What are two things you’ve always been told not to talk about on a first date, at dinner or among strangers? If you answered politics and religion, then you are definitely not alone. Of course, now that we are in the heat of election season, political chatter is unavoidable so that leaves us with the topic of religion. What is religion exactly and why is it faux pas to discuss at the dinner table? What does everyone believe or not believe and why?
Defined as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies and rules used to worship a god or group of gods,” religion has been the founding doctrine of people around the world for thousands of years. Whether believers are hoping to achieve enlightenment, reach heaven or unite the world in equality and peace, people are passionate about their beliefs as they not only represent what they stand for but who they are.
With over 4,000 religions across the globe and only five making up 80 percent of the world’s population, we didn’t want to stop our list at only five. After all, the more the merrier, right? Join us as we take a look at the top 10 most popular religions in the world and uncover their origins, basic beliefs and their astonishing number of followers. Let’s see how they rank!
10 – Shintoism
Translated as “way of the gods” and based on ritual practices uniting the past with the present, Shintoism is the first religion on our list and has an estimated 2.8 million followers, which is less than 0.1 percent of the world’s population. Despite having followers around the globe, Shintoism is mostly centralized in Japan where nearly 80 percent of the population practices and identifies with the Shinto collection of beliefs under the guidance of over 85,000 priests at more than 81,000 dedicated shrines.
Dating back to the 8th century and considered to be less of a religion and more as a collection of beliefs and practices, Shintoism is the worship of many gods or spirits that can take the form of everything from rocks, trees and plants to animals, people and places. Shintoism uses books of lore and history rather than a sacred text as its core and is embodied by a variety of a sects that are all rooted in a deep appreciation for godly spirits through practices of purity, ritual dance, festivals, spiritual language and dress.
9 – Jainism
Perhaps one of the most unheard of religions in the western hemisphere is the ancient Indian religion of Jainism, which is better known for its belief in non-violence toward all living things. Making up 0.1 percent of the world’s population with an estimated 4.5 million followers, Jainism is recognized as a philosophy of eternity that originated in India. Although the majority of its origin remains obscure, Jains attribute Rishabhanatha – “The Bull Lord” and “Teaching God” – as the founder of the present cycle of belief.
Living by the motto that “the function of the souls is to help another,” Jains believe that all living beings are distinguished by two parts – their perfect and immortal souls and their bodies or physical matter. Because of this, practicing Jains constantly work to free themselves of the body’s limitations and inner passions by following the path to ahimsa or non-violence. Despite the nature of the human condition limiting complete liberation, those who achieve the ultimate feat and liberate their souls are recognized as all-knowing or omniscient conquerors better known as Jinas.
8 – Confucianism
“Confucius say…” Referenced by people around the globe and even in pop culture today, Confucianism is the eighth most popular religion in the world with over 6.4 million followers. Typically considered a system of humanistic beliefs rather than a structured religion, Confucianism originated in the teachings of a Chinese philosopher known as Confucius who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. Confucius proclaimed himself as a transmitter of the values of China’s Zhou Dynasty, which was rooted in politeness and consideration for others.
Recognized as one of China’s official religions, Confucianism is a global religion with followers predominately in the East Asian realm in countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Regardless of location or ethnicity, all Confucians live by a doctrine of compassion and believe that people are essentially good but can become better through self-cultivation and teaching. With a growing appreciation for such compassion and self-awareness, many believe that a Confucian revival is on the horizon with the Holy Confucian Church established in China last year to unite and fuel the growth of believers around the world.
7 – Bahaism
Established in Persia in the 19th century, Bahaism is not only one of the newest religions in the world it is also the seventh most popular with an estimated 7.5 million followers. Native to the Middle East, Bahaism has three key principles that are rooted in the belief that there is only one God who created the entire universe and that all religions and humans were made by this God to create unity. Bahaism also teaches that diversity among people should be celebrated since all humans are created equal in their purpose to better learn, know and love God.
Proclaiming himself as a messenger from God, Baha’u’llah founded Bahaism during the 1800s shortly before he was exiled from Persia to the Ottoman Empire where he was imprisoned for his teachings. Dying a prisoner, Baha’u’llah’s only hope to spread Bahaism fell on his son, Abdu’l-Baha, who shared his father’s doctrines throughout the region. Since then, Bahaism has spread to over 200 countries around the world to create a community of followers who believe prophets like Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and Baha’u’llah were all divine messengers of peace.
6 – Judaism
A religion that many might have expected to be higher on the list, Judaism takes our sixth spot with an estimated 15 million followers that make up 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Rich in history, Judaism originated over 3,000 years ago when the Israelites developed a relationship with God and Abraham became the first Hebrew and father of the Jewish people. Through various promises with God, Abraham’s descendants received the Torah from Moses on Mount Sinai in what would become the religion’s most sacred text.
Founded on the belief that there is only one God whose teachings are in the Torah and are supplemented by texts such as the Midrash and Talmud, Judaism has a variety of practices, texts, beliefs and influences such as Christianity, Islam and Bahaism. As one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world, the majority of believers identify as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform with more than 80 percent of Jews living in the United States or Israel leaving minority groups scattered across Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.
5 – Sikhism
Firmly taking its place in the top five with an estimated 25 million followers, Sikhism traces its origins back to India in the 1400s when Nanak became the religion’s first Guru and teacher. By the death of the tenth Sikh Guru, Sikhism had become well-established and soon adopted the sacred scripture of Guru Granth Sahib. Outlining the doctrine of faith, the text is filled with meditations and teachings on the equality of all mankind, selfless acts of service to others, social justice, honesty and unity all done in the name of God.
Despite its teachings of kindness, equality and compassion, the Sikh community has seen its fair share of turmoil throughout its history including persecutions from the early years and as recent as the 1980s. Regardless of such oppression, the religion has managed to flourish with its following expanding over the last few decades into North America, Japan and Australia. And, although a large majority of Sikhs call India home, they only make up around two percent of the entire Indian population.
4 – Buddhism
First among the final four most popular religions in the world is Buddhism with an estimated 375 million followers who make up around 5.9 percent of the world’s population. Though many consider Buddhism to have Chinese roots, its origin traces to India’s very own Gautama Buddha (or “the awakened one”) who became a spiritual figurehead as he taught throughout northern India in the first millennium BCE. With his teachings embodied in the Four Noble Truths, Buddha spread his doctrine as he inspired others to end their suffering by overcoming the cravings of the physical self to achieve ultimate liberation.
As Buddha’s teachings spread and the religion prospered, followers divided into two major sects known as Theravada and Mahayana while sharing a common goal of achieving Nirvana by following the Noble Eightfold Path to overcome suffering and reach rebirth. Holding a deep appreciation for the gift of the present moment, Buddhists are also called to help others on their own journeys to enlightenment out of compassion, awareness and understanding. As a result, Buddhism has flourished around the world from Thailand and Cambodia to Russia and the United States.
3 – Hinduism
With more than twice as many followers as Buddhism, Hinduism comes in third on our list making up 13.3 percent of the global population with an estimated 851 million followers worldwide. Like so many others on our list, Hinduism traces its origins to India where it is, by far, the most popular religion in the country even today. Though many argue that it is also the oldest religion in the world, Hinduism’s unconfirmed origins and lack of a founder make the claim impossible to verify as scholars were left to guess that its doctrine began sometime in the first millennium BCE.
Much like its mysterious and complex origins, Hinduism also contains a variety of philosophies that are interconnected through rituals, texts, ideas, meditations and pilgrimages that all share the belief in many gods and goddesses (known as Devas) such as Shiva, Krishna and Lakshmi. Additionally, Hinduism shares many traits of other Indian religions in that it encourages followers to follow four basic principles in life in order to achieve liberation and freedom through actions such as self-restraint, compassion, honesty and non-violence.
2 – Islam
Only two religions in the world have over one billion estimated followers, the first of which is Islam with an estimated 1.3 billion believers who make up 20.1 percent of the world’s population. A monotheistic religion, Islam follows the teachings of the Qur’an, which is believed to be the word of God. Though Muslims acknowledge prophets like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus as integral to their faith, they believe that Muhammad of Mecca was a divine messenger sent by God himself to guide humanity on the path of righteousness.
For Islamists, life is centered on their faith and the belief that their only purpose on Earth is to serve and worship God by following the five pillars of Islam that outline the obligatory acts of worship and cover everything from life and prayer to purity and pilgrimage. Divided into two denominations of Sunni or Shia, all Muslims are encouraged (as written in the pillars) to make one pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lifetime as long as they are financially and physically capable.
1 – Christianity
The largest religion in the world with an estimated 2.1 billion followers or nearly one third of the world’s population is Christianity. Following the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God and that his teachings as the Messiah would save all of humanity, Christian theology is outlined in the sacred text of the Bible. Divided into two parts, the Bible’s Old Testament tells the story of Christ’s birth while the New Testament shares his teachings as well as his crucifixion and resurrection in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Recognized for shaping Western civilization, Christianity has many different branches with the three largest being the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches. Predominant in Europe, Southern Africa, North America and South America, Christianity has seen a recent decline in believers across the United States that is directly related to a severe decrease in church attendance over the last few decades. Regardless of the gradual decline, Christianity remains the largest religion around the world where one in every three people identify as Christians.