The world is often divided into large religious groupings, but this fails to recognize the plurality of religions as practiced. Each of the world religions is characterized by an internal diversity that must be taken into account in order to understand the differing political agendas they serve to legitimate.

Several caveats must be issued when observing religions across the world prior to describing the demographic characteristics of large religious groupings and highlighting their internal diversity. Contrary to widespread depictions of religious blocs of uniform practices, values and concerns, it is essential to emphasize the plurality of religious reference points in order to understand their political uses.

Definition and caveats

There are as many definitions of religion as there are specialists. We will cite the one given by Émile Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), which presents religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things […] which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” In this way religion underpins group identities that can be used to give legitimacy to a political order, networks of solidarity and support and social action.

Simply seeking to identify and locate religions involves making a selection from a complex reality and, consequently, producing a representation that transforms that reality. This is precisely what religious and identity entrepreneurs seek to do, claiming to represent all followers of a particular religion, of whom they promote a unified vision. This monolithic approach is also a product of simplistic analyses, reflected, for example, in assertions (and criticisms) of a “ clash of civilizations.” Such analyses identify religious divisions in a way that denies both the complex reality of the differences and indeed tensions within large religious groupings, and the cooperation that transcends those differences. While, for the purposes of analysis, we can note the main characteristics of these large groupings, which are linked by their attachment to common texts, practices and representations, we must always bear in mind that internal diversity is characteristic of all religions.

Lastly, we must state that, in the absence of reliable global indicators, demographic data cannot convey an entirely accurate image of reality. Estimates vary from one source to the next (Pew Research Center, ARDA, CIA World Factbook, etc.), and data collection differs according to the calculations made by states (some favor one religion while others repress all religious practices) or religious organizations (likely to amend statistics in their own interests).

Major World Religions, 2010-2050

Source: Pew Research Center, “Religious Composit ion by Country, 2010-2050”, 2015 , 

Comment: Only the Pew Research Center compiles and calculates international data on religions. The graph shows the global number of adherents for each main religion in 2010, and the projections for 2050. Christians formed the greatest number in 2010 (over 2 billion), coming before Muslims and the unaffiliated, but Muslims will have almost caught up with Christians by around 2050 (a little under 3 billion). These changes are more due to regional demographic factors than to religious ones (conversions, etc.).

Demographic data

The vast majority of believers are gathered into one of five religious groupings representing the two great religions of Asia (Hinduism and Buddhism) and the three monotheistic religions based on the Old Testament (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). While it is possible to locate their geographical origins (Indian subcontinent for the Asian religions, Near East for the religions of the Book), these religions have been spread across the world by migratory flows and conversions, leading to a diversification of their practices and schisms between different currents and denominations.

Hinduism is the third largest religion in demographic terms (some 1 billion believers or 13.8 % of the global population in 2010 according to the CIA World Factbook). With origins dating back to the fifteenth century BCE, it is also one of the oldest still practiced. Most Hindus live on the Indian subcontinent (India and Nepal) where their faith emerged, but it spread to other continents through imperial conquests (Southeast Asia was Hinduized from the fourth century), population shifts in the colonial era (Surinam, Mauritius, Malaysia) and more recent migrations (Middle East and the rest of the world).

Buddhism was founded in India around the sixth century BCE and was originally regarded as a Hindu sect. Estimates as to the precise number of practicing Buddhists in the world range from 200 million to 1 billion, the most classic suggesting figures between 400 and 500 million. This variation can be explained by the presence of governments that restrict religious freedom in several traditionally Buddhist countries (China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos) and by the religion’s popularity in western countries. Buddhism has been the fastest growing religion in the United States and western Europe since the 1990s. However, it is often practiced on an individual basis and has not necessarily been recorded.

Buddhists and Hindus, 2010 

Source: Pew Research Center,

Comment: These maps have a key like the others to describe religions in 2010: the circles show numbers of adherents and the shading their proportion of the population in each country. Buddhists are mainly found in Asia, particularly in the East (representing over three-quarters of the population in Thailand and Myanmar), while Hindus are concentrated in India and Nepal. For both these religions, modest yet visible numbers show the Asian diasporas (North America, the Gulf, Australia/New-Zealand and South Africa).

Judaism, first of the monotheisms, established a close link between nation (the Jews as a people) and religion (the Jews as believers) with the foundation of the state of Israel (1948). Estimates put the number of Jews on five continents at around 13.75 million, a figure that is inherently open to dispute, since the definition of what constitutes a Jew varies from one tradition to the next (for orthodox Judaism the religion can only be passed down through the maternal line, whereas the liberal communities accept transmission by the father and conversion). Since the Holocaust, which killed six million of the nine million Jews present in Europe before World War II, Jews have grown in number by two million, but are diminishing as a proportion of the global population, since most of them live in countries that have completed their demographic transition. There are 5.9 million Jews in Israel, the only country where they are in the majority, but a greater number in other countries (5.4 million in the United States, 480,000 in France).

Christianity refers to all the religions following the message delivered by Jesus Christ in the first century CE. Together, all the denominations represent some 2.3 billion baptized followers, nearly a third of the world’s population, mainly divided between the Roman Catholic Church (16.8 % of the population), Protestant traditions (6.15 % divided into several denominations) and the Orthodox Church (3.9 %). Christians are in the majority in 126 countries and are dominant in Europe, the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa and some countries of Asia and Oceania. While religious practice is on the decline in Western Europe, Christianity remains dynamic in the countries of the South, notably due to the activity of missionaries from the Pentecostal and charismatic communities.

Christians, 2010

Source: Pew Research Center, 

Comment: The maps use a key like the others to describe religions in 2010: the circles show numbers of adherents and the shading their proportion of the population in each country. Catholics are in the majority and very numerous in Latin America, Western and Southern Europe and, more specifically, in the Philippines, Poland and Ireland. There are substantial numbers in Africa and the United States. Protestants have a greater presence in Northern Europe, the United States and sub-Saharan Africa; they are also present in Latin America, Europe and Asia, but represent less than a quarter of the population. Orthodox adherents are concentrated in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans but are also found scattered across Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The third Abrahamic monotheism, Islam, was founded by Muhammad in the seventh century. Today, Muslims number some 1.6 billion, or 23 % of the world’s population (CIA World Factbook), making Islam the second largest religion in terms of numbers and also the most demographically dynamic. In the Middle East, where it emerged, the great majority of people are Muslims, but almost two-thirds of all Muslims live in Asia. In the rest of the world they form important minorities (Islam is the second largest religion in the West, with some 20 million Muslims living in the European Union and 7 million in the United States).

Muslims, 2010 

Source: Pew Research Center, 

Comment: These maps have a commonly used key to describe religions in 2010: the circles show numbers of adherents and the shading their proportion of the population in each country. As a proportion of the population, Muslims are clearly in the majority in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, as they are in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. In terms of numbers, however, the highest are more to be found in Asia: Indonesia, the Indian subcontinent and, following these, Nigeria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey.

Diversity within the large religious groupings

While religious groups are usually portrayed in monolithic terms, geographical expansion resulted in diversification. This in turn led to schisms and hybridization with local practices and beliefs, from the “Javanization” of Indonesian Islam that began in the fifteenth century to the Westernization of Buddhism in Europe and the United States.

In the absence of any centralized clergy, Hinduism has shown a great capacity for syncretism, accommodating theological innovations and combining with local traditions, resulting in an infinite variety of beliefs and practices that exist side by side within it. Hinduism’s geographical expansion saw the emergence of a multitude of sects, each defined by the divinities it worships and the rites it practices.

Buddhism spread through Asia in two main schools. The older, Theravada Buddhism (Buddhism of the small vehicle), is practiced mainly in Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand), while Mahayana Buddhism (Buddhism of the large vehicle) is dominant in northern and East Asia. Mahayana Buddhism includes a wide range of teachings and practices adapted to the cultural specificities of those regions where it has become established (from Tibetan Buddhism to Zen).

Judaism diversified along geographical, cultural and doctrinal lines. There is a geographical and cultural distinction between Jews from the Ashkenazi (from the Germanic and Slavic countries) and Sephardic (from the Iberian Peninsula and then from the Arab world) traditions, although today this distinction is gradually disappearing. Different denominations of Judaism reflect nuances of religious observation, with a distinction between orthodox and liberal interpretations.

The history of Christianity has been marked by two major divisions established during large meetings of clerics known as councils (or synods), which seek to establish common rules of faith and discipline in the form of canonical laws, starting with the First Council of Nicea in 325. After the Eastern (Orthodox) Churches and the Western (Roman) Church separated in 1054, the second schism split the Roman Catholic Church from the Protestant churches that emerged in the sixteenth century as a result of the Reformation initiated by the German monk Martin Luther and the French pastor Jean Calvin.

Islam is also divided into different denominations. The two largest are Shiism and Sunnism, together representing over 95 % of Muslims. They split shortly after the assassination of Uthman, the third Caliph, in 656. The Sunnis are in the majority (80-90 % of Muslims) and are themselves divided between four schools of law. The Shiites (10-20 %) form the majority in Iran, Bahrain and Iraq. There are other branches of Shiism (Ismailis, Zaidis and Druze), and minorities who do not see themselves as part of either Shiism or Sunnism (Ibadis, Mahdavis, Ahmadis, etc.).

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