Dictionary List of Different Types of Religion

Religion is very diverse. Categorizing religions is very difficult, and the results are always inadequate1 because we are combining the problems of comparing cultural understandings, differing word uses, and differing historical appreciations of key terms. The very concept of "religion" has proven difficult to define. Here is a list of varied descriptive words used to group religions together.

If you want a page that lists all religions then click here.

Abrahamic religions share some Hebrew stories that feature Abraham. This includes Judaism, Christianity and Islam. ⇒ See Single God Religions (Monotheism).

Atheism: Belief systems that do not contain any creator god(s). Buddhism and Taoism are examples of atheist religions. The words comes from Greek a-theos which means "no gods". ⇒ See Atheism and Secularism.

Belief system: A series of beliefs meshed together by a common structure and framework. If enough people share a belief system and it attains a characteristic set of dogmas or practices, then it becomes a religion (⇒ see: What is Religion? How Do You Define Religion?). If evidence for a belief system is found, it becomes a theory (⇒ see: What is Science and the Scientific Method?).

Cult: A biased and derogatory terms used to describe a small group of non-mainstream believers who are unpopular for some reason. There is little agreement amongst sociologists as to what exactly makes a group a "cult". Many would declare that "brainwashing" is the central feature, but this occurs in all religions - and in all parenting. Some would say "social isolation", but, no-one considers the Amish community or monasteries to be "cults". ⇒ See Religion, Violence, Crime and Mass Suicide: 4. Mass Murder and Suicide Cults.

Cultural Religion also called popular2, grassroots, bottom-up, common, low-brow, folklore2 and the religion of the masses2. Includes popular practices and beliefs which are often adhered to despite what their "official" religion's doctrine states. In Hinduism: laukik. Antonym: scholarly religion. ⇒ See Cultural Religion Versus Scholarly Religion.

Denomination: A Western term used to denote a major branch of an established religion. Catholicism and Protestantism are the biggest denominations of Christianity. Shi'te and Shia Islam are two Islamic denominations, and, Zen is a denomination of Buddhism.

Eastern Religion. Refers to anything further East than the Middle East - i.e., Christianity and Islam are not "Eastern" even though they derive from Mesopotamia. Hinduism, Buddhism and Japanese religions are all Eastern. The Theosophists brought "Eastern teachings" with them when they imported Hinduism into Europe.

Far Eastern Religion. Refers to anything further East than India, especially the religions of South East Asia, and East Asia such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto.

Monotheism: Belief systems with just one god. Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism are monotheistic. Many individuals are monotheist without belonging to any religion. ⇒ See Single God Religions (Monotheism).

New Religious Movements (NRMs): This is a loosely used term to describe religions that have arisen within the last 100 years or so. But it is often misleading - for example - an Indian guru who is mainstream in his home country who travelled to San Francisco in the 1960s ends up being described as being part of a new religious movement, even though he represents ancient religion. NRMs are largely defined by context. ⇒ See: Counter-Cultural and Alternative New Religious Movements.

Non-religious: People who have no engagement with religion. Their beliefs are derived from education, culture and family. ⇒ See Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?.

"People of the Book" is a phrase that refers to Judaism, Christianity and Islam because they share a similar set of ancient Mesopotamian stories which became codified into books (the Torah, the Bible and the Qur'an that became considered to be divine. ⇒ See Single God Religions (Monotheism).

Polytheism: Belief systems that have many Gods. Hinduism, Roman Religions, Wicca, most types of Paganism and old Semite religions are polytheist.

Religion: Religions are shared collections of transcendental beliefs that have been passed on from believers to converts, that are held by adherents to be actively meaningful and serious and either based on (1) a formally documented doctrine (organized religion) or (2) the established cultural practices of a non-literate nation (folk religion).

Sect: An established religion that has not yet come to be called a denomination. Quite a good definition has been given by Moojan Momen: "A religion must have the capability of satisfying the religious needs of a wide variety of types of mind, while a sect only appeals to a narrow range of religious outlooks"3. It has proven impossible to come to agreement about where the boundaries lay between sects, denominations, and religions, and how the term is used depending on locale. Many sociologists now teach that the term sect should be abandoned4.

Scholarly Religion also called clerical, official2, professional, top-down, intellectual2, and theological. The religion of the academics and scholars who devote time to studying it and is often quite radically different to the religion of the masses. In Hinduism: shastrik. Antonym: cultural religion. ⇒ See Cultural Religion Versus Scholarly Religion.

Secular means without religion. Non-religious people lead secular lives. Secular government runs along rational and humanistic lines. This is the norm in democratic countries. The individuals that make up the government are rightly free to have whatever religion they want, as are the populace. Because of this freedom, in a multicultural world, there is a requirement for governments not to cause resentment or divisions by identifying itself with a particular religion. The most well-known phrase proposing secular democracy as an ideal is Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" [paraphrased]. ⇒ See Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?.

Secularism, promoted by secularists, is the belief that religion should be a private, personal, voluntary affair that does not impose upon other people. Public spaces and officialdom should therefore be religion-neutral. Secularism ensures that religions are treated fairly and that no bias exists for a particular religion, and also that non-religious folk such as Humanists are treated with equal respect. It is the only democratic way to proceed in a globalized world where populations are free to choose their own, varied, religions. ⇒ See Secularism.

Secularisation is the process of things becoming more secular. Most of the Western world has seen this paradigm come to dominate politics and civil life, starting from the time of the Enlightenment. For example in 1864 the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) published a document as a hostile response to fledging secularisation, as growing tolerance for other religions and the growing power of democracy was challenging the RCC's power to implement its doctrine in the countries of Europe5. Thus as the world develops morally and tolerance and public equality come to the fore, religion, because it causes issues, retreats from the public sphere as people prefer to meet on neutral terms, in peace. ⇒ See Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?.

Secularisation Theory is the theory in sociology that as society advances in modernity, religion retreats. Intellectual and scientific developments have undermined the spiritual, supernatural, superstitious and paranormal ideas on which religion relies for its legitimacy. Therefore, religion becomes more and more "hollow", surviving for a while on empty until loss of active membership forces them into obscurity. The evidences and shortcomings of this theory are discussed later in this text. ⇒ See Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?.

Theism: Belief systems that have gods, including those that just have one god (monotheism) and those that have many (polytheism). ⇒ See Single God Religions (Monotheism).

World-affirming, world-renouncing and world-transforming. These groupings were devised by J. Milton Yinger in his book Religion, Society and the Individual (1957)6. Sociologist Roy Wallis in 1984 revamped it and called the last category "world-accommodating"7. World-affirming religions embrace the world and work with it. World-renouncing ones hate it and fight against it, often withdrawing into tightly run socially secluded communities. World-accommodating largely describe mainstream social religions. ⇒ For more detail, see my analysis of how these terms apply to one particular alternative religion: Satanism is a World-Affirming Religion, not a World-Renouncing One.

By Vexen Crabtree 2014 Dec 16
Parent page: Human Religions

References: (What's this?)

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Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer
(1997) Religions of the World. Subtitled "The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, & Festivals". By Elizabeth Breuilly, Joanne O'Brien & Martin Palmer. Hardback. Published for Transedition Limited and Fernleigh Books by Lionheart Books.

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. First published 2009.

Dawson, Lorne L.. Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
(2011) Church-Sect-Cult: Constructing Typologies of Religious Groups. This essay is chapter 29 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages p525-544).

Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
(1881) History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. 8th edition published by D. Appleston and Co, New York. Digital version accessed via Amazon.co.uk.

Hinnells, John R.. Currently professor of theology at Liverpool Hope University.
(1997, Ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. References to this book simply state the title of the entry used. First published 1984. Published by Penguin Books, London, UK

James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Subtitled "A Study in Human Nature". From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902, first Edition printed 1960. Quotes from fifth edition, 1971, Collins and from Amazon digital Kindle version of the 2015 Xist Publishing edition. [Book Review]

Momen, Moojan
(1999) The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach. Published by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. [Book Review]

Partridge, Christopher
(2004, Ed.) Encyclopedia of New Religions. Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.

Pearson, Joanne
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Published by Ashgate, Aldershot, UK and The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.


  1. Breuilly, O'Brien & Palmer (1997) Introduction p6.^
  2. The Penguin Dictionary of Religions entry for Popular Religion. Hinnells (1997).^
  3. Momen (1999) p41.^
  4. Dawson (2011).^
  5. The Encyclical Letter published by the Roman Catholic Church dated 1864 Dec 08 was a reaction against tolerance for other religons and against the rising power of democracy, which was threatening the RCC's ability to enforce its doctrine in the countries of Europe. "It was drawn up by learned ecclesiastics, and subsequently debated at the Congregation of the Holy Office, then forwarded to prelates, and finally gone over by the pope and cardinals". Commentary and quotes obtained from Draper (1881) p332-333.^
  6. In "The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach" by Moojan Momen (1999) [Book Review] p74. "J. Milton Yinger, on the other hand, in his book Religion, Society and the Individual (1957), described those sects that refused to accommodate themselves to the world, and indeed reinforced their opposition to it. These he called the 'established sects' (for example the Amish, Hutterites, and the Jehovah's Witnesses). Yinger also suggested subdividing sects into three categories: world-accepting, world-transforming, and world-rejecting. This categorization is not very different from that of Bryan Wilson (see 'An Analysis of Sect Development', 1959)".^
  7. Partridge (2004) p22.^

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