While there are thousands of different religions in the world, the five oldest religions are generally described as the main world religions. These religions are Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Discover some basic facts about these religions and get an overview of their core beliefs.
Population Percentages By Religion
The followers of the five main religions make up a significant majority of the world’s population. The faiths considered to be the "big five" world religions are the oldest ones but not necessarily the ones with the most followers. They are generally considered to be the most widely recognized and influential religions. Close to three-quarters of the world's population practices one of the five main religions. Population percentages by religious affiliation break out as follows:
no religious affiliation
Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with more than 2 billion believers worldwide. The United States is home to the largest Christian population, but Christianity is widespread in many other places, including Canada, Mexico, the Philippines, several African nations, many European countries, and numerous Caribbean islands. There are many versions of Christianity, including Catholicism and various protestant denominations, each differing in many ways yet remaining similar in central teachings.
- Christianity is a monotheistic religion, which means that followers believe there is only one true God.
- Worship of God is an important aspect of Christianity.
- Christians believe in the Holy Trinity, represented by the divinity of the Father (God), son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit.
- Christian teachings are grounded in the Old Testament and the New Testament that together form the Holy Bible. There are several editions of the Christian bible; not all denominations use the same version.
- Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, sent to earth as a man and a messiah to save people from their sins.
- A central focus of this religion is the belief that Jesus died as a result of being crucified on a cross, leading to the forgiveness of mankind’s sins.
- After being entombed for three days, Jesus rose from the dead and then ascended from earth to heaven to be reunited with God.
- Christians have faith that there will be a second coming in which Jesus will return to Earth and take Christian believers back to heaven with him.
- The Ten Commandments play an important role in Christian teachings.
Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with an estimated 1.8 billion followers. Muslim is the term for people who follow the Islamic religion. This religion is believed to have begun in the 7th century B.C. in what is now Saudi Arabia. While Muslims live in many countries worldwide, they make up the majority of the population in several countries. There are seven countries where more than 90% of the population is Muslim (Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan). Some places follow Islamic (Sharia) law. Key facts about Islam include:
- The Islamic faith is monotheistic, believing in Allah as the one true God.
- Islamic places of worship are referred to as mosques.
- Those who follow Islam commit to living life in submission to the will of Allah.
- The Islamic faith teaches that the prophet Muhammad is Allah’s final messenger, who continued to receive messages from Allah to share with the people.
- After Muhammad’s death, other leaders rose in his place under a system called the caliphate, with the individual leaders being referred to as caliphs.
- There are two major sects within Islam: Sunnis and Shiites. The majority (90%) of Muslims are Sunnis.
- Muslims pray at five specific times throughout each day, following a specific prayer ritual.
- Followers of Islam are required to fast during the month of Ramadan.
- Muslims are expected to complete a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lives.
- Many Muslim women wear a hijab that covers their hair, while others wear a niquab or burka, which conceals more of their appearance.
- The Quaran is the holy book of Islam.
Hinduism began in India around 2300 B.C. and remains prevalent on that subcontinent. As of 2018, about 94% of those who follow the Hindu faith live in India. It is third largest religion in the world, with fewer followers than only Christianity and Islam. As with all religions, there are multiple sects of Hinduism, each with some variations in their practices. Core beliefs of Hinduism include:
- Hinduism teaches that God’s presence exists in all of creation.
- In the Hindu faith, god goes by many names and manifests in infinite ways.
- Brahman is the recognized supreme deity (God) responsible for creating everything in the universe. Brahaman has no gender and is all-knowing and all-present.
- Shiva and Vishnu are the other primary Hindu deities (gods).
- There are many other deities (called devis), demi-gods (called devas) and goddesses, with significant variations among specific sects.
- The divine essence (called atman) dwells within each person.
- Hindus believe in reincarnation, with a constant cycle of being born, living and dying on the path to enlightenment.
- A person’s karma, which refers to the net of their good and bad deeds in the last life, determines the level into which they’ll be reborn.
- Rather than a single religious book, Hinduism has a number of sacred texts, including the Vedas, the Samhitas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita.
- Yoga practice is an integral component of Hinduism.
- Cows are viewed as sacred in the Hindu faith; eating beef is prohibited.
Buddhism was founded in the fifth century B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the Buddha. After giving up an extravagant life of excess, the man who came to be known as the Buddha discovered enlightenment through giving up his wealth and position to live a simple life as a monk. His efforts to teach others how to do the same became the foundation of Buddhism.
The vast majority of Buddhists live in the eastern and southeastern regions of Asia. There are numerous traditions within Buddhism, each with varying practices. Theism is not fundamental to Buddhism, though it is part of some Buddhist traditions. Fundamental beliefs of Buddhism include:
- The primary focus of Buddhism is to seek enlightenment.
- The Buddha is not worshiped as a god. He was a man and is recognized by Buddhists as such.
- The foundation of Buddhism is based on a set of three universal truths and four noble principles.
- Consistent with philosophy’s principles and truths, Buddhists follow a path of moral living, thinking and behavior, as well as seeking wisdom.
- Buddhism has five precepts to which followers are expected to adhere. These precepts dictate that Buddhists refrain from killing, stealing, lying, misusing sex, and using drugs or alcohol.
- Karma is an important factor in Buddhism, focusing on each individual’s responsibility and accountability for their own actions.
- Buddhists believe in reincarnation and rebirth. In the Buddhist tradition, being reincarnated means coming back as yourself multiple times, while rebirth involves returning as an entirely different entity.
- The Buddhist religion includes a number of sacred writings, in the form of scriptures and texts, that share the Buddha’s philosophy and teachings.
Judaism is the smallest of the top five religions. The worldwide population of Jewish people is estimated to be approximately 14 million. About 41% of the Jewish population lives in Israel and 41% lives in the United States, with the majority of the remainder concentrated in Europe and elsewhere in North America. There are multiple denominations of Judaism, including orthodox, conservative and reform. Core teachings and practices of the faith include:
- Judaism is a monotheistic religion, with followers recognizing and worshiping only one true God.It is actually the oldest monotheistic religion.
- The Ten Commandments play an important role in the teachings of Judaism.
- Even beyond God’s law outlined in the Ten Commandments, righteousness and justice are central to the teachings of Judaism.
- Israel is an important place in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people, both for its historical significance in relation to their faith and its designation as the promised land in the Bible.
- The Hebrew Bible, which is also referred to as the Tanakh, is the primary holy text of the Jewish faith. It includes the same books as the Old Testament of the Christian bible, though they are in a different order. The first five books of the Hebrew bible form the Torah.
- The Talmud is another holy text in Judaism. It includes an extensive collection of Jewish laws and various teachings specific to the faith.
- Synagogue is the name for Jewish houses of worship.
- Young people in the Jewish faith go through Bar Mitzvah (boys) and Bat Mitzvah (girls) ceremonies to symbolize that they have reached adulthood in terms of their responsibilities to the faith.
15 Most Widely Practiced Religions
While the five oldest religions, as detailed above, are generally considered to be the five main world religions, they are certainly not the only ones. Some newer religions are among the most popular faiths, defined as those religions that are most widely practiced worldwide.
- Christianity (2.1 billion)
- Islam (1.3 billion)
- Hinduism (900 million)
- Chinese traditional religion (394 million)
- Buddhism 376 million
- Primal-indigenous (300 million)
- African traditional and Diasporic (100 million)
- Sikhism (23 million)
- Juche (19 million)
- Spiritism (15 million)
- Judaism (14 million)
- Bahai (7 million)
- Jainism (4.2 million)
- Shinto (4 million)
- Cao Dai (4 million)
Learn More About World Religions
These religions are among the oldest and most widely practiced, which is why they can be said to represent the five top religions in the world. There are multiple traditions within each one and many other religions exist. The United Religions Initiative (URI) is a great resource for learning more about other faiths. Now that you know some basic facts about five of the top religions in the world, it’s a good time to further explore the topic of religion. Start by learning how to identify differences between a cult and a religion.