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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

A religion is a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people, often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law. Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience. The term "religion" refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction.

In the frame of European religious thought,[1] religions present a common quality, the "hallmark of patriarchal religious thought": the division of the world in two comprehensive domains, one sacred, the other profane.[2] Religion is often described as a communal system for the coherence of belief focusing on a system of thought, unseen being, person, or object, that is considered to be supernatural, sacred, divine, or of the highest truth. Moral codes, practices, values, institutions, tradition, rituals, and scriptures are often traditionally associated with the core belief, and these may have some overlap with concepts in secular philosophy. Religion is also often described as a "way of life".

The development of religion has taken many forms in various cultures. "Organized religion" generally refers to an organization of people supporting the exercise of some religion with a prescribed set of beliefs, often taking the form of a legal entity (see religion-supporting organization). Other religions believe in personal revelation. "Religion" is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system,"[3] but is more socially defined than that of personal convictions.


The English word religion is in use since the 13th century, loaned from Anglo-French religiun (11th century), ultimately from the Latin religio, "reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things, piety, the res divinae".[4]

The ultimate origins of Latin religio are obscure. It is usually accepted to derive from la: ligare' "bind, connect"; likely from a prefixed la: re-ligare', i.e. re (again) + ligare or "to reconnect." This interpretation is favoured by modern scholars such as Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell, but was made prominent by St. Augustine, following the interpretation of Lactantius. Another possibility is derivation from a reduplicated la: *le-ligare'. A historical interpretation due to Cicero on the other hand connects la: lego' "read", i.e. re (again) + lego in the sense of "choose", "go over again" or "consider carefully". [5]

Definitions of religion

Religion has been defined in a wide variety of ways. Most definitions attempt to find a balance somewhere between overly sharp definition and meaningless generalities. Some sources have tried to use formalistic, doctrinal definitions while others have emphasized experiential, emotive, intuitive, valuational and ethical factors. Definitions mostly include:

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 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.”[6] 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, defines the essence of religious awareness as awe, a unique blend of fear and fascination before the divine. Friedrich Schleiermacher in the late 18th century defined religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence."

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"[7] and "human beings' relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine."[8]

Religion and superstition

In keeping with the Latin etymology of the word, religious believers have often seen other religions as superstition. Likewise, some atheists, agnostics, deists, and skeptics regard religious belief as superstition. (Edmund Burke, the Irish orator, once said, "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. "Such fear of the gods (deisidaimonia) was what the Romans meant by 'superstition' (Veyne 1987, p 211). Early Christianity was outlawed as a superstitio Iudaica, a "Jewish superstition", by Domitianin the 80s AD, and by AD 425, Theodosius II outlawed 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" (para. #2110).

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. Cf. Matthew 23:16-22 (para. #2111)


Religious traditions fall into super-groups in comparative religion, arranged by historical origin and mutual influence. Abrahamic religions originate in the Middle East, Indian religions in India and Far Eastern religions 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 2005 (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In summary, religious adherence of the world's population is as follows: "Abrahamic": 53.5%, "Indian": 19.7%, irreligious: 14.3%, "Far Eastern": 6.5%, tribal religions: 4.0%, new religious movements: 2.0%.

Demographic distribution of the major super-groupings mentioned is shown in the table below:

Name of Group Name of Religion Number of followers Date of Origin Main regions covered
Abrahamic religions
3.4 billion
Christianity 2.1 billion 1st c. Worldwide except Northwest Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Central, East, and Southeast Asia.
Islam 1.5 billion 7th c. Middle East, Northern Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, Western Africa, Eastern Africa, Indian subcontinent, Russia, China, Balkans, Malay Archipelago
Judaism 14 million Iron Age Israel, USA, Europe
Bahá'í Faith 7 million 19th c. Dispersed worldwide with no major population centers
Indian religions
1.4 billion
Hinduism 900 million no known founder Indian subcontinent, Fiji, Guyana and Mauritius
Buddhism 376 million Iron Age Indian subcontinent, East Asia, Indochina, regions of Russia.
Sikhism 23 million 16th c. India, Pakistan, Africa, Canada, USA, United Kingdom
Jainism 4.2 million Iron Age India, and East Africa
Far Eastern religions
500 million
Taoism unknown Spring and Autumn Period China and the Chinese diaspora
Confucianism unknown Spring and Autumn Period China, Korea, Vietnam and the Chinese and Vietnamese diasporas
Shinto 4 million no known founder Japan
Caodaism 1-2 million 1925 Vietnam
Chondogyo 1.13 million 1812 Korea
Yiguandao 1-2 million c. 1900 Taiwan
Chinese folk religion 394 million no known founder China
400 million
Primal indigenous 300 million no known founder India, Asia
African traditional and diasporic 100 million no known founder Africa, Americas

Groups estimated to exceed 500,000 adherents which are not listed under any of the categories above are the following:


Most western criticism of religion focuses on the Abrahamic religions—particularly Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — with titles such as Why I am not a Christian, The God Delusion and The End of Faith representing some popular published books. Not all the criticisms would apply to all religions: criticism regarding the existence of god(s), for example, has very little relevance to some forms of Buddhism.

Critics consider all religious faith essentially irrational.[9]

Many critics claim dogmatic religions are typically morally deficient, elevating to moral status ancient, arbitrary, and ill-informed rules that may have been designed for reasons of hygiene, politics, or other reasons in a bygone era.[10]


  1. Jack Goody as cited in Sacred and Profane - Durkheim's Critics. URL accessed on 2007-07-10.
  2. Durkheim 1976, p.36
  3. The words "belief system" may not necessarily refer to a religion, though a religion may be referred to as "belief system."
  4. Lewis & Short, A Latin Dictionary[1]
  5. qui omnia, quae ad cultum deorum pertinerent, diligenter retractarent et tamquam relegerent, sunt dicti religiosi ex relegendo, ut elegantes ex elegendo, tamquam a diligendo diligentes, ex intellegendo intellegentes: his enim in verbis omnibus inest vis legendi eadem, quae in religioso, Cic. N. D. 2, 28, 72
  6. George A. Lindbeck, Nature of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1984), 33.
  7. Penguin Dictionary of Religions (1997) as quoted on ReligionFacts. URL accessed on 2007-03-17.
  8. Encyclopædia Britannica (2006) as quoted on ReligionFacts. URL accessed on 2007-03-17.
  9. Bryan Caplan. Why Religious Beliefs Are Irrational, and Why Economists Should Care. The article about religion and irrationality.
  10. Nobel Peace Laureate, Muslim and human rights activist Dr Shirin Ebadi has spoken out against undemocratic Islamic countries justifying "oppressive acts" in the name of Islam. Speaking at the Earth Dialogues 2006 conference in Brisbane, Dr Ebadi said her native Iran as well as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen "among others" were guilty of human rights violations. "In these countries, Islamic rulers want to solve 21st century issues with laws belonging to 14 centuries ago," she said. "Their views of human rights are exactly the same as it was 1400 years ago."
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