Religion is a unified system of beliefs, rituals, and practices that typically involve a broader community of believers who share common definitions of the sacred and the profane. Sacred is the supernatural, divine, awe inspiring, and spiritually significant aspects of our existence. Profane is that which is part of the regular everyday life experience. The definitions originated from Durkheim's studies of religion (see 1947 The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Glencoe Press reprint of 1912). For you, religion might be a personal definition of how you feel about your place in the universe. It may also reflect how you understand categories of people who share a common system of beliefs that differ from your own (Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc.).
For sociologists, religion is typically studied in two typically approaches: first, a cultural approach that evaluates the religious aspects of the culture shared by followers of a certain religion; second, a theoretical approach to religion including its symbols, functions, exchange-based interactions, and power issues. Religion has always been an important issue at both levels of society: personal and larger social. Figure 1 shows a pie chart of the CIA's 2007 estimate of the world's composition of religious followers. By far, Muslims collectively comprise the largest single religious belief system in the world in 2007. Over the last century birthrates among Muslims have remained high. By sheer numbers alone, a high birthrate among an estimated 1,300,000,000 people makes birth become a significant factor in the Muslim world growth rate. A less common factor is that in many Muslim nations polygamy continues to be the norm with 1-4 wives being acceptable.
Figure 1. 2007 Estimation of Percentage of World Religions*
*Taken from Internet on 22 May, 2008 from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html
Next is the Roman Catholic Church which has strong membership in Western Europe, Latin America, the United States and other Countries and regions. Hindus which are primarily located in India come in a close third. Jews which are daily discussed in the news because of international issues pertaining to Israel are ranked 12th most common in the world.
The United State's Religions
Figure 2 shows the CIA estimated US religions for 2007. The collective category of US Protestants is the largest collection of religious belief systems. These include Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and various non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christian denominations. Second in percentage is the Roman Catholic Church. In contrast to the Protestant classification which is comprised of many diverse denominations, the Roman Catholic Christian Church is comprised of only one denomination headquartered in Rome, Italy.
The Roman Catholic population in the US has grown for two primary reasons: first, Roman Catholics continue to have higher birthrates than others (yet about the same for Mormons and Catholics); and second, many of our US immigrants since the 1980s come from Mexico and bring their Catholicism with them to the US. Also from the CIA data is the fact that about 12 percent were unaffiliated, 4 percent reported none, and 3 percent chose not to specify their religion. After that, Mormons were next with nearly 2 percent. Mormons have a very high birthrate and a strong force of proselytizing missionaries throughout the US and the World.
Figure 2. 2007 Estimation of Percentage of United States Religions*
*Taken from Internet on 26 March 2007 from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2122.html
The history of religions in the world and US cannot be overstated in terms of the religiously-motivated treatment and mistreatment of other human beings in the name of religion. Given the peaceful nature of most of the major religions it is paradoxical to have so many: religiously-based wars, genocides, population transfers, conquest, and other forms of large-scale aggression which have transpired throughout history. In the Race and Minority Chapter we learned about prejudice and the goal of finding common ground in building bridges and overcoming prejudices. With religions this is particularly difficult to apply.
Many of us believe very deeply in our religious convictions. We change and alter our lifestyles and desires because we believe that our hope, salvation, or existence will be made better because of our sacrifices. It's understandable that we are deeply devoted and passionate. But, we also tend to believe that we belong to the exclusively right or correct faith and that all others are mistaken and perhaps going to hell. Some religious fanatics believe so strongly in the damnation of non-believers that they feel justified in killing others as an act of so called, "saving other people from themselves." This explains in part the rationale of the religiously-based conflicts in our current and historical experiences.