted religion into something very different from what it once was. The same tendency has more than once manitested itself in the Christian church, thus rendering a return to Christ's teachings necessary. As an instance, compare the modern popular religion of Italy with that of the New Testament. It is remarkable that no religion but the Christian, however, has shown its capability of reform.

4. Religion and Morality in Ethnic Faiths:

For the most part, in ethnic religions, there is no recognized connection between religion and morality. The wide extension of phallic rites and the existence of hierodoulai and hierodouloi in many lands show that religion has often consecrated gross immorality. Mythology aids in this degradation. Hence, Seneca, after mentioning many evil myths related of Jupiter, etc., says: "By which nothing else was effected but the removal from men of their shame at sinning, if they deemed such beings goals" (L. A. Seneca, De beata vita cap. 26). With the possibly doubtful exception of the religion of certain savage tribes, in no religion is the holiness of God taught except in Christianity and its initial stage, Judaism. Ethnic deities are mostly born of heaven and earth, if not identified with them in part, and are rarely regarded as creating them. It was otherwise, however, with Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism, and with certain Sumerian deities, and there are other exceptions, too. The "religions of Nature" have generally produced gross immorality, encouraged and even insisted upon as a part of their ritual; compare Mylitta-worship in Babylon and that of the "Mater deum," Venus, Anahita, etc.


IV. Supposed Resemblances to Revealed Religion.

1. Rites:

Much attention has been called to real or supposed community of rites and "myths," especially when any ethnic faith is compared with Christianity. Sacrifice, for instance, is an essential part of every religion. In Christianity none are now offered, except the "living sacrifice" of the believer, though that of Christ offered once for all is held to be the substance foreshadowed by Jewish sacrifices. Purificatory bathings are found almost everywhere, and that very naturally, because of the universality of conscience and of some sense of sin.

2. Dogmas:

Belief in the fiery end of the world existed among the Stoics, and is found in the Eddas of Scandinavia and the Puranas of India. Traditions of an age before sin and death came upon mankind occur in many different lands. Many of these traditions may easily be accounted for. But in some cases the supposed resemblance to revealed religion does not exist, or is vastly exaggerated. The Yoga philosophy in India is popularly supposed to aim at union with God, as does Christianity; but (so understood) the Yoga system, as has already been said, implies loss of personality and absorption into the impersonal, unconscious "It" (Tat). The doctrine of a Trinity is nowhere found, only Triads of separate deities. Belief in a resurrection is found in only very late parts of the Persian (Zoroastrian) scriptures, composed after centuries of communication with Jews and Christians. In the earlier Avesta only a "restoration" of the world is mentioned (compare Acts 3:21). Original (Hinayana) Buddhism teaches "immortality" (amata), but by this is meant Nirvana ("extinction"). Mithraism has been said to teach the "resurrection of the body," but, according to Eubulus and Porphyry, it taught rather the transmigration of the soul.

3. Asserted Parallels to Gospel History:

The assertion is often made that many of the leading gospel incidents in the life of our Lord are paralleled in other religions. It is said, for instance, that the resurrection of Adonis, Osiris and Mithra was believed in by their followers. It is true that, in some places, Adonis was said to have come to life the day after he had met his death by the tusk of a boar (the cold of winter); but everywhere it was recognized that he was not a man who had been killed, but the representative of the produce of the soil, slain or dying down in the cold weather and growing again in spring. As to Osiris, his tomb was shown in more than one place in Egypt, and his body was never supposed to have come to life again, though his spirit was alive and was ruler of the underworld. Mithra was admitted to be the genius of the sun. He was said to have sprung from a rock (in old Persian and Sanskrit the same word means "sky," "cloud" and "rock"), but not to have been incarnated, nor to have died, much less to have risen from the dead. The modern erroneous fancy that Mithraists believed in his resurrection rests solely on one or at most two passages in Christian writers, which really refer to the burial of Osiris and the removal of his body from the tomb by his hostile brother Typhon (Set). The high morality attributed to Mithraism and even to the worship of Isis rests on no better foundation than the wrong rendering of a few passages and the deliberate ignoring of many which contradict theory.

4. Virgin Birth:

Virgin birth, we have been told, is a doctrine of many religions. As a matter of fact, it is found in hardly one ethnic faith. Nothing of the kind was believed regarding Osiris, Adonis, Horus, Mithra, Krishna, Zoroaster. Of Buddha it is denied entirely in all the books of the Southern Canon (Pali), and is found expressed only vaguely in one or two late uncanonical works of the Northern (Sanskrit) School. It was doubtless borrowed from Christianity. Supernatural birth of quite a different (and very repulsive) kind is found in many mythologies, but that is quite another thing.

5. Heathen Aspirations and Unconscious Prophecies:

Heathenism contains some vague aspirations and unconscious prophecies, the best example of which is to be found in Vergil's Fourth Eclogue, if that be not rather due to Jewish influence. Any such foregleams of the coming light as are real and not merely imaginary, such, for instance, as the Indian doctrine of the avataras or "descents" of Vishnu, are to be accounted for as part of the Divine education of the human race. The "false dawn," so well known in the East, is not a proof that the sun is not about to rise, nor can its existence justify anyone in shutting his eyes to stud rejecting the daylight when it comes. It is but a harbinger of the real dawn.

6. Lessons Taught by Comparative Religion:

Comparative religion teaches us that religion is essential to and distinctive of humanity. The failures of the ethnic faiths no less than their aspirations show how great is man's need of Christ, and how utterly unable imagination has ever proved itself to be even to conceive of such an ideal character as He revealed to us in the full light of history and in the wonder-working effects of His character upon the lives and hearts of those who then and in all ages since have in Him received life and light.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
Religion by Microsoft Encarta:

Religionsacred engagement with that which is believed to be a spiritual reality. Religion is a worldwide phenomenon that has played a part in all human culture and so is a much broader, more complex category than the set of beliefs or practices found in any single religious tradition. An adequate understanding of religion must take into account its distinctive qualities and patterns as a form of human experience, as well as the similarities and differences in religions across human cultures.

In all cultures, human beings make a practice of interacting with what are taken to be spiritual powers. These powers may be in the form of gods, spirits, ancestors, or any kind of sacred reality with which humans believe themselves to be connected. Sometimes a spiritual power is understood broadly as an all-embracing reality (see Pantheism), and sometimes it is approached through its manifestation in special symbols. It may be regarded as external to the self, internal, or both. People interact with such a presence in a sacred manner—that is, with reverence and care. Religion is the term most commonly used to designate this complex and diverse realm of human experience.


The word religion is derived from the Latin noun religio, which denotes both earnest observance of ritual obligations and an inward spirit of reverence. In modern usage, religion covers a wide spectrum of meanings that reflect the enormous variety of ways the term can be interpreted. At one extreme, many committed believers recognize only their own tradition as a religion, understanding expressions such as worship and prayer to refer exclusively to the practices of their tradition. Although many believers stop short of claiming an exclusive status for their tradition, they may nevertheless use vague or idealizing terms in defining religion—for example, “true love of God,” or “the path of enlightenment.” At the other extreme, religion may be equated with ignorance, fanaticism, or wishful thinking.

By defining religion as a sacred engagement with what is taken to be a spiritual reality, it is possible to consider the importance of religion in human life without making claims about what it really is or ought to be. Religion is not an object with a single, fixed meaning, or even a zone with clear boundaries. It is an aspect of human experience that may intersect, incorporate, or transcend other aspects of life and society. Such a definition avoids the drawbacks of limiting the investigation of religion to Western or biblical categories such as monotheism (belief in one god only) or to church structure, which are not universal. For example, in tribal societies, religion—unlike the Christian church—usually is not a separate institution but pervades the whole of public and private life. In Buddhism, gods are not as central as the idea of a Buddha (fully enlightened human being). In many traditional cultures the idea of a sacred cosmic order is the most prominent religious belief. Because of this variety, some scholars prefer to use a general term such as the sacred to designate the common foundation of religious life.

Religion in this understanding includes a complex of activities that cannot be reduced to any single aspect of human experience. It is a part of individual life but also of group dynamics. Religion includes patterns of behavior but also patterns of language and thought. It is sometimes a highly organized institution that sets itself apart from a culture, and it is sometimes an integral part of a culture. Religious experience may be expressed in visual symbols, dance and performance, elaborate philosophical systems, legendary and imaginative stories, formal ceremonies, meditative techniques, and detailed rules of ethical conduct and law. Each of these elements assumes innumerable cultural forms. In some ways there are as many forms of religious expression as there are human cultural environments.


When the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in 1963 against the practice of prayer in public schools, it recommended at the same time that the study of religion should be part of every student’s education. In Europe, new materials for the study of religion were gathered when European explorers first began to make extensive contact with non-Western cultures. Over the past four centuries, innumerable philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have proposed theories of religion. The common factor in their various perspectives is the perception that religion need not be studied from a sectarian or partisan standpoint but may be approached impartially, as a subject for scholarly investigation.

A   Antiquity

The first recorded Western attempts to understand and document religious phenomena were made by the Greeks and Romans. As early as the 6th century bc, Greek philosopher Xenophanes noted that different cultures visualized the gods in different ways. In the following century, Greek historian Herodotus recorded the wide range of religious practices he encountered in his travels, comparing the religious observances of various cultures, such as sacrifice and worship, with their Greek equivalents. Roman historians Julius Caesar and Cornelius Tacitus similarly recorded the rites and customs of peoples that they met on their military campaigns.

B   Ages of Exploration and Enlightenment

Although the systematic study of religions did not emerge until the latter half of the 19th century, the groundwork was laid in the three preceding centuries. In the 16th century, Western knowledge of other cultures increased dramatically through extensive trade and exploration. Explorers and missionaries reported in detail on the range of religious beliefs and practices around the world. As a result, a great deal of traditional bias against non-Christian religions was challenged as early as the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the Age of Enlightenment (early and mid-18th century), thinkers took a special interest in what they termed natural religion—the inborn capacity of all humans to arrive at a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to act on that belief. To thinkers of the Enlightenment, natural religion compared favorably with the supernatural religion of the Bible. For example, French philosopher Voltaire condemned the social effects of revealed religion (religion that is communicated through supernatural authorities such as prophets or sacred scriptures), and German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder argued that every culture possesses a unique spirit that is part of its religion and its language. In a critique of biblical history, Scottish philosopher David Hume demonstrated the historical difficulties involved in tracing all human cultures to the offspring of the biblical patriarch Noah or in asserting that monotheism is the original form of religion.

C   The 19th and 20th Centuries

In the mid-19th century, German scholar Friedrich Max Müller, who has been called the father of comparative religion, became the most prominent advocate of historical and linguistic analysis in the study of religion. Beginning in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the scriptures of many non-Western traditions had been translated and published, offering a view of faiths that previously had been inaccessible. In addition, archaeological excavations had revealed new features—including some scriptural texts—of previously obscure religions, such as those of the ancient Middle East. Presented with this mass of information, Müller undertook a critical, historically based investigation of world religious traditions. Although his approach emphasized the view that all traditions were the product of historical development, Müller believed comparative study would demonstrate that every religion possessed some measure of truth.

By the end of the 19th century, scholars were making religion an object of systematic inquiry. Müller’s comparative approach was adopted in many European and Japanese universities, and as a result the common features of world religions (such as gods, prayer, priesthood, and creation myths) were the subjects of sustained scholarly investigation. In addition, field anthropologists had begun to compile firsthand accounts of the religions of peoples who previously had been dismissed as savages. The study of tribal religions contributed a great deal to the general analysis of the role of religion in human societies.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars had begun to pose basic questions about the origin and development of religious ideas. Scholars questioned how religion began and the stages of its evolution. Some maintained that it originated with a belief in spirits (animism), then evolved into the notion that there were many gods (polytheism), and ultimately emerged as the ideal of a single god (monotheism). Others held that religion began in a sense of awe at the impressive activities of nature (see Nature Worship), in a feeling of reverence for the spirits of the dead (see Ancestor Worship), or in an attempt to overcome mortality (see Immortality). Many other important questions about the nature of religion were addressed during this period: Can religion be divided into so-called primitive and higher types? Is religion a product of psychological needs and projections? Is it a function of political and social control? Such questions have continued to generate a large number of theories.


Religious life reflects an individual’s attempt to live in accordance with the precepts of a religious tradition. For example, Buddhists imitate the Buddha; Christians strive to be Christ-like (see Jesus Christ); and followers of the mystical Dao (or Tao, the Chinese term for the ultimate way of the universe) practice noninterference with the natural course of things (see Daoism). Religious experience also reflects the variety of cultural expressions in general: It can be formal or spontaneous, solemn or festive, hierarchical or egalitarian; it can emphasize submission or liberation; it can be devotional or contemplative; it can involve fear or joy; it can be comforting or disruptive; it can encourage reliance on powers outside oneself or on personal responsibility.

The idea that sacredness is an individual experience and the idea that it is influenced by environmental factors are not necessarily in conflict. Religious life is given distinctive form both by the power of a community’s social bonds and its traditional objects of veneration, and by an individual’s personal interaction with those objects. In addition, mythic language and ritual serve as a focus for religious experience. The attempt to isolate the distinctive qualities of religion can be seen in the work of a number of influential thinkers. Considered together, these approaches offer a representative picture of the ways in which modern investigators have understood the place of the sacred in human life.

A   Religion as a Function of Society

In many cases, the things that people consider sacred are determined by the community to which they belong. The holiest things in the world to one group—its gods, saviors, scriptures, or sacraments—are not necessarily seen as sacred absolutes by another group. The notion that sacredness is a value that a given society places on objects, that such objects shape and generate the religious feelings of its members, and that religiousness is therefore a function of social belonging was first suggested by French sociologist Émile Durkheim. According to his classic theory, set forth in Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totemique en Australie (1912; translated as The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1965), the distinguishing mark of religion in its most basic form is not belief in divinity or in the supernatural but the existence of objects considered to be sacred by a group of people.

In Durkheim’s view, it is the authority and beliefs of a society that make things sacred or nonsacred (in his terminology, profane). Religion is consequently best understood neither as the result of supernatural revelation (although Durkheim recognizes that this may be a personal view held by the member of a religion), nor as an illusion or set of mistaken ideas (which might be the viewpoint of a skeptical outsider who does not accept the religious beliefs). Rather, religion is best understood as the power of a society to make things sacred or profane in the lives of its individual members. According to Durkheim, the social and religious power of sacredness are one and the same, since to hold something sacred is to demonstrate one’s commitment to and respect for the authority of one’s tradition.

Sacred things are those objects and symbols, including principles and beliefs, that must be preserved from violation because they represent all that is of most value to the community. All cultures hold something sacred. In secular Western societies, the sacred might be embodied in certain principles, such as individual rights, freedom, justice, or equality. In Durkheim’s view, therefore, religion is not a matter of claims about the universe that are either true or false, but is the normal way that a society constructs and maintains its cherished tradition and moral values.

B   Religion as Numinous Experience

A very different approach, emphasizing individual experience, was developed by German theologian Rudolf Otto. In Das Heilige (1917; The Idea of the Holy, 1958), Otto argues that the experience of the numinous (Latin numen,”spiritual power”) is the distinctive core of religiousness. Such experience is marked by a sense of awe in the face of the mysterious other reality that dramatically intersects our limited, vulnerable existence. According to Otto, it is this reality that religious traditions symbolize by concepts such as God. The numinous can be experienced as something fearful and alienating, but also as something comforting with which one feels a certain communion or continuity. Religious ideas such as the wrath of God or the peace of God express these different aspects of numinous experience. In Otto’s view, the capacity for such awareness lies within each person, and it is the purpose of religious language and observance to shape and elicit this awareness. In formulating this approach, Otto followed in the tradition of earlier thinkers such as German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. In his book Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (1799; On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, 1893), Schleiermacher argued that religiousness is only secondarily a matter of doctrine or morality; he claimed that it is primarily a matter of intuitive feeling, an immediate experience that was prior to language itself, and a sense of the infinite.

C   Religion as an Individual Phenomenon

For many people, religion is best understood at the level of individual spiritual life. An influential book employing this approach is The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), by American philosopher and psychologist William James. James attempted to study all the different forms that religious experience can take, from extreme asceticism (practice of self-denial) and mystical union with the divine, to modern techniques of positive thinking. He gave special attention to conversion experiences, or life-changing encounters with spiritual forces.

James documented his study with hundreds of cases in which individuals reported that they had experienced contact with something divine or transcendent and that their lives had been changed decisively. Many of these episodes came in the form of a sudden and unsolicited consciousness of spiritual unity or insight. They were mystical experiences and were ineffable (incapable of being described in words). James also hypothesized the existence of a wider, subconscious dimension of the self that could help account for the source of apparently supernatural visions, voices, and revelations. The notion of a creative unconscious, understood as an element of the mind surrounding the individual ego and often expressed through religious symbols, was also described by the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.

D   Religion as Experience Mediated by the Sacred

Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who taught at the University of Chicago from 1957 to 1985, emphasized that religious people experience the ordinary world differently from nonreligious people because they view it as a sacred place. In Eliade’s view, believing in the divine foundations of life transforms the significance of natural objects and activities. He believed that for homo religiosus (Latin for “religious man,” a term used by Eliade to designate a person who lives according to a religious worldview), time, space, the earth, the sky, and the human body can all come to have a symbolic, religious meaning. Like Rudolf Otto, Eliade held that the study of religion must not reduce its subject matter to something merely social or psychological, but must take seriously the idea that in the believer’s world the experience of sacredness defines a distinctive reality.

For Eliade, myth and ritual represent the central language by means of which religious worlds are structured (see Mythology). In his approach, myth is not merely fiction or folktale but the powerful words and stories that recount the actions of gods and founders and the guidelines they set down for human life. In this sense, myth describes not what is simply fantastic but what is most real, naming the spiritual forces that established the world and that continue to permeate it. Religion has its own language to describe the spiritual order of the universe, just as science has its descriptions of the physical world. Moreover, the purpose of describing the divine time of origins is not only to provide an explanation for how the world began, but also to provide a reference point—in a sense, a script—for living in the present world. Religious people aspire to live in the time of divine origins: For observing Jews, Friday night is not only Friday night, but also the beginning of the Sabbath as instituted by the Creator at the beginning of time; and for observing Christians, Christmas becomes the time of the birth of Christ. Ritual times and places create opportunities for religious people to come into contact with the sacred and its regenerative power.


When religion is observed across many cultures, certain common themes and patterns of activity appear. Significant differences within those patterns are also evident.

A   Sacred Histories

Most religious systems are organized around certain past events and models. Each religion has its own account of the history of the world—the great time when gods, creators, sages, ancestors, saviors, founders, or heroes established or revealed the essential elements of the religion. These collective memories are ordinarily preserved in carefully maintained oral traditions or in the classic accounts known as scriptures or sacred writings. In Christian histories, the key event of the past is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, whose teachings, death, and resurrection set the model for the meaning of Christian life. In Judaism the great time was the Exodus (the flight from Egypt under Moses) and the subsequent receiving of the Law at Mount Sinai (see Ten Commandments). The enlightenment experience of the Buddha and the revelation of the Qur'an (Koran) (Islamic scripture) to the prophet Muhammad are defining events in Buddhism and Islam, respectively. The Islamic calendar begins with the birth of Islam in ad 622 (see Hegira), the Christian calendar begins with the birth of Christ, and the Jewish calendar begins with the biblical time of the Creation itself.

B   Renewal Observances

Religions provide for continual renewal by setting aside special times for their adherents to recollect and demonstrate what they hold sacred. These occasions may take place annually, monthly, weekly, daily, or even hourly. Muslims are expected to pause for prayer at five different times every day, and during the holy month of Ramadan—which honors the month when the Qur'an was first revealed—they are expected to observe a fast (see Fasting) every day from sunrise to sunset. For Jews, the High Holy Days—a ten-day period in autumn celebrating the new year and concluding with the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)—is a major time of spiritual renewal, as is Passover in the spring. Jews dedicate the seventh, or Sabbath, day to recalling the divine basis of life. Christians follow a similar seven-day cycle but give special prestige to Sunday, honoring the day of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, according to the Christian scriptures, occurred on the first day of the week. Every religion, large or small, has regular major festivals and observances that celebrate and display its fundamental commitments and that intensify and renew the spiritual memory of its followers.

C   Sacred Space

Religions not only create sacred times that define the calendar and occur throughout the year, intersecting with ordinary time, they also establish special places that localize the sacred in the midst of ordinary space. Sometimes these are places of natural beauty or imposing power, such as mountains, caves, or rivers. They may also be sites that commemorate great religious events of the past—for example, the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna; the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment; or the spot where Muhammad is believed to have journeyed to heaven (memorialized by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem). Sometimes they are places where miraculous spiritual appearances are believed to have occurred, as in the case of the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, France. They may also be shrines and temples built to house the gods or their representative symbols, such as the Parthenon in Greece, which was dedicated to Athena, patron goddess of Athens. Holy places also become objects of pilgrimage, such as the Kaaba, the holiest shrine of Islam, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For Muslims, the Kaaba is the symbol of true monotheistic religion and is believed to have been built by biblical patriarch Abraham. All Muslims are expected to visit it at some time in their lives. Sometimes the act of building a sacred place occurs each time the rite is performed and is thus part of the ritual itself, as in the case of the annual Native American Sun Dance ceremonies, for which a new lodge is erected each year.

The use of space reveals a great deal about a religious worldview. Some structures, such as Pueblo kivas (ceremonial chambers), are built into the ground, acknowledging the earth as the place from which human beings emerged and as the source of sustenance for the Pueblo’s agricultural society (see Native American Religions). Others, such as the European gothic cathedrals, through their delicate architecture and skyward reach, suggest the transcendence of the divine realm. Shinto shrines in Japan express reverence for nature in the harmonious way they blend with the natural environment. On the other hand, some so-called megachurches (churches with huge congregations) of modern North America have taken the form of corporate office complexes geared for efficiency of organized service. Some holy places are understood to be the actual dwelling place of the god. Others—as in certain branches of Protestant tradition—are understood to be primarily places of gathering for the faithful (see Protestantism: Beliefs and Practices). In such cases, a plain architectural style follows naturally from the desire to de-emphasize the importance of the physical building itself.

D   Religion in Life

Religious cultures generally ascribe spiritual significance to all parts of their worlds. This is especially obvious in rites of passage. Through ritual, each major change in life is incorporated into the domain of the sacred. For example, birth rites might involve bestowing the blessings of the god on the child or giving the child a special religious name. Rites of entry into adulthood also connect the individual to the sacred tradition of the culture. For example, in Buddhist Thailand, young men become sons of Buddha through a ceremony in which they reenact key parts of the historical Buddha’s search for enlightenment (see Theravada Buddhism). In Jewish bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, adolescents, having reached the age of 13, read from the Torah, the primary scripture of Judaism. Christian youths participate in First Communion, in which they take part in the Eucharist (a ceremony involving blessed bread and wine, which represent the body and blood of Christ) for the first time. Weddings and funerals are two other ceremonies of passage laden with sacred meaning.

All of life—including food, work, suffering, human relations, sexuality and marriage, education, the arts, and government—can be given religious significance. Many religions have detailed rules of purity that bear on every aspect of behavior. In this way, the religious reality—whether conceived as a divine commandment, the will of God, Buddha nature, or the Tao—is acknowledged to be the true and proper basis of all life.

E   Interaction with Spiritual Beings

Religious cultures provide their members with established, patterned ways of interacting with spiritual beings. Such communication is often the center of religious practice. Perhaps the most widely practiced forms are petitionary prayer (prayer that contains a request), offerings and sacrifices, purification and penance, and worship. Sometimes these are regular events, and sometimes they are performed in times of special need, such as illness, drought, infertility, or war—times when human beings find themselves especially dependent on or subject to the forces of the universe that are beyond their control. At other times, religions have forms of communion, such as the Christian Eucharist or meditation on the presence of a supreme being. Reciting the name of the Buddha is the primary religious practice in Pure Land Buddhism, and this practice has parallels among other religious groups, such as the Sikhs.

The gods, in turn, are believed to make their will, power, or presence known to humans in a variety of ways, including prophecy, states of trance, dreams and visions, divination, healings, special signs and miracles, intuition, mystical experiences, and embodiment in the lives of special individuals. In many societies, possession (control of a person’s body by a spiritual entity) is a common form of interchange with the spirit world. Through intensive training, a shaman acquires the ability to enter trance states and negotiate with gods and spirits. In so-called possession rites, spirits are believed to enter the bodies of devotees. Divination, or techniques for reading the will and timing of the gods through the shape or significations of physical objects, is also widespread. Relationship with the divinity can also be expressed in terms of moral behavior. In this case, service to the gods means devotedly adhering to their revealed precepts for conduct and their standards of spiritual life in general. In some religions, individuals cultivate a lifelong personal relationship with their deity.

F   Rituals and Symbols

Ritual is a form of communication in its own right. Rituals involve performance and symbolic bodily actions, displayed in a tangible, visible way. They have the power to focus experience and thus function to intensify the sense of the sacred. Rituals can be as simple as bowing one’s head before a meal, chanting a certain phrase, or removing footwear. At the other extreme, they can involve intricate ceremonies performed by teams of priests and lasting several days. Rituals reveal the sacred through specific, symbolic actions and objects, including processions, special clothing, special sounds—for example chanting—or silences, masks, symbolic objects, and special foods. Some religions use rituals to great effect, while others assign them a lesser role. Where ritual is central, there is usually a priesthood (see Priest). This is the case in the Catholic and Orthodox forms of Christianity (see Roman Catholic Church; Orthodox Church) as well as in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto. Jews, Muslims, and many Protestant churches do not have a priesthood as such because they emphasize a direct faith and consideration of scripture (training in which is required for rabbis, imams, and ministers).

Religions differ in their use of images. Jews, Muslims, and puritanical forms of Protestantism prohibit images of God in order to preserve the transcendence and holiness of the divine. But images of holy persons or of the deity are important objects of veneration in Catholicism, in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (in which they are called icons), and in most other religions (see Idolatry).

G   Holiness, Inward Transformation, and Salvation

Most major religions provide paths that deliver individuals from the bondage of sin, immorality, ignorance, and other types of impurity or disharmony and lead them toward a state of purity of soul, spiritual knowledge, wisdom, godliness, enlightenment, or even eternal life. Religions typically hold that human beings have a higher nature that exists in tension with a lower nature, and the religions offer ways to redeem the former from the latter. Even within a single religious tradition there may be different versions of this process. Some emphasize the separation of the spiritual part of the self from worldly attachments, while others emphasize living harmoniously in relation to nature, self, and divinity.

Two corresponding religious ideals can be discerned from the different ways in which religions consider salvation. On one hand, the saved or truly religious person may be one who has achieved liberation from the material world and has reached a heavenly state of afterlife (such as heaven) or a supreme state of consciousness (such as nirvana). On the other hand, this person may be one who has come to embody the virtues of holiness, however they are defined by the particular religion, while still living on earth. Monasticism arose in some religions, such as Buddhism and the classical forms of Christianity, although it has no place in others, including Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism. Many religious virtues—such as love, self-control, compassion, nonviolence, and wisdom—appear in more than one religion, but differences in belief systems can give varying significance to these virtues. All the historic religions address the need for individual holiness in some form and can point to saints, mystics, or spiritual exemplars who fully embody the ideals of their traditions.


Modernity has posed acute challenges to traditional religions. In the 1960s membership in mainstream Christian denominations began to decline, and candidates for the priesthood were less numerous. For a large number of people in modern societies, religion is neither good nor bad but simply irrelevant, given the many alternative ways to find meaning in various forms of cultural pursuits, ethical ideals, and lifestyles. These challenges to religion are partly a result of the prestige of science. The sciences describe a universe without reference to deities, the soul, or spiritual meaning. In addition, critical studies of biblical history have demonstrated that the Bible is not unique among ancient religious and historical documents (see Biblical Scholarship). For example, the biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the Deluge (universal flood) are common to other ancient Middle Eastern religions. Other factors that have contributed to a decline in religious participation in the modern world include the presentation of religion as a prescientific form of superstitious thinking, as a source of political control and divisiveness, as a confirmation of established patriarchal values, or as an emotional crutch. In addition, many families are no longer able to maintain stable religious traditions because they are disconnected from traditional, supportive religions or as a result of mixed or nonreligious marriages. Another influence has been the loss of community and social commitment that has followed in the wake of increased mobility. Frequent changes of location can result in a sense of impermanence or instability. This is particularly true of a move from town to city, which often results in the loss of stable community structure. Social uprooting can lead to religious uprooting because religious affiliation is closely related to social ties.

Despite all these factors, religion has not disappeared, and in many places it is thriving. Although secularization has had its effects, religion has been kept alive as a result, in part, of the adaptation of religion to secular values; the repositioning of conservative religion in direct opposition to secular values; and the emergence of new religious movements that meet the specific and diverse spiritual needs of people in contemporary society.

In many instances, religion has been able to adapt to modernity by accommodating the diversity of contemporary culture. Many religious traditions have broadened the concept of God to allow for the coexistence of various faiths, have acknowledged gender equality by ordaining women, and have adopted outward characteristics of modern culture in general. Many groups have benefited from the use of electronic media and networking, and some have developed religious functions for the Internet, including electronic prayer groups. Modern marketing techniques have been employed to increase membership. Many churches incorporate the latest kinds of support groups, counseling techniques, and popular music.

Evangelicalism in its various forms, including fundamentalism, offers a different response to modernity. Conservative movements, which have appeared internationally in every major religious tradition, have gained vitality by protesting what they see as the conspicuous absence of moral values in secular society. In times of anxiety and uncertainty, such movements present scripture as a source of doctrinal certainty and of moral absolutes. Against the secularism of the day, evangelical movements have succeeded in creating their own alternative cultures and have acquired considerable political influence.

For all its challenges to traditional religious identity, modernity has at the same time created new spiritual opportunities. Thousands of new religious movements emerged around the world in the 20th century, offering alternative forms of community to people otherwise removed from past associations and disenchanted with modern values. Collectively, these new religions offer a large number of options, addressing virtually every conceivable type of spiritual need. In a sense, modernity has created needs and problems for which new movements are able to present themselves as solutions. Some offer ethnic revitalization; others, techniques of meditation and self-improvement; and still others, the power of alternative or spiritual forms of healing. Buddhist- and Hindu-derived movements continue to have considerable followings among Westerners searching for truths beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition (see Zen; Hare Krishna). Further, in a world where home life has become less stable, an international movement such as the Unification Church emphasizes the holiness and divine restoration of the institution of the family.

Currently, one of the most rapidly growing religious movements is Pentecostalism, which takes its name from the festival day when the first Christian community felt the power of the Holy Spirit pour out on them (see Pentecostal Churches). Pentecostalism’s grass roots services provide direct, ecstatic spiritual experiences. A quite different but also widespread form of spirituality is that of the so-called New Age Movement, which offers individuals the opportunity to reconnect with mystical dimensions of the self and thus with the wider cosmos—relationships that are typically obscured by secular culture and often are not addressed in biblical traditions.

Contributed By:

William E. Paden



From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A religion is an organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through reference to a higher power or truth.[1] It may be expressed through prayer, ritual, meditation, music and art, among other things. It may focus on specific supernatural, metaphysical, and moral claims about reality (the cosmos and human nature) which may yield a set of religious laws, ethics, and a particular lifestyle. Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and religious experience.

The term "religion" refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction. "Religion" is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system,"[2] but it is more socially defined than personal convictions, and it entails specific behaviors, respectively.

The development of religion has taken many forms in various cultures. It considers psychological and social roots, along with origins and historical development.

In the frame of western religious thought,[3] religions present a common quality, the "hallmark of patriarchal religious thought": the division of the world in two comprehensive domains, one sacred, the other profane.[4] Religion is often described as a communal system for the coherence of belief focusing on a system of thought, unseen being, person, or object, that is considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine, or of the highest truth. Moral codes, practices, values, institutions, tradition, rituals, and scriptures are often traditionally associated with the core belief, and these may have some overlap with concepts in secular philosophy. Religion is also often described as a "way of life" or a life stance.

Middle Ages

A rare Tanjore style painting from the late 19th century depicting the ten gurus of Sikhism with Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana.

Newer present-day world religions established themselves throughout Eurasia during the Middle Ages by: Christianization of the Western world; Buddhist missions to East Asia; the decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent; and the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and parts of Europe and India.

During the Middle Ages, Muslims were in conflict with Zoroastrians during the Islamic conquest of Persia; Christians were in conflict with Muslims during the Byzantine-Arab Wars, Crusades, Reconquista and Ottoman wars in Europe; Christians were in conflict with Jews during the Crusades, Reconquista and Inquisition; Shamans were in conflict with Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims and Christians during the Mongol invasions; and Muslims were in conflict with Hindus and Sikhs during Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent.

Many medieval religious movements emphasized mysticism, such as the Cathars and related movements in the West, the Bhakti movement in India and Sufism in Islam. Monotheism reached definite forms in Christian Christology and in Islamic Tawhid. Hindu monotheist notions of Brahman likewise reached their classical form with the teaching of Adi Shankara.

Modern period

European colonisation during the 15th to 19th centuries resulted in the spread of Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia and the Philippines. The 18th century saw the beginning of secularisation in Europe, rising to notability in the wake of the French Revolution.

In the 20th century, the regimes of Communist Eastern Europe and Communist China were explicitly anti-religious. A great variety of new religious movements originated in the 20th century, many proposing syncretism of elements of established religions. Adherence to such new movements is limited, however, remaining below 2% worldwide in the 2000s. Adherents of the classical world religions account for more than 75% of the world's population, while adherence to indigenous tribal religions has fallen to 4%. As of 2005, an estimated 14% of the world's population identifies as nonreligious.


Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. Abrahamic religions originate in the Middle East, Indian religions in India and Far Eastern religions in East Asia. Another group with supra-regional influence are African diasporic religions, which have their origins in Central and West Africa.

The generally agreed upon demographic distribution of the major super-groupings mentioned is shown in the table below:

Cultural tradition Religious category Number of followers Date of origin Main regions covered
Abrahamic religions
3.6 billion
Christianity 1.9-2.1 billion[15] 1st c. Worldwide except Northwest Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Central, East, and Southeast Asia.
Islam 1-1.3 billion[15] 7th c. Middle East, Northern Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, Western Africa, Indian subcontinent, Malay Archipelago with large population centers existing in Eastern Africa, Balkan Peninsula, Russia, Europe and China.
Judaism 14.5 million[15] 1300 BCE Israel and Jewish diaspora (meaning mostly North America and Europe)
Bahá'í Faith 7.4 million[15] 19th c. Dispersed worldwide with no major population centers
Rastafari movement 700,000[16] 1930s Jamaica, Caribbean, Africa
Indian religions
1.4 billion
Hinduism 828 million[15] Varies by tradition Indian subcontinent, Fiji, Guyana and Mauritius
Buddhism 364 million[15] c. 500 BCE Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Indochina, regions of Russia.
Sikhism 23.8 million[15] 15th c. Indian subcontinent, Australasia, Northern America, Southeast Asia, the United Kingdom and Western Europe.
Jainism 4.3 million[15] c. 800 BCE India, and East Africa
Far Eastern religions Taoism Varies[17] Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC-481 BC) China and the Chinese diaspora
Confucianism China, Korea, Vietnam and the Chinese and Vietnamese diasporas
Chinese folk religions Varies[17] Varies by tradition China
Shinto traditions Japan
African traditional and diasporic religions 100 million[18] Africa, Americas
Other ethnic religions 300 million[18] India, Asia
each over 500 thousand
Chondogyo 3 million[19] 1812 Korea
Tenrikyo 2 million[20] 1832 Japan, Brazil
Cao Đài 2 million[21] 1925 Vietnam
Ahl-e Haqq 1 million[22] 14th century Iraq, Iran
Seicho-No-Ie 800,000[20] 1929 Japan
Yazidism 700,000[23] 12th century or older mainly Iraq
Unitarian-Universalism 630,000[24] 1961 United States, Europe