The world’s principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups or world religions. The vast majority of religious and spiritual adherents follow one of Christianity (33% of world population), Islam (20%), Hinduism (13%), Chinese folk religion (6%) or Buddhism (5%).
Major religious groups as a percentage of the world population in 2005 (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
The concept of “world religion” is historically based on a subjective perception of temporal or theological importance, usually from a Western, Christian or at least “Abrahamic” perspective.
Early Christian scholars, the earliest known classifiers of major religions, recognized two “proper” religions, Christianity and Judaism, besides heretical deviations from Christianity, and idolatrous relapse or paganism. Islamic theology recognizes Christians and Jews as “People of the Book” rather than idolaters, although Christians are criticized for worshiping Christ as a god rather than following Christ as a prophet and messenger. The Christian view long classified Islam as one heresy among others.
Views evolved during the Enlightenment, however, and, by the 19th century, Western scholars considered the five “world religions” to be Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. These remain the classic “world religions.”
Modern classifications typically list major religious groups by number of adherents, not by historical or theological notability. Most dramatically, this affects Judaism, which holds the position of “world religion” as the foundational tradition of the “Abrahamic” group, but which in terms of adherents ranks below 0.25% of world population, behind Sikhism.
The remaining four classic world religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are also the largest contemporary religions by far. They all have more than 300 million adherents, more than ten times the number of the next largest organized religion (Sikhism, ca. 19 million per the CSM source cited below).
An example of a modern listing of “world” religions is that of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, listing twelve “long established, major world religions, each with over three million followers”, alphabetically:
The “World’s Major Religions” list published in the New York Public Library Student’s Desk Reference omits both Vodou and Zoroastrianism, as well as Jainism and Sikhism, but lists the Eastern Orthodox Church, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as separate religions.
religious hierarchies, and informal religions, such as Chinese folk religions. For completeness, it also contains a category for the non-religious, although their views would not ordinarily be considered a religion.
Introduction (From Adherent.com)
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.
Sources of Information: