Symbols of some of the more common religions.
Top to bottom, left to right:
Row 1. Christian, Jewish, Hindu Row 2. Islamic, Buddhist, Shinto Row 3. Sikh, Baha'i, Jain

The term religion (from Latin: religio meaning "bind, connect") denotes a set of common beliefs and practices pertaining to the supernatural (and its relationship to humanity and the cosmos), which are often codified into prayer, ritual, scriptures, and religious law. These beliefs and practices are typically defined in light of a shared canonical vocabulary of venerable traditions, writings, history, and mythology. As religious traditions are often deeply embedded into specific cultural contexts, these traditions often contain moral codes that outline the relationships that a believer is expected to cultivate with respect to themselves, other believers, outsiders, and the supernatural world. Finally, a common element of many religious traditions is the division of the world in two comprehensive domains, one sacred, the other profane.1 In this context, religious thought and practice are aimed at delineating and reifying these two disparate realms through personal effort and/or communal ritual.

The social structure of the world's religious traditions can be roughly placed on continuum based on their respective levels of interpersonal involvement and social engagement. On one end of this scale would be the most inwardly-directed types, such as the desert saints of early Christianity and the ascetics of Hinduism. On the other hand, one would find the religious traditions that are most firmly entrenched in all aspects of personal, social, and juridical life, such as the medieval Catholic Church and the theocratic regimes of some Islamic states. All other religious traditions could be situated somewhere between these two poles. However, the multivalent interplay between the religious and secular spheres has caused some scholars to question the utility of the term "religion," as they claim that it presents these traditions in "a reified, essentialized fashion, isolated from the political, social, economic, and cultural worlds within which they are embedded."2

Given its ubiquity in human affairs and world history, religion has been a perennially controversial topic for generations. The subject of religion can induce a range of responses from love, compassion and goodwill, to fear, loathing, and xenophobia. Indeed, religion can be seen as something of a paradox, as it simultaneously contains both humanity's most sublime moral and spiritual teachings, as well as grim remnants of intolerance and patriarchy that foster hatred and horror. Thus, despite the growing dangers of religious fundamentalism, the world's religions continue to be treasure chests of spiritual resources for making a positive impact on world affairs.

"Religion" as a Term


Did you know?The term "religion" comes from the Latin word "religio," meaning "reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things"

The English word religion has been in use since the thirteenth century, loaned from Anglo-French religiun (eleventh century), ultimately from the Latin religio, "reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety, the res divinae."3

The ultimate origins of Latin religio are obscure, though a historically popular derivation suggests that the term emerged from ligare "bind, connect"; likely from a prefixed re-ligare, i.e. re (again) + ligare or "to reconnect." This interpretation is favored by modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell, though it owes its place of prominence to St. Augustine, who used it in his interpretation of Lactantius. Another possibility is derivation from a reduplicated *le-ligare. Another historical interpretation, this one offered by Cicero, connects lego "read," i.e. re (again) + lego in the sense of "choose," "go over again" or "consider carefully".4


The word "Religion" has been defined in a wide variety of manners, with most definitions attempting to find a balance somewhere between overly restrictive categorizations and meaningless generalities. In this quest, a variety of approaches have been employed, including the use formalistic, doctrinal definitions, and the emphasis experiential, emotive, intuitive, valuational and ethical factors. Definitions mostly include:

  • a notion of the transcendent or numinous (most important for theistic belief systems
  • a cultural or behavioral aspect of ritual, liturgy and organized worship, often involving a priesthood, and societal norms of morality (ethos) and virtue
  • a set of myths or sacred truths held in reverence or believed by adherents

Sociologists and anthropologists tend to see religion as an abstract set of ideas, values, or experiences developed as part of a cultural matrix. For example, in George A. Lindbeck's Nature of Doctrine, religion does not refer to belief in "God" or a transcendent Absolute. Instead, Lindbeck defines religion as, "a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought… it is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments.”5 According to this definition, religion refers to one's primary worldview and how this dictates one's thoughts and actions.

Other religious scholars have put forward a definition of religion that avoids the reductionism of the various sociological and psychological disciplines that reduce religion to its component factors. Religion may be defined as the presence of a belief in the sacred or the holy. For example Rudolf Otto's "The Idea of the Holy," formulated in 1917,6 defines the essence of religious awareness as awe, a unique blend of fear and fascination before the divine. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the late eighteenth century defined religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence."

The Encyclopedia of Religion defines religion this way:

In summary, it may be said that almost every known culture involves the religious in the above sense of a depth dimension in cultural experiences at all levels-a push, whether ill-defined or conscious, toward some sort of ultimacy and transcendence that will provide norms and power for the rest of life. When more or less distinct patterns of behaviour are built around this depth dimension in a culture, this structure constitutes religion in its historically recognizable form. Religion is the organization of life around the depth dimensions of experience-varied in form, completeness, and clarity in accordance with the environing culture.7

Other encyclopedic definitions include: "A general term used… to designate all concepts concerning the belief in god(s) and goddess(es) as well as other spiritual beings or transcendental ultimate concerns" (Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997)) and "human beings' relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine" (Encyclopædia Britannica (online, 2006)).8

All of this being said, some scholars call the utility of the term "religion" into question, as it creates (or reifies) a distinction between the secular and sacred elements of human existence that may bear little relation to the lived experience of believers. As Jonathan Z. Smith argues, "religion as a discrete category is solely the creation of the scholar's study. It is created for the scholar's analytic purposes by his imaginative acts of comparison and generalization."2 Such critiques, and the porous, multivalent understanding of religion that they engender, should be taken into account throughout the following discussion.


In the earliest Latin accounts, the term "religion" was used exclusively to describe proper religious praxis - a sense of the term that was inherited by early Christian writers. Jonathan Z. Smith provides an excellent overview of this restrictive usage:

In both Roman and early Christian Latin usage, the noun forms religio/religiones and, most especially, the adjectival religiosus and the adverbial religiose were cultic terms referring primarily to the careful performance of ritual obligations. This sense survives in the English adverbial construction "religiously" designating a conscientious repetitive action… The only distinctly Christian usage was the fifth-century extension of this cultic sense to the totality of an individual's life in monasticism: "religion," a life bound by monastic vows; "religious," a monk; "to enter religion," to join a monastery. It is this technical vocabulary that is first extended to non-Christian examples in the literature of exploration, particularly in the descriptions of the complex civilizations of Mesoamerica."9

In keeping with the term's Latin origins, religious believers have characterized other belief systems as immoral forms of superstition. Likewise, some atheists, agnostics, deists, and skeptics regard all religious belief as superstition, as in Edmund Burke famous quip that "superstition is the religion of feeble minds." Religious practices are most likely to be labeled "superstitious" by outsiders when they include belief in extraordinary events (miracles), an afterlife, supernatural interventions, apparitions or the efficacy of prayer, charms, incantations, the meaningfulness of omens, and prognostications. Greek and Roman pagans, who modeled their relations with the gods on political and social terms, scorned the man who constantly trembled with fear at the thought of the gods, as a slave feared a cruel and capricious master. The Romans regarded such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) as superstitious. Early Christianity was outlawed as a superstitio Iudaica, a "Jewish superstition," by Domitianin the 80s C.E., and by 425 C.E. Theodosius II outlawed Roman "pagan" traditions as superstitious.

The Roman Catholic Church considers superstition to be sinful in the sense that it denotes a lack of trust in the divine providence of God and, as such, is a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states superstition "in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion."10 The Catechism clearly dispels commonly held preconceptions or misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine relating to superstitious practices:

Superstition is a deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand is to fall into superstition.11


Development of religion

There are a number of models regarding the ways in which religions come into being and develop. Broadly speaking, these models fall into three categories (as discussed below):

  • Models which see religions as social constructions;
  • Models which see religions as progressing toward higher, objective truth;
  • Models which see a particular religion as absolutely true.

However, these models are not mutually exclusive, as multiple elements may be seen to apply simultaneously, or different models may be seen as applying more fittingly to different religions.

Pre-modern Religious Thought

In pre-modern (pre-urban) societies, religion is one defining factor of ethnicity, along with language, regional customs, national costume, etc. As Xenophanes famously comments:

Men make gods in their own image; those of the Ethiopians are black and snub-nosed, those of the Thracians have blue eyes and red hair. Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.12

Ethnic religions may include officially sanctioned and organized civil religions with an organized clergy, but they are characterized in that adherents generally are defined by their ethnicity, and conversion essentially equates to cultural assimilation to the people in question. The notion of gentiles ("nations") in Judaism reflect this state of affairs, the implicit assumption that each nation will have its own religion. Historical examples include Germanic polytheism, Celtic polytheism, Slavic polytheism and pre-Hellenistic Greek religion, as well as Hinduism and Chinese folk religion.

The "Axial Age"

Main article: Axial Age

Karl Jaspers, a prominent figure in the academic study of religion, posited a "quantum leap" in religious thought that occurred simultaneously on various parts of the planet in the six hundred year span between 800 and 200 B.C.E. This axial age, which he describes in his Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History), was host to a number of key religious figures (such as Plato, Heraclitus, Laozi, Mencius, Confucius, Zhuangzi, Siddhartha Gautama, Mahavira, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the writers of the Upanishads), each of whom immeasurably extended the humanistic and metaphysical bases of their respective traditions. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found no recorded proof of any extensive inter-communication between Ancient Greece, the Middle East, India and China. This historical periodization has been adopted the majority of scholars and academics, and has become a prominent point of discussion in the history of religion.

Some of the more notable concepts to emerge in the Axial Age included monism, monotheism, the Platonic idealism of Hellenistic philosophy, the notion of atman in Vedanta, the notion of Dao in Daoism, and the so-called Golden Rule, which emerged independently in the writings of virtually all thinkers of the period.

Middle Ages

The present-day world religions established themselves throughout Eurasia during the Middle Ages through various world-expanding processes, including the "Christianization" of the West, the transmission of Buddhism to East Asia along the Silk Road, the decline of Indian Buddhism, the rise of Hinduism in India, and the spread of Islam throughout the Near East and much of Central Asia. In the High Middle Ages, Islam was in conflict with Christianity during the Crusades and with Hinduism in the Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent. In each of these cases, religion was generally transmitted as a subcomponent of an overarching ruling ideology, as exemplified in the various tales of forced conversions and religious persecution from the period.

In marked contrast to this deeply entrenched version of religious teachings, many medieval religious movements also emphasized the mystical notion of direct, unmediated contact with the Divine. Some of these groups include the Cathars, various Christian mystic saints (e.g., Hildegard of Bingen), Jewish Kabbala, the Bhakti movement in India, Sufism in Islam, and Zen Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism in the Far East.

Modern period

European colonization during the 15th to 19th centuries resulted in the spread of Christianity to Sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia, the Philippines, and the Far East. This expansion brought Christianity into direct contact (and often contention) with the world's other leading belief system, including Hinduism in India, Islam in the Middle East, and Confucianism and Daoism in China. This of course led to considerable regional repercussions, as existing religio-cultural traditions struggled to adopt their worldviews to the presence of these interlopers. Some examples of these responses include the Boxer Rebellion in China, the First War of Indian Independence, and the development of the Ghost Dance religion among indigenous North Americans - each of which, to a greater or lesser extent, was informed by both religious and political tensions.

At the same time, the 18th century saw the rise of a rationalist/secularist trend in Europe, which rose to prominence due to the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. During this period, the growing Continental disenfranchisement with Christianity led to an increased interest in the philosophical/religious traditions of China and India, with Buddhism, Upanishadic Hinduism, and Confucianism coming to play an influential role in the intellectual discourse of the day.

In the twentieth century, the role of religion in public life became an increasingly contentious issue. The Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and China were explicitly anti-religious, with Western Europe and America (at least among intellectual elites) becoming increasing secularized. At the same time, Christianity and Islam continued to spread at ever-increasing rates throughout the developing world. While many of these modern religious movements have stressed compassion and social justice, other fundamentalist strands (which have developed in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism) have sought to use religious teachings to establish ideological world-views and forward conservative political agendas. Over and above these developments, a great variety of cults and new religious movements originated in the 20th century, many proposing syncretism of elements of established religions.


Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. In this framework, the term "Abrahamic" describes those which originated in the Middle East, "Indian" depicts those that emerged in India, and "Far Eastern" refers to those that arose in East Asia. Another group with supra-regional influence are African diasporic religions, which have their origins in Central and West Africa.

Major religious groups as a percentage of the world population in Encyclopaedia Britannica 2005. In summary, religious adherence of the world's population is as follows: Abrahamic: 53.5 percent, Indian: 19.7 percent, irreligious: 14.3 percent, Far Eastern: 6.5 percent, tribal religions: 4.0 percent, new religious movements: 2.0 percent.
  • Abrahamic religions are by far the largest group, and these consist primarily of Christianity, Islam and Judaism (sometimes Bahá'í is also included). They are named for the patriarch Abraham, and are unified by their strict monotheism. Today, around 3.4 billion people are followers of Abrahamic religions and they are spread widely around the world (with the exception of South-East Asia).
  • Indian religions originated in Greater India and tend to share a number of key concepts, such as dharma and karma. They are most influential across the Indian subcontinent, East Asia, South East Asia, as well as in isolated parts of Russia. The main Indian religions are Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.
  • Far Eastern religions consist of several East Asian religions which make use of the concept of Tao/Dao (in Chinese) or Do (in Japanese or Korean). They include Daoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Chondogyo, and Caodaism, as well as Far Eastern Buddhism (which represents an overlap between the "Far Eastern" and "Indian" groups).
  • Iranic religions include Zoroastrianism, Yazdanism and historical traditions of Gnosticism (Mandaeanism, Manichaeism). Though distinct from the Abrahamic traditions, Iranian religious ideas have extensively influenced the outlook and spiritual practice of the other Middle Eastern faiths (as evidenced in Christian Gnosticism and Sufism), as well as in recent movements such as Bábísm and the Bahá'í Faith.
  • African diasporic religions practiced in the Americas, imported as a result of the Atlantic slave trade of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, based upon the traditional animist religions of Central and West Africa.
  • Indigenous tribal religions, formerly found on every continent, but now marginalized by the major organized faiths. Despite this, they often persist as undercurrents of folk religion. This category includes African traditional religions, Asian Shamanism, Native American religions, Austronesian and Australian Aboriginal traditions and arguably Chinese folk religion (overlaps with Far Eastern religions).
  • New religious movements, a heterogeneous group of religious faiths emerging since the nineteenth century, often syncretizing, re-interpreting or reviving aspects of older traditions (Bahá'í, Hindu revivalism, Ayyavazhi, Pentecostalism, polytheistic reconstructionism), some inspired by science-fiction (UFO religions, Scientology).

Religious Belief and Related Forms of Thought

Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism are one, a painting in the litang style portraying three men laughing by a river stream, twelfth century, Song Dynasty.

Religious belief usually relates to the existence, nature and worship of a deity or deities, and to faith in divine involvement in the universe and human life. Alternately, it may also relate to values and practices transmitted by a spiritual leader. Unlike other belief systems, which may be passed on orally, religious belief tends to be codified in literate societies (whereas religion in non-literate societies is still largely passed on orally).13

Religion, metaphysics, and cosmology

Religion and philosophy meet in several areas, notably in the study of metaphysics and cosmology. In particular, a distinct set of religious beliefs will often entail a specific metaphysics and cosmology. That is, a religion will generally have answers to metaphysical and cosmological questions about the nature of being, of the universe, humanity, and the divine.

Given the generalized discontents with modernity, consumerism, over-consumption, violence and anomie, many people in the so-called industrial or post-industrial West rely on a number of distinctive religious world views (Zeitgeist). This, in turn, has given rise to increased religious pluralism, as well as to what are commonly known in the academic literature as new religious movements, which are gaining adherents around the globe. As suggested above, religious systems (both traditional and modern) are increasing in influence due to the perceived failure of modern/secular ideologies.


Some individuals draw a strong distinction between religion and spirituality. They may see spirituality as a belief in ideas of religious significance (such as God, the Soul, or Heaven), but not feel bound to the bureaucratic structure and creeds of a particular organized religion. In this context, the term spirituality is often consciously chosen in opposition to the designation "religion," perhaps reflecting a disillusionment with organized religion and a movement towards more "modern" (i.e., more tolerant and more intuitive) forms of religious practice. These individuals may reject organized religion because of historical acts by religious organizations, such as Christian Crusades, the Islamic Jihad, the Spanish Inquisition, and the marginalisation and persecution of various minorities. This being said, many adherents of the "World Religions" do not demarcate between religion and spirituality, as they interpret their tradition as providing access to the spiritual realm.

Mysticism and esotericism

Mysticism, in contrast with philosophy, denies that logic is the most important method of gaining enlightenment. Rather, it is to be attained through non-ordinary states of consciousness, which are, in turn, achieved through psychological and physical processes (such as repetitive prayer, meditation, mantra recitation, yoga, stringent fasting, whirling (as in the case of the Sufi dervishes), and/or the use of psychoactive drugs).

From a religious standpoint, mysticism it thought of as religious practice meant enable communion with (or conscious awareness of) Ultimate Reality, the Divine, spiritual truth, or God through direct, personal experience (intuition or insight) rather than rational ideation. Mystics speak of the existence of realities beyond sensory perception or intellectual apprehension that are directly accessible through personal experience, arguing that these experiences are genuine and important sources of knowledge. Many religious traditions have mystical elements, though these strands are often marginalized due to their counter-hegemonic nature (in denying the necessity of mediation between the individual and the divine).

In a related manner, esotericism claims to be more sophisticated than religion, to rely on intellectual understanding rather than faith, and to improve on philosophy in its emphasis on techniques of psycho-spiritual transformation (esoteric cosmology). Esotericism refers to "hidden" knowledge available only to the advanced, privileged, or initiated, as opposed to exoteric knowledge, which is public. It applies especially to spiritual practices. The mystery religions of ancient Greece, the Gnostic systems of the Middle East, and the Hindu path of jnana marga are examples of esoteric religiosity. Some mystical doctrines, such as the Jewish Kabbala, are also esoteric.


Main article: Mythology

The word myth has several meanings.

  1. A traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon;
  2. A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence; or
  3. A metaphor for the spiritual potentiality in the human being. 14

Ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of Greece, Rome, and Scandinavia, are usually categorized under the heading of mythology. Religions of pre-industrial peoples, or cultures in development, are similarly called "myths" in the anthropology of religion. The term "myth" can be used pejoratively by both religious and non-religious people. By defining another person's religious stories and beliefs as mythology, one implies that they are less real or true than one's own religious stories and beliefs. Joseph Campbell remarked,

"Mythology is often thought of as other people's religions, and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted mythology."15

In sociology, however, the term myth has a non-pejorative meaning. There, myth is defined as a story that is important for the group whether or not it is objectively or provably true. Examples include the death and resurrection of Jesus, which, to Christians, explains the means by which they are freed from sin and is also ostensibly a historical event. But from a mythological outlook, whether or not the event actually occurred is unimportant. Instead, the symbolism of the death of an old "life" and the start of a new "life" is what is most significant.

Urarina shaman, 1988


Main articles: Mythology and Philosophy of religion

Humans have many different methods which attempt to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and our place in it (cosmology). Religion is only one of the methods for trying to answer one or more of these questions. Other methods include science, philosophy, metaphysics, astrology, esotericism, mysticism, and forms of shamanism.

For instance, consider the the sacred consumption of ayahuasca (a psychoactive vegetable extract) among Peruvian Amazonia's Urarina. The Urarina have an elaborate animistic cosmological system that informs their mythology, religious orientation and daily existence.16

Religion and science

Religious knowledge, according to religious practitioners, may be gained from religious leaders, sacred texts, and/or personal revelation. Some religions view such knowledge as unlimited in scope and suitable to answer any question; others see religious knowledge as playing a more restricted role, often as a complement to knowledge gained through physical observation. Some religious people maintain that religious knowledge obtained in this way is absolute and infallible, usually due to a fundamentalist certainty in the inerrancy of their scriptures.

Early science such as geometry and astronomy was connected to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this thirteenth century manuscript is a symbol of God's act of creation.

In contrast to the intuitive process of knowing advocated by many religious groups, the scientific method states that knowledge must be gained by using empirical facts to test hypotheses and develop theories. It develops theories of the world which best fit physically observed evidence. All scientific knowledge is probabilistic and subject to later improvement or revision in the face of better evidence. Scientific theories that have an overwhelming preponderance of favorable evidence are often treated as facts (such as the theories of gravity or evolution). The logically-positivistic approach only answers cosmological questions about the physical universe, often suggesting that other types of knowing are fallacious.

This being said, many scientists held strong religious beliefs and worked to harmonize science and religion. Isaac Newton, for example, believed that gravity caused the planets to revolve about the Sun, and credited God with the design. In the concluding "General Scholium" to the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he wrote: "This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being."17 Likewise, adherents of many other religious traditions have considered scientific exploration to be utterly commensurate with religious life, suggesting that they are simply deepening the existing understanding of the Divine through exploring His(/Her/Its) works. It was such a perspective that allowed the flourishing of science in the Muslim world during the Dark Ages, with scientists such as al-Khwārizmī and Ibn Sina preserving and building upon the mathematical, medical, astronomical, and biological knowledge of the ancient Greeks. In a similar manner, the Bahá'í Faith asserts the harmony of science and religion as a central tenet of its belief system.18 The principle states that that truth is one, and therefore true science and true religion must be in harmony, thus rejecting the view that science and religion are in conflict.18 Some Hindu and Dao