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A system of beliefs and actions shared by a group which gives the members of that group an object for their worship and a code of behavior, although early Shintō lacked the latter and only in more recent times has it adopted ethical codes either from Confucianism, Buddhism, or Christianity. The object of worship or veneration of most religions is a transcendental Being (God, Allah, Jehovah, Śiva, etc.) who is considered the “creator of heaven and earth,” although early Jainism does not identify such a being, since that religion considers the universe to be beginningless and endless, i.e. not to have been created at some specific time. Religions also usually include some idea of both the purpose of life (teleology) and the consummation of it (called eschatology) for those who adhere to its moral principles. Many religions also include ideas about the afterlife (Heaven, a Happy Hunting Ground, etc.) and some have a belief in rebirth or reincarnation, which suggests a gradual development of the soul toward some supreme goal, often called liberation (moka, nirvāna). Some religions feel that people who haven’t lived up to their moral code will suffer in an unpleasant world, usually identified as Hell. Many, though not all, religions identify a hierarchy of supernatural beings (angels, archangels, houris, etc.) superior to humans but inferior to the Supreme Being. Most religions also identify certain people who are especially identified as qualified by their training or a special gift they are perceived to have to lead the rest of the members in worship (i.e. priests and nuns, rabbis, mullahs, medicine men, etc.).

The word “religion” is derived from Latin re-ligio or re-ligere which mean, essentially “bind back,” which theosophists interpret to indicate a reunion with one’s ultimate source and which some theosophists equate with the literal meaning of yoga, i.e. union. Obviously adherents of some of the major religions of the world do not accept this interpretation. The Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, once defined religion as “an attitude of ultimate concern,” which is overly vague and could include materialism and even terrorism in its definition, hence is also too broad. In any event, any definition must cover all those belief systems usually identified as religions, not just Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions, but also Buddhism, Jainism, the various forms of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shintō, religious Taoism, Sikhism, Native American religions, Kahuna beliefs, African religions, Baha’i Faith, and (some would say), Confucianism. Since there is a considerable variation of beliefs in this list, it is obviously difficult, if not impossible, to find a definition which would cover all of them without becoming so general as to be meaningless.

Origins. Many anthropologists consider modern religions to have evolved from earlier so-called primitive beliefs, usually identified as fetishism, totemism, or magic, and to have developed through polytheism or dualism to some form of monism, although not all extant religions can be so easily characterized. But other people, including most theosophists, feel that the reverse is true, i.e. that fetishism and totemism, for example, represent a degeneration of earlier theological ideas.

Animism, described by the anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917), is the theory that religions arose out of a belief that natural things are alive, and thus there are also mighty spirits for major phenomena which became objects of worship. Totemism on the other hand is the attempt to link a society or clan with an object, like a plant or animal, called a totem, which is considered sacred. J. G. Frazer (1854-1941), author of the famous Golden Bough, regards religion as a “child of magic,” that is, an attempt to control nature.

The subjective theory of the origin of religion links religion with the psychological needs of human beings. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) considers religious ideals as a projection of human desire. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote that God is derived from the human need for a father image. To Karl Marx (1818-1883), religion is the attempt to soothe the unhappy human condition, thus it is an opiate.

Helena P. Blavatsky states that the great religions are but the expression of the one Wisdom-Religion that has existed since time immemorial. She claims that religious beliefs considerably pre-date what Western scholars consider the beginnings of civilization, i.e. go back to Atlantean and even pre-Atlantean times. Blavatsky claims that religion “is as old as thinking men” and that none of the so-called founders of religions actually invented anything new (SD I:xxxvi). She also claims that “The Secret Doctrine” (also called the Ancient Wisdom) is “the essence” (SD I:viii) or “fountainhead” (SD I:xliv-xlv) of all the various recognized religions, but that none of the extant religions contains more than “a chapter or two” of the real truth. It is suggested, in fact, that scriptures should be interpreted allegorically or mythologically rather than literally (SD II:657-8). And she concludes her discussion, scattered among the pages of her magnum opus, by quoting the motto of The Theosophical Society, “There is no religion higher than truth.”

So the theosophical approach to religion is very different from that taken either by historians, anthropologists, or theologians. In fact, members of The Theosophical Society belong to all the extant religions of the world — or to none.

Religion, Mysticism and Esotericism. Almost all the world religions have a dual component: the popular religion for the masses and the mystical traditions for those who feel called. Islam, for example, has the Sūfīsm; Judaism has the Kaballah; Christianity has the Kabbalah; Hinduism and Buddhism are known for their mystical schools. The aim of the mystical movements is the attainment of unity with the divine or Absolute, such as moksha in Hinduism and fanš in Sūfīsm, nirvāna in Buddhism. The mystical movements are not always regarded positively by the mother religion, such as Sūfīsm in Islam. Thomas Merton has noted that the mystics of one religion may sometimes feel greater affinity to the mystics of other religions than to the ordinary adherent of the same religion.

In addition to mysticism, religions can also have esoteric traditions, which often conflict with the established mainstream religion. Thus Christianity has Gnosticism and esoteric Christianity; some schools of Buddhism are considered as esoteric Buddhism; so is Sufism in Islam. For more information, see Mysticism and Esotericism.

World Religions. The composition of world religions has changed much in the last century. The Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that the clusters of religions, with their estimated adherents as of mid-2004, are as follows:

Christianity:        2.1 billion
     Roman Catholic: 	1.1 billion
     Independents: 	416.5 million
     Protestants: 	369.8 million
     Orthodox: 		218.4 million
     Anglicans: 	78.4 million
Islam:               1.283 billion 
Hinduism:            851 million 
Chinese Universism*: 402 million 
Buddhism:            375.4 million 
Ethnoreligionist*:   252.7 million 
Neoreligionist*:     107.3 million 
Sikhism:             25 million 
Judaism:             15 million 
Spiritism:           12.9 million 
Baha’i:              7.5 million 
Confucianism:        6.4 million 
Jainism:             4.5 million 
Shintō:              2.8 million 
Taoism:              2.7 million 
Zoroastrianism:      2.6 million

Non-religious: 767.2 million 
Atheists: 150.6 million

  • Chinese Universism refers to a complex of beliefs that may include Confucian ethics, ancestor worship, folk religion, mediumism, etc. Ethnoreligionists are tribal, animistic or shamanistic beliefs. Neoreligionist are Asian 20th century neoreligions, etc.

Source: “Worldwide Adherents of All Religions, Mid-2004.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006.

For more extensive discussions of the various religions, the following articles in this Encyclopedia may be consulted: Australian Aboriginal Spiritual Beliefs; Baha’i; Buddhism; Christianity; Confucius and Confucianism; Hinduism; Egyptian Religion, Ancient; Islam; Inca and Other Religions of South America; Jainism; Judaism; Mayan Religion; Manichaeism; Mysteries; American Religions, Native; Shinto; Sikhism; Spiritualism and Theosophy; Taoism; Zoroastrianism. These articles contain cross-references to sects under each religion, including scriptures and biographies of important personages. For a theosophical view of religions, see Religion, Theosophy AND.


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