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Religion – As diverse as peoples of the Earth?

What is religion? With so many different religions out there can we come up with a concise or, for that matter, comprehensive definition? It seems not.

In fact, there are many different definitions of religion in encyclopedias and other educational works. In the simplest sense, some writers focus on the afterlife component, others on the inspirational.

Here’s a brief (and by no means comprehensive) survey:

Religion has been defined as any belief or activity that moves the soul, activates, energizes or inspires. For example, Marxism, sciencescientism and athleticism have each been portrayed as religions. Some scholars argue that the TV show Star Trek is a religion, which adds science fiction to the list.

The Economist published an article suggesting that Google is like a religion.¹ Others maintain that religion must refer to ideas like God, gods, goddesses, spirit beings, transcendence, the miraculous, the numinous and the afterlife.

Follow the Star by Michael Clark via Flickr

follow the star by Michael Clark via Flickr

Meanwhile, some insist that religion refers to a group, not a mere individual. Western jurisprudence outlines that a religious group must exhibit some degree of organization and be legally registered for legitimacy.

Other scholars insist that religion needs scripture, rites, ritual obligations, representatives, leaders, as well as a path to transcendental – no just social – liberation or salvation.

William James, Max Weber, Rudolf Otto and several other classic religion scholars suggest, each in their own way, that religion differs from magic.² This distinction is complicated by the recent move toward being open to whatever one believes in, and seeing these diverse beliefs as “new religions.”³

Just today while driving home from Mass I happened to hear a radio talk show about the new face of religion. A representative from the United Church said:

Some believe in God, that’s great.
Some do not believe in God, that’s great.

For the person on the radio, the essence of religion was respect and kindness towards others. I have to admit, when he said not believing in God was great I quickly changed the station to some pop hits. This was more spiritual for me that listening to someone say that it was “great” to not believe in God.

My bias, admittedly. But hearing him say that felt like being dumped on. I briefly wondered if I was being narrow-minded and should switch back. But I was driving and didn’t want the voice on the radio to bring me down. So I stuck with the pop hits.

Cate Storymoon - Nothing short of everything will really do - via Flickr

Cate Storymoon – Nothing short of everything will really do – via Flickr

¹ Now a dead link, this was active for the previous update of this entry (2009/11/23) » . It seems any new thing, if it gets big enough, is described as a religion or, at least, discussed in the context of religion. Today, for instance, it’s about kids staring into their phones. But instead of being described as a religion, the Vatican actually warned in 2008 that this was bad for the soul! I find this silly. New technologies should be integrated with spirituality, not demonized.

² Some argue that religion and science share a distinction from magic. See:

³ Articles about religion at


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Aton (and Akhenaton)


The Aton Disc

Aton (also Aten) is an important but short-lived Egyptian sun god, established under the reign of king Amenhotep IV (1350-1334 B.C). Aton, originally the term for the sun’s disc, came to be the name for the new sun-god.

In a bold step, King Amenhotep IV re-named himself Akhenaton and introduced his new monotheistic religion based on the sun’s rising and setting. However, archaeological evidence suggests that most of the Egyptian populace continued to secretly worship the old gods, despite Akhenaton’s decree that all must accept his new religion.

The pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud thought it noteworthy that Aton was the first monotheistic deity and compared him to the God of the Old Testament (Yahweh).

For all his smarts, Freud clearly was way off the mark here. The celebrated Religious Studies professor Houston Smith (and many other thinkers) realize that a mere sun god differs quite dramatically from a Jewish God who creates not only the sun but the entire universe.

After Akhenaton’s death, the puppet-King Tutankhamen (Tut) at age 12-years was quickly restored polytheism in Egypt. Most likely the boy was coached, to put it nicely, by temple priests and scribes of the old polytheistic system who wanted to restore their much coveted power, prestige and privilege.



Adherents of all Religions

Map showing the prevalence of Abrahamic (pink)...

Map showing the prevalence of Abrahamic (pink) and Dharmic religions (yellow) in each country. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

An 1821 map of the world, where “Christians, Mahometans, and Pagans” correspond to levels of civilization (The map makes no distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism) – via Wikipedia

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

Christians 2,020
Muslims 1,200
Hindus 860
Buddhists 360
Jews 20
Sikhs 24
Shinto 95
Bahai’is 8
Jains 4
Parsees 0.219
Tribal Religions 100
New Religions 138
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:

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Mary Magdalene. Lime tree wood and polychromy,...

Mary Magdalene by Gregor Erhart († 1540). Lime tree wood and polychromy, 16th century. Part of the feet were restored in the 19th century via Wikipedia

The term heterodox means about the same thing as “unorthodox.” It denotes views and related practices opposed to and usually publicly condemned by established figures or leaders. The word heterodox is found in religious and secular matters.

In religion, a heterodox position might be an outright heresy, which counters core doctrines, or it may just be different enough from standard teachings to elicit public condemnation from orthodox leaders.

Historically, both Protestant and Catholic forms of Christianity have imprisoned, tortured and burned people alive for holding apparently Satanic views about the nature of Christ or some other item of dogma. In retrospect, any reasonable person is compelled to ask who was really behaving like a devil.

Today, the Catholic Church publicly opposes some charismatic preachers of Christianity while accepting others. The tension between orthodox and heterodox groups seems to be greatest when they share areas of ideological overlap.

Sociologists and Religious Studies professors like John Gager say that whenever the beliefs and practices of an out-group get a bit too close for comfort to those of an established in-group, members of the in-group get upset. The in-group then wants to better define its boundaries, which may lead to exclusion, condemnation or, as we’ve seen in the often grisly march of human history, persecution.

According to this theory, it’s the similarity of the two groups that riles the established in-group. Radically different out-groups lacking some kind of thematic overlap with an entrenched in-group are usually ignored. But when an out-group hits a nerve by getting too ideologically close to the in-group—that’s when sparks fly.

This dynamic apparently took place between the early Christians and the Gnostics. And a similar kind of dynamic continues to this day.¹

The following is a smattering of historical usage for the term “heterodox” from the Oxford English Dictionary, illustrating its different meanings that have existed through the centuries:

1650    J. Row Hist. Kirk Scotl. (1842) 354   Christ’s locall descending to hell, and divers others heterodoxe doctrines.

1658    G. Starkey Natures Explic. 18   Whosoever should dare to swarve from these [Galen and Aristotle]‥being looked upon as Heterodox, was the object of scorn and derision.

1859    W. Collins Queen of Hearts I. 20   The Major‥held some strangely heterodox opinions on the modern education of girls.

¹ See “DVD Review – The Murder of Mary Magdalene: Genocide of the Holy Bloodline” »


Mahayana Buddhism

Expansion of Mahayana Buddhism between the 1st...

Expansion of Mahayana Buddhism between the 1st... by World Imaging via Wikipedia

Mahayana Buddhism is a school of religious thought and practice which could be loosely compared to the mission of the Christian apostle Paul in that both the Mahayanists and Paul helped to universalize the message of their respective masters.

Scholars have often distinguished Mahayana (great vehicle) from Hinayana (lesser vehicle) Buddhism on account of the idea that Mahayana is more concerned with universal liberation whereas Hinayana is more concerned with personal liberation. But many find this distinction both flawed and offensive.¹

¹ See for instance,

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