With all the attention on terrorism which is blamed on radical sects within Islam, it seems to be a good idea to take a brief look at the world’s religions. According to Adherents.com, about 16% of the World’s population express no religious preference, which includes atheists, agnostics and secularists. As a group, such non-religious people would rank third-largest if they organized. Of course, that is part of the problem. The largest groups are not monolithic in their doctrines or organization, as is best exemplified by Christianity. At 2.1 billion in 2000, the Christian faith would be imposing indeed if it were unified, but the reality is quite different, with a few major denominations and a great many splinter sects and offshoots. Geography, local preferences and cultural shifts also influence the grassroots beliefs. I would go so far as to say that any religion of significant size ends up with a traditional or orthodox doctrine, from which actual practices vary.
The site lists Islam as number 2, and Judaism, the third religion most Americans are familiar with, is only 12th in size. The ones ranking 4th through 11th then are worth a closer look:
Hindus number nearly a Billion believers, and yet are largely unknown to the West and in the Middle East. According to religioustolerance.org, Hindus believe in a central deity, and apparent gods or goddesses are manifestations of aspects of that deity. It is most common in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Confucianists are those believers in a philosophy of individual morality and ethics, which requires “proper” action by political leaders. Confucianists, essentially Chinese, exercise body and mind together and are known to criticize leaders if they “lose the mandate of heaven”. This explains part of Communist China’s crackdowns on the Falun Gong, as this group can be said to practice Confucianism.
Buddhism is actually more a philosophy than a religion, except that like religion its adherents accept discipline to learn “right thinking” along a path to discovery and greater life. Buddhists focus on the question of suffering and how to ameliorate it. It should be observed that Buddhists enjoy the renown of being the only major religion which has never been an instigator for war, yet it should also be observed that Buddhism has condoned many practices which other cultures would consider immoral, such as drug running, gambling and prostitution.
Primal-Indigenous religions are those beliefs most often attached to a specific land or region; Adherents.com notes dozens of specific sects under this category, so while the overall size is imposing, the actual societal effect of these beliefs is diluted by their factionalism. In general, primal religions are most often animists and nature-worshippers in various forms. They also tend to be suspicious of outsiders.
African Traditional is probably one of the more generally misunderstood religions. A great many people would confuse African tribal rites for the animist rites of the primal sects, but that misses the oral history and tradition handed down through the better-organized African sects. It might be useful to compare some of the African tribal rites to the traditional practices of Scottish clans, down to traditional dress, dance, and food.
Sikhism is a 500-year old religion founded on many philosophical teachings from gurus. Sikhs devote themselves to “remembering God at all times” and in “truthful living”. Sikhs are opposed to useless rituals and superstition. Unfortunately, in some Asian nations Sikhs have also been prone to violent radicalism.
Juche may be the largest religion you’ve never heard about. Basically, it’s the notion that a human can control his world and environment, and is the state religion of – get ready for it – North Korea. It is a mix of political dialectic, martial arts, and economic self-sufficiency. ‘Juche’ means “self-reliance”.
Spiritism is focused on interaction with celestial spirits believed to exist, and to gain wisdom from them. Formed in France by Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail, Spiritism is best known for such totems as Quija Boards and Séance parties.
Baha’I was formed about 150 years ago, and follows the teaching of one Bahá’u’lláh, who claimed to be sent to mankind as an emissary of God, and co-equal to Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad in stature and credibility. The basic theme of Baha’I is that Humanity is in evolution, and grows in stages, each new messenger representing an elevation in that growth.
Jainism is similar to the Hindu faith in form, but follows the teaching of 24 masters who “overcame” the world. It is similar to Buddhism in its disciplines, and pays special homage to one ‘Mahavir’. Jainism is focused mainly in India.
Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion, which rose from feritility cults and nature worship to include hero worship. During the fascist years under Tojo, for instance, Shinto priests played up the image of the Emporer and the Army as national heroes by identity and divine purpose. This led, among other things, to groups like the kamikaze fighters, whose devotion to the emperor went far beyond rational measure.
Cao Dai is an Asian-based religion based on themes of tolerance, unity, common purpose, a single deity, and peace as human destiny. The Cao Dai believe God and Humans are one in essence.
Zoroastrianism is an ancient mythic belief which originated in Iran. Zoroastrianism is notable for being the earliest religion to foretell a final battle between forces of Good and Evil, and of a celestial judgment for all men based on whether they did good work or evil.
Tenriko is an Asian religion founded in Japan during the 19th Century, which seeks harmony in life and society. Tenriko can be employed through such things as flower arrangement or food placement on a plate. A good example of Tenriko is the spiritual value many find in Japanese gardens.
Neo-Paganism is also known as Gardnerian Wicca, and emphasizes devotion to nature and ecology, as well as ancient pagan traditions related to respect for the earth.
Unitarian-Universalism is the notion that all religions amount to the same purpose, and so unity and common tolerance and respect for all beliefs should be ancouraged and taught.
Rastafarianism is a religion common to Haiti and Jamaica. Originally a social protest in the early 20th century, Rastafarianism has evolved into a cultural identity, with heavy emphasis on drug-aided meditation, especiall marijuana.
Scientology is proof that bad literature can still grab a following. L Ron Hubbard was never better than a middling novelist, but he sold plenty of people on his quack theories, most notably Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
That's the biggies, folks. What does that tell you?