Unlike most belief systems that are less rigid in their external structures and may be transmitted orally from one generation to the next, whether by family members or by religious leaders within the community, religious beliefs are organized and codified, often based on the teachings and writings of one or more founders of virtually every society that has ever existed.

While religious beliefs are of great importance to those who hold them, the less formalistic belief systems -- variously referred to as animist or tribal religions, and adhered to by peoples all over the world -- have proven somewhat enigmatic to Western minds. The scope of this listing, therefore, deals only with those religions that most Westerners have at least a peripheral acquaintance with, ones that employ certain readily identifiable tenets, beliefs, and doctrines.


Baha'i has more than 5 million followers (as of 1996). It was founded by Mirza Husayn 'Ali Nuri, who took the name Baha'u'llah (Glory of God) while in exile in Baghdad. Baha'u'llah's coming had been foretold by Mirza Ali Mohammad, known as al-Bab, who founded Babism in 1844, from which the Baha'i faith grew. The central tenets of the Baha'i faith are the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity, and the common foundation of all religion. Baha'ists also believe in the equality of men and women, universal education, world peace, and the creation of a world federal system of government.


Buddhism has 307 million followers. It was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha (Enlightened One), in southern Nepal in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. The Buddha achieved enlightenment through mediation and gathered a community of monks to carry on his teachings. Buddhism teaches that meditation and the practice of good religious and moral behavior can lead to Nirvana, the state of enlightenment, although before achieving Nirvana one is subject to repeated lifetimes that are good or bad depending on one's actions (karma). The doctrines of the Buddha describe temporal life as featuring "four noble truths": Existence is a realm of suffering; desire, along with the belief in the importance of one's self, causes suffering; achievement of Nirvana ends suffering; and Nirvana is attained only by meditation and by following the path of righteousness in action, thought, and attitude.


A faith with 5.6 million followers (as of 1996), Confucianism was founded by Confucius, a Chinese philosopher, in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Confucius's sayings and dialogues, known collectively as the Analects, were written down by his followers. Confucianism, which grew out of a tumultuous time in Chinese history, stresses the relationship between individuals, their families, and society, based on li (proper behavior) and jen (sympathetic attitude). Its practical, socially oriented philosophy was challenged by the more mystical precepts of Taoism and Buddhism, which were partially incorporated to create neo-Confucianism during the Sung dynasty (A.D. 960-1279). The overthrow of the Chinese monarchy and the communist revolution during the twentieth century have severely lessened the influence of Confucianism on modern Chinese culture.

Ethical Culture

Ethical Culture, which has 7,000 followers, was founded as the Society for Ethical Culture in 1876 in New York City by Felix Adler. The International Union of Ethical Societies was formed in 1896. It joined other humanist organizations in 1952 to form the International Humanist and Ethical Union, based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. The Ethical Culture movement stresses the importance of ethics and morality in human interaction, although it offers no system of ethics or other religious beliefs of its own.


A religion with 648 million followers (as of 1996), Hinduism developed from indigenous religions of India in combination with Aryan religions brought to India c. 1500 B.C. and codified in the Veda and the Upanishads, the sacred scriptures of Hinduism. Hinduism is a term used to broadly describe a vast array of sects to which most Indians belong. Although many Hindu reject the caste system -- in which people are born into a particular subgroup that determines their religious, social, and work-related duties -- it is widely accepted and classifies society at large into four groups: the Brahmins or priests, the rulers and warriors, the farmers and merchants, and the peasants and laborers. The goals of Hinduism are release from repeated reincarnation through the practice of yoga, adherence to Vedic scriptures, and devotion to a personal guru. Various deities are worshipped at shrines; the divine trinity, representing the cyclical nature of the universe, are Brahms the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. 


Islam has 840 million followers*. It was founded by the prophet Muhammad, who received the holy scriptures of Islam, the Koran, from Allah (God) C. A.D. 610. Islam (Arabic for "submission to God") maintains that Muhammad is the last in a long line of holy prophets, preceded by Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. In addition to being devoted to the Koran, followers of Islam (Muslims) are devoted to the worship of Allah through the Five Pillars: the statement "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet"; prayer, conducted five times a day while facing Mecca; the giving of alms; the keeping of the fast of Ramadan during the ninth month of the Muslim year; and the making of a pilgrimage at least once to Mecca, if possible. The two main divisions of Islam are the Sunni and the Shiite; the Wahabis are the most important Sunni sect, while the Shiite sects include the Assassins, the Druses, and the Fatimids, among numerous others.


Stemming from the descendants of Judea, Judaism was founded C. 2000 B.C. by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and has 18 million followers. Judaism espouses belief in a monotheistic God, who is creator of the universe and who leads His people, the Jews, by speaking through prophets. His word is revealed in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), especially in that part known as the Torah. The Torah also contains, according to rabbinic tradition, a total of 613 biblical commandments, including the Ten Commandments, which are explicated in the Talmud. Jews believe that the human condition can be improved, that the letter and the spirit of the Torah must be followed, and that a Messiah will eventually bring the world to a state of paradise. Judaism promotes community among all people of Jewish faith, dedication to a synagogue or temple (the basic social unit of a group of Jews, led by a rabbi), and the importance of family life. Religious observance takes place both at home and in temple. Judaism is divided into three main groups who vary in their interpretation of those parts of the Torah that deal with personal, communal, international, and religious activities; the Orthodox community, which views the Torah as derived from God, and therefore absolutely binding; the Reform movement, which follows primarily its ethical content; and the Conservative Jews, who follow most of the observances set out in the Torah but allow for change in the face of modern life. A fourth group, Reconstructionist Jews, rejects the concept of the Jews as God's chosen people, yet maintains rituals as part of the Judaic cultural heritage.

Orthodox Eastern Church

With 158 million* followers, the Orthodox Eastern Church is the second largest Christian community in the world. It began its split from the Roman Catholic Church in the fifth century; the break was finalized in 1054. The followers of the Orthodox Church are in fact members of many different denominations, including the Church of Greece, the Church of Cyprus, and the Russian Orthodox church. Orthodox religion holds biblical Scripture and tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit as expressed in the consciousness of the entire Orthodox community, to be the source of Christian truth. It rejects doctrine developed by the Western churches. Doctrine was established by seven ecumenical councils held between 325 and 787 and amended by other councils in the late Byzantine period. Relations between the Orthodox churches and Roman Catholicism have improved since Vatican Council II (1962-65).


Major Protestant Denominations in the United States

 Amish Mennonites Founded in Switzerland in the 1500s after secession from the Zurich state church; the followers of Jacob Ammann broke from the other Mennonites in Switzerland and Alsace in 1693; most Amish Mennonites emigrated to Pennsylvania in the eighteen century when others rejoined the main Mennonite group. 40,000 Amish Mennonites; 180,000 Mennonites The Bible is the sole rule of faith; beliefs are outlined in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith(1632); Mennonites shun worldly ways and modern innovation (education and technology); the sacraments are adult baptism and communion.
Baptists Founded by John Smyth in England in 1609 and Rogert Williams in Rhode Island in 1638. 31 million No creed; authority stems from the Bible; most Baptists oppose the use of alcohol and tobacco; baptism is by total immersion.
Church of Christ Organized by Presbyterians in Kentucky in 1804 and in Pennsylvania in 1809. 1.6 million The New Testament is believed in and what is written in the Bible is followed without elaboration; rites are not ornate; baptism is of adults.
Church of England King Henry VIII of England broke with the Roman Catholic Church; he issued the Act of Supremacy in 1534, which declared the king of England to be the head of the Church of England. 6,000 in Anglican Orthodox Church in the United States Supremacy of the Bible is the test of doctrine; emphasis is on the most essential Christian doctrines and creeds; the Book of Common Prayer is used; the Church of England is part of the Anglican community, which is represented in the United States mainly by the Episcopal Church.
Episcopal Church U.S. offshoot of the Church of England; it installed Samuel Seabury as its first bishop in 1784 and held its first General Convention in 1789; the Church of England, headed by King Henry VIII, broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. 2.7 million Worship is based on the Book of Common Prayer and interpretation of the Bible using a modified version of the Thirty-Nine Articles (originally written for the Church of England in 1563); services range from spartan to ornate, from liberal to conservative; baptism is of infants.
Lutheran Church Based on the writings of Martin Luther, who broke (1517-21) with the Roman Catholic Church and led the Protestant Reformation; the first Lutheran congregation in North America was founded in 1638 in Wilmington, Delaware; the first North American regional synod was founded in 1748 by Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg. 8 million Faith is based on the Bible and the Augsburg Confession (written in 1530); salvation comes through faith alone; services include the Lord's Supper (communion); Lutherans are mostly conservative in religious and social ethics; infants are baptized, the church is organized in synods; the two largest synods in the United States are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Methodist Church Reverend John Wesley began evangelistic preaching within the Church of England in 1738; a separate Wesleyan Methodist Church was established in 1791; the Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in the United States in 1784. 13.5 million The name derives from the founders' desire to study religion "by rule and method" and follow the Bible interpreted by tradition and reason; worship varies by denomination within Methodism (the United Methodist Church is the largest congregation); the church is perfectionist in social dealings; communion and the baptism of infants and adults are practiced.
Pentecostal churches The churches grew out of the "holiness movement" that developed among Methodists and other Protestants in the first decade of the twentieth century. 3.5 million Baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, faith healing, and the second coming of Jesus are believed in; of the various Pentecostal churches, the Assemblies of God is the largest; a perfectionist attitude toward secular affairs is common; services feature enthusiastic sermons and hymns; adult baptism and communion are practiced.
Presbyterian Church Grew out of Calvinist churches of Switzerland and France; John Knox founded the first Presbyterian church in Scotland in 1557; the first presbytery in North America was established by Irish missionary Francis Makemie in 1706. 3.2 million Faith is in the Bible; the sacraments are infant baptism and communion; the church is organized as a system of courts in which clergy and lay members (presbyters) participate at local, regional, and national levels; services are simple, with emphasis on the sermon.
Seventh-Day Adventist Church Grew out of the teachings of William Miller in the 1840s; formally founded in North America in 1863. 734,527 The Bible is the only creed; the second coming of Jesus is emphasized; members abstain from alcoholic beverages and tobacco; baptism and communion are practiced.
United Church of Christ

Formed in 1957 by the union of the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Churches.

 1.7 million Belief in the Bible is guided by the Statement of Faith (written in 1959); the church is organized by congregations, which are represented at a general synod that sets policy; services are simple, with emphasis on the sermon; infant baptism and communion are practiced.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) Joseph Smith, in the 1820s, found golden tablets with The Book of Mormon inscribed on them; church headquarters were established in upstate New York in 1830, then in Ohio in 1831; after two more attempts to establish a permanent home for the church (the second resulting in Smith's death at the hands of a mob), Salt Lake City, Utah, was founded in 1847 under the leadership of Brigham Young. 4.5 million Faith is based on the Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price, all of which are considered scripture; stress is placed on revelation through the connection of spiritual and physical worlds and through proselytizing; members abstain from alcohol and tobacco and believe in community self-reliance; public services are conservative; there is baptism, laying on of hands, and communion; a secret temple holds other ceremonies, including baptism for the dead.
Jehovah's Witnesses Founded by Charles T. Russell in the United States in the late nineteenth century. 893,000 Belief is in the imminent second coming of Christ and the potential salvation of mortal souls during the millennium; all members are ministers who proselytize their faith with door-to-door missionary work; members refuse service in the armed forces, will not salute national flags or participate in politics, will not accept blood transfusions (but will accept all other forms of medical treatment), and discourage smoking, drunkenness, and gambling.
Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) George Fox in England in the seventeenth century began preaching against organized churches, professing a doctrine of the Inner Light.  113,000 Reliance is on the Inner Light, the voice of God's Holy Spirit experienced within each person; meetings are characterized by quiet meditation without ritual or sermon; Quakers are active in peace, education, and social welfare movements; they refuse to bear arms or take oaths; earlier schisms are still reflected in three main affiliations of Friends.
 Unitarian Universalist Association The denomination resulted from the merger of the Universalist Church of America (organized in 1779) and the American Unitarian Association (founded in 1825). 171,000 Members profess no creed; strong social, ethical, and humanitarian concerns are manifest in the search for religious truth through freedom of belief; theists, humanists, and agnostics are accepted in religious fellowship; efforts are aimed at the creation of a worldwide interfaith religious community; many members come from other denominations and religions.
* Known number since 1993

Roman Catholicism

The Roman Catholic Church, with 900 million* followers, is the largest Christian church in the world. It claims direct historical descent from the church founded by the apostle Peter. The Pope in Rome is the spiritual leader of all Roman Catholics. He administers church affairs through bishops and priests. Members accept the gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Bible, as well as the church's interpretations of these. God's grace is conveyed through the seven sacraments, especially the Eucharist or communion that is celebrated at mass, the regular service or worship. The other six sacraments are baptism, confirmation, penance, holy orders, matrimony, and anointing of the sick. Redemption through Jesus Christ is professed as the sole method of obtaining salvation, which is necessary to ensure a place in heaven after life on earth.


Rosicrucianism is a modern movement begun in 1868 by R.W. Little that claims ties to an older Society of the Rose and Cross that was founded in Germany in 1413 by Christian Rosencreuz. The number of its followers is uncertain. The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crusis (AMORC) was founded in San Jose, California, in 1915 by H. Spencer Lewis. The Rosicrucian Brotherhood was established in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, by Reuben Swinburne Clymer in 1902. Both sects could be classified as either fraternal or religious organizations, although they claim to empower members with cosmic forces by unveiling secret wisdom regarding the laws of nature.


Shinto, with 3.5 million* followers, is the ancient native religion of Japan, established long before the introduction of writing to Japan in the fifth century A.D. The origins of its beliefs and rituals are unknown. Shinto stresses belief in a great many spiritual beings and gods, known as Kami, who are paid tribute at shrines and honored by festivals, and reverence for ancestors. While there is no overall dogma, adherents of Shinto are expected to remember and celebrate the kami, support the societies of which the kami are patrons, remain pure and sincere, and enjoy life. 


Both a philosophy and a religion, Taoism was founded in China by Lao-tzu, who is traditionally said to have been born in 604 B.C. Its number of followers is uncertain. It derives primarily from the Tao-te-ching, which claims that an ever-changing universe follows the Tao, or path. The Tao can be known only by emulating its quietude and effortless simplicity; Taoism prescribes that people live simply, spontaneously, and in close touch with nature and that they mediate to achieve contact with the Tao. Temples and monasteries, maintained by Taoist priests, are important in some Taoist sects. Since the Communist revolution, Taoism has been actively discouraged in the People's Republic of China, although it continues to flourish in Taiwan.