Religion is obviously very relevant both as a social phenomenon and a source of personal meaning for many people. Understanding different religions is essential to understanding our different cultures, political motivations, and conflicts. In an increasingly connected and dangerous world these ideas about the cosmos, human nature, and morality matter profoundly.

The history of religion is not a history of free-market choices on competing conceptions of the divine. While religions do successfully convert new adherents, all people are born without belief and are instead predominantly brought up within their own cultural traditions. If everyone suddenly awoke with amnesia, which religion would we follow? Consider the following perspective:

“Isn’t it a remarkable coincidence almost everyone has the same religion as their parents? And it always just happens to be the right religion. Religions run in families. If we’d been brought up in ancient Greece we would all be worshiping Zeus and Apollo. If we had been born Vikings we would be worshiping Wotan and Thor. How does this come about? Through childhood indoctrination.” – Richard Dawkins

What does religion offer?

Viewed as a social phenomenon religion is sustained for many reasons: It fills a deep rooted emotional and spiritual needs for hope and provides a framework for interpreting profound human experiences. It asserts answers to the biggest questions about life and the universe, providing comfort for believers. It also offers community cooperation and common rituals. Religion offers order and meaning in an often harsh and confusing world. For many people it becomes ingrained in their identity and personal understanding of reality.

What are the positive and negative consequences?

The private and public aspects of religion have been forces for both good and evil. Religious people have promoted certain ethical behavior, brought together communities and charities, and have comforted many approaching death. They have also enacted violence in the name of god, hindered education and scientific progress, and harbored/encouraged oppression (i.e. women, homosexuals, etc.). Religion can, unfortunately, give otherwise good people justification through interpreted divine-sanction to do evil things. Generally speaking, benign religion, that doesn’t take the dogma too seriously, typically errs on the positive side whereas fundamentalism typically errs on the negative side.

What is the future of religion?

The influences of increasing access to travel, cultural diversity, and global economies will likely force humanity to converge on common answers to big questions surrounding topics such as ethics, human rights and prosperity. Competing religious world views will have to cooperate in the 21st century to establish and maintain peaceful global societies. The rise of both religious extremism and irreligious populations will likely make the topic of religious belief a more frequent issue for public discourse. This will also likely subject all religions to greater scrutiny and criticism. While religion is not going anywhere, I predict secular societies will become less tolerant of the intolerance sometimes prevalent among popular faiths.

World Religions

According to this is an estimate of the sizes of various religious communities. “Sizes shown are approximate estimates, and are here mainly for the purpose of ordering the groups, not providing a definitive number.”

Religion Adherents
Christianity 2.1 billion
Islam 1.5 billion
Irreligious/agnostic/atheism 1.1 billion
Hinduism 900 million
Chinese Traditional relgion 376 million
Buddhism 376 million


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