Types of Religion

Have you ever wondered what the difference between theism, non-theism, and atheism actually is? 

Types of Religion Types of Religion

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Table of contents

    This is one of the basic questions about religion. Let's think about what the different types of religion actually are.

    • We will look at different types of religion in sociology.
    • We'll mention the classification of religion types.
    • Then, we will discuss types of religions and their beliefs.
    • We'll move on to discussing theistic, animistic, totemistic, and New Age religions.
    • Finally, we will briefly mention types of religions around the world.

    Types of religion in sociology

    There are three different ways sociologists have defined religion over time.

    Substantive definition of religion

    Max Weber (1905) defined religion according to its substance. Religion is a belief system that has a supernatural being or God at its centre, who is seen as superior, all-powerful, and inexplicable by science and the laws of nature.

    This is considered an exclusive definition as it makes a clear distinction between religious and non-religious beliefs.

    Criticism of the substantive definition of religion

    • It strictly excludes any beliefs and practices that do not revolve around a deity or supernatural being. This usually means excluding many non-Western religions and belief systems.

    • Connectedly, Weber’s substantive definition is criticised for establishing an overwhelmingly Western idea of a God, and excluding all non-Western ideas of supernatural beings and powers.

    Functional definition of religion

    Émile Durkheim (1912) described religion according to its function in the life of individuals and society. He claimed that religion is a belief system that helps social integration and establishes collective conscience.

    Talcott Parsons (1937) argued religion's role in society was to provide a set of values on which individual actions and social interaction can be based. Similarly, J. Milton Yinger (1957) believed religion’s function was to provide answers to the ‘ultimate’ questions of people’s lives.

    Peter L. Berger (1990) called religion a ‘sacred canopy’, which helps people to make sense of the world and its uncertainties. Functional theorists of religion do not think it has to include belief in a supernatural being.

    The functionalist definition is considered an inclusive one, as it isn't as centred on Western ideas.

    Criticism of the functional definition of religion

    Some sociologists claim that the functionalist definition is misleading. Just because an organisation helps social integration, or provides answers to questions about the ‘meaning’ of human life, does not necessarily mean it is a religious organisation or religion.

    Social constructionist definition of religion

    Interpretivists and social constructionists do not think there can be one universal meaning of religion. They believe that the definition of religion is determined by the members of a certain community and society. They are interested in how a set of beliefs is acknowledged as a religion, and who has a say in the process.

    Social constructionists don’t believe religion has to include a God or a supernatural being. They focus on what religion means to the individual, recognising that it can be different for different people, among different societies, and at different times.

    There are three dimensions through which religion shows diversity.

    • Historical: There are changes in religious beliefs and practices within the same society over time.
    • Contemporaneous: Religions can vary within the same society during the same period of time.
    • Cross-cultural: Religious expression is diverse between different societies.

    Alan Aldridge (2000) claimed that whilst members of Scientology consider it a religion, some governments acknowledge it as a business, while others view it as a dangerous cult and have even attempted to ban it (Germany in 2007, for example).

    Criticism of the social constructionist definition of religion

    Sociologists claim it is too subjective as a definition.

    Classification of religion types

    There exist many different religions in the world. There is more than one way to categorise them. The most common classification in sociology differentiates between four major types of religions.

    These big categories and the subcategories within them differ from each other in the nature of the belief system, their religious practices, and their organisational aspects.

    Types of organisations in religion in sociology

    There are many different types of religious organisations. Sociologists differentiate between cults, sects, denominations and churches, based on the size, purpose and practices of the particular religious community and organisation.

    You can read further about religious organisations right here at StudySmarter.

    Now, let us discuss types of religions and their beliefs.

    Types of religions and their beliefs

    We will look at the four major types of religion.

    Theism

    The term theism comes from the Greek word ‘theos’, which means God. Theistic religions revolve around one or more deities, usually immortal. While superior to humans, these dieties are also similar in their personalities and consciousness.

    Monotheism

    Monotheistic religions worship one God, who is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnipresent (all-present).

    Monotheistic religions usually believe that their God is responsible for the creation, organisation, and control of the universe and all its beings.

    The two biggest religions in the world, Christianity and Islam, are typically monotheistic religions. Both of them believe in the existence of one God, and reject the Gods of any other religion.

    Both the Christian God and Allah are rather unapproachable for humans during their lives on Earth. Believing in them and acting according to their doctrines is mainly rewarded in the afterlife.

    Judaism is considered to be the world's oldest monotheistic religion. It believes in one God, most commonly called Yahweh, who has connected to humanity through prophets throughout history.

    Polytheism

    Followers of polytheistic religions believe in the existence of multiple Gods, who usually have specific roles in the governing of the universe. Polytheistic religions reject the God(s) of any other religion.

    The ancient Greeks believed in multiple Gods who were responsible for different things in the universe and who often actively participated in humans’ lives on Earth.

    Hinduism is also a polytheistic religion, as it has many Gods (and Goddesses). The three most important deities of Hinduism are Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu.

    Types of Religion, Greek Gods and Columns, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The ancient Greeks attributed different roles and responsibilities to their Gods.

    Henotheism and monolatrism

    A henotheistic religion worships only one God. However, they acknowledge that other Gods may also exist, and that other people are justified in worshipping them.

    Zoroastrianism believes in the superiority of Ahura Mazda, but acknowledges that other Gods exist and might be worshipped by others.

    Monolatristic religions believe that many different Gods exist, but only one of them is powerful and superior enough to be worshipped.

    Atenism in Ancient Egypt lifted the solar deity, Aten, to be the supreme God above all other ancient Egyptian Gods.

    Non-theism

    Non-theistic religions are often called ethical religions. Instead of focusing on the belief of a superior, divine being, they revolve around a set of ethical and moral values.

    Buddhism is a non-theistic religion as it does not revolve around a supernatural being or a creator God, like Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Its focus is to provide a path for individuals to spiritual awakening.

    Confucianism focuses on the improvement of humanity through ethical values, such as righteousness or integrity. This focuses on the establishment of social harmony through humans rather than through supernatural beings.

    Non-theism is an umbrella term for many different belief systems that do not revolve around a deity; we can include pantheism, scepticism, agnosticism, and apatheism among them.

    Atheism

    Atheism rejects the existence of any kind of God or supernatural, superior being.

    Deism

    Deists believe in the existence of at least one God who created the world. However, they think that after creation, the creator stopped influencing the course of events in the universe.

    Deism rejects miracles and calls for the discovery of nature, which has the potential to reveal the supernatural powers of the world's creator.

    Animism

    Animism is a belief system based on the existence of ghosts and spirits which influence human behaviour and the natural world, either in the name of Good or in the name of Evil.

    The definition of animism was created by Sir Edward Taylor in the 19th century, but it is an ancient concept also mentioned by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Sociologists claim that it was animistic beliefs that established the idea of a human soul, thus contributing to the basic principles of all world religions.

    Animism has been popular among pre-industrial and non-industrial societies. People considered themselves to be on an equal level with other beings of the universe, so they treated animals and plants with respect. Shamans or medicine men and women acted as religious mediums between humans and the spirits, who were often considered to be the souls of dead relatives.

    Native American Apaches believe in a real and a spiritual world, and they treat animals and other natural beings as equal to themselves.

    Totemism

    Totemistic religions are based on the worship of one particular symbol, a totem, which also refers to one tribe or family. Those protected by the same totem are usually kin, and are not allowed to marry each other.

    Totemism developed among tribal, hunter-gatherer societies whose survival depended on plants and animals. A community picked a totem (usually one that was not an essential food source) and carved the symbol into totem poles. The symbol was considered sacred.

    Types of Religion, Totem Poles in grass, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The symbols carved on totem poles were considered sacred by totemist religions.

    Durkheim (1912) believed that totemism was the origin of all world religions; that is why most religions have totemistic aspects. He researched the clan system of Australian Arunta Aboriginals and found that their totems represented the origin and identity of different tribes.

    Durkheim concluded that the worship of sacred symbols actually meant the worship of a particular society, so the function of totemism and all religions was to unite people into a social community.

    Individual totemism

    Totemism usually refers to the belief system of a community; however, a totem can be a sacred protector and companion of one particular individual as well. This particular totem can sometimes empower its owner with supernatural skills.

    A. P. Elkin's (1993) study showed that individual totemism predated group totemism. A specific person’s totem often became the community’s totem.

    Aztec societies believed in the idea of an alter ego, which meant that there was a special connection between a human and another natural being (usually an animal). Whatever happened to one, happened to the other.

    The New Age

    The New Age Movement is the collective term for eclectic belief-based movements that preach the coming of a new age in spirituality.

    The idea of the coming of a New Age originates from late-19th century theosophical theory. It birthed a movement in the West in the 1980s after traditional religions, such as Christianity and Judaism, started to lose their popularity.

    The New Agers reject the authority of an external God and claim that spiritual awakening can be achieved through the exploration of the individual self. The aim of many New Age practices is for the individual to connect with their 'true inner self', which lies beyond their 'socialized self'.

    As more and more people go through a spiritual awakening, the whole of society will enter a New Age of spiritual consciousness which will put an end to hatred, war, hunger, racism, poverty, and sickness.

    Many New Age movements were based at least partly on traditional Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism. They spread their different teachings in specialised bookstores, music shops, and at New Age festivals, many of which still exist today.

    Many spiritual and therapeutic practices and tools are included in the New Age, such as the use of crystals and meditation.

    Types of Religion, Woman meditating in sunset, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Meditation is one of the New Age practices that are still popular today.

    Types of religions around the world

    According to the Pew Research Center, there are seven main categories of religion around the world. The five world religions are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. In addition to these, they categorise all folk religions as one and identify an unaffiliated category.

    Types of Religion - Key Takeaways

    • There are three different ways sociologists have defined religion over time: these can be called the substantive, functional, and social constructionist approaches.
    • Theistic religions revolve around one or more deities, who are usually immortal, and while superior to humans, are also similar in their personalities and consciousness.
    • Animism is a belief system based on the existence of ghosts and spirits which influence human behaviour and the natural world, either for 'Good' or 'Evil'.
    • Totemistic religions are based on the worship of one particular symbol, or totem, which also refers to one tribe or family.
    • The New Age Movement is the collective term for eclectic belief-based movements that preached the coming of a New Age in spirituality.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Types of Religion

    What are all the different types of religions?

    The most common classification of religion in sociology differentiates between four major types of religions: theismanimismtotemism, and the New Age.

    How many types of Christian religions are there?

    Christianity is the biggest religion in the world. There have been many different movements within Christianity throughout history, which resulted in an incredibly high number of religion types within Christianity.

    What are all religions?

    Religions are belief systems. Often (but not exclusively), they have a supernatural being standing in their centre. Different sociologists define religion in different ways. The three most important approaches to religion are the substantive, functional, and social constructionist.

    How many types of religion are there in the world?

    There exist many different religions in the world. There is more than one way to categorise them. The most common classification in sociology differentiates between four major types of religions. These big categories and the subcategories within them differ from each other in the nature of the belief system, their religious practices, and in their organisational aspects. 

    What are the three major types of religion?

    Sociologists distinguish between four major types of religion. These are:

    • Theism
    • Animism
    • Totemism
    • The New Age
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