The Facts


new internationalist
issue 155 | January 1986

[image, unknown]

Basics of belief
Religious myths, symbols and traditions affect all our lives,
whether or not we think of ourselves as religious. Here we look
at the major global faiths and outline some current trends.

[image, unknown]
Photo: Camera Press


The active churchgoing population in the West has been declining steadily since the end of World War II.

Active churchgoers as a
% of population.

1940 - 85

[image, unknown]

1939 - 84
[image, unknown]


While mainstream churches have been losing ground, fundamentalist Protestant sects like the pentecostals have been booming in numbers, both in the Third World and in the West.

  • There are over ten million fundamentalist and nearly the same number of pentecostal church members in the US alone. Meanwhile, the mainstream US churches have lost 4.6 million members since1965.

  • In 1900 there were only 50,000 Protestants in Latin America. Today there are over20 million, 70% of whom are pentecostals. The largest is the Assemblies of God in Brazil with nearly 6 million members.

[image, unknown] MISSIONARY ZEAL

  • Despite the Victorian image of ‘the missionary’, the total number of Christian workers sent abroad has increased more than fourfold since 1900, keeping pace with world population which has increased at almost the same rate.

  • The total number of North American Protestant missionaries jumped from 34,460 in 1 969 to 53,494 ten years later - an increase of 50%.


Definitions of key religious concepts

Photo: Dexter Tiranti Religion

Defining religion is a bit like trying to define faith. But for our purposes a religion is a set of personal and social beliefs which have two main characteristics: a deep concern with the ultimate meaning of human existence: and an identification with a supernatural power beyond the limits of the human and natural worlds.

An intellectual position, often vigorously argued, that there are no higher authorities than human beings. There are no gods or ways of explaining human life other than rational, scientific inquiry.

A kind of atheism for fence-sitters. Agnostics believe nothing can be known about the existence of god. Since humans are finite beings we can know nothing definite about the infinite. What is important is the here and now.

A fairly recent concept linked to the eruption of capitalism and the scientific method in 18th century Britain. Secularists are either non-believers or dis-believers. Their concern is with human life in the present world (saeculum in Latin) and so they are often called 'secular humanists'.

Monotheism and Polytheism
From the root word 'theism', the belief in a god or supernatural being. Monotheistic religion is based on one supreme being (Christianity, Islam or Judaism) and polytheistic religion posits different gods with varying degrees of power - for example the ancient religions of Egypt or Rome.

The name given to traditional tribal religions (from the Latin root 'anima' which means breath or spirit). Animist faith contends that divine creative power manifests itself in the physical world humans inhabit Winds, rivers, mountains, rain, fire and animals all contain spiritual aspects of the Divine.


The world’s major religions have been part of human history for thousands of years, though two of today’s most powerful monotheistic faiths (Christianity and Islam) are amongst the newest.

Historical Development of World Religions (2500 BC - 2000 AD)

[image, unknown]


The Christian faith that European colonizers took to the South now has a majority of Third World believers. This is the most significant event in Christian church history since Jesus died on the cross nearly 2,000 years ago.

Percentage of white and non-white Christians 1900 - 2000 (est.)

[image, unknown]


As a result of population growth and proselytizing all major world religions have grown rapidly in the developing world over the last century. Traditional tribal religions have been pushed aside by other more aggressive faiths.

Growth of Major Religions in Africa, Latin America and Asia 1900 - 1985 (millions).

[image, unknown]

Previous page.
Choose another issue of NI.
Go to the contents page.
Go to the NI home page.
Next page.

Subscribe   Ethical Shop