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Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Word or Two About Religion


Theology is the study of God. It can be understood as a rational inquiry into questions of religion. According to David Barrett et al, "There are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large faith groups, and many smaller ones. (David Barrett et al, World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions - AD 30 to 2200, 2001).  

Five hundred or so conflicting stories about origins of the universe, religion, moral and legal codes, etc. exist among the thousands of faith groups around the world. Such a range of beliefs invites speculation of which faith group (denomination) within which religion offers the absolute answer to God's will.

A major religion for the purposes of this study has these three attributes: (1) Large - at least 500,000 adherents, (2) Widespread - appreciable numbers of members live and worship in more than just one country or limited region, and (3) Independent - the religion is clearly independent and distinct from a broader religion.

Attempts to estimate the people practicing their religion merely classify Hindus as all people who call themselves Hindu, Muslims as all people who call themselves Muslim, Christians as all people who call themselves Christian, etc.  

Here is a recent breakdown of the percentage of people in the world and their various major religious beliefs followed by the number of people who profess to follow each religion. Also included is the founding date(s) of each religion. The dates are given in BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). These years correspond to the same dates in BC and AD but by defining the current period as the "Common Era" the nomenclature attempts to treat all religions and beliefs as equal.



  1. Christianity: 2.1 billion (30+ CE)
  2. Islam: 1.5 billion (622 CE)
  3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion (Unknown)
  4. Hinduism: 900 million (4000-2500 BCE)
  5. Chinese traditional religion: 394 million (5000 BCE)
  6. Buddhism: 376 million (560-490 BCE)
  7. Primal-indigineous: 300 million (Unknown)
  8. African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million (well before 10.000 BCE)
  9. Sikhism: 23 million (1500 CE)
  10. Juche: 19 million (April 15, 1912 AD, the date of birth of Kim Il-sung, as year 1)
  11. Spiritism: 15 million (from Spiritualist movement that emerged in the mid 1800s AD)
  12. Judaism: 14 million (2000 BCE)
  13. Baha'i: 7 million (1863 CE)
  14. Jainism: 4.2 million (420 BCE)
  15. Shinto: 4 million (500+ BCE)
  16. Cao Dai: 4 million (2500 BCE-1926 CE)
  17. Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million (1000 BCE)
  18. Tenrikyo: 2 million (Miki Nakayama was chosen as the Shrine of God in 1838)
  19. Neo-Paganism: 1 million (The Pagan Federation was founded in May 1971)
The rank of classical world religions in order of internal religious similarity is represented here with no effort to judge any religion by value, but to give some ease of comparison by belief and practice.
The following is a representation of religious similarity "most unified to most diverse."
  1. Baha'i
  2. Zoroastrianism
  3. Sikhism
  4. Islam
  5. Jainism
  6. Judaism
  7. Taoism
  8. Shinto
  9. Christianity
  10. Buddhism
  11. Hinduism    (www.adherents.com, August 2007) 
 

Barrett et al reported that today, most people follow a monotheistic religion, in which a single male god is worshiped, or a henotheistic religion -- a religion which recognizes a single main deity, but which recognizes other gods and goddesses, heroes, or saints as facets or manifestations or aspects of that supreme God. (World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions - AD 30 to 2200, 2001)

In practice, most people believe that the God or Goddess or Gods or Goddesses of their faith tradition is or are real, whereas all of the thousands of other deities are human creations, who are nonexistent, except in the minds of humans. Many specific denominations and faith groups are difficult to even categorize. For example, a religion might teach the belief in a single God, and a large number of minor deities, heroes, or saints who have some powers normally restricted to deities. Thus, a religion could be considered a monotheistic religion in theory or a polytheistic/henotheistic religion in practice.

Among other dissimilarities, faith groups have different beliefs about rituals, organization, the afterlife, abortion, adult celibacy, appearance, family organization, meeting places, sexual roles, and special clothing. Agreements about such beliefs are found, but disagreement is also common.


A strict belief in knowing a singular religion is true and that other religions are in various degrees of error, may cause people to deny extension of religious freedom to persons of other faiths. Some believers of a particular religion accept the Golden Rule, but apply it mainly to fellow believers, to the exclusion of followers of other faiths. In fact, they may see it as their religious duty to combat the existence of opposing views.

With the various religions teaching different beliefs and practices, it can be argued that only one faith teaches the truth. Another possibility is that none do. Yet, often people tenaciously believe in the truth of their faith to the exclusion of all others. According to the beliefs of most monotheistic religions, it should be a simple task to determine which religion is the "true" one: one simply has to ask for God's assessment during prayer. However, a small pilot study appears to indicate that assessing God's will may not be possible.

The site www.religioustolerance.org published a notice encouraging visitors to take part in a study to assess the will of God. They E-mailed a form to each visitor to their web site who had asked to be included in the study. Subjects were thus self-selected. The form asked the recipient: 


Whether they were currently in favor of or opposed to same-sex marriages. 
bulletSome personal data -- their sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and which "wing" of that religion that they followed.
bulletTo seek God's will for same-sex marriages through prayer.
bulletTo continue praying until they received a response from God or felt that they could not assess the will of God.
bulletIf they were successful in assessing God's position on SSM, then we asked:
bulletwhat God's will is, and 
bullethow certain are they that they correctly assessed God's will.

Although the sample size was small (85 people), one result was striking: Of the 68% of the participants who believed that they assessed the will of God, every person found that God agreed with their stance on SSM:

bulletAll of those who are personally opposed to SSM reported that God agreed with them.
bulletAll of those favoring SSM also reported that God agreed with them.
bulletNone found that God took a compromise position, saying that God supported or opposed SSM depending upon the specifics of each individual case.
  1. "The margin of error calculator," at: http://www.mrmprojects.com/ 
  2. "So how come a survey of 1,600 people can tell me what 250 million are thinking," RobertNiles.com at: http://nilesonline.com/
Aren't the chances of a given person belonging to God's "true" religious institution rather small? Some people are willing to accept this conclusion. However, most are quite certain that their faith tradition is the one that is God's. The assumption denies God's judgment of salvation.

Consider the religion of Christianity. Each denomination has its own distinctive beliefs or practices, but the denominations are commonly considered branches of the same religion because they agree on such fundamentals as the Bible, the Trinity, and the teachings of the Nicene Creed. Yet, even the three main branches -- Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant -- differ greatly in many beliefs. Some of these differences are considered important "keys to the kingdom."

Here is a list of major branches of Christianity. The list could be further subdivided and is growing still.

Branch Number of Adherents
Catholic 1,050,000,000
Orthodox/Eastern Christian 240,000,000
African indigenous sects (AICs) 110,000,000
Pentecostal 105,000,000
Reformed/Presbyterian/Congregational/United 75,000,000
Anglican 73,000,000
Baptist 70,000,000
Methodist 70,000,000
Lutheran 64,000,000
Jehovah’s Witnesses 14,800,000
Adventist 12,000,000
Latter Day Saints 12,500,000
Apostolic/New Apostolic 10,000,000
Stone-Campbell ("Restoration Movement") 5,400,000
New Thought (Unity, Christian Science, etc.) 1,500,000
Brethren (incl. Plymouth) 1,500,000
Mennonite 1,250,000
Friends (Quakers) 300,000

Source: http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/christian/blfaq_group_index.htm

Sadly, a number of people find it quite difficult to extend equal human rights to members of other religions, even to denominations within a religion. A simple tolerance of the rights of expression might help alleviate this situation.  Some extremists even consider killing those that they deem to be infidels in order to further their own religion's goals. (B.A. Robinson, "How Concepts of God Have Developed Over the Ages," www.religioustolerance.org, October 7, 2001)



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