Religion: How many are there, which are the most popular and where are they found?

There are quite literally thousands of religions in the world. The best estimate is that there are somewhere in the region of 4,000 different faiths. We can never know exactly how many there are, as many tribes in far-flung lands have their own religions and it would take an effort of biblical proportions to count them all. These less-popular religions usually get lumped together into the ‘folk religions’ category in a fairly patronising way. But just because they are practiced by people who hunt and gather their food, rather than those who hunt ready meals from freezer counters, doesn’t make their religion any less credible. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of a religion is ‘a particular system of faith and worship’ – which means that any spiritual (or even non-spiritual) belief could be termed a religion. It does, however, mean that atheism is not a religion because there is no ‘worship’ per se – despite what you might have been told.

That being said, the vast majority of the world is carved up by the big five religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. As of 2010, Christianity was the most populous religion with 32% (around 2.2 billion people) of the world’s population believing that Jesus was the son of God. Next comes Islam with 23% (around 1.6 billion people) of the world’s population, followed by Hinduism at 15% (around 1 billion), Buddhism at 7.1% (490 million people) and Judaism with 0.2% (14 million people) of the world. But this landscape is changing. The percentage of Christians worldwide is not predicted to increase, whereas Islam is on a roll. It is estimated that by 2050, 30% of the world will be Muslim, which is just one percent behind Christianity’s predicted numbers. By the year 2070, Islam is predicted to finally come out on top.

This fascinating video (see below) shows where the major world religions began and how they have spread over time. Islam dominates in the Middle East, southern Asia and northern Africa, while Christianity holds sway in the Americas, Europe, Australasia, the rest of Asia and southern Africa.  This interactive map also shows the populations of the world’s major religions right now; you can watch them change over time, seeing how so-called ‘folk religions’ dwindle and die.

But these predictions are just that. You would need a revelation from on high to know what will really happen and how political landscapes might change. For example, refugees fleeing war in the Middle East may alter the spread of Islam, bringing it into Europe with greater speed. Meanwhile the population in countries ravaged by war may see the number of religious adherents decline (In Syria, 45% of the population have fled and 11.5% have been killed or injured). No one knows how religious teachings or culture may change over time, perhaps attracting more or less people to a given religion. Catholicism, for example, has seen many leave the church for political and social reasons.

The one thing we can be certain of is that, as of 2016, Islam is the fastest growing religion and probably take the crown from Christianity. We can only hope that Christianity gives it up gracefully – after all, 500 years is pretty good stint at the top.

Photo credit: michael_swan via Flickr creative commons.

Article by Kate Timms

March 4, 2016

Kate Timms

Kate is a PhD student who previously studied Biomedical Sciences (because she couldn’t decide what she wanted to specialise in) and Maternal and Fetal Health (because eventually she did decide). When not working in a science lab at the University of Manchester until an unseemly hour, she can usually be found watching women’s football (usually also at an unseemly hour). She also has a peculiar habit of trying to make other people watch also her favourite sport. Seriously, have you ever watched a game of women’s football?

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