Humans take religion seriously.
-Today, an Islamic offshoot fundamentalist group calling themselves the Islamic State is battling with scores of nations in the border regions between Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
-A leading presidential candidate in the USA demands we ban Muslims from entering the country.
-Millions of people of diverse faiths listen to the leader of the Catholics, Pope Francis, as he calls for peace and environmental sustainability.
-Forty-two percent of potential voters in the USA state they would not vote for an atheist for president and 40% stated they would not vote for a Muslim.
Most of us engage with some aspect of religion on a daily basis. Yet few think about the history and demography of religion across the planet. So here is a little slice of information to provide a baseline when we think and talk about religion.
5.8 billion people, about 83% of the world’s population, identify as religiously affiliated. There are about 2.2 billion Christians (32 percent of the world’s population), 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent), 1 billion Hindus (15 percent), 500 million Buddhists (7 percent), 405 million people (6 percent) practicing various folk or traditional religions, 14 million Jews (0.2%), and an estimated 58 million people (just under 1%) belonging to a range of other religions, including Baha’i, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism (and others). There is a huge and diverse range of religious beliefs and ways of practicing those beliefs across the planet.
In the USA today 76% of the population self-defines as religious, 3% as Atheist, 4% as Agnostic, and 17% as “nothing in particular.” Where one falls in that range of affiliation makes a difference to oneself and one’s neighbors.
Many people fail to realize the origin of our religious landscape is recent. The vast majority of the religions practiced today emerged in the past few thousand years. None have clearly identifiable roots older than ~6,000-8,000 years ago max. Hinduism is the oldest major religion practiced at present. Judaism, the first of the Abrahamic religions, was established in the southeastern Mediterranean region just under 4,000 years ago. About 2000 years later an offshoot from Judaism began its climb to become the largest organized religion on the planet—Christianity. The last of the three main Abrahamic monotheistic traditions, Islam, emerged about 1,300 years ago forming a major component of the lives of those in the Arabian Peninsula and across the southeastern Mediterranean region. Christian and Muslim societies began their expansions nearly 1000 years ago, bringing their religions, often forcefully, to new areas of the planet. Conflicts between the world’s major religions have ebbed and flowed in the last thousand years, often taking center stage in much of the world’s political landscape.
Many nations see a specific religion as central to their heritage. Others recognize only certain religions as legal to practice within their borders, and some try to forbid religions entirely (without much success). Most societies on the planet observe multiple religious holidays and permit (or encourage) religious leaders to influence, if not create, governmental policy. Violent religious-affiliated conflicts are ongoing on 5 of the 7 continents in nearly every year of the young 21st century. At the same time religiously affiliated organizations provide much of the assistance to the wounded, sick, homeless and impoverished around the world.
For better and worse religiousness is integral to the human experience. Opposing actions by people claiming religious justification (like the Islamic State) or the edicts and mandates of particular religious institutions (like the Catholic Church’s stand on abortion) is not the same as being against religiousness. This distinction is increasingly important as in the last thousand years a few major religions have started to dominate the landscape, especially in the context of nation-states, economies, wars, and other forms of violence. Understanding the distinctions between a human being religious, the teachings and ideals of any particular faith, and the ways in which the institution(s) of any given religion act is important. Especially if we are going to have any possibility of harmony (even tolerance) between people from different faiths, practices, and perspectives.
When thinking and talking about religion we need to remember that there are many, many ways to be successfully human—some involve religion, some don’t. Not being in an organized religion is, after all, how humans have been for most of our more than two hundred thousand year history as a species. We mustn’t forget that today hundreds of millions of people are not part of any specific religion and/or don’t identify as being religious. Abundant research demonstrates those who argue that being religious or belonging to a religion makes one a better moral or altruistic person are wrong, so being in a formal religion is not required to be a good person…despite what some might believe. Ultimately, what people do should be more relevant than what formal belief system they align with.
Humans are immersed in a deeply symbolic and meaning laden world, and most of us believe and act, at least sometimes, as if the supernatural exists. This is a reality for humanity. Religiousness of one type or another is here to stay. Asserting one single, best, way to do it, or not do it, is futile. But appreciating the history and landscape of human religions and religious humans is not. If we want to understand each other, and live together more effectively, we need to embrace diversity and difference as seriously as we do religion.