All Shapes and Sizes: Types of Religions

 

There is a wide range of religions in the world.  No one really knows their exact number,[1]  and yet each one of them has its own unique, defining traits.

Given this rich and overwhelming diversity, it would be impossible for all religions to coincide in every area and for us to have a full understanding of them.  For these reasons, I think it is useful to classify religions according to some more manageable categories.[2]

If we take into account their central beliefs, for example, we may easily identify four mayor types  of religions.[3]

  1. Religions that do not have a well-articulated notion of God, interact with the mystery and power of nature, and believe that there is a great spirit or force that impacts life in its many facets, may be designated as naturalistic or super-naturalistic. Take, for instance, the ideologies and practices of the Eskimo tribes, the sedentary and nomadic groups in the South Pacific islands, and the diverse ethnic societies in Africa and North, Central, and South America.  Their meaningful interaction with the elements is remarkable.
  1. Religions that believe that all forms of life on the earth and the sky have higher powers dwelling in them and that they are responsible for everything in life are called animistic. Taking for granted that everything in the cosmos has a “soul,” pre-historic religions or hunting-and-gathering societies in very remote parts of the world today fall under this rubric.  Think also of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa before the European colonization, and the religious communities of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
  1. Religions that put God aside and, adopting some form of spirituality, focus on ideas that can identify and stimulate  the potential humans have to improve themselves are usually labeled as abstract idealistic. Buddhism and Confucianism are good examples of this.  Such is their emphasis on self-help that many experts argue that they are not religions but moral philosophies with religious overtones. 
  1. In closing, religions that claim that their beliefs and practices come directly from God – typically in the form of revelation – are theistic or deistic. They may believe in one, true, unique supreme being or power (monotheistic), such as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  They may also be devoted to many (polytheistic), like the practitioners of  Hinduism do. The human role is repressed or minimized to give God the absolute spotlight.

In addition to these four mayor types, religions may be classified according to other criteria, sometimes to designate experiences and groups outside of religious institutions.[4] Depending on the number of followers and how spread out they are, religions are presented as either world religions,[5] indigenous-local religions, or new religions.[6]

Out of historical interests, one might think of dead or living religions as well.  Consider, for instance, pre-historic religions, Greco-Roman mystery religions or the Mayas, Aztecs or Incas, who are no longer in our midst, or whose beliefs might have partially survived in other religious traditions.

Other criteria may include geographical location or origin, number of adepts, whether religions have local or universal appeal or not, or even the type of concept of the deity that originated them.  They may or may not have sacred texts, emphasize esoteric worship acts or ethic, seek to convert people or they may even believe that you have to be born into a religion to be part of it.  In other words, the systems of classification are as diverse as the approaches to study them through these systems.  To make the most of our investigation, we need to keep our options and minds open, especially as new religious groups emerge and the old ones struggle to recreate themselves.

 

[1] Part of the problem is that estimates confuse religions with sub-groups or denomination.

[2] See my http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/02/18/in-the-beginning-the-origin-of-religion/http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/01/25/what-is-religion-naming-a-faith-driven-experience/ ; http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/02/10/in-our-image-and-likeness-how-does-religion-facilitate-a-relationship-with-the-holy/ ; http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/02/18/in-the-beginning-the-origin-of-religion/ ; http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/03/02/the-eyes-of-the-beholders-how-should-we-interpret-religion/

[3] Perhaps influenced by a biased understanding of Christianity, in the past many scholars used to classify religions based on the criterion as to whether they were true or false.  Fortunately, this is no longer a legitimate approach because of its judgmental nature and the lack of the neutral, objective, attitude that must characterize any scientific inquiry.

[4] Although some experts add civil religions as representing another type of religion, to me this is a phrase that, in reality, refers to political groups with some religious characteristics.  Consider, for instance, the radical views of Communism, Patriotism, and Capitalism and those who see these as “sacred.”

[5] From the oldest to most recent, for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

[6] Scientology, for example.

 

 

 

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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2 Responses to All Shapes and Sizes: Types of Religions

  1. Rachel Black says:

    I appreciate the footnote about no longer defining religions as true or false. I’ve come to feel like people claim religions as true or false based on insecurity. Similar to the idea of people tearing others down because of their own insecurities, I think a lot of people feel it is easier to break something else down than it is to build what you believe up.

    • amartinez says:

      Great. Thank you for your response. Your insights are always welcome. Make sure your understand this blog’s definition for the remainder of the semester. !!!!

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