Links of interest:
Connecting with The Divine
American Interfaith Network
Association of Religious Freedom
All Other Faiths
What are the major religions of the world?
The Largest main World Religions in order are:
Christianity: 2.1 billion.
Islam: 1.3 billion.
Hinduism: 900 million.
Buddhism: 376 million.
Sikhism: 23 million.
Judaism: 14 million.
The following is from Adherents.com:
Major Religions of the World
Ranked by Number of Adherents
Last modified 6 September 2002.
(Sizes shown are approximate estimates, and are here mainly
for the purpose of ordering the groups, not providing a definitive
number. This list is sociological/statistical in perspective.)
The adherent counts presented in the list above
are estimates of the number of people who have at least a minimal
level of self-identification as adherents of the religion. Levels
of participation vary within all groups. These numbers tend toward
the high end of reasonable worldwide estimates. Valid arguments
can be made for different figures, but if the same criteria are used
for all groups, the relative order should be the same. Further details
and sources are available below and in the Adherents.com
traditional religion: 225 million
Traditional & Diasporic: 95 million
Dai: 3 million
This listing is not a comprehensive list of all religions, only the
"major" ones (as defined below). There are distinct religions other
than the ones listed above. But this list accounts for the religions
of over 98% of the world's population. Below are listed some religions
which are not in this listing (Mandeans, PL Kyodan, Ch'ondogyo,
Vodoun, New Age, Seicho-No-Ie, Falun Dafa/Falun Gong, Taoism, Roma),
along with explanations for why they do not qualify as major world
religions on this list.
This world religions listing is derived from the statistics data in
the Adherents.com database. The
list was created by the same people who collected and organized this
database, in consultation with university professors of comparative
religions and scholars from different religions. We invite additional
input. The Adherents.com collection of religious adherent statistics
now has over 34,000 adherent statistic citations, for over 3,000 different
faith groups, covering all countries of the world. This is not an
absolutely exhaustive compilation of all such data, but it is by far
the largest compilation available on the Internet. Various academic
researchers and religious representatives regularly share documented
adherent statistics with Adherents.com so that their information can
be available in a centralized database.
Statistics and geography citations for religions not on this
list, as well as subgroups within these religions (such as
Catholics, Protestants, Karaites, Wiccans, Shiites, etc.) can be found
in the main Adherents.com database.
This document is divided into the following sections:
list of major religions of the world
Links to alternative
lists of world religions
Classical World Religions List
of this list
Parameter 1: What
is a religion? (for this list)
World Religions Ranked by Internal Religious Similarity
Parameter 2: How
is size determined? (for this list)
Brief discussion of how the size
and boundaries of specific religions was determined
groups not included on the main list
summary listings of major world religions and numbers of adherents:
Classical World Religions List
There are twelve classical world religions.
This is the list of religions described most often in surveys of the
subject, and studied in World Religion classes (some of them more
for historical rather than contemporary reasons):
The "World's Major Religions" list published in the New York Public
Library Student's Desk Reference is typical of world religion
lists which are functionally-oriented, yet still strongly classical
(New York: Prentice Hall, 1993; pg. 271):
- Orthodox Eastern Church
In modern Western thought, the first writers to divide the world into
"world religions" were Christians. Originally, three religions were
recognized: Christians, Jews and pagans (i.e., everybody else).
After many centuries, with the increased Western awareness of Eastern
history and philosophy, and the development of Islam, other religions
were added to the list. Many Far Eastern ways of thought, in fact,
were given the status of "world religion" while equally advanced religious
cultures in technologically less developed or pre-literate societies
(such as in Australia, Africa, South America, and Polynesia) were
grouped together as pagans or "animists," regardless of their actual
theology. It's true that by the standards applied at the time, the
Far Eastern religions Westerners encountered were often in a different
category altogether than the religions they classified as pagan. One
can not directly compare, for example, the local beliefs of the Polynesian
islands of Kiribati during the 1500s to the organizational, political,
literary and philosophical sophistication of Chinese Taoism during
the same period. But one could certainly question whether Japanese
Shintoism, as an official "world religion", was theologically or spiritually
more "advanced" than African Yoruba religion, which was classified
simply as animism or paganism.
During the 1800s comparative religion scholars increasingly recognized
Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as the most significant
"world religions." Even today, these are considered the "Big Five"
and are the religions most likely to be covered in world religion
Five smaller or more localized religions/philosophies brought the
list of world religions to ten: Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, Shinto
Beginning around 1900 comparative religion writers in England began
to take note of the Sikhs which had begun to immigrate there from
India (part of the British Empire at the time). Sikhs, if mentioned
at all, had been classified as a sect of Hinduism during the first
three hundred years of their history. But after the influential British
writers began to classify Sikhism as a distinct, major world religion,
the rest of the world soon followed their example.
Baha'is are the most recent entrant to the "Classical" list. The religion
is only about 150 years old, with perhaps up to 7 million adherents
worldwide. While most comparative religion textbooks produced during
this century either ignore them or group them as a Muslim sect, the
most recent books give them separate status and often their own chapter.
Baha'is have achieved this status partially through their worldwide
geographical spread and increasing numbers, and partially by constantly
insisting that they are indeed the "newest world religion."
The classical set of twelve is not necessarily the most accurate reflection
of the present, real-world religious situation. (This fact is briefly
addressed below.) We agree with the prominent comparative religion
scholar Irving Hexham (an Evangelical Christian, and a professor at
the University of Calgary) who wrote:
is an overemphasis on certain narrowly defined academic traditions
in Religious Studies to the neglect of studies dealing with religion
as it actually occurs in the world. In other words academics are
happy to study other academics regardless of what is actually happening
in everyday life. Thus, for example... I believe that the founder
of [the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], Joseph Smith,
is a far more influential figure and deserves as much attention
as the father of modern theology, Freidrich Schleiermacher, yet
current textbooks and course offerings invariably mention Schleiermacher
but rarely pay any attention to Joseph Smith. By recognizing the
importance of living religions, popular piety and sociological studies
I hope more balance will enter Religious Studies. [Source:
Irving Hexham, Concise
Dictionary of Religion, 1998.]
The Adherents.com "Major Religions" list presented on this web page
differs from classical lists because it draws more from an extremely
large body of contemporary affiliation data, rather than relying heavily
on the lists and texts of past commentators (Hudson Smith, Noss, Barrett,
There are many distinct religions or religious movements which
have more adherents than some of the classical world religions, but
which are not part of the classical list for various reasons.
These reasons include:
- the religions which are not included
on the classical list are too new (Scientology, Neo-Paganism)
- they are concentrated in only one
country (Cao Dai, Ch'ondogyo, Tenrikyo)
- they lack identifiable central organizations
or unifying scriptural literature (Neo-Paganism, New Age, Spiritism)
- their adherents primarily name a different,
more established traditional religion as their religious preference
(most practitioners of Vodoun are nominal Catholics, practitioners
of New Age religions are often nominally Protestant, Catholic
- their religion is still strongly associated
with a major religion from which it arose, but no longer wishes
to be an official part of (Tenrikyo and many other Japanese New
Religious Movements, as well as many religions emerging from Indian/Hindu
Parameters of this List In order to rank religions
by size, two parameters must be defined:
With a working definition of "a religion" and
a method for measuring size, criteria for what constitutes a "major"
religion must be determined, otherwise this list could be impractically
inclusive and long.
- What constitutes a "religion"?
- How is "size" determined?
"Major religions", for the purposes of this list, are:
Also, some consideration, where appropriate,
was given to the Twelve Classical World Religions. (Otherwise, the
cut-off level for number of adherents may have been set higher than
the Zoroastrian level.)
- Large - at least as many adherents as
- Widespread - appreciable numbers of
members live and worship in more than just one country or limited
- Independent - the religion is clearly
independent and distinct from a broader religion
a "religion" for the purposes of this list? There are countless definitions
of religion. But only one can be used in making a ranked list.
We are using the groupings most widely used in contemporary comparative
religion literature (listed above). Each of these "world religions"
is actually a classification of multiple distinct movements,
sects, divisions, denominations, etc. None of these world religions
is a single, unified, monolithic organization. The diversity within
these groupings varies. Hinduism is often described as a collection
very different traditions, bound by a geographical and national identity.
So broad is this religious "umbrella" that it includes clearly polytheistic,
tritheistic, monotheistic, pantheistic, nontheistic, and atheistic
The Babi & Baha'i tradition, on the other hand, is probably the
most unified of the classical world religions. It is almost entirely
contained within one very organized, hierarchical denomination, the
Bahai Faith, based in Haifa, Israel. But there are small schismatic
groups, such as the Baha'is Under the Provisions of the Covenant,
the Arizona-based "Orthodox" Baha'is, Azali Babis (probably defunct),
and four or five others.
All adherents of a single religion usually share at least some
commonalities, such as a common historical heritage and some shared
doctrines or practices. But these rules can't be pushed too far
before being overburdened by exceptions. A listing of doctrinally
and organizationally meaningful divisions or denominational "branches"
(such as Catholic, Eastern/Orthodox Christian, Sunni Islam, Shiite
Islam, Evangelical Christian, Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism,
etc.) would clearly be useful, but that is the subject of a different
list: Major Branches
of Major World Religions.
In the following list the classical world religions are listed with
the most cohesive/unified groups first, and the religions with the
most internal religious diversity last. This list is based primarily
on the degree of doctrinal/theological similarity among all the various
sub-groups which belong to these classifications, and to a lesser
extent based on diversity in practice, ritual and organization. (Obviously
these classifications include both majority manifestations of these
religions, as well as subgroups which larger branches sometimes label
Classical World Religions
Ranked by Internal Religious Similarity:
Most Unified to Most Diverse
No "value judgement" is implied by this list.
There are adjectives with both positive and negative connotations
which describe both ends of this spectrum. From an academic, comparative
religions viewpoint, there is no basis for "prescribing" whether it
is better for a religion to be highly unified, cohesive, monolithic,
and lacking in internal religious diversity, or whether it is better
to be fragmented, schismatic, diverse, multifaceted and abounding
in variations on the same theme.
In a practical sense, most people actually practice only one form
of whatever religion they belong to. Buddhism, for example, if viewed
as a whole, can be understood to have a large amount of internal variation,
including the Theravada and Mahayana branches, all of their sub-schools,
various revivalist sects, as well as Tibetan and modern Western forms.
But most actual Buddhists are not actually involved in all of these;
rather they practice one, internally cohesive, fairly unified form,
such as the Geluk order of Tibetan Buddhism, or Japanese Amida-Buddha
How is classification done for official government figures? It
is important to note that data for the size of various religions within
a given country often come from government census figures or official
estimates. Such governmental endeavors are interested primarily in
physical population demographics, such as how many people live in
a household and how many telephones there are per person. These studies
are not theological treatises. They 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.
From a sociological and historical perspective, most religions have
arisen from within existing religious frameworks: Christianity from
Judaism, Buddhism from Hinduism, Babi & Baha'i faiths from Islam,
etc. For the purposes of defining a religion we need to have some
cutoff point. Should Sikhism be listed as a Hindu sect (as in many
older textbooks), or a world religion in its own right?
To manage this question we have chosen once again to use the most
commonly-recognized divisions in comparative religion texts. These
definitions are primarily sociological and historical, NOT doctrinal
or theological in nature.
We recognize that within many religious traditions there are deeply
felt arguments for excluding certain groups from their description
of their religion. For example, councils of Muslim leaders have voted
to no longer accept Ahmadis as valid Muslims, although Ahmadis consider
themselves orthodox Muslims. Many Evangelical Protestants churches
exclude all non-Evangelical or non-Protestant groups from their definitions
of Christianity. On the other hand, some Hindu writers are so inclusive
that they claim as Hindus adherents of any religion that arose in
a Hindu environment, including Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. These definitions
are theological in nature and of little use in this statistical context.
Groups such as Rastafarians, Mandeans, Tenrikyo, and the Church of
Scientology are too small, too new or too unimportant in world history
to be included in most surveys of "major world religions." Thus, in
including such groups in this listing it is not always possible to
appeal to a consensus within comparative religion literature. Where
classification is unclear, we've used two criteria:
- Does the faith group consider itself to be
part of (or the definitive version of) a larger religion?
- Does the larger religion consider the faith
group to be part of its tradition?
If the answer to both of these questions is no, then the faith
group is probably a distinct religion. If the answer to both questions
is yes, the faith group is a division within the larger religion
(and thus not a world religion, but a division of a world religion).
If the answer to only one of the questions is yes, there is a judgment
call to be made, but of course we give more weight to a group's self-concept.
For example, Tenrikyo arose in the 1830s in Japan in a Shinto context.
The founder explained that her new revelations came from various Shinto
kami (gods). Thus, Tenrikyo was classified by the Japanese ministry
of religion as a Shinto sect for about one hundred years. Then the
leaders of Tenrikyo asked that the faith no longer be classified as
a Shinto faith. Outsiders would agree that Tenrikyo has emerged as
something identifiably distinct from traditional Shinto religion,
although many world religion writers include Tenrikyo in chapters
on Shinto or Japanese religion for simplicity's sake. (These books
can only have a limited number of chapters.) Based on these facts
(and because we have no limit on the number of religions we can include
on this list), we include Tenrikyo as a distinct religion.
Even fairly contemporary and progressive writers have "youth cut-off"
requirement for their listings of major world religions. Many writers
will classify newer movements as NRMs ("New Religious Movements"),
and reserve the label of "world religion" for "long established" religions.
(Given the content of these lists, one must assume "long established"
means "at least as old as the Babi & Baha'i faiths.") This is
a valid criterion, although for the most part we are not using it
here. Many of the movements that seem like distinct new religions
may die out within a few generations. Many of the most recent movements,
such as Seicho-No-Ie, Ananaikyo, Ch'ondogyo and other Asian new religious
movements are overtly syncretistic or universalist, similar
in some ways to but originating many years later than the Baha'i faith.
Other new religious movements of this century have primarily remained
within established world religions, such as new Buddhist (Western
Buddhist Order), Hindu (Hare Krishna), Muslim (Nation of Islam), Jewish
(Reconstructionism), and Christian (Pentecostalism, neo-Evangelicalism,
Calvary Chapel) movements and denominations. Other new religious movements
of the 20th century, especially recently, have been new formulations
of long-dormant faiths, such as Neo-Pagan and neo-Shamanist groups.
Scientology, is one of the few movements of the 20th century
that has grown large enough and escaped its predecessor religious
matrix thoroughly enough to be considered a distinct world religion.
Even its oft-criticized differences lend credence to the notion that
it is truly a unique, new religion, and not a part of Hinduism, Buddhism
or some other faith.
But Ahmadiyya (a recent offshoot of Islam), is not included on this
list as a separate religion because its adherents claim to be Muslim,
view themselves as completely Muslim, and wish to be classified as
part of Islam.
Also, in keeping with the sociological perspective of Adherents.com,
we are applying Emil Durkheim's classical definition of religion
as "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things,
that is to say, things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices
which unite into one single moral community..."
To this definition, we add its more recent reformulation describing
religion as an ultimate concern with transformational/motivational
effect. With these sociological (non-theological) definitions we could
include in this list schools of thought which aren't always considered
"religions," such as atheism, humanism, Communism/Marxism/Maoism,
Those interested in reading further about the sociological definition
of religion and its relationship to culture may read Denise Cush's
article in DISKUS (vol. 5, 1999)
. Useful information about cultures can also be found in John B. Gatewood's
Variability and Problem-Solving, which repeats the Kluckhohn-Murray
Every human is in certain respects
How is the size of a religion
determined for the purposes of this list?
a. like all other humans.
b. like some other humans.
c. like no other human.
When referring to the "size" of a religion, what is usually meant
is its number of adherents. Other measurements, such as how many churches
or meeting places a faith group owns or how many congregations/meeting
groups there are, can also be instructive, but are usually not used
as a measure of overall size. Measures of religiosity and the degree
to which a religious tradition has a meaningful impact on its adherents
may be more important than raw adherent counts, but such measures
are not as readily available nor are they easily comparable between
A detailed description of what an adherent is, and the different types/levels
of adherents can be found on the FAQ
How are adherents counted?
There are five main methods for determining the number of adherents
in a faith group:
- Organizational reporting: Religious
bodies (such as churches or denominations) are asked how many
adherents or members they have. This is the simplest and least
expensive method, but it can be highly unreliable. Different faith
groups measure membership differently. Some count as members only
those who are actively attending services or who have passed through
a lengthy initiation process. Others groups count all who have
been baptized as infants and are thus on the church records, even
though some of those people may have joined other faith groups
as adults. Some groups over-report membership and others under-report
membership. When asked what religion they consider themselves
to be a part of, many may name a religion that does not have them
on their rolls. In the United States, for instance, three times
as many people claim to be Unitarian Universalists than are actually
on church records.
- Census records: Many countries
periodically conduct a comprehensive household-by-household census.
Religious preference is often a question included in these census
counts. This is a highly reliable method for determining the religious
self-identification of a given population. But censuses are usually
conducted infrequently. The latest census may be too old to indicate
recent trends in religious membership. Also, many countries either
have no accurate census data, or do not include questions regarding
religious affiliation. It has been over fifty years since the
United States included such a question in its national census,
but Canada, India, New Zealand, Australia and other countries
have very thorough, recent census data on the topic.
- Polls and Surveys: Statistical
sampling using surveys and polls are used to determine affiliation
based on religious self-identification. The accuracy of these
surveys depends largely on the quality of the study and especially
the size of the sample population. Rarely are statistical surveys
of religious affiliation done with large enough sample sizes to
accurately count the adherents of small minority religious groups.
- Estimates based on indirect data:
Many adherent counts are only obtained by estimates based on indirect
data rather than direct questioning or directly from membership
roles. Wiccan groups have traditionally been secretive and often
their numbers can only be estimated based on magazine circulations,
attendance at conferences, etc. The counts of many ethnic-based
faith groups such as tribal religions are generally based on the
size of associated ethnic groups. Adherents of some tribal religions
(such as Yoruba) are sometimes counted simply by counting the
members of the tribe and assuming everybody in it is an adherent
of the religion. Counts of Eastern Orthodox religious bodies are
often done the same way. Such estimates may be highly unreliable.
- Field work: To count some small groups,
or to count the number of adherents a larger group has within
a specific geographical area, researchers sometimes do "field
work" to count adherents. This is often the only way to count
members of small tribal groups or semi-secretive, publicity-shy
sects. Field work may involve contacting leaders of individual
congregations, temples, etc., conducting interviews with adherents,
counting living within enclaves of the group, or counting those
participating in key activities. There is substantial overlap
between "estimates" and "field work."
For the purposes of this list of major religions, We have used
adherent counts or estimates based on self-identification. We
have also favored inclusive rather than exclusive adherent counts
(meaning all people who are part of a religious community, children
as well as adults, rather than "full communicants"). It should be
remembered, however, that self-identification is not the only legitimate
measure of a religious group's size. In collecting census or survey
data based on self-identification statisticians find that nearly everybody
claims to belong to a religion. Some people claiming membership in
a certain denomination may actually attend religious services regularly,
contribute resources to the group, and be influenced by its teachings.
Other people may name the denomination, but choose it as their religion
only because they recall its name as the church their grandfather
had gone to as boy. Detailed analysis of the size of individual groups
requires a knowledge of both self-identification data as well as data
based on organizational reporting.
Finally, let me make it clear that these definitions are simply working
definitions for the purposes of making this list. They should not
be taken as definitive outside of this context. Many of our reasons
for defining the parameters as we have done have to do with the availability
of data. Other definitions and parameters may be more meaningful or
useful in other situations.
Notes on the Size of Specific Religions
NOTE: The following material is
not intended to provide descriptions or summaries of these
religions. This material is only intended to describe the reasoning
for listing groups as "major religions" and determining their general
size. (To learn more about these faith groups, we suggest the Adherents.com
which will direct you to other web sites.)
Christianity: David B. Barrett's World
Christian Encyclopedia (1994 update) gives an oft-cited figure
of 1.9 billion Christians (or about 33% of the world population),
and has projected that by the year 2000 there will be 2.1 billion
Christians in the world. Regardless of the degree of accuracy of this
figure, Christianity, if taken as a whole, is unarguably the largest
See also: The Christian
Family Tree by Rev. Epke VanderBerg (Episcopal minister, Grand
Rapids, MI); Classifying
Protestant Denominations (General Social Survey project directed
by James A. Davis and Tom W. Smith. Funded by the National Science
Christian Populations (lists the Top 10 Countries with the Most
Christians and the Top 10 U.S. Most Christian U.S. States); Famous
For statistical purposes: Groups which
self-identify as part of Christianity include (but are not limited
to): African Independent Churches (AICs), the Aglipayan Church,
Armenian Apostolic, Assemblies
of God; Baptists,
Community of Christ, the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Coptic Christians, Eastern
Orthodox churches, Ethiopian Orthodox, Evangelicals, Iglesia
ni Cristo, Jehovah's
Witnesses, the Local Church, Lutherans,
Nestorians, the New Apostolic Church, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren,
Adventists, Shakers, Stone-Campbell churches (Disciples of Christ;
of Christ; the "Christian Church and Churches of Christ"; the
International Church of Christ); Uniate churches, United Church
of Christ/Congregationalists, the Unity Church, Universal Church
of the Kingdom of God, Vineyard churches and others. These groups
exhibit varying degrees of similarity, cooporation, communion, etc.
with other groups. None are known to consider all other Chrisian
sub-groups to be equally valid. David Barrett, an Evangelical Christian
who is the compiler of religion statistics for the Encyclopedia
Britannica, includes all of the groups listed above in the worldwide
statistics for Christianity.
Contemporary sociolgists and religious leaders
generally consider pan-denominational classifications based not
on historical denominational divisions but on current theological
positions, organizational alignments, etc. to be more relevant.
Such groupings include: Evangelicals, Pentecostals, "Great Commission
Christians", "C. S. Lewis Christians", Liberal Protestants, Conservative
Protestants, Fundamentalists, etc.
Islam: Contemporary figures for Islam are usually between
900 million and 1.3 billion, with 1 billion being a figure frequently
given in comparative religion texts, probably because it's such
a nice, round number. The largest and best known branches of Islam
are Sunni and Shi'ite.
Many Muslims (and some non-Muslim) observers claim
that there are more practicing Muslims than practicing Christians
in the world. Adherents.com has no reason to dispute this. It seems
likely, but we would point out that there are different opinions
on the matter, and a Muslim may define "practicing" differently
than a Christian. In any case, the primary criterion for the rankings
on this page is self-identification, which has nothing
to do with practice.
This is a highly disparate group and not a single religion. Although
atheists are a small subset of this grouping, this category is not
synonymous with atheism. Atheists actually make up less than one-tenth
of one percent of the population in many countries where large numbers
claim no religious preference, such as the United States (7.5% nonreligious)
and Australia (15% nonreligious).
One portion of this broad grouping includes those who are best described
as "nonreligious," i.e., those who are essentially passive with regards
to religion, generally affirming neither belief nor disbelief. They
may be neither contemplative about philosophy and spirituality nor
involved in a religious/faith/philosophical community. Although a
certain percentage of people in many countries classify themselves
as nonreligious in surveys, there are few data indicating how many
of these fit the passive "nonreligious" criteria described above,
versus those who actually do contemplate such matters, but simply
have their own personal philosophy and no stated affiliation with
an organized religion.
For the purposes of this list, this grouping also includes more proactive
or well-defined philosophies such as secular humanism, atheism, agnosticism,
deism, pantheism, freethought, etc., most of which can be classified
as religions in the sociological sense, albeit secular religions.
The "Secular/Nonreligious/etc." category is probably the most speculative
estimate in this list, as this segment of society is difficult to
count. The vast majority in this grouping are not aligned with any
kind of membership organization. Most figures come from census and
survey data, which most countries conduct only infrequently.
The highest figure we have for "Nonreligious" is 20% of the world
population, or about 1.2 billion: "Over 20 percent of the world's
population does not claim any allegiance to a religion. Most are agnostics.
Others are atheists, who deny the existence of God." (O'Brien, Joanne
& Martin Palmer. The State of Religion Atlas. Simon &
Schuster: New York (1993). Pg 41.) But such a high figure is difficult
to support with current country-by-country statistics, and perhaps
reflects Communist-era official government statistics. Most current
estimates of the world number of secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist/etc.
are between 800 and 1 billion.
Estimates for atheism alone range from 200 to 240 million. But these
come primarily from China and former Soviet Union nations (especially
Russia). Prior to Communist takeovers of these regions and government
attempts to eradicate religion, both places had very high levels of
affiliation with organized religions (especially Islam, Christianity,
Buddhism and Taoism), as well as high levels of participation in and
belief in traditional local traditions such as shamanism, ancestor
ceremonies, spiritism, etc. Since the fall of Communism in former
Soviet nations and the relaxation of anti-religious policies in China,
observed religious affiliation and activity has increased dramatically,
especially in Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.
China probably does have the largest number of actual atheists of
any country in the world and many Russians clearly remain atheists.
But at this point, it is impossible to accurately determine how many
of those classified as atheists or nonreligious during Communist-era
USSR and by the current Chinese government are actually atheists according
to their personal beliefs, and how many are unregistered religious
adherents or participants in less-organized traditional systems that
are oriented around ancestors, animism, shamanism, etc. Many people
are unaware, for instance, that China has one of the largest, most
active Christian communities in the world, and that in many former
Soviet nations religions such as shamanism, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy
remained even while official government reports announced the elimination
of religion in these regions.
In the Western world, Europe is by far the place with the most self-avowed
nonreligious, atheists and agnostics, with the nonreligious proportion
of the population particularly high in Scandinavia. The Encyclopedia
Britannica reports approximately 41 million atheists in Europe.
The self-described nonreligious segment of society in Australia and
New Zealand is also high, at around 15%. In Australia less than a
tenth of one percent described themselves as atheists in the latest
national census (1996). In the U.S. about 7.5% of the population describe
themselves as nonreligious, 0.7% describe themselves as agnostic,
and a smaller number describe themselves as atheist (Kosmin, National
Survey of Religious Identification, 1990).
All those who profess religious belief are not necessarily registered
members of a church or denomination, but in the U.S. the majority
of professed Christians and adherents of other religions are also
officially affiliated with an organization. The majority of agnostics,
atheists and of course nonreligious are not members of an organization
associated with their position.
It may also be noted that the estimated figures presented in this
particular "Major Religions" summary list are based on self-identification.
Among all groups there exists a proportion (sometimes significant
and sometimes small) which are only nominal adherents. This segment
may identify themselves as members of a certain religion and accept
the religion as their primary philosophical system, yet not actively
practice the religion in the normative sense. This segment may be
thought of as being functionally nonreligious or "secularized," but
this segment is not what is meant by the "nonreligious" category on
this Major Religious list. Accurate estimates of the size of this
group are difficult to obtain because national government censuses
only ask about preferred affiliation, not about religious practice.
There are data available from non-census sampling surveys that ask
about practice and belief, but these are usually limited in scope
to narrow questions such as church attendance, and do not entirely
reveal the proportion of society which is non-attending, but nevertheless
privately practicing and/or believing. In many countries (Germany
is a good example) there is also segment of the population which is
counted as adherents of a religion, but which do not personally profess
belief in that religion. (Adherents.com has some such data in its main
list under "attendance" and under "poll".) See also: Top 10 Countries with
The use of the term "nonreligious" or "secular" here refers to belief
or participation in systems which are not traditionally labeled "religions."
Of course, in the absence of traditional religions, society exhibits
the same behavioral, social and psychological phenomena associated
with religious cultures, but in association with secular, political,
ethnic, commercial or other systems. Marxism and Maoism, for instance,
had their scriptures, authority, symbolism, liturgy, clergy, prophets,
proselyting, etc. Sports, art, patriotism, music, drugs, mass media
and social causes have all been observed to fulfill roles similar
to religion in the lives of individuals -- capturing the imagination
and serving as a source of values, beliefs and social interaction.
In a broader sense, sociologists point out that there are no truly
"secular societies," and that the word "nonreligious" is a misnomer.
Sociologically speaking, "nonreligious" people are simply those who
derive their worldview and value system primarily from alternative,
secular, cultural or otherwise nonrevealed systems ("religions") rather
than traditional religious systems. Like traditional religions, secular
systems (such as Communism, Platonism, Freudian
psychology, Nazism, pantheism, atheism, nationalism, etc.) typically
have favored spokespeople and typically claim to present a universally
valid and applicable Truth. Like traditional religions, secular systems
are subject to both rapid and gradual changes in popularity, modification,
These are some of the factors which make estimating the size of the
secular (nonreligious, agnostic, atheist, etc.) segment of society
Detailed statistics on atheism can be found in the paper by Andrew
Greeley and Wolfgang Jagodzinski: The Demand for Religion:
Hard Core Atheism and "Supply Side" Theory.
Hinduism: The highest figure
we've seen for Hinduism (1.4 billion, Clarke, Peter B., editor), The
Religions of the World: Understanding the Living Faiths, Marshall
Editions Limited: USA (1993); pg. 125.) is actually higher than the
highest figure we've seen for Islam. But this is an abberation. World
Hinduism adherent figures are usually between 850 million and one
Buddhism: World estimates for
Buddhism vary between 230 and 500 million, with most around 350 million.
Chinese traditional religion:
In older world religion books the estimates of the total number of
adherents of Confucianism range up to 350 million. Other books,
including older versions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, have
listed Chinese religionists under "Taoism," with adherent estimates
up to about 200 million. But these figures are all based on counts
of the same segment of Chinese people throughout the world -- people
practicing what is, sociologically, more accurately called Chinese
traditional religion, and often called Chinese folk
religion. The word "traditional" is preferable to "folk" because
"folk" might imply only the local, tribal customs and beliefs such
as ancestor worship and nature beliefs. But "Chinese traditional religion"
is meant to categorize the common religion of the majority Chinese
culture: a combination of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, as well
as the traditional non-scriptural/local practices and beliefs. For
most religious Chinese who do not explicitly follow a different religion
such as Islam or Christianity, these different ancient Chinese philosophies
and traditions form a single, seamless composite religious culture
Communist laws banning most religion and recent rapid changes introducing
increasing openness make accurate estimates difficult to obtain. Recent
figures for the number of "Chinese religionists" include 220 and 225
In comparative religion texts Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism
are sometimes addressed in three separate chapters, and sometimes
treated in one chapter as "Chinese religion." Even today there are
very valid reasons for distinguishing Taoism from Confucianism, and
distinguishing both from Chinese Buddhism and non-scriptural Chinese
folk religion. For religious, philosophical, historical and scriptural
purposes, distinguishing between these separate traditions is quite
manageable. There are a number of people who identify themselves specifically
as "Taoist" (In 1990-1991 there were 23,000 in the U.S., 1,720 in
Canada, and 324 in New Zealand, for example.) There are a smaller
number of people, including non-Chinese, who consciously practice
a "pure" form of Taoist religion (often Tao-Te-Ching-based),
unconcerned with Confucianism, Chinese folk practices, ancestor devotion,
Fifty years ago religious Taoism was one of the largest, strongest
institutions in China. Since the Cultural Revolution and the government's
campaign to destroy non-Communist religion, Taoism lost, for the most
part, the main mechanism through which it remained distinct from the
larger Chinese religious environment: its large numbers of temples
and Taoist clergy. Although Islam, Buddhism and Christianity have
bounced back and even surpassed pre-Communist levels in China, Taoism
has not. Today, despite the existence of some self-identified Taoists
and pure Taoists in the West, Taoism is difficult to isolate as a
large, independent religion from a statistical and sociological perspective.
Hence, in this list, which is explicitly statistical and sociological
in perspective, Taoism should be thought of as a major branch of Chinese
The situation is similar with Confucianism. In the latest edition
of the Encyclopedia Britannica lists over 5 million Confucianists
in its summary table of world religions. Their note explains that
these are Confucianists outside of China, mostly in Korea.
(The Encyclopedia lists "Chinese folk religion" separately.) It is
true that recent census data show about five million Koreans name
Confucianism as their religion, and there are even some Confucian
schools and institutes in Korea. But the Adherents.com list leaves
these Confucianists under the "Chinese traditional religion" grouping,
rather than separating them based only on what country they live in.
termed "tribal religionists, "ethnic religionists," or "animists,"
estimates range from 100 million to 244 million. This group also includes,
but is not limited to, people whose native religion is a form of shamanism
or paganism (such as millions of people in traditional Siberian shamanist
cultures). Obviously this is broad classification, not a single religion.
This grouping includes thousands of distinct religious traditions,
mostly the religious-cultural worldviews of peoples who have been
grouped together in one category because they are pre-literate or
less advanced technologically than Western/European cultures. There
are similarities among many primal-indigenous religions/cultures,
such as use of an oral rather than written canon, and a lack of rigid
boundaries between the sacred and secular (profane) aspects of life.
But few, if any, generalizations hold for all groups.
adherents of African traditional religion were grouped here, and
many religious statisticians would continue to do so. But adherents
of African traditional religions and diasporic derivatives are currently
listed ennumerated separately on this page. [See below.]
Most remaining primal-indigenous religionists are in Asia (including
African Traditional & African Diasporic
Religions: It may seem incongruous to distinguish African
primal (traditional) religions from the general primal-indigenous
category. But the "primal-indigenous" religions are primarily tribal
and composed of pre-technological peoples. While there is certainly
overlap between this category and non-African primal-indigenous religious
adherents, there are reasons for separating the two, best illustrated
by focusing specifically on Yoruba, which is probably the largest
African traditional religious/tribal complex. Yoruba was the religion
of the vast Yoruba nation states which existed before European colonialism
and its practitioners today -- certainly those in the Caribbean, South
America and the U.S.-- are integrated into a technological, industrial
society, yet still proclaim affiliation to this African-based religious
system. Cohesive rituals, beliefs and organization were spread throughout
the world of Yoruba (and other major African religious/tribal groups
such as Fon), to an extent characteristic of nations and many organized
religions, not simply tribes. Historians might point to Shinto and
even Judaism as the modern manifestations of what originally began
as the religions of tribal groups who then became nations.
Just as Yoruba may legitimately be distinguished from the general
"primal-indigenous" classification, valid arguments could be made
that other religious traditions such as Native American religion (less
than 100,000 self-identified U.S. adherents) and Siberian shamanism
should also be separate. But African traditional religion has been
singled out because of its much larger size, its considerable spread
far beyond its region of origin and the remarkable degree to which
it remains an influential, identifiable religion even today.
African Diasporic Religions are those which have arisen, typically
in the Western hemisphere, among Africans who retained much of their
traditional culture and beliefs but adapted to new environments. These
include Santeria, Candomble, Vodoun, Shango, etc. In many areas or
subgroups the African elements exist alongside an overlay of European-based
elements borrowed from the economically dominant culture, from influences
such as Catholicism and Kardecian spiritism. The fact that these religions
exist within technologically advanced cultures alongside "classical"
organized religions (such as Christianity) is one of the reasons for
grouping these adherents separately from the general "primal-indigenous"
category. Adherents of African diasporic religions typically have
no real tribal affiliation, may be converts to African-based religion,
and are not necessarily African or black in their race and ethnicity.
Regarding Santeria alone: It is difficult to determine worldwide numbers
of Santerians, as the religion is syncretistic, goes by different
names (including Lukumi, and Camdomble in Brazil) and has been actively
suppressed by the Communist government in the country where it is
perhaps the largest: Cuba. Estimates of Santerians include 800,000
in the U.S. and one million in Brazil, plus 3 million in Cuba (although
many Cuban practitioners identify themselves officially as Catholics
or Communists/atheists). A worldwide number of people who at least
sometimes self-identify as adherents of this loosely-organized religious
category might be 3 million, but this is just an estimate.
Regarding Vodoun: For the most part, Voodoo (or "Vodoun") is not an
organized religion, but a form of African traditional religion practiced
primarily in Haiti, Cuba and Benin. Often blended with Catholicism.
Other methods of counting adherents could count practitioners as general
primal-indigenous religionists (tribal) and/or Christians. Vodoun
is typically classified as an Afro-Caribbean and/or Afro-Brazilian
syncretistic religion, along with Santeria (Lukumi) and Candomble.
Some sources refer to Vodoun as the Haitian form of Santeria; other
sources refer to Santeria as a form of Vodoun. From a worldwide and
historical perspective, Vodoun is properly classified as a branch
of African diasporic religion, in the same way that Lutheranism is
a subset of Christianity.
Regarding the number of practitioners, the ReligiousTolerance.org
web page about Vodoun states: "50 million. Estimates of the number
of adherents are hopelessly unreliable. Some sources give numbers
in the range of 2.8 to 3.2 million." A figure of 50 million is doubtful
because this is primarily a Caribbean religious movement and there
are only 30 million people in the Caribbean, the majority of whom
are clearly self-identified Christians.
In the Americas (especially the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States),
there is a large number of people who practice some form of Yoruba
diasporan religion, especially forms of Santeria and Vodoun. But it
should be noted that many practitioners of Voodoo would name something
else, i.e. Catholicism, as their religion. Even those who practice
Santeria or Voodoo more often then they practice Catholicism mostly
identify themselves as Catholic.
We asked an expert for feedback about our comments on Yoruba religion.
Osunmilaya, a practitioner and scholar on the subject wrote:
I would make only a few changes. Instead
of the term "Santerian" perhaps the term "ab'orisha," which refers
to both initiated and uninitiated devotees, would be more acceptable.
Some practitioners don't like the term Santeria at all because it
implies that the tradition is a minor, heretical sect of Catholicism.
Vodoun is more properly classified as Dahomean and Fon in origin,
not Yoruba. It does not appear in Brazil in the Haitian form, to
my admittedly limited knowledge of this tradition. However, some
Candomble houses may identify as Dahomean nation.
A critical component of the spiritist influence upon the Yoruba
traditions as practiced in the Western hemisphere is the pervasive
influence of the BaKongo tradition, known as Palo Monte and Umbanda.
What I have seen in practice has a lot of Kardecian influence, but
I expect to see what I observed with the Santeria tradition: that
as one becomes more immersed into the actual tradition, that the
outer layer of Catholicism peels away to reveal a tradition that,
in reality, is very much unsyncretized. (See Wande Abimbola's discussion
in Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World.)
Osunmilaya's comments are very helpful. The only comment we might
add is that there are knowledgeable historians of Yoruba religion
in the West who believe Yoruba, in addition to the Dahomean and Fon
traditions, played a major role in the development of modern Africa-Haitian
The point about use of the term "Santerian" is an important one to
keep in mind. Although "Santeria" is commonly used in comparative
religion/academic literature, and it is becoming increasingly accepted
among practitioners of the Western Yoruba/Orisha religious tradition,
it is a term imposed by outsiders and its etymological roots
have meaning that many in the tradition find offensive or at least
Spiritism: According to the
1997 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year, there were 10,292,500
adherents of "Spiritism" in the world. But a recent census from Brazil
indicates 15 million professed spiritists (practitioners of
Umbanda, for instance), as well as a fringe following (not officially
professed, but possibly quite avid) of up to 50 million. But many
of those can be classified in the Yoruba religion category. As a newer
and somewhat less organized grouping than some other "major religions,"
accurate numbers for Spiritism are difficult to come by. An estimate
of 20 million worldwide seems justifiable--a grouping which would
include but not be limited to strictly Kardecian groups. But a worldwide
number which eliminated adherents who are primarily Yoruba religionists
more so than Spiritists would be smaller, and more in line with the
Encyclopedia Britannica estimate. Key aspects of Spiritism,
or Spiritualism, are widely accepted in popular society in many countries
beyond the bounds of those who are officially adherents of these movements.
The boundaries between Spiritism and other categories, especially
Christianity (especially Catholic and Baptist), Yoruba religion and
primal-indigenous religions, can be quite uncertain.
Sikhism: The highest estimate
we have for the number of Sikhs in the world is 20 million, from www.sikhs.org.
Most estimates are between 16 and 18 million. About 80% of the world's
Sikhs live in the province of Punjab, in India. Barrett's latest publication
estimates 23 million Sikhs worldwide. More.
Juche: Juche is the only government-authorized
ideology in North Korea, to the point of excluding all other religions.
"Juche" means "self-reliance" in the Korean language. Some writers
cited in the Adherents.com database (under "Juche" as well as "Kimilsungism")
classify Juche as a North Korean form of Marxist Communism. Juche
began in the 1950s and is the official philosophy promulgated by the
North Korean government and educational system. Its promoters describe
Juche as simply a secular, ethical philosophy and not a religion.
But, from a sociological viewpoint Juche is clearly a religion, and
in many ways is even more overtly religious than Soviet-era Communism
or Chinese Maoism.
For more information, here is a Juche-sponsored web site.
Also, any day's news available from the Korean Central News Agency of DPRK
is filled with mention of Juche.
Thomas J. Belke has written a book describing Juche as the newest
world religion, with "more adherents than Judaism, Sikhism, Jainism
or Zoroastrianism" (JUCHE: A Christian Study of North Korea's
State Religion, Publisher: Living Sacrifice Books, Bartlesville,
OK; published July 1999; available at Amazon.com.
Note: Any researchers interested in Juche or religion in North
Korea will need to read this volume, but be aware that the "Christian
Study" part of the title is not to be taken lightly. This book is
not an objective ethnographic survey of Juche. Belke presents a wealth
of fascinating factual information you won't find anywhere else, but
the perspective is overtly Evangelical. Some readers who are not Evangelicals
-- and some who are -- may be annoyed by this approach, but most serious
researchers will recognize that the book has value to sociologists
both in the unprecedented window it opens into contemporary North
Korea, as well as the glimpse into Evangelical apologetic thought.).
Certainly there are more "followers" of Juche, by nature of their
nationality, than there are Jews or Jains. (Belke's book reports 23
million Juche adherents, essentially the entire population of North
Korea, but the author and international news services agree that the
population of the country has decreased to about 19 million during
the current famine.) Belke reports a few centers in India, and Juche
web sites indicate some centers in Australia, Europe and Japan. But
despite the presence of these outreach centers set up the North Korean
government, there do not appear to be any established communities
of adherents outside of North Korea.
Some other religions which exist substantially only within a single
country have been excluded from this list of "Major Religions of the
World." It is true that Juche has only a nominal presence outside
of North Korea. But it has so many adherents, is so influential
in their lives, and is so different from any other religious system,
that including it on this list may be necessary in order to accurately
reflect the total world religious economy. As with the other religions
listed here, inclusion on this list does not constitute endorsement,
merely recognition of Juche as a statistically significant distinct
Other than geographic isolation, the other argument for excluding
Juche from this list of major religions would be that it is not a
completely independent system, but rather than a subset of Communism.
(For numerical purposes, Communists who are not adherents of an established
religion are included in the "Secular" category above.) The North
Korean system is historically derived, in large part, from Soviet
and Chinese Communism; during the 1960s there would have been no reason
to draw any distinctions. But today's Juche has developed into a distinct,
unique system, and has officially repudiated its Marxist-Leninist
roots. While we recognize there may be validity in continued classification
of Juche as a highly "heretical" subset of Communism or general secularism,
it seems that, on balance, to do so today is no more accurate than
continuing to classify Buddhism as a Hindu sect. Revision to the status
of Juche on this list may be forthcoming pending further research
Judaism: Estimates of the world's
Jewish population range from about 12 million to over 17 million.
On the high end of realistic estimates of how many people would consider
themselves Jews seems to be about 15 million, but a figure this high
would include a large number of non-practicing, purely ethnic Jews.
Judaism is far more important in areas such as history, literature,
science, politics, and religion, than its relatively small numbers
might suggest. The American Jewish Year Book published in 2000
by the American Jewish Committee, reports there are currently 5.7
million Jews in the United States, 362,000 in Canada, and 13,191,500
Babi & Baha'i faiths: At
least 98% of the adherents of the Babi & Baha'i faiths belong
to the same church/denomination/religious body, the Baha'i World Faith
(or simply "Baha'i Faith") with headquarters in Haifa, Israel. One
might think that this should make Baha'i records fairly straightforward
and easily obtainable. But statistical practices differ in each country
and figures are not always released to the public. Most recent published
estimates of the world Baha'i population are about 6.5 million. This
is the figure provided in current Baha'i publications. A recent, updated
estimate in the 1998 Encyclopedia Britannica is reportedly 7.67 million,
higher than any Baha'i-provided figure we have seen. The accuracy
of all of these figures is difficult to determine, and the organization
does not provide a breakdown of membership data for each country.
As with most religious groups, organizationally reported adherent
counts include significant numbers of nominal members, or people who
no longer actively participate, yet still identify themselves as adherents.
There are valid arguments that some of the "mass conversions" have
resulted in adherents with little or no acculturation into the new
religious system. As is typical with a religious group made up primarily
of converts, Baha'is who drift from active participation in the movement
are less likely to retain nominal identification with the religion
-- because it was not the religion of their parents or the majority
religion of the surrounding culture. On the other hand, there are
no countries in which people are automatically assigned to the Baha'i
Faith at birth (as is the case with Islam, Christianity, Shinto, Buddhism,
and other faiths), so their numbers aren't inflated with people who
have never willingly participated in or been influenced by the religion
On balance, while official Baha'i figures are not a measure of active
participants, the proportion of participating adherents among claimed
adherents is thought to be higher than average among the "major religions"
on this list. The Baha'i community is remarkably active and influential
in religious matters on both global and local levels, especially given
their relatively small numbers compared to some other religions. More.
Jainism: The highest published
figure we've seen for Jainism is 10 million, but this is clearly incorrect.
Almost all estimates for the world population are under 5 million.
This religion is almost entirely confined to India and to ethnic Jains.
It's importance historically and philosophically far outstrips its
relatively small number of adherents. More.
Shinto: Shinto is one of the
"classic" eleven or twelve "major world religions." But adherent counts
for this religion are problematic and often misunderstood. In a nutshell,
Shinto is simply the indigenous ethnic practice of Japan and its importance
is almost entirely historical and cultural, not contemporary. The
number of adherents of Shinto are often reported as being around 100
million, or around 75 to 90% of the Japanese population. These figures
come from the Shukyo Nenkan (Religions Yearbook), put out by
the Ministry of Education & Bureau of Statistics, and they obtain
their figures by asking religious bodies for statistics. The Shinto
religious bodies have on record most Japanese citizens because of
laws established in the 17th Century which required registration with
the Shinto shrines. Essentially everybody within local "shrine districts"
were counted as adherents. This is comparable to certain Catholic
and Protestant nations in Europe where the majority of people have
been Christianed or otherwise counted as a member of the state church,
but where large proportions of the population are non-practicing.
The difference is that in those European countries, those people are
at least nominally adherents of the religion that claims them. "Nominally"
here means if asked their religion, they can recall the name of the
church they were baptized into as an infant, and don't mind citing
that as their religious preference. In Japan, the majority of adherents
of Shinto, as claimed by the Shinto organizations, don't even consider
themselves adherents, even nominally. In polls, only about 3.3% of
the Japanese people give Shinto as their religion. A high world-wide
figure for people who consider themselves primarily practitioners
of Shinto would be about 4 million. Certainly most Japanese people
participate in holidays which have Shinto roots, but in this list
we are trying to track self-identification, not general vestigial
influence. Also, the strongest active religions which have
Shinto roots (such as Tenrikyo) no longer claim to be "branches" of
Shinto, and can be listed separately.
Cao Dai: Most of the figures
for this group are around 2 million, but we've seen some that say
around 8 million. It's almost entirely a Vietnamese movement, and
not even as important there as it used to be.
Tenrikyo: Recent figures are
about 2.3 million to 3 million. Tenrikyo is one of the largest and
most active religious bodies in contemporary Japan. It has missions
all over the world and a strong evangelical ethic. Outside of Japan
the countries with the most adherents seem to be the U.S. (especially
Hawaii), South Korea, Brazil, and Taiwan, although only in Japan do
Tenris make up an appreciable proportion of a country's total population.
In January 1999 Tenrikyo published country-by-country statistics showing
nearly 1,000 churches or mission stations outside of Japan
(in over 30 different countries), and over 37,000 in Japan. These
figures dwarf those of some "classical world religions," such as Zoroastrianism
Tenrikyo is probably one of the largest, most fully-developed independent
modern religious systems which most Westerners know nothing about.
Tenrikyo offers impressive opportunities for sociological, historical
and comparative religion research which are relatively unexplored
by the academic community. One of the most famous modern adherents
of Tenrikyo was the author Avram Davidson. More
Scientology: One often sees
Scientology listed in books and newspapers as having over 8 million
Where does this figure come from? It comes from them, as do most adherent
figures. Our data indicate that they cite this figure because it is
the total number of people who have participated in Church of Scientology
activities since the inception of the church. But their figure does
not include people who have only received services from their drug
rehab groups and other non-Church facilities. Narconon's clientele
are not counted as Church members unless and until they become Scientologists.
As Narconon's mission is drug rehabilitation and not Church recruitment,
the percentage of Narconon clients who become Church members is small.
The latest edition of the organization's publication What Is Scientology?
lists 373 churches and missions (plus hundreds of "related organizations"
which are not directly comparable to congregations)
in 129 countries. (Four new countries, for a total of 133, have been
opened since the publication of the book, according to a church spokesperson.)
According to church officials, this publication states that in 1997
the number of people who participated in Scientology services for
the first time was 642,596 internationally and that the circulation
of internal Church magazines which are sent to their members was 6,630,000.
Hartley Patterson, a critic of Scientology, has speculated that the
circulation figure may be based on the total press run for three publications.
Adherents.com has no argument with Scientology statistics, but for
the purposes of this list of "Major Religions of the World Ranked
by Size," we use a different standard of counting adherents
than they have used to arrive at their 8 million figure. (Figures
presented here are generally estimates of primary, self-identified
religious affiliation.) There are not 8 million people who, if taking
a survey, would name Scientology as their religious preference. One
might generously estimate up to one million worldwide, but the actual
number who would fit this criterion is probably under a half million.
Adding up organizationally-reported membership on a state-by-state,
country-by-country basis would yield a current membership figure of
about 750,000, according to a church critic. As with all religions,
the complete body of adherents represent a spectrum of participation,
including fully active members as well as non-attending or disengaged
Realistically, a figure lower than 750,000 seems be more reasonable
for this page's listing. Some documents suggest that even the tabulation
of 750,000 based on country-by-country/state-by-state organizationally-provided
data is quite out of date. Internal documents suggest 100,000 active
members -- which would easily yield an estimate of a total of 600,000
or more, including one-time members, lapsed members, and strong supporters.
This might cause some people to think the church's figures are inaccurate,
or it might seem like we are being harsh to ignore their figure and
estimate such a low one. To put these figures into perspective, compare
them to those of other major religions. There is no reason to believe
that less than 8 million people have willingly participated in Scientology
activities and actively studied at least some of its teachings. Large
numbers of people have derived benefit from participation in church
activities and church-sponsored programs. But people rarely call themselves
Scientologists mainly because their parents don't call themselves
Scientologists. Membership in the Church of Scientology does not necessarily
preclude membership in another religious organization. A percentage
of the claimed members will indeed affirm membership in the organization,
while at the same time citing another religion as their primary religious
If one eliminated from the
total number of Christians in the world all those who are counted
as Christians only because they identify themselves as such in a
survey or census, even though they never actually attend Christian
services, study Christian literature, or make behavioral changes
based on Christian teachings beyond general societal norms, one
might obtain a similar downgrade in actual number of effective adherents.
Despite such a "downgrade" from official Church
of Scientology estimates, it may be noted that in the last large-scale
survey of religious identification (Kosmin, 1990), enough people
in the United States named Scientology as their primary religion
that it was among the top 10 largest religions in the country, with
more members than the Baha'i Faith, Sikhism or Neo-Pagan/Wiccan
groups. Independent sources indicate that the strongest communities
of Scientologists are in California and the United Kingdom, as well
as in Clearwater, Florida (where the main training center is located).
Some people have commented on the fact that this
page lists an estimate of 750,000 Scientologists worldwide, while
the Religion in the U.S. web page
refers to 45,000 Scientologists in the U.S. Some people have mistakenly
concluded that this means the overwhelming majority of Scientologists
live outside the U.S., or that one of the figures is simply "wrong."
The two figures are not directly comparable. Simply put, these
two figures are from different sources and are based on different
methodologies and critera. The U.S. figure of 45,000 comes directly
from the Kosmin NSRI survey of 1990. The worldwide figure is as
a conglomerate figure, using different criteria (as explained elsewhere
on this page), based on official organizational as well as critical
sources. The larger figure would include lapsed members, as well
as people who are are adherents of Scientology, but also identify
with another religious group, and name that group in a survey r
completely opposed to fixed doctrine (which they refer to as "dogma"),
but affirming certain principles, the Unitarian Universalists (or
simply "Unitarians" as they prefer to be called in some countries)
are quite different from other major religions. Since 1995 the primary
UU organization has affirmed officially that it is not a subset of
Christianity (although its roots are Christian), but encompasses spirituality
from all the major world religions as well as primal-indigenous/tribal
faiths. But it should be kept in mind that there are self-avowed
Christian Unitarians, Buddhist Unitarians, Pagan Unitarians, etc.
In 1990, 500,000 Americans claimed to be Unitarian-Universalists,
three times the official organizational count of enrolled members,
loosely indicating that Unitarian-Universalism is the general preferred
philosophy of far more people than actually participate in or contribute
to the congregations and organizations. More.
of the loosely-organized structure of Rastafarianism, and because
many Rastafarians are nominal but non-participating members of larger
religious groups, precise size estimates are difficult. We've seen
total world estimates of about 200,000. We've seen an estimate of
700,000 in a couple of places. Leonard E. Barrett, author of The
Rastafarians, estimates there are 800,000 Rastas worldwide, more
than 2 million if one counts followers of the lifestyle but not the
faith. Based on other data we believe a figure as high as this would
have to include many Jamaicans who are strong Rastafarian supporters
or enthusiasts, but who are also at least partially or nominally adherents
of mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations as well.
There are multiple reasons why Rastafarians are typically not counted
as one of the major world religions: They are relatively new,
having originated only in this century. They aren't particularly
widespread worldwide. (They are mostly in Caribbean nations, esp.
Jamaica, as well as the United Kingdom and the U.S.) They are sometimes
classified as a Christian sect because they use the Bible as their
primary religious text (but they generally use the Hebrew Bible).
They are smaller than religious groups usually listed as "major
is an umbrella term for modern revivals of ancient ethnic and magickal
traditions. These are usually polytheistic, but many Neo-Pagans consider
their faith pantheistic, and many other concepts of deity can be found
among Neo-Pagans as well. Subdivisions within Neo-Paganism include
Wicca, Magick, Druidism, Asatru, neo-Native American religion and
Only recently has Neo-Paganism
become a movement of any significant size and visibility. Solid
statistics on Neo-Paganism on a worldwide scale are essentially
non-existent, but it is a rapidly growing religion/religious category.
Estimates regarding its worldwide size range widely--from under
one hundred thousand to over four million. Independent surveys and
government-based figures are not indicative of the higher estimates
provided by Neo-Pagan and Wiccan organizations, but there may be
a variety of reasons for this.
There are two reasons why some might argue that
Neo-Paganism should not be listed as a major religion on this page:
1) It might be said that Neo-Paganism is not a single religion,
but an umbrella term for many disparate religions. But upon
closer examination of the movement, one finds that despite drawing
upon such disparate sources as European witchcraft, Norse mythology,
Druidism, and Egyptian, Greek, and Native American ancient religions,
Neo-Pagans as a whole have a remarkably cohesive, identifiable culture
and generally shared value set, even more so than religions such
as Christianity, Islam or Judaism when taken as a whole. 2) It could
also be said that Neo-Paganism could be classified as a subset
of primal-indigenous religion. Though it has roots in
primal ethnic religions, Neo-Paganism is something distinct, clearly
drawing much of its identity from Gardnerian principles introduced
in the 1930s. Neo-Paganism is distinct from the primal ethnic religions
of ancient pre-industrial societies just as Buddhism has roots in,
but is distinct from, Hinduism. So we are including Neo-Paganism
on this list because the most recent sociological work in the field
indicates it is a distinct religion, and because it is increasingly
There were 768,400 Neo-pagans (largest subset
were Wiccans) in the U.S. in the year 2000, according to the Wiccan/Pagan
Poll, conducted by the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) beginning in
late July, 1999. [Online source: http://www.cog.org/cogpoll_final.html]
Researchers may also be interested in Isaac Bonewits' succinct web
page, How Many "Pagans" Are There?
Bonewits identifies reasons for enumeration, difficulties in doing
so, and concludes by estimating the Neopagan population at "from
half a million to several million people in the USA and Canada."
religion is in every major comparative religion text book, yet it
is actually listed in the latest Guiness Book of World Records as
the "major religion nearest extinction." The Zoroastrians (or "Parsis")
are sometimes credited with being the first monotheists and having
had significant influence in the formation of current, larger world
religions. To whatever degree that is true, some observers believe
Zoroastrianism is in a precarious state and its position as a major
contemporary world religion is tenuous. Most of the Zoroastrians do
not believe in allowing conversion. They have even stricter rules
than Jews about whether or not children of mixed marriages are Zoroastrians.
200 thousand would be a generous estimate. Most estimates for the
world total of Zoroastrians are 100 to 125 thousand.
Groups Not Included
in This List of World Religions
The following groups are religions,
but have not been included in this list of major religions primarily
for one or more of the following reasons:
- They are not a distinct, independent religion,
but a branch of a broader religion/category.
- They lack appreciable communities of adherents
outside their home country.
- They are too small (even smaller than Zoroastrianism).
Mandeans: The Encyclopedia Britannica lists Mandeans
separately, but they only have about 45,000 adherents in two
countries, meaning they're far smaller than many new religious movements
the Encyclopedia lumps together under "New Religionists." As small
as the Mandeans are, we are not listing them as one of the largest
"Major Religions." Britannica's decision to list Mandeans separately,
while not listing larger but newer religions is due the their list's
criteria, which emphasizes long-established yet post-literate religions.
This Adherents.com listing, on the other hand, is based on contemporary
size, without regard to age.
PL Kyodan: They currently claim about 1 million adherents
and 500 churches in 10 countries. But they're almost entirely in Japan.
The group has a few branches in North America and Europe, and perhaps
twenty in South America. So there is some spread beyond its home country,
but with only about 500 branches worldwide, and with some question
as to whether it has really emerged from it's original Shinto matrix,
it may be inappropriate to call it a distinct major religion.
Ch'ondogyo: About 3 million adherents total. Their numbers
are almost entirely confined to Korea, however. Apparently a fusion
of Christianity and traditional Korean religion. In North Korea, once
Ch'ondogyo's center, where it was, for a time, the country's second
or third largest religion, it has essentially been co-opted by the
government and turned into a hollow appendage of Juche.
Wonbulgyo: Another new Korean religion. The claim about 400
branches in Korea, and 30 in North America and Europe. They make some
claims to be an emerging world religion, but as they call themselves
"Won Buddhism," we include them within the greater body of Buddhism.
Lively, but probably less than 150,000 adherents, making it
even smaller than Zoroastrianism.
Vodoun: Vodoun is classified here as a subset of African diasporic
New Age: New Age is an incredibly eclectic category, not a
single religion. Although a large number of people hold beliefs which
have been categorized as New Age, or participate in New Age practices,
only a tiny percentage of people actually identify "New Age" as their
religion. At this point "New Age" is more the umbrella term for a
broad movement, rather than a religion. Some previous enthusiasts
of New Age movements now prefer to be called pagans or Neo-Pagans.
Seicho-No-Ie: This organization is large (perhaps 2 to 3
million members) and appears somewhat like a typical New Asian
syncretistic religion, but its literature states that it is an interdenominational
organization and not a religion. Furthermore, it does not seem to
have spawned a distinctive religious culture anywhere outside of Japan,
and perhaps not even in Japan -- certainly not to the degree that
groups such as PL Kyodan and Tenrikyo have.
Falun Dafa/Falun Gong: This is a relatively new movement (started
in the mid-1980s) from China which purports to have 100 million adherents
worldwide, 70 million in China. These numbers are obviously inflated;
it is not true that 1 in every 58 people on the planet are adherents
of Falun Dafa. A reasonable worldwide number that some newspapers
have used is 10 million, but this is only a guess. The current
crackdown on the movement by the Communist government is likely to
increase the movement's growth both within and outside of China. Its
status as a full-fledged "religion" is questionable, and it does not
claim to be one in the traditional sense. For most practitioners it
is more of a technique than a religion. However, the movement's literature
states that deriving full benefit from the techniques precludes membership
in other religions, and there are people who consider Falun Dafa their
primary or only religion. But exclusive followers of this sort are
in the minority.
Furthermore, Falun Dafa is properly classified as a subset of Chinese
traditional religion and not as a distinct religion, so it would
not be classified as a "major world religion" even if it did have
100 million followers. Although the movement is verifiably large and
widespread, its adherents appear to be almost uniformly ethnic Chinese.
Their involvement with the movement is not really conversion to a
different or foreign religion, but rather involvement in an evangelical/reform
movement within their existing religious system. Sociologically, the
Falun Dafa movement has many parallels to the Pentecostal movement
and Billy Graham revivals within Christianity.
Taoism: Included as a subset of Chinese traditional religion
because of the impossibility of separating a large number of Taoists
from traditional Chinese religionists in general. See note under Chinese traditional
Confucianism: See Chinese traditional
Roma: There are an estimated 9 to 12 million Roma (Gypsies;
also "Rroma") in the world, concentrated in Europe, but also in North
America, Australia and elsewhere. There is clearly a distinct set
of Roma religious beliefs and practices, which scholars frequently
describe as Aryan/Indian/Hindu in origin with an overlay of local
(esp. European) religious culture (often Catholic). But the Roma are
primarily classified as an ethnic or cultural group. Many clearly
have a strong ethnic identity as Roma and a self-identified religious
identity as Catholic or Protestant. The Roma illustrate how arbitrary
the dividing lines between ethnicity, culture, and religion can be.
Animal Rights: Although the Animal Rights movement (along with
ethical vegetarianism, Veganism, PETA, etc.) is a large and rapidly
growing socio-cultural-religious group, its proponents do not generally
call it their "religion." Reliable statistics for the number of adherents
for whom Animal Rights constitutes primary cultural/religious/philosophical
identity, versus those who simply support certain positions of the
movement, are unavailable. AR is a religion, but for the majority
of Animal Rights supporters, AR functions as a movement and/or lifestyle
choice, not their primary religion. (This is similar to the current
broad support for the "Free Tibet" movement, most of which comes from
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