Humans have built, nurtured and developed religions of various kinds for millennia. Primitive people venerated animals, snakes, birds, plants and insects, as well as the more usual mystical gods. Forms of astrology and magic often accompanied and added complexity to their beliefs. The sun, moon and stars, human ancestors, imaginary demons and spirits, have all been thrown into the mix to flavor religious philosophies at one time or another
Over the past twenty five centuries or so, the number of major religions has contracted to nineteen. However, each one of these includes many variations (Protestantism, for example, acknowledges over seventy), and each variation can be further subcategorized many times. In addition, an incredible number of minor cults lie half-hidden in the cities, towns, villages and backwoods of many nations. Society still has Satanism, voodoo, animism, warlocks and witches, all seeking (and finding, if occasional newspaper reports are to be believed) receptive audiences to extend their influence. In total, humans probably support a million or so different religions—and the number increases each year.
This chapter presents a brief overview of five principal religions, summarizes some of their commonalities and ends with a list of issues that, in my opinion, devalue their utility. It is necessarily a very cursory glance at only a few of their most obvious features; doubtless many readers will be able to add much that has been left out.
- Some Major Religions
- Common Features
- See Noss, Man’s Religions.
- According to the World Christian Encyclopaedia, there are nineteen major world religions. These can be subdivided into 270 groups, which can be further subdivided into many others. (For instance, there are some 34,000 different Christian subgroups.) David Barrett et al, Eds., World Christian Encyclopaedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions – AD 30 to 2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
- See Toby Lester, “Oh, Gods!” in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 289, No. 2, February, 2002, 37-45.