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The Great Grab Bag: Religious Diversity and Its Implications

By Barrett Evans ~

There’s no subject on which there is more difference of opinion among both the learned and the ignorant. But in this medley of conflicting opinions one thing is certain. Though it is possible that all of them are false, it is impossible that more than one of them is true. —Cicero (106-43 BC), The Nature of the Gods

Confidence in religious belief begs to be reconsidered when the sheer diversity of religious thought and practice is understood. While enumeration of the groups, sects, schools, doctrines, gods, scriptures, and practices of religions is inherently imprecise and subject to reclassification, it is nonetheless true that there have been many thousands of religious manifestations with myriads of differing supernatural beliefs positing thousands upon thousands of divinities. Though it is difficult to provide a representative picture of the true scope of this diversity, it has been so broad that it seems fair to say that it has only been restricted, in the words of one psychology of religion text, “by the structure and capacities of the human body and by the outer boundaries of human inventiveness.” While individual believers are often called to confidence or even certainty in specific religious beliefs or expressions, the innumerable variety of choices would seem to render the likelihood of reliable, comprehensive religious opinions as statistically negligible—even assuming that one of the options was known to be correct.

What follows is a somewhat eclectic list of facts and numbers which help quantify the incomprehensibly vast and complex religious alternatives that have been part of human religious experience:

  • 0—There are multitudes of religions and sects that have appeared and thrived only to eventually lose all their adherents. Among the many dead world religions are the ancient Greek, Scythian, Babylonian, Hittite, Norse, Mithraic, and Celtic religions. One interesting defunct Christian group is the Messalians, a Trinitarian sect that eschewed the sacraments, devoted themselves assiduously to prayer, and existed from the fourth to perhaps the ninth century. From the Protestant tradition, one quirky example is the Muggletonians, a non-Trinitarian sect from England that lasted from 1652 to 1979.  
  • 2—A schism in Jainism between the Digambaras (sky-clad) and the Shvetambaras (white-clad) focused on whether it was permissible for monks to wear clothes and which scriptures were authentic. Two major historical sects within Zoroastrianism were Zurvanism and Mazdakism. 
  • 3—The Donatist Church of North Africa, which held that salvation was only possible within its fold, had at least three schisms: the Maximianists, the Rogatists, and the Claudianists. Not an insignificant sect, as many as 310 Donatist bishops gathered to denounce the Maximianist subsect in 394. 
  • 5—The Digambara Jains are divided into at least five subsects—Bisapantha, Terapantha, Taranapantha, Gumanapantha, and Totapantha. The ancient Sumerians had a great number of gods—but the five chief among them were the sky-god An, air-god Enlil, water-god Enki, mother-goddess Inanna, and her consort Dummuzi. 
  • 7—Though frequently described as monotheistic, Zoroastrianism has a group of seven lesser or derivative divine beings known as the Heptad or the amesha spentas. There are seven general categories of texts in the immense Hindu canon of Scripture: Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Epics, Sutras, and Puranas. 
  • 8—Ancient Egyptians had a large pantheon of gods that included these eight: Anubis (the jackal-headed god), Horus (the falcon-headed god), Thoth (the ibis-god), Amon-Re (the sun-god), Osiris (a god of vegetation), Set (Osiris’ step-brother), Isis (the wife of Osiris), and the Pharaohs. The Baha’i religion, traditionally believed to be founded in 1844, believes in the following eight prophets or “Manifestations of God”: Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and Baha’u’llah (1817-1892). 
  • 13—There are thirteen main sects in “sectarian” Shinto. Dozens of movements have emerged from these thirteen forms. Some examples are the ascetical Shugendo, the Urabe, the Watarai, the Confucian-oriented Yoshikawa, Kurozumi-kyo, Suiga, Sanno-ichijitsu, and Minkan. 
  • 14—According to one enumeration, there were at least fourteen creeds created during the 4th-century Arian controversies in the Catholic Church. These include not only the original Nicene Creed, but also four different creeds of Sirmium and four different creeds of Antioch. One creed with Arian tendencies was known as the “Blasphemy of Sirmium” by its detractors. 
  • 16—There have been many different Sikh sects and movements including the following sixteen: Khalsa, Sanatan, Namdharis, Nirmalas, Udasis, Seva-panthis, Asali Nirankaris, Nakali Nirankaris, Radnasoamis of Beas, Sahaj-dharis, Nihangs, Bhai Randhir Singh da Jatha, Damdami Taksal, Sikh Dharma of the Western Hemisphere, Sant Nirankari Movement, and various Sant movements. 
  • 18—The traditional number of original Buddhist sects numbered eighteen. Only the Theravada school remains out of these original groups. Mahayana Buddhism was a later development—and there are now a vast variety of sects and communities in Mahayana Buddhism which include the major groupings of Pure Land, Tantric, and Zen schools. 
  • 19—Baylor University’s Baptist Studies Center for Research notes 19 different classifications of American Baptists (although there are certainly more). Theological differences include the predestinarian beliefs of Primitive Baptists, the Sabbatarian views of Seventh Day Baptists, progressive gender and sexuality beliefs of the Alliance of Baptists, the charismatic leanings of the Pentecostal Free Will Baptist Church, and the civil rights focus of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. 
  • 21—The Roman Catholic Church recognizes 21 Ecumenical Councils. (The Eastern Orthodox recognize seven, Oriental Orthodox three, and Assyrian Church of the East only one.) There are 21 “main groups” or denominations of Amish and Mennonites in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. 
  • 24—The Talmud describes 24 competing Jewish sects. 
  • Dozens—There have been dozens of Taoist schools and sects over the centuries. Among these are the Celestial Masters school, the Perfect Realization school, the Great Purity School, the Ling Bao, Heavenly Mind, Divine Highest Heaven, Great Oneness Taoism, the Five Pecks of Rice sect, the Sacred Jewel sect, the Heavenly Masters sect, the Highest Pure sect, and many other groups collectively described as Spirit Cloud Taoists. 
  • 33—There numbered 33 gods in early Vedic Hinduism. Among these were Indra (warrior and storm god), Agni (fire god), and Varuna (sky and water god). Modern Hinduism posits thousands of deities—although some conceptions of the faith describe it as monotheistic. 
  • 40—A bronze model of a sheep’s liver made by the Etruscans, known as the liver of Piacenza, is divided into forty regions—each one belonging to a different god. The number of Sufi orders has been traditionally numbered at 
  • 40—although there are certainly more. There are also approximately 40 different types of Amish affiliations. 
  • 46—Scholar Yu-hsui Ku (1902-2002) noted 46 sects of Zen Buddhists in Japan. 
  • 70+—Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111) noted that there were “seventy-odd sects” in Islam, but only one would be saved. The two main divisions in Islam are the Shiites and Sunnis. Shia or Shiite Muslims have multiple groupings and subgroupings such as the “Fivers” (Zaydis), “Seveners” (Ismailis), and “Twelvers” (Imami). Sufis, typically regarded as the mystics of Islam, have often been at odds both theologically and devotionally with their stricter and more legalistic co-religionists; however, they have operated in the bounds of both the Shiite and Sunni umbrellas. Other Islamic groups have included the Kharijites (which at one point were divided into as many as 20 different groups), Ahmadis (who believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was the Mahdi and Messiah), black Muslim groups in the United States like the “Nation of Islam,” Quranists (who reject the hadith), Khubmesihis (who thought that Jesus was more important than Muhammad), Qadarites (who believe in free will), and the more rationalist Mu’tazilites. There are also various believers who have been more influenced by Western values who term themselves "Progressive Muslims.” According to one religion text, there have been “literally thousands of sectarian groups” within the general confines of Islam
  • 80—Church father Epiphanius (c.315-403) cites 80 different types of heresies in his Panarion. In his 1864 Syllabus of Errors, Pope Pius IX outlined a series of 80 errors and heresies pertaining to modern liberal ideas and philosophies (like freedom of religion and the press). Interestingly, some of these claimed errors appear to be embraced in the teachings of the Vatican II Council (1962-1965). 
  • 100—Baha’u’llah (1817-1892) produced over 100 volumes of scripture that Baha’is regard as sacred. 1
  • 100+— There are perhaps 100 to 200 Presbyterian denominations in Korea alone. Controversies related to Shintoism, theological liberalism, ecumenism, and clergy corruption have all apparently contributed to the schisms. 
  • 103—According to Liu Xiang (77-6 BCE), there were 103 Confucian schools of thought in the 1st century BCE. 
  • 112—The Hindu Scriptures known as the Upanishads are about 112 in number. If all the known Upanishads were gathered together, they would be about as long as the Bible. 
  • 128—In the fourth century, the bishop Filastrius of Brescia catalogued 128 heretical groups.
  • Hundreds—There are “literally hundreds” of small, independent sacramental groups in the United States that have branched off from Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communions—and that show a variety of traditionalist, feminist, New Age, Quaker, Gnostic, Protestant, charismatic, and other influences. There are also hundreds of “Cargo Cults” in Micronesia which frequently contain beliefs that “spiritual agents will, at some future time, bless the believers with material prosperity (which, in turn, will usher in an era of peace and harmony).” Perhaps the most famous cargo cult is that of John Frum, whose adherents build faux landing strips in hopes of being blessed with material goods. 
  • 370—Although some could be variant names for the same deities, there are over 370 known names of Celtic gods and goddesses. 
  • 400—The Mormons have had at least 400 different denominational groups since 1830. The five most prominent of these are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (main or Brighamite group), Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites), Church of Christ (Temple Lot), Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Strangites), and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or Community of Christ (organized by Joseph Smith’s son, Joseph Smith, Jr.). 
  • 401—There are 401 Orishas or gods in the myths of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. 
  • 1,500—The Taoist canon known as the Daozang is comprised of approximately 1,500 separate works. 
  • 2,290—Not to be confused with the lengthy Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism or the extensive Tibetan Buddhist Canon, the immense Chinese Mahayana Buddhist Canon, commonly called the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō, contains literally thousands of works. 
  • 10,000—According to the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia, there are “at least 10,000 distinct and different religions” currently in existence. 
  • 36,000—The ancient Chinese concluded that 36,000 gods dwelled in the human body. 
  • 47,000—According to a 2019 report from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, there are currently 45,000 Christian denominations in existence and there will likely be 64,000 by 2050. 
  • 8 million—Traditionally, Japanese believers have claimed that there are 8 million Kami, or divine beings of Shintoism. 
  • Countless/uncountable—There are innumerable Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhist belief—among the most popular are Amitabha, the future “messiah” figure Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara, Samantabhadra, and Mañjuśrī. Traditional African religions and Chinese folk religions posit so many gods that they are difficult to even count.

These types of religious facts demonstrate that all people—albeit in differing degrees and in different ways—have religious doubts. Even those who are very religiously or supernaturally inclined could of course not accept all the religious ideas and perceptions stated or implied by such information—in part because many aspects of different religions are distinct, discordant, or even flatly contradictory. And while broader and more ecumenical perspectives endeavor to be more inclusive, they not only lack uniformity among themselves, but are also necessarily at odds with multitudes of more narrow approaches that deny such liberality. In other words, a significant degree of religious doubt is a universal human trait. So, while doubting specific religious teachings can at times make one feel like an outsider in a particular community, it is helpful to remember how natural and even inevitable religious doubt is to the human experience. The famous words of Enlightenment philosopher and author Voltaire (1694-1778) seem to provide a proper perspective on this perennial human struggle: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is an absurd one.


Author blurb: A former Protestant seminarian and ex-Roman Catholic, Barrett Evans is now skeptical of traditional dogmas but retains a fascination with certain non-supernatural aspects of spirituality. For more meditations combining spirituality and skepticism (and for further sources for this meditation), see his book The Contemplative Skeptic: Spirituality for the Non-Religious and the Unorthodox. You can follow him on Twitter at @ContemplativeS4.