It’s not easy to get accurate figures for the number of adherents in each world religion.
Religion is a very personal issue, often central to one’s self-image. So it’s conceivable that many people don’t want to report their true beliefs to a proverbial Big Brother, leading them to indicate “other” or “personal” on a government census.
Others may live in tribal societies and are never directly asked what they believe. Statisticians merely assume that each individual adheres to the general beliefs of his of her community. A good example of this would be the Santals of India and Bangladesh, who according to a 1991 census are about 4.2 million strong. Among this vast population, however, the religious beliefs of only 23,645 individuals are officially recorded.
Another issue is the problem of defining religion (versus, for instance, a cult, a collective delusion, a myth or a pastime) and trying to assess who, if anyone, has the authority to define it.
The problem of bias in understanding religion is nothing new. The issue has merely evolved, with new biases coming to light since the days of the 1821 map, pictured right.
On the topic of New Religious Movements (NRM) Eileen Barker says:
When social scientists have been pressed in a court of law to say whether a particular NRM is “really” a religion, they have not always insisted as clearly as they might that science cannot give the definition of a real religion. It is only when the court provides a definition, or we use the form “if by religion you mean. . ,” that we can say whether, according to that definition, the movement is “really” religious.¹
Keeping the above in mind, the following figures should be taken cum grano salis.
2000 CE – millions ²
|Total world population||6,260|
¹ Eileen Barker, “The Scientific Study of Religion? You Must Be Joking!” in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 34, No. 3, (Sep., 1995: 287-310, p. 306).
² D.B. Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia (1982) in G. Parrinder, A Concise Encyclopedia of Christianity (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1998, p. 9). See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups
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