Religion, which can be defined as "belief in the supernatural", has exerted a profound influence over every society throughout history. The span of this influence includes politics, law, education, festivals, customs, and behavioural norms. Historically, most people's day-to-day lives have been largely structured by religion. For much of the world, this continues to be true; the secular nature of modern Western society (in which religion is separate from political, legal, and education systems, and many people have little or no involvement with organized religion) is the exception.

Religion can be divided into two types: organized and unorganized. The beliefs and practices of an organized religion are governed by an official body, whereas such regulation is absent from unorganized religion. Consequently, adherents of an organized religion (e.g. Roman Catholicism) theoretically embrace a single system of beliefs and practices, while the beliefs and practices of unorganized religion (e.g. the religious traditions of West Africa) may vary considerably from region to region, while nonetheless sharing certain key elements.

Organized religions do tend to fracture over time, however, such that Christianity (for instance) consists of many branches (e.g. Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism). Thus, while Christianity is known as a "religion", it is really more a family of religions that share core beliefs.

Six major organized religions can be identified. Some are monotheistic (asserting the existence of a single deity), while others are polytheistic (multiple deities). Christianity and Islam are by far the largest (over a billion followers each), followed by Hinduism and Buddhism (hundreds of millions each). Sikhism has over twenty million adherents, while Judaism has over ten million.

The Six Major Organized Religions
monotheistic polytheistic
Abrahamic Judaism, Christianity, Islam
Indian Sikhism Hinduism, Buddhism

Major alternatives to religion are atheism (the view that no deities exist) and agnosticism (the view that one cannot know whether any deities exist). Alternatives to traditional religion include deism (the view that the existence of deities can be proven logically) and transcendentalism (the view that the existence of deities can be known through intuition).


Religion (belief in the supernatural) dates at least to the Upper Paleolithic period (ca. 50,000-10,000 BC). The earliest form of religion was animism: the belief that physical things (e.g. objects, organisms, environmental features) are inhabited by spirits. Often, animistic societies believe that appropriate customs and ceremonies can summon aid from these spirits.K144-45

Animism was probably a universal feature of early human societies. Since animism generally only faded from regions that experienced urbanization, most of the world's religions (historical and present-day) can be grouped under the term "animism".13

Within animistic societies, certain people came to be recognized as having the ability to communicate with (and possibly influence) the spiritual realm. These people, often known as shamans, may enter trances (sometimes drug-induced) in order to conduct this communication. Shamans are often called upon to use their spiritual influence to heal wounds and diseases, or to read omens of the future.K32-33

Ancestor worship is another common feature of animistic societies. This term denotes the belief that one's deceased predecessors continue to exist in spirit form, and that these spirits should be venerated. Like other kinds of spirits, ancestor spirits may be persuaded to assist the living.

A range of typical ceremony types emerged among animistic societies, including festivals at certain times of year (e.g. an astronomical event or the changing of a season), initiation of children into adulthood, fertility ceremonies, and ritualistic burial of the dead. Ceremonies might include such elements as music, dancing, reenactments (of historical or divine events), costumes, masks, material offerings, or sacrifices.

The tradition of ritualistic burial is of enormous importance for archaeologists. Not only do burial sites provide insight into the religious beliefs of long-vanished societies, they have also yielded a wealth of material goods, thanks to another common animistic practice: the burial of practical objects and riches along with the body, for use in the afterlife.K32-33

Polytheism and Monotheism

With the rise of agriculture, many humans shifted from hunting and gathering to a settled, farming-based life. As settlements grew into cities, tribal organization gave way to a tall political and social hierarchy, as well as extensive specialization of labour. Religion underwent an equivalent transformation, in which the innumerable spirits of animism were reduced to a much smaller number of supernatural beings (each typically associated with a particular city or aspect of nature/society) arranged in a hierarchy.K142-45

These beings are known as deities (aka gods), and this new type of religion is called polytheism (belief in multiple deities). Since these deities were so few in number (compared with the spirits of animism), they could be ascribed much more detailed attributes, including names, personalities, and histories. Like animistic spirits, these deities were often courted with religious customs and ceremonies. In some cases, human rulers were also recognized as deities.K142-45

Urbanization caused religious professionals to become much more organized and specialized. Whereas animism features shamans and an informal range of beliefs, urban societies gave rise to hierarchies of clergy, who gathered and sifted a society's beliefs into official doctrine. Thus did organized religion emerge.

Most urban societies became permanently polytheistic; only a few extended the reduction of spirits to monotheism (belief in a single deity).

Indian Religions

During the Vedic age (ca. 1500-500 BC), the prevailing belief system of India was the Vedic religion. In the final centuries of this period, the Vedic religion evolved into three new religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Much later, at the end of the medieval period, Sikhism splintered from Hinduism.9 These faiths comprise the four major religions of India.

Much belief is shared among the four religions, including the notions of karma and continuous reincarnation. (The seeds of these concepts are found in the Vedic religion.) Karma denotes the effect of one's conduct on one's reincarnation: the more virtuous the conduct, the more positive the effect.6 Consistent virtuous living eventually allows one to break free of the cycle of rebirth. Perhaps the most striking contrast among the Indian religions is the caste system, embraced by Hinduism but rejected by the others.

Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism are found mainly in India, while Buddhism is widely dispersed. Most of the world's Buddhists are found in the nations of East Asia and Indochina (mainland Southeast Asia), as well as a few South Asian countries (namely Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Nepal).

Abrahamic Religions

The three Abrahamic religions, which overlap significantly, all view Abraham as a crucial early figure in their religion (hence the term "Abrahamic").

Judaism asserts that a covenant (contract) was made between God and the Jews, his chosen people. This covenant requires the Jews to follow God's laws, most famously the Ten Commandments. The chief body of Jewish scripture is the Hebrew Bible, which also serves as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.1

Christianity, which splintered from Judaism in the early centuries AD, centres on the figure of Jesus. According to Christians, Jesus (the son of God) died to save humanity from its sins, and belief in Jesus is the path to spiritual salvation. The central Christian scripture is the Bible, particularly the New Testament.3

Islam emerged in early seventh-century Arabia. Muslims believe that numerous messengers have been sent by God through the ages, including Abraham and Jesus. The last and most important of these messengers, however, is Muhammad.4 The central scripture of Islam is the Qur'an (aka Koran).

Baha'i, which emerged in nineteenth-century Iran, is sometimes also grouped as an Abrahamic religion. Although this faith has its own scripture, there are no Baha'i clergy or ceremonies. The Baha'i religion is rather primarily concerned with propagating a code of ethics, both individual (e.g. asceticism) and social (e.g. universal education). Baha'i also proclaims that all religions are correct, and describe the same spiritual truth.5

East Asian Religions

The largest organized religion of East Asia is Shinto, an indigenous faith of Japan. It was only in the modern period, however, that Shinto belief and ceremony were codified (thus converting the faith to an organized religion).8

Though animism emerged in China (like everywhere else), the beliefs of this region were never gathered into an organized religion. Moreover, when discussing religion in China, it is necessary to include discussion of philosophy. Two bodies of philosophical thought, Daoism and (especially) Confucianism, have exerted enormous influence on Chinese politics, education, art, and customs. These two philosophies, which are largely concerned with ethical matters, are often described as having served an equivalent role to organized religion in China.

Confucianism is primarily concerned with the smooth functioning of society. It identifies various types of relationships (e.g. husband-wife, sovereign-subject) and describes ritual and etiquette that should be observed in each. While Confucianism depicts society as strictly hierarchical, it also stresses that one should be equally respectful toward one's "inferiors" as one's "superiors".10

Thus, Confucianism asserts that virtue is rooted in adherence to a rigid system of manmade rules. Daoism, on the other hand, argues that virtue is achieved when people let go of artificial rules, instead embracing the underlying harmony of the universe. According to Daoism, humans should act according to what feels natural and effortless, while refraining from activity that feels artificial or strained.11

While Confucianism and Daoism can be described separately, they were not practised separately. The prevailing traditional "religion" of China has been a complex blend of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and ancient beliefs in spirits. The composition of this blend has varied by region and through time.12

1 - "Judaism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
2- "Judaism", Encarta. Accessed August 2010.
3 - "Christianity", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
4 - "Islam", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
5 - "Baha'i", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
6 - "Hinduism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
7 - "Buddhism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
8 - "Shinto", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2010.
9 - "Sikhism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.
10 - "Confucianism", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2010.
11 - "Daoism", Encarta 2004.
12 - "China", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed August 2010.
13 - "Animism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2010.