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Major Branches of Religions Ranked by Number of Adherents
There are twelve classical major world religions. These are the religions described most often in surveys of the subject, and studied in World Religion classes (some of them more for historical rather than contemporary reasons):
All major branches listed together
Virtually all of these religions have experienced schism and divisions. This means that they are not unified, monolithic bodies sharing in identical doctrine, understanding and practice. Most of these world religions may be viewed as classifications of religious bodies or movements. Within each world religion are many branches which share a historical background and usually have similarities in doctrines, practice and/or organization. Some of the branches classified under a single "world religion" may have no more in common with other branches than they do with other separate religion (as is the case with Hinduism and many neo-Shinto groups).
Some of these world religions (Babi and Baha'i faiths; Zoroastrianism) have very few branches and few differences between branches.
As discussed on the Religions by Adherents page, there are many distinct religions or religious movements which have more adherents than some of the classical major world religions, but which are not part of the classical list for various reasons.
Only branches of the classical major world religions will be listed here. This isn't a very significant omission because the major world religions discussed on this page include the majority of the world's population, and because most of the smaller or newer "non-major" world religions have few, if any, divisions or branches. Religions such as Tenrikyo, Scientology, and Cao Dai are both religious bodies (unified, centrally-organized organizations or denominations) as well as distinct religions.
However, some smaller/newer world religions (or religious movements), such as New Age and Neo-Paganism are really not single religions at all, but are classifications of independent religions and religious bodies which share certain similarities but may have no formal or even historical connections.
Babi and Baha'i faithsThe only major branch of the Babi and Baha'i faiths today is the Baha'i World Faith (often called simply the "Baha'i Faith" or "Bahai Faith"), with headquarters in Haifa, Israel. Baha'ism emerged from a Muslim environment, and was originally considered a by outsiders to be a heretical offshoot of Islam. Today Baha'is, Muslims and the academic community alike agree that these two religions are separate
The immediate precursor of the Baha'i religious tradition was Babism. Indeed, Baha'is consider Babism part of a revelation from God which was fulfilled by the Baha'i Faith. The Iranian prophet known as the Bab foretold the arrival of a great prophet or messiah figure. A minority of Babis did not accept the Baha'ull'ah and never became Baha'is. The non-Baha'i Babis, such as the Azali Babis constitute a branch, but a numerically insignificant one, of the Babi-Baha'i religion. It is not known if there are any left today.
Various schismatic groups, such as the Orthodox Baha'i, split from the main Baha'i body after the death of Shogi Effendi. They reject the Universal House of Justice as the new leadership of the Baha'i Faith. Numerically these groups certainly constitute less than two percent of all Baha'is. The existence of these groups is evidence of the dynamic nature of the Baha'i religion, and the earnestness Baha'is have about their faith. Other than on the matter of leadership and organization, there are few if any differences between the schismatic and mainstream Baha'i in matters of doctrine and practice.
According to the Toronto Consultants on Religious Tolerance Bahai information page, small Baha'i splinter groups include:
Other sources regarding alternative Baha'i groups indicate that their total current membership is very small compared to that of the Haifa-based organization. A useful and fairly comprehensive treatment of the subject (although published by the majority Baha'i body, so it is clearly not without bias) can be found here.
ChristianityNOTE: Depending on the country, government census records often recognize only one, two or three divisions of Christians. Religious affiliation in surveys is always defined by self-identification, not by theology or practice. In predominantly non-Christian nations such as India or Iraq, available data may simply identify "Christians," to separate them from the majority populations of Hindus, Muslims, etc. If the data is more detailed (usually because there are larger numbers of Christians), Christians will be divided into "Catholics" and "Protestants" (with Orthodox/Eastern Christians typically classified as Protestant). With more accuracy, Orthodox are added as a third division, leaving all Christians who are not Catholic or Orthodox classified as Protestant. Typically this includes many groups who would prefer not to grouped with Protestants, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Latter Day Saints.
(mid-1995; source: Encyclopedia Britannica)
Major Denominational Families of Christianity
(This table does not include all Christians. These numbers are estimates, and are here primarily to assist in ranking branches by size, not to provide a definitive count of membership.)
Catholic: Includes Old Catholic, Aglipayan (Philipines), Uniate, in addition to the Catholic Church headquartered at the Vatican. Occasionally "Catholic" is used, as in the table above, to refer to a branch of Christianity that includes the Catholic Church headquartered at the Vatican, as well as relatively recent off-shoots that still consider themselves Catholic, such as the Old Catholic churches. Certainly it also includes non-Latin Rite Catholic churches such as Uniates, Greek Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Maronites, etc., all of which are in full papal communion and regarded as part of the same religious body as the "Roman Catholic" church. The fact that there are non-Latin Rite Catholics such as these is one of the reasons that many Catholics do not like the term "Roman Catholic Church" as a name for their church. While "Roman Catholic" has long been used without any offense intended, it is increasingly disliked by some members of the Vatican-based Catholic Church, and in nearly every place on this web site that this church is mentioned, the term "Catholic Church" is used. "Roman" is left off, as both inaccurate and potentially objectionable. On other pages, the term "Catholics" by itself refers to members of the Vatican-based Catholic Church, whether they be Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Ukrainian Catholics, Uniates, Coptic Catholics, etc.
This is not the only possible usage of the capitalized term "Catholic." Adherents.com uses the term "Catholic" in essentially the same way that most contemporary sociological literature uses it. In studies of the general population, distinctions between Latin Rite Catholics and other Catholics are ignored. Also, Episcopalians are generally grouped with Protestants (or, in studies with more specificity, Liberal Protestants).
One different definition of "Catholic" and "Catholic Church" is described by Fr. Gene Britton, an Episcopal Priest:
I do have one suggestion for honoring denominational sensitivities... Many of us are Catholics without being ROMAN Catholics. I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and since priesthood vested in an individual is antithetical to Protestantism, there are no Protestant priests. So, if I am a priest, I must be a Catholic priest. There are three (3) major communions bearing the marks of a Capital-"C" Catholic Church: The Roman Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopal Church). [I prefer that people] refrain from using the word "Catholic" as if Romans are the only ones.As we have discussed with Fr. Britton, the usage he suggests is one considered important by a minority of the population (in the U.S., there are about 60 million Catholics vs. about 2 million Episcopalians, and worldwide the difference in numbers is even larger). Although most Catholics are not bothered by the term "Roman Catholic", they do not wish to be called "Romans", and they do not consider Anglicans or Eastern Orthodox to be members of the Catholic Church. It is true that Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox Christians may be considered Catholic from some historical and theological perspectives. But ever-increasing ecumenism between Anglicans and other Protestants around the world (and, in 2001, full communion between Episcopalians and ELCA Lutherans in the U.S.), continue to diminish the degree to which most Anglicans wish to be known as Catholics.
Orthodox/Eastern Christian: As a "branch", the Orthodox/Eastern churches include Eastern churches not in communion with Constantinople, Chalcedonian and Non-chalcedonian, Nestorian, Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, various Jacobite/Syrian Orthodox, Armenian.
Pentecostal: Examples: Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, various Churches of God, etc. Includes officially Pentecostal denominations--those which do not identify primarily with other denominational families, such as Baptist or Methodist. There are denominations and/or congregations which have generic pentecostal characteristics, or are charismatic or evangelical, but are not classified primarily as a Pentecostal denomination.
African indigenous sects: Many African Initiated/Indigenous/Independent Churches (AICs) such as the Kimbanguist Church (6.5 million).
Latter Day Saints: Mormons. This branch is primarily comprised of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Note the difference in capitalization and hyphenation between "Latter Day Saints" (a generic term for the entire branch/movement) and "Latter-day Saints" (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the predominant religious body). We believe this is the most widely followed hyphenation/capitalization convention, but there are variations. Some writers simply refer to the whole branch as "Mormonism" or "Restoration churches" (although the latter term might be confused with the Stone-Campbell movement). Historically this branch also includes the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) and a small number of even smaller splinter groups. In the year 2000 the RLDS Chuch changed its name to the "Community of Christ." Theologically, the current form of this religious body may be best classified as Liberal Protestant, although scholars continue to classify it under "Latter Day Saints" in historically-based listings.
An additional note about capitalization: The organization's official media guide suggests that their name be capitalized as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," with the initial "T" in the word "the" capitalized. This convention is frequently followed in official documents, even when the name of the church is in the middle of a sentence. But such a convention is not standard in academic and journalistic writings about the Church.
Adventist: Mostly Seventh-day Adventists, plus some others.
New Thought: The three largest New Thought heirs to Christian Science -- Unity Church, Religious Science and Divine Science -- count among them about 780 churches and between 130,000 and 150,000 members in the U.S., according to a 1996 almanac of American religions.
The variety of terms applied to different divisions and movements among conservative American Protestants can be confusing. Some of the most important and widely used are: born again Christians, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Charismatics and Fundamentalists. These terms frequently overlap or are defined differently by different writers.
It is beyond the scope of this page to fully describe major divisions in conservative Protestantism, but the following definitions from an article by Harvey Cox for The Atlantic Monthly (Nov. 1995) are useful:
- "Born-again" is the broadest category. It includes the 39 percent of the American population who claim they have had a personal experience of Christ. Their political ideas span the spectrum, and Jimmy Carter is not the only born-again political liberal.
The list of branches shown below represents an attempt to be less arbitrary, showing major branches between which there are real differences with regard to culture, practice, doctrine, and history. Given these criteria, this list is more subjective than a listing of denominational families, which was primarily based on historical considerations only. Once again, the numbers are estimates. The boundaries between some of these groups are somewhat blurry (such as between some Pentecostal and Conservative Protestant groups).
* Liberal Protestants: A recent development in the United States has been the formal ecumenical movement marking increased cooperation among a number of long-separated liberal-to-moderate Protestant denominations. Currently a significant part of this unification of this branch of Protestantism is the "Churches United in Christ" agreement, which will create a network of denominations which share ministries and recognize one another's churches and share in Communion. Currently the combined membership of this movement is 17 million, representing about 7% of U.S. Christians, or about 12% of affiliated Christians in the U.S. [Article.]
* Anglicans are clearly distinct from Liberal Protestants in history, polity and liturgy. Anglicans, however, exhibit extreme ecumenical tendencies and in some countries have forged formal communions or outright mergers with Liberal Protestants. Anglicans are often grouped with Liberal Protestants in studies of a strictly sociological nature. Positions on political issues, voting patterns, educational/vocational demographics, etc. tend to be similar between the two groups.
Note that Lingayats consider their religion separate and distinct from Hinduism, although the Indian government and most general religious texts do not classify them separately.
Note: As with all other religions listed on this page (including Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism), not all historical branches of Islam consider each other acceptably orthodox. The numerically largest branch of Islam, Sunnis, believe that adherence to the five pillars of Islam and acceptance of certain key doctrinal positions are requisite for an individual's classification as a Muslim. Statistical data collection and secular/academic classification, however, are primarily based on self-identification and historical considerations.
The Druze, for example, are not considered part of the numerically dominant (i.e. "mainstream") Muslim grouping. But Druze are classified from a secular/historical perspective as a branch of Islam because they are derived from a branch of Shi'ite Islam. Having developed independently for hundreds of years, their cultural and religious self-concept is primarily Druze, without regard to how outside groups perceive or classify them. Nevertheless, they retain some self-concept as Muslims in addition to their clear historical ties.
This is merely a list of major branches of Islam. There are other groups which fall outside of the groups listed here. In the United States the Nation of Islam has varied widely in numerical and ideological prominence among American Muslims. It has variously been considered both heretical and acceptable by other Muslims. Sufism has been variously classified as a separate branch, a pan-Muslim movement, an order, a discipline, and as heretical or acceptable, as viewed by other groups. Movements such as the Moorish Science Temple and the Five Percenters have arisen from time to time, but have remained numerically minor. On balance, of course, Islam has exhibited far less division into different branches than other large religions.
(very rough estimates)
Differences in practice and belief between the branches of Judaism are compared in this chart by Gilbert Rosenthal.
(very rough estimates)
ShintoTraditionally comparative religious literature has acknowledged three main divisions in Shinto: Sect Shinto, State Shinto, and Shrine Shinto. There is no reliable way to determine how many people are in which branches.
In about 1975: "Organizationally, the majority of Shinto shrines were soon joined together into a major, nation-wide shrine association which presently claims close to 80,000 members and a few national associations."
State Shinto essentially refers to government-associated Shinto activities and shrines, and has few or no actual adherents who relate to it as their primary religious identity.
Only about 4 million people worldwide (nearly all of them in Japan) claim Shinto as their religion. Most Japanese who consider themselves religious cite Buddhism as their religion, but occasionally participate in Shinto-derived public holidays, celebrations, ceremonies, etc. Individual Shinto organizations and shrines are able to claim at least 80% of the Japanese population as "members" due to community-based record-keeping practices that date back hundreds of years. But few Japanese think of themselves as Shintoists.
Most people who do consider Shinto their religion are presumably involved in "Sect Shinto." The largest Shinto-derived sects (such as Tenrikyo, PL Kyodan) do not wish to be considered Shinto any longer and are classified officially as "Other" or "New Religious Movements." These are not included in this 4 million adherents figure.
NOTE: The table below does NOT include any officially Buddhist religions, but there are no doubt Buddhist influences found within most or all of these.
The groups in the table above are officially registered and classified by the Japanese government as "Shinto" or "other" (neither Buddhist nor Shinto).
SHINTO religious bodies:
OTHER religious bodies: Seicho-no-Ie, Tenrikyo, PL Kyodan, Sekai Kyuseikyo, Zenrinkai, Tensho Kotai Jingukyo, Ennokyo.
SikhismFritz B. Voll:
"The spiritual leadership of Sikhism is invested in five elected heads of five major Gurdwaras in India. After more than two hundred years of non-uniformity within Sikhism these leaders consulted with Sikh scholars and theologians in the first half of this century and defined belief and practice of Sikhism in a code of conduct for individual and corporate life."
"Sikhism is opposed to exclusive claims of any religion, including Sikhism itself."
ZoroastrianismWorldwide there are less than 200,000 Zoroastrians. Many estimates indicate there are only about 100,000 practicing Zoroastrians. As a proud but dwindling group, Zoroastrians are fairly unified and there is little in the way of "denominationalism." But there remains a clear division between the two traditional communities -- Iraqi ("Gabars") and Indian ("Parsis"). Although surprisingly similar considering the length of time the two communities were separated from each other, there are differences in dress, custom, ritual and understanding. The religious calender is one of the hotly-debated areas of difference.
Some issues of modernization are emerging around which there is some internal dissension. The most divisive topic seems to be that of conversion. Many traditionalists desire to maintain the status quo which disallows conversion entirely, and even disallows membership in Zoroastrianism to children of mixed marriages if the father is not a Zoroastrian. Some reform-minded Zoroastrians fear the strict guidelines are dooming their people to extinction, and they wish to make the faith less exclusive, perhaps even allowing unrelated converts. Although there are organizations set up to promote both points of view, such issues are unlikely to cause a complete "schism" in the faith.
There are growing communities of immigrant Zoroastrians in the United States, Canada, England and elsewhere -- perhaps 30,000 total outside of the Persian and Indian homelands. But these communities have yet to acquire sufficiently unique national identities to be considered divergent "branches." In this era of improved communication, especially via the Internet, and because the overall Zoroastrian community is already so small, the diaspora Zoroastrians should remain quite unified with those in the geographic centers. Most individuals retain the Zoroastrian identity of their national origin.
Zurvanism, the only known Zoroastrian heresy of real numerical significance, died out about 1,000 years ago.
Major Branches of Major World Religions Ordered by Number of Adherents
Remember, this is not a table of all branches of all religions, just a summary of major branches of the classical major world religions.
* Ahmadiyya: Estimates vary widely regarding the total number of Ahmadiyyans worldwide. Some sources report 170 million to 200 million worldwide, but we believe the only original source for these figures is representatives of the movement. We are unaware of any independent corroboration for these estimates.
This page copyright © 2005 by Adherents.com. Webpage created February 1999. Last updated 28 October 2005.
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