Common dictionary definitions of religion include:

Because religion encodes values and ideals about how the world should be, the threads of religion extend through all facets of social and individual life, making the reduction of religions and religious practices into simplified categories, counts, or geographic boundaries fraught with problems.

In addition, religions ideas and practices are highly diverse, overlapping, individualized and, often, contradictory, further confounding attempts to categorize, quantify, or map.

Nonetheless, any attempt to understand the global religious landscape requires interdisciplinary analysis, with the caveat that any such analysis will be reductive and lose significant detail in the process.

This tutorial takes a dialectical approach, presenting a set of binaries that can be used to understand facets of diverse religious practices around the world.

Universalizing vs Ethnic

There are a wide variety of (imperfect) ways of classifying religions in order to make some sense out of wide diversity of religious ideas and practices.

One commonly-used categorization is a division into universalizing vs ethnic.

Notable Universalizing Religions


Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddharta Gautama (c. 563 BCE/480 BCE – c. 483 BCE/400 BCE), an ascetic and sage who lived in present-day Nepal.

The Buddha's teachings can be summarized (incompletely) in four noble truths:

Buddhism has three major branches:

Buddhism began in Asia, and most of the 488 million adherents live in the Asia-Pacific region (Pew 2012).

Percent Self-Identified Buddhists By Country (Pew 2012)


Christianity is based on the teachings, life and death of Jesus (c. 4 BCE - c. 30 CE), an itinerant preacher who lived in present day Israel/Palestine.

Christianity has its roots in the ethnic religion Judaism, with Jesus being viewed as the messiah, the son of the one God, who died as a sacrifice for the sin of man, and that faith in Jesus can restore the broken relationship between God and man.

Christians are commonly divided into three groups, although these categories do not capture the significant differences in doctrine and practice around the world, especially among Protestants.

The 2.2 billion self-identified Christians are broadly dispersed around the world (Pew 2012).

Percent Self-Identified Christians By Country (Pew 2012)


Islam is based on the teachings of the prophet Muhammad (c. 570 – 632 CE), who lived in present-day Saudi Arabia and received revelation from God that has been recorded in the Quran.

There are five pillars of Islam that are the framework for Muslim life.

Islam is largely divided into two contentious sects that initially split over who should be the leader of Islam (Caliph) following the death of Muhammad, and who continue to engage in geopolitical conflict around the world:

While Islam is commonly associated with its area of origin in the Middle East, most of 1.6 billion Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, and Muslims have a significant presence around the world (Pew 2012).

Percent Self-Identified Muslims By Country (Pew 2012)

Other Universalizing Religions

Sikhism founded by the guru Nanak (1469 - 1538) in the Punjab, a region now split between India and Pakistan. Male Sikhs are visibly distinguishable by turbans worn on the head. 90% of the world's 25 million Sikhs live in India, but there are also sizable Sikh communities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada (Pew 2012).

Baha'i was founded in 1844 by Siyyid 'Ali Muhammad. known in Persian as the Bab or gateway. One of the Bab's followers, Husayn 'Ali Nuri defined the message of the faith to overcome the disunity of religions and establish a universal faith through abolition of racial, class and religious prejudices. The world's 5 million Baha'is are widely dispersed across many countries, with significant populations in India, the United States, Kenya and elsewhere.

Notable Ethnic Religions


Hinduism does not have a central authority or single holy book, and can best be seen as a set of related rituals and ideas rather than a generally-unified religion like Islam or Christianity.

Two major traditions within Hinduism include:

The vast majority of the world's one billion Hindus live in the Asia-Pacific region, primarily in India (Pew 2012).


Judaism is associated with the Jewish ethnic group which, like the Arab ethnic group, traces its roots back to the ancient patriarch Abraham.

While Judaism in the USA has four main branches (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist), outside of the US there are three broad groupings:

Depending on the definition used, there are around 14 million Jews in the world, with around 44% of those in North America and 41% in Israel. While most adherents of Judaism are Jewish, not all Jews are active adherents of Judaism (Pew 2012).


Animism is a belief in innumerable spiritual beings concerned with human affairs and capable of helping or harming human interests (Park 2007).

While Anamism predates and has largely been supplanted in the developed world by universalizing religions (and has often been viewed by those religions with hostility), anamism is still widespread in isolated rural areas, notably Sub-Saharan Africa. Unreliable estimates place the number of animists in the world around 100 million (Rubenstein 2013).

One notable Asian anamist tradition is Shintoism in Japan, which is based on the premise that every being and object has its own spirit or kami. Shinto practitioners worship several particular kamis, including the kamis of nature, and families often have shrines to their ancestors' kamis. Shinto was the state religion of Japan, and was the foundation of the Japanese emperor cult prior to the end of World War II (CIA 2017).


Confucianism is based on the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), with particular emphasis on the importance of the family and social harmony.

Western observers have struggled with whether to categorize Confucianism as a philosophy or religion, and whether to distinguish it from Chinese folk religion, which has around 260 million adherents in (officially atheist) China (CIA 2010).

Confucianism is, perhaps, more significant in the way that its tenets, notably the hierarchy of social relationships, are pervasive in Chinese social and political life (Bloom 2009).

Secular vs Sacred

People in modern societies, notably the US and Western Europe, have increasingly chosen to describe themselves as having no religious affiliation (Bullard 2016). This reflects the humanist transition in Western society dating from The Enlightenment that eschewed the mysticism of traditional religion and elevated reason, empiricism and rational thought as the basis for morality and decision-making. Whereas the pre-enlightenment religious sought material benefits from a capricious deities, those deities have been replaced in modernized societies by the somewhat more-predictable (or at least seemingly powerful) embodiment of rationalist science and industrial capitalism.

However, the broad rejection or reinterpretation of pre-enlightenment religious traditions does not mean that creeds, rituals or faith have disappeared in modernity.


During the 20th century, communism was a powerful political movement founded on the ideas of the 19th century German philosopher Karl Marx.

Marxist ideologues (with their Enlightenment roots) eschewed religion as an opium of the people, used by the bourgeois (the wealthy and powerful that own things) as a tool to suppress the proletariat (people that work for them). Communist countries were generally officially atheist and hostile to free religious practice.

However, Marxism requires a level of faith in ideology certainly resembles the faith expected by believers in religious traditions like Christianity or Islam, especially in light of the prophetic failures of its adherents during the communist era. Accordingly, Tucker (1958) is among many others who think Marxism should be considered more a religion than a science.


With the end of the Cold War, political Marxism largely succumbed worldwide to its own contradictions, and the economic might of neoliberalism.

However, like Marxism, neoliberalism has its prophets (Smith, Ricardo, etc.), sacred texts (The Wealth of Nations), and articles of faith (markets and the invisible hand). Accordingly, it could also be considered a form of secular religion.


While science is often presented as a rational counterpoint to irrational religious beliefs, debates over climate change with their discourses of belief in climate science reveal the extent to which science still requires elements of faith that can be considered scientism.

The mathematical models commonly used in science are often based on statistical probabilities that should not be interpreted as absolute certainties. Indeed, the significant amount of research that cannot be reproduced indicates that despite the material comforts derived from science-based engineering, absolute, positive, permanent truth is rare outside the abstract world of mathematics, and the prophetic utterances of scientists should be greeted with the same healthy skepticism as the pronouncements of any religious leader.


Western trends toward secularism are are not universal across the globe. Less-developed areas like Sub-Saharan Africa that have not been as deeply influenced by the media and materialism of secularism continue to strongly embrace religious traditions. In the United States, the role of religion in social and political life remains strong in many communities, most notably in rural areas outside the urban bastions of secularism.

Percent Self-Identified As Having No Religious Affiliation, By Country (Pew 2012)

Hierarchical Diffusion vs Contagion Diffusion

Institutions and ideas need a mode for reproduction and diffusion in order to survive beyond a single generation.

Universalizing religions, by definition, seek to expand their base of adherents, and there are two modes of such diffusion:

While Christianity started as a small movement that diffused via contagion, with the embrace of Christianity by Roman emperor Constantine in 313 and the declaration as the empire's official religion by Theodosius in 380, diffusion became hierarchical. During the waves of European imperialism, missionaries accompanied conquerors and imposed their faith on conquered peoples.

In contemporary Christianity, the contagion model has returned to prominence, although the embrace of political power by evangelical Christians indicates that the boundary between voluntary contagion and hierarchical coercion is often fuzzy.

Likewise, in Islam the successors of the prophet Muhammad organized into armies that conquered vast areas and hierarchically diffused Islam from Western Europe to South Asia.

By contrast, ethnic religions reproduce internally through family and community ties, reinforcing existing community identities and rarely seeking to diffuse beyond their particular group.

Sacred vs. Profane

Religions often make a distinction between the sacred and the profane or non-sacred.

The most prominent landscape manifestations of religion are, often-majestic, sacred spaces such as temples, mosques, or churches. These buildings often required the devotion of multiple generations of workers to construct, are often bastions of opulence in communities of otherwise limited means, and are often placed at highly prominent places in a community.

Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Denver, CO

Specific geographic locations are often associated with important events in the history of a religion and are considered especially sacred. These sites are destinations for pilgrimages by adherents to a religion and often host structures that mark the locations. Because the events commemorated at these locations occurred in the distant past, the exact geospatial locations are often the subject of generations of legend-building and should be viewed with some skepticism.

One of the five pillars of Islam that are considered mandatory by believers is a hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca, the most sacred city in Islam.

Eight places where important events in Buddha's life occurred are considered especially holy to Buddhists and are sites for pilgrimage.

Church vs. State

In the United States, the first amendment to the Constitution stipulates that, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, something that is commonly referred to as the separation of church and state.

However, this idea from the Enlightenment is somewhat novel in human history and is not universal today. Religion has historically been a fundamental unifying mythology utilized by the state for building national identity, and the idea of a strict separation between religion and the state would be foreign to not only many of our ancestors, but to many contemporary people around the world.

The embrace of Christianity by the state creates a distinction between what Cornell West (2005) refers to as Constantinian vs prophetic Christianity. Prophetic Christianity is the Christianity of Jesus, which existed outside the state and often in opposition or critique of it. Constantinian Christianity is a tool of state power, used to unify the citizens toward the goals of the state under the guise of the divine.

Both China and the Soviet Union were officially atheist under communism. But in an ironic echo of Marx's critique, the hybrid communist/neoliberal government of China under Xi Jinping and the authoritarian government of Vladimir Putin in Russia have turned to faith to legitimize their rule. Faced with growing social tensions and slowing economic growth, these (and other governments) have followed the political tradition of using religious identity to bolster their hold on power. (Johnson 2017).

Leaders in many predominantly Muslim countries hold significant political power, with legitimacy derived from their religious authority. The Islamic State, as its name implies, seeks to rebuild the lost 8th century empire (caliphate) unified under a strict interpretation of Islam.

Geographic Goal of ISIS (ISIS, via Vox)

Even when the objective of a religious group is not the explicit unity of the institutions of the church and the state, religious beliefs can become extremely important in the political sphere, such as with atheist efforts to remove religious symbols from public spaces, or with evangelical Christian advocating for laws (and associated political officials) that constrain sexuality and reproduction.

The Pew Research center regularly releases a a report on global restrictions on religion. Their Government Restrictions Index (GRI) distills a variety of government relationships with religious practice, including constitutional freedoms, targeted government funding, banned practices or organizations, etc. The index values range from around 0 (least restrictive) to 10 (most restrictive):

2015 Government Restrictions Index (Pew, 2017)

Heterogeneity vs. Homogeneity

Different countries and communities have a variety of levels of acceptance of heterogeneity (difference) in religious thought and practice.

Pluralism is the state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization. A pluralistic society is one in which diverse people and ideas coexist in harmony and sometimes, synergy.

In contrast, exclusivity is a view that a particular belief system or interpretation of a set of religious ideas represents unique sacred truths that needs to be protected from profane ideas and practices. Exclusivity is commonly associated with fundamentalism that seeks a pure, uncorrupted faith, often by focusing on specific interpretations of central religious texts (such as the Bible or Quran). Accordingly, a strongly-held belief in the possession of absolute truth can logically lead to a pursuit of geographic homogeneity and conflict between groups representing competing belief systems.

Different societies have differing levels of acceptance of heterogeneity, especially in regards to religion. These levels of acceptance do not necessarily follow political borders, and there can be both wide variance within countries and consistency across national borders.

Following the concept of inclusive excellence in academia, the level of pluralism can be seen as a continuum:

Attempts by members of one religious group to suppress religious ideas or displace the adherents of another religious group is referred to as persecution. Leaders or other members of a religious group who are killed in defense of a religion are often called martyrs and subsequently assume great symbolic value and veneration within that religion.

Persecution figures strongly in the history of religions, and often is a core component of religious identity. Accordingly the tracking and analysis of persecution is of great interest to a variety of organizations.

For example, the US State Department has historically issues an International Religious Freedom Report that tracks religious freedom issues in countries around the world.

The Pew Research Center global restrictions on religion report mentioned above also includes a Social Hostilities Index (SHI), which summarizes levels of religious violence and tension between religious groups. The index values range from around 0 (most inclusive) to 10 (most intolerant):

2015 Social Hostilities Index (Pew, 2017)

Peace vs Conflict

The concept of peace is common in many religions. A greeting common among Muslims is As-Salaam-Alaikum (Peace be unto you), and Jesus is referenced by Christians as the "prince of peace," based on a prophetic passage from the Hebrew scriptures (Isaiah 9:6).

However, religion as a set of ideas and as a unifying affiliation is commonly a component of violent conflict between nations and groups of people. Indeed, Jesus is quoted as saying, Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34).

Sectarian conflict occurs between sects or groups within a community.

In looking at conflicts with overt or subtle religious components, a distinction should be made between identity vs ideology. Since religion is often a fundamental component of group identity, religion may be invoked in largely secular, material conflicts that have little to do with the professed values (ideologies) of the differing religious doctrines.

For example, the sectarian Troubles in Northern Ireland between Protestant and Catholic religious groups are less about theological differences than in English Protestants being seen as occupiers by the Irish, and Irish Catholics being seen as rebels by the English. Indeed, one could question how Jesus would feel if he were in Northern Ireland seeing the violence committed in his name by neighbors against neighbors.

Likewise one can question whether the fundamentalism invoked in violence committed by Muslims against Muslims is about ideological differences in interpretation of the Quran, or whether the ideology is simply a unifying tool supporting an effort to to overcome perceived humiliation and oppression in a pursuit of secular power.

Idealism vs Materialism

The interplay between church and state (the sacred and the secular) raises a classic debate between materialists (personified by the philosopher Karl Marx) and idealists (personified by the sociologist Max Weber).

Karl Marx (1818-1883) saw history primarily driven by material and economic forces. From this perspective, religious ideas are, at best, our way to understand the mysterious material world and, at worst, a tool used by the powerful to manipulate the powerless. Ideas are like seeds - unless provided with the right material conditions they remain dormant. But given the right soil and climate, they can reproduce a thousand-fold.

Taking this perspective further, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche (1844-1900) argued that all truths are convenient fictions that we create to organize experience for the sake of control and power over our environment (Shand 2002, 177). Necessity is the mother of invention.

In contrast Max Weber (1864-1920) saw history as driven primarily by ideas. Weber said history was like a train, "pushed along its tracks by economic and political interests," but with religious ideas like, "railroad switches, determining exactly which tracks the train will follow." (Weber 1946, p 280, quoted in Furze et al 2011).

While Marxists might argue that periodic episodes of religiously-tinged nationalism are primarily a reaction to the material hardship, Weberians argue that nationalism is a manifestation of ideas, like religion (Christian and Islamic fundamentalism) and politics (conservative ideology).