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Major Religions of the World
Ranked by Number of Adherents
(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.)
1. Christianity: 2.1 billion
2. Islam: 1.5 billion
3. Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 1.1 billion
4. Hinduism: 900 million
5. Chinese traditional religion: 394 million
6. Buddhism: 376 million
7. primal-indigenous: 300 million
8. African Traditional & Diasporic: 100 million
9. Sikhism: 23 million
10. Juche: 19 million
11. Spiritism: 15 million
12. Judaism: 14 million
13. Baha’i: 7 million
14. Jainism: 4.2 million
15. Shinto: 4 million
16. Cao Dai: 4 million
17. Zoroastrianism: 2.6 million
18. Tenrikyo: 2 million
19. Neo-Paganism: 1 million
20. Unitarian-Universalism: 800 thousand
21. Rastafarianism: 600 thousand
22. Scientology: 500 thousand
The adherent counts presented in the list above are current 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 main database.
A major source for these estimates is the detailed country-by-country analysis done by David B. Barrett’s religious statistics organization, whose data are published in the Encyclopedia Britannica (including annual updates and yearbooks) and also in the World Christian Encyclopedia (the latest edition of which – published in 2001 – has been consulted). Hundreds of additional sources providing more thorough and detailed research about individual religious groups have also been consulted.
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 43,000 adherent statistic citations, for over 4,300 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:
# Main list of major religions of the world
# Brief explanation/introduction
# Links to alternative lists of world religions
# The Classical World Religions List
# Parameters of this list
# Parameter 1: What is a religion? (for this list)
# — Classical 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
# Religious groups not included on the main list
Alternative summary listings of major world religions and numbers of adherents:
* Christian Science Monitor (1998): Top 10 Organized Religions in the World
* Encyclopedia Britannica’s Adherents of All Religions by Six Continents
* Tigerx.com’s Top 10 Religions – A casual but insightful attempt divided along the lines of functional religious cultures rather than classical categorization
* Minnesota State University’s “Religions of the World” website lists the “world’s six major religions” as: Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Animism, Christianity and Hinduism. Read the site’s introduction (from: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/ religion/) here
The 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 books.
Five smaller or more localized religions/philosophies brought the list of world religions to ten: Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, Shinto and Zoroastrianism.
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. On their official website, Baha’is claim 5 million adherents worldwide, established in 235 countries and territories throughout the world. 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:
…there 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, etc.).
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 or Jewish)
* 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 environments)
Parameters of this List
In order to rank religions by size, two parameters must be defined:
1. What constitutes a “religion”?
2. How is “size” determined?
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.
“Major religions”, for the purposes of this list, are:
* Large – at least 500,000 adherents
* Widespread – appreciable numbers of members live and worship in more than just one country or limited region
* Independent – the religion is clearly independent and distinct from a broader religion
What is 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 described 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 traditions.
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 asthe 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 “heterodox.”)
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 worship.
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:
1. 1. Does the faith group consider itself to be part of (or the definitive version of) a larger religion?
2. 2. 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 a “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, and Confucianism.
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): “Potential Pioneers of Pluralism: The Contribution of Religious Education to Intercultural Education in Multicultural Societies.” Useful information about cultures can also be found in John B. Gatewood’s Intracultural Variability and Problem-Solving, which repeats the Kluckhohn-Murray aphorism (1953):
Every human is in certain respects
a. like all other humans.
b. like some other humans.
c. like no other human.
How is the size of a religion determined for the purposes of this list?
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 groups.
A detailed description of what an adherent is, and the different types/levels of adherents can be found on the FAQ page.
How are adherents counted?
There are five main methods for determining the number of adherents in a faith group:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 attended 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 links page, 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 projected that by the year 2000 there will be 2.1 billion Christians in the world. The 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia stated there were 2.1 billion Christians in the world, or 33% of the total population. Regardless of the degree of accuracy of this figure, Christianity, if taken as a whole, is unarguably the largest world religion – the largest religion in the world. (Keep in mind that although Christianity is the world’s largest religion, it is an umbrella term that comprises many different branches and denominations.)
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 Foundation.); Largest Christian Populations (lists the Top 10 Countries with the Most Christians and the Top 10 U.S. Most Christian U.S. States); Famous Christians.
For statistical purposes: Groups which self-identify as part of Christianity include (but are not limited to): African Independent Churches (AICs), the Aglipayan Church, Amish, Anglicans, Armenian Apostolic, Assemblies of God; Baptists, Calvary Chapel, Catholics, Christadelphians, Christian Science, the Community of Christ, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”), Coptic Christians, Eastern Orthodox churches, Ethiopian Orthodox, Evangelicals, Iglesia ni Cristo, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Local Church, Lutherans, Methodists, Monophysites, Nestorians, the New Apostolic Church, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren, Presbyterians, the Salvation Army, Seventh-Day Adventists, Shakers, Stone-Campbell churches (Disciples of Christ; Churches 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 and the World Christian Encyclopedia, 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 1 billion and 1.8 billion, with 1 billion being a figure frequently given in many comparative religion texts, probably because it’s such a nice, round number. That figure appears to be dated, however. Relatively high birth rates in Muslim countries continue to make Islam a fast-growing religion. The largest and best known branches of Islam are Sunni and Shi’ite. More.
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.
Smaller groups within Islam include Sufis (although some Sufis regard their practice of Sufism as pan-denominational or non-denominational), Druze, the U.S.-based Nation of Islam (previously known as “Black Muslims”), and Ahmadiyya. As is true with all major religions, there are adherents within all branches of Islam who consider some of or all of the other branches heterodox or not actually part of their religion. But these classifications are based primarily on historical lineage and self-identification. Protestations and disagreements based on exclusivistic internal concepts of belief or practice are normal, but are largely immaterial with regards to historical, taxonomic and statistical classification.
Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: 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. People who specify atheism as their religious preference actually make up less than one-half of one percent of the population in many countries where much large numbers claim no religious preference, such as the United States (13.2% nonreligious according to ARIS study of 2001) and Australia (15% nonreligious).
Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman compiled country-by-country survey, polling and census numbers relating to atheism, agnosticism, disbelief in God and people who state they are non-religious or have no religious preference. These data were published in the chapter titled “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). Different type of data collection methodologies using different types of questions showed a consistent pattern: In most countries only a tiny number of people (zero to a fraction of 1 percent) will answer “atheism” or “atheist” when asked an open-ended question about what their religious preference. A slightly larger number of people will answer “yes” if asked pointedly if they are an atheist. A slightly larger number than that will answer “no” when asked if they believe in any type of God, deities, or Higher Power. A slightly larger number answer “no” when asked simply if they “believe in God” (omitting wording indicating more nebulous, less anthropomorphic conceptions of divinity). Finally, a larger number of people answer “none” or “non-religious” when asked asked an open-ended queston about what their religious preference is. Although figures vary for each country, average numbers indicate that roughly half of the people who self-identify as “nonreligious” also answer “yes” when asked if they believe in God or a Higher Power.
One portion of this broad grouping includes those who are best described as “nonreligious,” i.e., those who are essentially passive with regards to organized 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. A minority among atheists are quite fervent in their beliefs and actively endeavor to proselytize atheism.
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 (as a primary religious preference) 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 difficult 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 13.2% of the population describe themselves as nonreligious, 0.5% describe themselves as agnostic, and a smaller number describe themselves as atheist (Kosmin, ARIS/American Religious Identification Survey, City University of New York, 2001).
Zuckerman (2005) compiled numbers of people who don’t believe in God, based primarily on polling and survey data, for every country in the world. He totaled the survey-based and poll-based estimates of non-believers from the top 50 countries with the highest proportion of people who do not believe in God, and added to this number the non-believers from highly populous countries (Mexico, Poland, Moldova Romania, Georgia, Uzbekistan, India, Ireland, and Chile). The remaining countries had proportionately miniscule populations of atheists/agnostics/non-believers. Zuckerman concluded, “the grand total worldwide number of atheists, agnostics, and non-believers in God is somewhere between 504,962,830 and 749,247,571. These minimum/maximum numbers are conservative estimates; were one to factor in a mere .25% of such highly populated countries as Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Burma, Tanzania, and Iran, as non-believers in God, estimates would be significantly larger. Also, these numbers are only for non-believers of God, specifically. Were one to include all ‘non-religious’ people in general, the numbers would nearly double… nonbelievers in God as a group come in fourth place after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million) in terms of global ranking of commonly-held belief systems.”
Zuckerman states that adding the “non-religious” segment of the world population would to his calculated maximum of 749,247,571 (about 750 million) atheists, agnostic and non-believers in God would yield a number nearly twice as large — just under 1.5 billion. This number is not, however, the number of people who should be classified in the “Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist” category, because half of this larger number is based solely on belief in a single theological proposition (belief/non-belief in God), rather than on a person’s religious affiliation/religious preference. A large proportion of people in the surveys Zuckerman combined to arrive at this total expressly are adherents of named religions (such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Chinese traditional religion, Unitarianism and Christianity). Many of these people who do not believe in God, deities, or a Higher Power are nevertheless devout adherents of their various faiths, or even clergy. They are enumerated in the list above as adherents of those faiths, and not counted among nonreligious, atheists or agnostics because their primary religious identity is not atheism or agnosticism. It should be remembered that not all strains of all religions entail belief in God, a Higher Power or deities.
It can not be said based on Zuckerman’s analysis that “1.5 billion people do not believe in God.” A large proportion of the people classified as “non-religious” expressly do believe in God or a Higher Power. The 750 million figure is already an attempt to estimate the total population of people who do not believe in God.
For the year 2000, David B. Barrett (Encyclopedia Britannica and World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001) classified 150,089,508 (2.5% of world’s population) as atheists, and 768,158,954 people as “Nonreligious” (12.7% of the world) for a total of 918,248,462 (15.2% of the world). These calculations by Barrett include all agnostics and others in our “Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist” category. Our figure of 1.1 billion in this category is considerably higher, and takes into consideration Zuckerman’s analysis as well. Of the people in this grouping, it is estimated that 40 to 50% have a stated traditionally “theistic” belief in God, deities or a Higher Power.
A country-by-country breakdown of statistics atheists, agnostics, people who do not believe in God, and self-described non-religious people, with figures based mostly on surveys and polling data, can be found online in the Adherents.com main database. A summary page shows data for the 50 countries with the most atheists.
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”.)
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, and extinction.
These are some of the factors which make estimating the size of the secular (nonreligious, agnostic, atheist, etc.) segment of society difficult.
Detailed statistics on atheism can be found in papers by Phil Zuckerman (Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns) and 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 billion. More.
Buddhism: World estimates for Buddhism vary between 230 and 500 million, with most around 350 million. More.
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 and worldview.
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 million. Barrett (World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001) classified 384,806,732 “Chinese folk-religionists,” 6,298,597 “Confucianists” and 2,654,514 “Taoists,” or about 394 million total.
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, etc.
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 traditional religion.
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.
primal-indigenous: Alternatively termed “tribal religionists, “ethnic religionists,” or “animists,” estimates range from 100 million to 457 million. (457 million is the combined total for “Ethnoreligionists,” “Animists,” and “Shamanists” from Barrett’s 2001 world religion calculations. But this total includes all African Traditional religionists, which we have listed as a separate category.) 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.
Previously, 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 India).
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 religion.
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 inaccurate.
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: In the late 1990s the highest estimate we had for the number of Sikhs in the world was 20 million, from http://www.sikhs.org. Most estimates were between 16 and 18 million. About 80% of the world’s Sikhs live in the province of Punjab, in India. Barrett’s latest publications estimate 23 million Sikhs worldwide. More.
Juche: This section moved to separate Juche page due to length.
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 worldwide. More.
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 while adults.
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.
Zoroastrianism: This religion is in every major comparative religion text book, yet during the 1990s and for a few years thereafter it was actually listed in the 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 believed Zoroastrianism was in a precarious state and its position as a “major” contemporary world religion was tenuous. Prior to some increased reforms, most Zoroastrians did not believe in allowing conversion. They had even stricter rules than Jews about whether or not children of mixed marriages would be considered Zoroastrians. Until about 2002, most published estimates for the world total of Zoroastrians were 100 to 125 thousand. More recent publications of many major encyclopedias an world alamanacs include population estimates of 2 to 3.5 million. The government of India has actively encouraged the growth of its Zoroastrian population. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and subsequent U.S.-led intervention in the Middle East, the Parsees of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been receiving less persecution than before, and have been less reticent about identifying themselves, and there seems to be an increased respect for and interest in this classical Persian religion which was once one of the largest in the world. The current estimate posted on this page of millions of Zoroastrians in the world (rather than 100,000 to 150,000) is still under evaluation. The number does not represent an exponential explosion the number of actual Zoroastrians (although there has been some growth in numbers), but is a result of re-evaluation of the existing population. The majority of the world’s Zoroastrians are Parsees who now thought to live in the Middle East. Years of suppression under Muslim-dominated cultures and governments has doubtless led to erosion in some aspects of their community, relative to their co-religionists in India and even among expatriate populations in places such as the United States and the United Kingdom – places with far greater levels of continuous religious freedom.
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. The official Cao Dai website states that there are about 6 million adherents worldwide, and elsewhere states that there are 5 million in Vietnam, but points out that the religion is largely paralyzed there due to repression by the government.
Tenrikyo: The description of Tenrikyo on the Tenrikyo University website (http://www.tenri-u.ac.jp/en/history/tenrikyo.html) states: “Tenrikyo has spread throughout Japan and also to various countries around the world. At present, there are about two million followers and more than 17,000 churches. Moreover, churches and mission centers have been established in about 30 countries around the world.” 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 the international statistics of some “classical world religions,” such as Zoroastrianism and Jainism.
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 adherents. Where does this figure come from? It comes from the Church of Scientology, just as most church membership figures come from churches themselves. 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 sympathizers.
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 preference.
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 a recent large-scale independent survey of religious identification (NSRI, Barry Kosmin et al, City University of New York 1990), enough people in the United States named Scientology as 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 500,000 (previously 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 or census.
Unitarian-Universalism: Being 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.
Rastafarian: Because 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 world religions.”
Neo-Paganism: Neo-Paganism 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 others.
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 significant.
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%5D 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.”
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 Rastafarianism).
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 religion.
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 religion.
Confucianism: See Chinese traditional religion.
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 non-Buddhists.)
Other movements and groups which are not listed on this page but which function as the sociological equivalent of traditionally recognized religions are listed here. Please feel free to send comments, questions, adherent statistics, spelling corrections, etc. to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Webpage created circa January 2000. Last modified 9 August 2007.
Copyright © 2007 by Adherents.com.