In All Shapes and Sizes: Types of Religions

Located at the agora of Bet She’an, Palestine, these are the remains of a temple built in honor of Dionysus, the protecting god of wine, theaters, emotions, sensuality, and excesses.  This deity is part of the polytheism that characterized Greco-Roman society.  Many of these religions have disappeared.


  1. A Rich, Growing Variety. As many of you might know or suspect, there is a wide range of religions in the world.  No one really knows their exact number,  and yet each one of them has its own unique, defining traits,[1] not to mention the commonalities that allow us to study them comparatively. 
  1. Impossible to Classify Completely. Given this rich variety, it would be impossible for all religions to coincide in every area and for us to have complete, systematic classifications for all or most of them.  Moreover, depending on their philosophical leanings, nature and goals, religions may be classified differently according to different perspectives, fields of expertise, and methodologies.  Through many lenses and angles, the possibilities are plentiful.
  1. “Central Beliefs” as a Criterion. For all these reasons and as a first step, it is useful to classify religions according to some more manageable categories.   If we take into account their main beliefs , for example, we may easily identify four major types  of religions.[2]

a.  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 ways of life 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.  From the past up to the present, their meaningful interactions with the elements are prevalent and breathtaking.

b.  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.

c.  Religions that put God aside and, adopting some form of deep spirituality, focus on ideas that can identify and stimulate  the potential humans have to improve themselves are usually labeled as abstract idealistic.  Their emphasis is anthropological, namely, it is based on the power of self.  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.

d.  In closing, religions that claim that their beliefs and practices come directly from God– typically in the form of revelation – are theistic[3] or deistic.[4] 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.

4.  Other Classifications. In addition to this major criterion of classification, other possibilities are as relevant, legitimate and instructive.

If we focus on their foundation, character and relational target, religions that follow very closely the teachings and examples of sages might be labeled as wisdom religions (for example, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Xintoism, Moonisn, Sikhism, and Hare Krishna).  The communities of individuals who proclaim revolutionary messages of liberation and reconciliation, and denounce injustices might be seen as prophetic (for example, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha‘ i).  Religions that center their beliefs around the mysterious and engaging powers of nature may be regarded as primeval, in the sense of original, nativist or primitive.[5]  Some will use the adjective spiritualistic to name religions that relate to non-material superior beings or divine spirits (for example, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian forms of spirituality called camdomblé, budú, macumba or atabaque).  Groups that might seem secular and philosophical but that also have some air of mysticism and spirituality may be referenced as religious-humanistic (for example, certain expressions of yoga, Rosa Cruz, Theosophy, New-Gnosticism, Seicho-No-lê and Masonery).

In cases when religions believe in an personal or impersonal God, they may be further classified as monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, henotheistic and animistic.  Within polytheism some individuals and communities might have a god or goddess they prefer in addition to others (monolatry).  With respect to animism, one may go a step forward and think of magism, manism, and totemism.

Religions may also be grouped in dual or binary opposition categories.  Depending on the numbers of followers, visibility, dominance, and access to privileges, religions may be classified as majority or minority.  The first ones tend to be official and formal, whereas the other ones tend to be un-official and informal. Sometimes their relationship with the state or not determines the use of these rubrics.  Take, for example, Anglicanism in England or Islam, through shariah law, in Islamic states.   Since there too much room in the area, one could use many synonymous terms to convey different levels of relational aspects between both groups.

National or ethnic religions are normally tied to countries where they originated or might still be the religion of the majority of the people in that part of the world hold on to, as Islam in Indonesia is.  Think also of Judaism in Palestine, and Hinduism and Buddhism in India.  At some points in their history, the following groups represented these kinds of religions: The Slavs, Germanics and Celts in Central and Northern Europe and Greek and Latin religious groups in Mediterranean Europe; religions in the Ancient Middle East (for example, in Mesopotamia, Persia, Assyria, Canaan) and Northern Africa.

At the time when cultures only had languages that circulated orally and writing was not invented, religions are normally characterized as pre-historic.  After the invention of writing and civilizations started recording their events, the word historic was applied to religions in which some of their members knew how to write and read.

Religions may be classified according to other criteria, sometimes to designate experiences and groups outside of religious institutions.[6]  Depending on the number of followers and how spread out they are, religions are presented as either world religions,[7] indigenous-local religions, or as old and new religions.[8]

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 Mayans, Aztecs or Incas, who are no longer in our midst, or whose beliefs might have partially survived in other religious traditions.

5.  And Much More. 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 and numerous as the approaches to study them through these systems.

6.  Validation and Openness to Old and New Categories.  Needless to say, all    classifications and typologies are limited and arbitrary, but at the same time useful and conventional.  The labels or descriptive phrases we have mentioned are only approximations on the basis of some perceived  similarities.  Technically, they are heuristic designations.  To make the most of our investigation, therefore, we need to keep our options and minds open to what every classification offers and other interpretative possibilities, 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]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.

[3]If religions believe in a personal God involved in human affairs.

[4]If religions believe in impersonal, divine forces removed from human history.

[5]Due to their immense variety, other names could well be pre-historic, traditional, tribalor aborigine.

[6]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.”

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

[8]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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