Classification of Religions

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CLASSIFICATION OF RELIGIONS is necessitated by the diversity, complexity, and greatly increased knowledge of religions and by the development of the scientific study of religion during the past hundred years. The student of religion seeks to find or bring some system of intelligibility to the manifold expressions of religious experience, not only to make the data manageable but to discern common characteristics by which religions and religious phenomena can be grouped together and compared with or distinguished from others. Basically, there are two kinds of classification. One orders historical religions in terms of their similarities and differences; the other orders religious phenomena into categories (e.g., sacrifice, purification, rites of passage).

Early Modern Classification Schemes

The work of F. Max Müller (18231900), the father of the comparative study of religions, gave impetus to the classification of religion. Primarily a linguist, Müller used his philological method as a model for the comparative study of religions and the classification of religions along racial-genetic lines. In his view, racial, linguistic, and religious "families" (Aryan, Semitic, and Turanian) coincided. Language provided the primary evidence for this coincidence.

The Dutch scholar C. P. Tiele (18301902), one of the founders of the scientific study of religion and a contemporary of Müller, also gave particular attention to the classification of religions. Tiele was impressed by the moral and ethical qualities he found in religions. He saw these qualities as expressions of a "religious idea" that had evolved in the course of history. He distinguished between "nature religions" and "ethical religions." The former were those in which ethical elements were either absent or, at most, minimally present. These religions included polyzoic naturalism (a belief that all nature is endowed with life), polydemonistic-magical religions (animism), therianthropic polytheism (gods in the form of animals), and anthropomorphic polytheism (gods in the form of men). The ethical religions ("spiritualistic ethical religions of revelation") were divided into two categories: natural nomistic (legalistic) religious communions (including Daoism, Confucianism, Brahmanism, and Judaism) and universalistic religious communions (Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam). Of the former category Judaism was considered transitional in the direction of universalistic religions. To the latter category only Buddhism and Christianity fully belong, for Islam is thought to retain some particularistic and nomistic elements.

Tiele's emphasis on the ethical as a new and decisive religious element came to be used frequently in distinguishing the "higher" from the "lower" religions. While it is true that the monotheistic religions emphasize ethics and morality, it is not the case that a concern for morality is absent in so-called primitive religions. The judgment of Tiele and others of his time, and the classifications based on it, reflected prejudices concerning "primitive" peoples.

Types of Classification

Some classifications of religions are extraordinarily broad, the broadest being binary or bipartite. Familiar bipartite classifications give such contrasting pairs as true-false, natural-revealed, literate-preliterate, Eastern-Western, and Christiannon-Christian. The most obvious difficulty with such broad classifications is that they do not distinguish sufficiently to do justice to the diversity and complexity of the religious world.

Normative classification

The most common type of classification, historically, has been normative. Religions have been classified according to the norms or standards of the classifiers. Typically, these norms were religiously, culturally, and historically conditioned, if not derived, and tended to be subjective and arbitrary.

A persistent binary normative classification has been the division of religions in relation to "truth," yielding the two categories: "true religion" and "false religion." This division has appeared frequently among the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) but has not been limited to them. Normative classifications do not increase understanding.

The use of normative classification by Christians goes back at least to the church fathers. It arose in the context of the religious competition of the early centuries, a time of great religious ferment and rivalry, to meet the needs of Christian apologetics. Thus, for example, other religions were said to exist as the result of divine condescension to the needs and weaknesses of humans and no longer had any validity after the appearance of Christianity. Judaism with its Torah, it was said, had been a "schoolmaster" preparing its adherents for the coming of the Gospel, and the other religions were merely imperfect copies of the true religion, plagiarisms at best.

Other Christian classifications of religions originated in the Middle Ages, and received a status that they retained in large measure through the magisterial authority of Thomas Aquinas (12251274). Thomas taught a basic distinction between natural religion and revealed religion, the former based on religious truth that can be known through the use of reason itself and the latter on divinely revealed truth. This distinction coincides in part with the distinction between religions based on "general revelation" and those based on "special revelation."

Protestantism has also provided various binary classifications of religions. Examples from the Reformation include Martin Luther's norm of justification by faith and John Calvin's sola gratia; a later instance is the distinction between "heathen religions" and the Christian religion, commonly made at the beginnings of the Protestant missionary movement.

Less obviously normative are classifications of religions that are ostensibly scientific, particularly those classifications based on theories about the origin and development of religion that appeared during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The theory that enjoyed the greatest vogue, E. B. Tylor's "animism," argued that the earliest form of religion was based on belief in anima or souls, spiritual entities capable of separation from the body. Tylor theorized that this primitive belief was based on certain real but misinterpreted universal human experiences (sleep, dreams, trances, hallucinations, and death). He admitted, however, that religion as it is found in the world is more than this, for everywhere it has undergone development. It evolves through various stages, which Tylor tried to sketch out, thereby accounting for the various kinds of theism, including polytheism and monotheism.

The theories of Tylor and others who developed evolutionary schemes typically postulated not neutral stages but scales having normative significance. Evolution was seen as a movement from simple, rudimentary, indeed crude, beginnings, through successive stages, each exhibiting increasing complexity, toward completion and perfection. "Earlier" meant lower and inferior; "later" meant higher and superior. Chronology was given valuative meaning. Not surprisingly, monotheism was seen as the highest religious stage yet attained. Each religion could be distinguished and classified in terms of its place on the scale, the several great monotheisms coming at the top. At the same time, one could reveal the "primitive" foundations and beginnings of all religions, including the highest. The evolutionists, like the later Freudians, believed they could disclose the secret that lay at the beginning. Moreover, they assumed that the nature, the essence of religion, is identical with its origin.

Geographical classification

Geography has been a ready means of classification of religions, especially since many religions and types of religion can be observed to belong exclusively or mainly to certain geographical areas. Again, simply binary classifications have appeared, the most common being "Eastern religions" and "Western religions." Often "Western" means Judaism and Christianity (religions of "Near Eastern" origin, actually), with Islam conveniently forgotten by many classifiers. "Eastern" or "Asian" may mean India and China and the lands under their cultural and religious influence. This simple bipartite division not only groups together religions (especially those of the "East") which differ greatly from one another, but omits important areas of the world and their religions.

The actual geographical distribution of some of the major religions renders problematic classification by geographical distribution. Some, for example Christianity, may be found in most regions of the world, although the proportion of adherents to the general population will vary widely. In this regard Islam is a particularly difficult case. Originating in the Near East, it quickly became a religion of wide geographical distribution, generating the "Islamic world," a great band stretching at least from Morocco in the West to Indonesia in the East, with important communities in the North (the Soviet Union and China) and South (sub-Saharan Africa). The fact that some religions have become virtually extinct in the lands of their origins (e.g., Indian Buddhism) also complicates geographical classification.

Further, it is difficult to stay simply with geographical criteria. Many textbooks on "comparative religion" (under such titles as Religions of the World and Religions of Mankind) combine the geographical and the historical in their outlines, utilizing such headings as "Religions of Middle Eastern Origin," "Religions of Ancient Rome," and "Religion in the Islamic World" as well as headings of purely geographical designation (e.g., "Religions of the Indian Subcontinent"). Such textbooks tend to leave out some important geographical regions. They may present religions of India, the Near East, the Far East, and perhaps religions of Greece and Rome. They are much less likely to include African religions and the religions of the Amerindians and the Pacific islands peoples.

Geography appears at first to afford the possibility of a convenient, intelligible, neutral classification of religions but turns out not to do so. In any case, its value is doubtful, for the significance of geographical considerations, especially on a large scale, is minimal for the understanding of particular religions and groups of religions, recent studies in the ecology of religion notwithstanding.

Philosophical Classification

The philosophical consideration of religions led in the modern period to some attempts in the West to classify religions on a philosophical rather than a theological or geographical basis. Perhaps the most wide-ranging and best-known effort is that of the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (17701831), especially in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1832). Briefly, Hegel saw religions in relation to the dialectical movement of the whole of human history toward the ultimate realization of freedom. He envisioned a vast scheme of evolution in which Spirit progressively realizes itself through the ongoing dialectical process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

Hegel classified religions in terms of the stages they represent in the progressive self-realization of Spirit. Contrasting self and nature, he considered as the lowest level of religion the religions of nature. In these religions humans are completely immersed in nature and have only such consciousness as derives from sense experience. A higher stage of religion is represented, according to Hegel, by those religions in which humans have begun to emerge from nature and become conscious in their individuality. Specifically, this stage is represented by Greek and Roman religions and Judaism. The highest stage of religion is that in which the opposites of nature and individuality are transcended in the realization of what Hegel called Absolute Spirit. This is the level of Absolute Religion, which he did not hesitate to identify with Christianity.

Hegel's general scheme, as well as his classification of religions, has been criticized for its assumption that human history exhibits continuous progress. Further, Hegel's classification of religions is value-laden, most obviously in its claim that the Christian religion is the absolute religion. One sees again that normativeness is not the sole preserve of theologians.

A somewhat different philosophical approach to classification is found in the work of another nineteenth-century German thinker, Otto Pfleiderer (18391908), especially in his Die Religion, ihr Wesen und ihre Geschichte, 2 vols. (1869). Pfleiderer's approach focused upon the essence (Wesen ) of religion. In his view, the essence is found in two elements, freedom and dependence, which are variously interrelated in the religious consciousness generally and in specific historical religions. Some religions (e.g., Egyptian and ancient Semitic religions) emphasize the religious sense of dependence, whereas other religions (e.g., the religions of the Aryans, Greeks, and Romans) stress the opposite pole, freedom. Still other religions clearly contain both elements but in unequal proportion (Brahmanism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism). In Pfleiderer's view the highest manifestation of religion is one in which the two elements, freedom and dependence, are in equilibrium, reconciled in an ultimate harmony. This possibility he believed is found only in the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The possibility is fully realized, however, only in Christianity, for Islam is still inclined toward dependence and Judaism toward freedom. Here again a Western Christian thinker's classification of religions is used as a means of affirming the religious superiority of Christianity.

Phenomenology of religion

The term phenomenology can mean several things. It can refer to the twentieth-century philosophical school initially associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl, and later with Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur, and others. In this sense it is phenomenological philosophy devoted to the study of religion. However, the term phenomenology of religion refers to the application of phenomenological methods to the study of the history of religions, as, for example, by W. Brede Kristensen, Gerardus van der Leeuw, C. Jouco Bleeker, and Mircea Eliade. In the hands of these scholars phenomenology is less a philosophy than a method for the study of religions.

The interest of phenomenologists of religion is in the classification of religious phenomena that are not limited or specific to a particular historical religion but cross the religious lines. For example, the phenomenologist of religion is interested in such categories as rites of sacrifice, myths of origin, and fertility deities. Further, phenomenologists seek to discern the "meaning" of religious phenomena in a nonreductionistic and nonnormative manner, believing that the phenomena will disclose their meanings to those who approach them "phenomenologically," that is, in a disciplined but open and nonprejudicial way.

W. Brede Kristensen (18671953), a Dutch scholar of Norwegian origin and a pioneer of phenomenology of religion, understood phenomenology as a new method of organizing data in the study of religion. One could, of course, organize the data historically or geographically as had been done in the past. But one could also organize data phenomenologically, in which case one would attempt to discern common themes and to describe the meanings of these themes among religions, regardless of their historical tradition or geographical location. Ultimately, one seeks the essence of the religious phenomena. In The Meaning of Religion (1960), Kristensen described the task of phenomenology of religion as that of classifying and grouping the divergent data of religion in such a way that one may obtain an overall view of their religious content and the religious values therein. The phenomena should be grouped according to characteristics that correspond to the essential and typical elements of religion. Kristensen classified the subjects of the phenomenology of religion into three broad groups: religious cosmology (the world), religious anthropology (humans), and cultus (acts of worship). Within their scope he was able to treat such specific phenomena as the worship of earth gods, conceptions of the soul, and ritual purifications.

Another Dutch phenomenologist of religion was Gerardus van der Leeuw (18901950), whose Religion in Essence and Manifestation (Phänomenologie der Religion, 1933) is considered a classic. His broadest phenomenological categories were the object of religion (which he analyzed in terms of power and the forms of power), the subject of religion (sacred man and community), and object and subject in reciprocal operation. Using these categories, he was able to classify and interpret an impressive number and variety of specific religious phenomena: sacred stones and trees, demons, priests, saints, sects, souls, sacrifices, taboo, sacred times and spaces, festivals, myth, mysticism, faith, and many others.

Unlike Kristensen, van der Leeuw gave some attention to "religions" (i.e., historical religious wholes), quoting Heinrich Frick's assertion that "religion actually exists only in religions." His classification was twelvefold. It was, however, curious and mixed, for it included not only historical religions but types of religion without specific historical form, and forms of religious dynamic. Specifically, van der Leeuw distinguished eight historical forms of religion: (1) religion of remoteness and flight (Confucianism and eighteenth-century Deism); (2) religion of struggle (Zoroastrian dualism); (3) religion of strain and form (Greek religion); (4) religion of infinity and asceticism (Indian religion, especially Hinduism); (5) religion of nothingness and compassion (Buddhism); (6) religion of will and obedience (Jewish religion); (7) religion of majesty and humility (Islam); and (8) religion of love (Christianity). To these forms he added religion of repose and religion of unrest. The former he associated with mysticism and the latter with theism. Both are elements in historical religions but have no proper historical form of their own. Finally, van der Leeuw distinguished two forms of the "dynamic of religions." One manifests itself by syncretism and mission, the other by revivals and reformations.

The usual criticism of phenomenology of religion, including its classifications, whether of phenomena or historical religions, is that it is not sufficiently historical. While phenomenologists of religion often begin with the historical data and seek to understand the data "historically," at least initially, the tendency is often toward abstraction, and then toward reification of these "forms" of religious dynamic, with the result that the phenomenologist's attention is drawn away from the religions in their historical particularity.

Recent Attempts at Classification

The enterprise of classifying religions is no longer in vogue. It is not often that one finds students of religion devoting their energies to this task. While the need to order data continues, other reasons that encouraged classification have diminished. As intimated above, one reason for classification has been to provide a framework for the assertion of the superiority of Christianity. That motive, whether consciously or unconsciously held, has faded. Another reason was directly connected with the vogue of evolutionism, for it encouraged and facilitated classification in terms of religious stages. That, too, has declined.

Nevertheless, there have been some recent attempts to classify religions. Illustratively, attention may be called to three. The sociologist of religion, Robert N. Bellah, has sought to construct an evolutionary interpretation of religion. In an essay titled Religious Evolution (1964) he proposed a sequence of five ideal typical stages of development: primitive, archaic, historic, early modern, and modern. These stages are examined in terms of their religious symbol systems, religious actions, religious organizations, and social implications. He maintains that the symbol systems have evolved from the simple to the complex. Also, religious collectivities have become progressively differentiated from other social structures. Finally, beginning with the historic stage, the consciousness of the self as a religious subject has increasingly developed. Religious evolution is thus seen as a process of differentiation and development that can best be understood historically and sociologically.

The influential and prolific historian of religions Mircea Eliade has delineated two fundamentally different religious orientations: cosmic and historical. The former is the principal topic of The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949). It is the type of orientation characteristic of so-called primitive and archaic religions and, in fact, of all "traditional" religion. Cosmic orientation is distinguished by its experience and conception of time (as cyclical and reversible). Sacred time is mythical, not historical. History is deprecated in favor of transcendental models provided by myth. By means of return to the powerfully creative, mythical time of origins, humans are enabled to overcome the deleterious effects of ordinary, profane time. Moreover, the objects and structures of the world ("nature") are means by which the sacred manifests itself ("hierophanies"). In striking contrast to the cosmic religious orientation, with its distinctive ontology, is the historical religious orientation. It, too, involves a conception of time. Time is linear, chronological, historical. It is irreversible, and historical events are unique (not typical, as in cosmic time). History is affirmed, for it is primarily in and through historical events that the sacred manifests itself. Myth is understood as sacred history. In Eliade's view, this second type of religious orientation is characteristic of the monotheismsJudaism, Christianity, and Islamand is largely confined to them. However, even within these religions the contrasting religious orientation makes itself felt, as, for example, in the "cosmic Christianity" of Eastern Europe.

A third recent attempt to classify religions is found in an essay ("Primitive, Classical, and Modern Religions," 1967) by Joseph M. Kitagawa. It relates to both Eliade's and Bellah's classifications. According to Kitagawa, religions can be distinguished by the kinds of religious experience and apprehension characteristic of them. Primitive religion is characterized by an orientation in which the ultimate purpose of life is participation in the creation of "cosmos" out of "chaos" by imitating mythical models. The classical religions, which include the religions of the ancient Near East, Iran, India, the Far East, and the Greco-Roman world, evidence a significant emancipation of logos from muthos. These religions are further marked by a change in man's view of himself no longer is he only a part of natureand by a sophistication and systematization of the theoretical, practical, and sociological expressions of his religious experience.

A completely satisfactory classification of religions continues to elude scholars. Some general requirements for more adequate classification of religions, however, are the following. First, the classification should be comprehensive, that is, inclusive ideally of all religions. Second, the classification should be objective and descriptive, not subjective and normative. Third, the effort should be made to do justice to particular religions and to avoid misrepresenting or caricaturing them because of prejudice or the desire to make them fit a particular scheme of classification. Fourth, judgments should be made in order to distinguish what is essential or fundamental in religions from what is accidental or incidental. Fifth, one should be alert equally to similarities and differences among religions. Finally, it is imperative to recognize that "living religions" are indeed alive and always changing and that "dead religions" have had a history: both, in short, are categories of dynamic entities. This dynamism is one factor that makes the classification of religion an unending task.


Two studies of the problem of classification appeared in the twentieth century. They are Duren J. H. Ward's The Classification of Religions: Different Methods. Their Advantages and Disadvantages (Chicago, 1909) and Fred Louis Parrish's The Classification of Religions: Its Relation to the History of Religions (Scottdale, Pa., 1941). The latter is especially complete and contains a useful bibliography for the study of classification. Additional relevant, though less focused, works include Morris Jastrow's The Study of Religion (1901; reprint, Chino, Calif., 1981), containing chapters on classification; C. P. Tiele's Elements of the Science of Religion, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 18971899), especially the first volume; P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye's Manual of the Science of Religion (London, 1891), which is Beatrice S. Colyer Ferguson's translation of volume 1 of his Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte (1887); Henri Pinard de la Boullaye's L'étude comparée des religions, 2 vols. (Paris, 19221925), especially volume 2, Ses méthodes; F. Max Müller's Introduction to the Science of Religion (London, 1873), a clear presentation of his influential views on the comparative method; and, finally, Gustav Mensching's Die Religion: Erscheinungsformen, Strukturtypen und Lebensgesetze (Stuttgart, 1959), containing a more recent discussion of the classification of religions.

New Sources

Broughton, Vanda. "A New Classification for the Literature of Religion." Paper presented at the 66th IFLA Conference, 2000. Available at http//

Mills, Jack, and Vanda Broughton, eds. Bibliographic Classification: Class P: Religion, The Occult, Morals and Ethics. 2d ed. London, 1997.

Harry B. Partin (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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