10 facts about 12 major religions

This page last updated November 3rd, 2019

These pages summarise the main features of the 12 largest world religions, which together are followed by almost 80% of the world’s population. These beliefs are described without passing any judgment on their truth or otherwise. Not included here are so-called “tribal” and African religions (6%), spiritism, the Eastern religions Cao Dai and Juche (less than 1% in total) and non religious (16%). Source for numbers is www.adherents.com.

Baha’i, Buddhism and Christianity

Baha’i Buddhism Christianity
Founder Baha’u’llah The Buddha Jesus (Yeshua)
Place & time Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria), 1860s CE Nepal, 500 BCE Palestine, 30 CE
Local religion at the time Islam Hinduism Judaism & Roman polytheism
Written sources Writings of Baha’u’llah & others – principally Kitab-l-Aqdas Teachings of the Buddha written down much later & not treated as revelation Bible, especially the New Testament
No. of adherents worldwide 2 million 376 million 2,100 million
Nature of religion Monotheism with revealed teachings – fulfils Judaism, Christianity and Islam Dharmic. Way of life to achieve enlightenment Monotheism with revealed teachings – fulfils Judaism
Nature of God(s) Monotheistic, ethical Distant, unclear Monotheistic, ethical, personal
How to please God(s) Ethical living Eightfold Path between extremes of asceticism & materialism Repentance & faith in Jesus + loving God and loving neighbour
Rewards & punishments Life is a preparation for the next life (does this mean everyone enters afterlife?) Life of acceptance & Nirvana Life with God in this world and the next (or not)
Practices Prayer & meditation leading to action – little emphasis on ritual (no churches or priests). Informal meeting every 19 days + festivals Meditation, disciplined living to reduce suffering (recognising “impermanence, suffering & no-self”) Weekly meetings, sharing faith & serving others
Distinctive ethics Rational behaviour, peace, equality, tolerance, justice Detachment, acceptance, meditation Love your neighbour, humility, peace, justice

Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam

Confucianism Hinduism Islam
Founder K’ung Fu-tzu (Confucius) Brahmins – the priestly class of the invading Aryans Muhammed
Place & time China 500 BCE India, about 1500 BCE Arabia, 620 CE
Local religion at the time Evolved from more primitive beliefs Tribal polytheism
Written sources K’ung Fu-tzu’s writings Many writings, mainly the Vedas (1000 BCE) & Upanishads (500 BCE) Qur’an, written down by Muhammed
No. of adherents worldwide 400 million (combined with Taoism) 850 million 1,200 million
Nature of religion Taoic.
Social & political ethics
Devotional rituals & tradition to achieve release from cycle of rebirth. 
with revealed beliefs – mixture of corporate & personal worship and ethics
Nature of God(s) Pantheistic & impersonal – life force (Brahmin) and many gods/aspects Monotheistic, personal, ethical
How to please God(s) Devotion, good works, knowledge & yoga to reduce karma (caused by bad behaviour) & maya (illusion) Five Pillars – profession of faith, prayer/worshp, alms, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca
Rewards & punishments Social harmony Cycle of rebirth until karma dissolved & released. Paradise for believers
Practices Respect for ancestors Temples as homes to deities & shrines,
priests & rituals, individual holy men
Five Pillars, Friday prayers at mosque, ritual washing and prayers
Distinctive ethics Cohesion of society. Living in harmony with environment Do right, acquire wealth, enjoy pleasure, achieve release Five Pillars, Jihad (holy struggle)

Jainism, Judaism, and Parsees/Zoroastrianism

Jainism Judaism Zoroastrianism
Founder Mahavira (“great hero”) Abraham & Moses Zarathustra (not sure if he was a real person)
Place & time India, 550 BCE Iraq, 2000 BCE Iran, date unclear,  1200 or 600 BCE?
Local religion at the time Hinduism Polytheism Local
Written sources Scriptures, written 100 years after Mahavira The Law (Torah given by God) & the prophets. The Talmud Avesta (Zarathustra’s teachings, written centuries later)
No. of adherents worldwide 3 million 14 million 2.6 million
Nature of religion Dharmic. Soul is imprisoned in matter – cycle of rebirth until achieve release, at length, by intense discipline. Monotheism with revealed beliefs – mixture of corporate & personal worship and ethics Monotheism but dualistic. Ethical, personal.
Nature of God(s) Distant, unclear – close to atheism Monotheistic, personal, ethical Ahura Mazda (all powerful God)  is oposed by Angra Mainyu & supported by 7 created immortals.
How to please God(s) Ascetic life as a monk. Lay people can only hope to achieve being a monk in the next life Obey Law – sacrifices for forgiveness of sins Ethical living
Rewards & punishments Salvation = release from karma & cycle, then union with one’s true self Pleasing or displeasing God Life after death
Practices Fasting & extreme asceticism. Temples & images to assist meditation. Worship & sacrifices in temple (but not since temple destroyed in 70 CE) & meetings in Synagogues Ritual prayer & washings, fire ceremonies (fire is the symbol of God’s truth)
Distinctive ethics Do no harm (non violent & vegetarian), abstain from sex & worldly goods 10 Commandments, plus many detailed laws in Law and writings Education, devotion, righteousness, non-violence, cleanliness

Shinto, Sikhism and Taoism

Shinto Sikhism Taoism
Founder Evolved Guru Nanak Lao-Tzu (& Chuang Tzu)
Place & time Japan, 0-1000 CE India, 1500 CE China 300-600 BCE
Local religion at the time Hinduism & Islam Less refined version of same ideas
Written sources Guru Granth Sahib (Nanak’s & other Gurus’ teachings, written down later) Writings of Lao-Tzu (Tao Te Ching) & Chuang Tzu
No. of adherents worldwide 4 million 23 million 400 million (combined with Confucianism)
Nature of religion Taoic. Shinto = “the way of the gods”.  Mixture of polytheistic mythology & practical living. Little dogma. Co-exists happily with Buddhism Dharmic. Practical religion about living in this world (not ascetic like some other eastern religions).  Cycle of rebirth. Taoic. Tao = “the way”. Mythical religion with strong ethical component, yin & yang. A way to live with little dogma.
Nature of God(s) Spiritual force manifested in “Kami” (nature, many gods or spirits, or ancestors) Present everywhere in creation, unknowable, without form, beyond dogma, found in the heart. merciful. Spiritual force (there is some polytheism in popular Taoism)
How to please God(s) Worship at shrines Grace enables recognition of God’s word & hence ability to live ethically & devotionally and so earn salvation.
Rewards & punishments A peaceful pure life? Mystical union with God (on earth and in afterlife?) Personal peace?
Practices Worship, prayer & offerings at shrines to various Kami Egalitarian, respect for other religions Meditation, exercise (tai chi & Kung fu), detachment, festivals
Distinctive ethics Purity & cleanliness Love your neighbour, humility, peace, justice Sensitivity, peacefulness, live in harmony with nature.

For more information on the terms “monotheistic”, “darmic” and “taoic”, see the different types of religions.

All photos from MorgueFile: Buddha, Sikh women, Wailing Wall Jerusalem, prayer banners, mosque, priest, lanterns.

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