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June 12, 2010 5:01 AM   Subscribe

What was the world's largest religion before Christianity, and when did Christianity overtake it in size?

I'm also interested in the world's most popular religions before the one before Christianity -- eg, Hinduism was the world's largest religion, until superseded by Buddhism, until superseded by the Roman religion, until superseded by Christianity. What was the progression of religion's heavy hitters? Largest = total number of believers worldwide.
posted by dontjumplarry to Religion & Philosophy (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
(Wild guessing and casual surmising over marmalade on toast gladly accepted, this is not for any scholarly purpose.)
posted by dontjumplarry at 5:08 AM on June 12, 2010

Hinduism was right up there in sheer numbers.
posted by shinybaum at 5:37 AM on June 12, 2010

This is an interesting question and I'm not sure there will be a neat answer; for one thing, in many parts of the world, it's common and normal to "belong to" more than one religion, which could potentially confuse your counting. The second issue is that most of the world's current major religions arose during the "Axial Age" (about 800 BCE to 200 BCE or 200 CE depending on who's counting) ... which while you may or may not accept it as a theory, Buddhism, Greek philosophy, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, and Upanishadic Hinduism did all arise during roughly the same period. Prior to those groups, I think you'll be looking at a lot of ethnic/tribal religions and some imperial religions, but much less separate identification of "religion" and more of an idea of religion-as-part-of-everyday-life-for-our-tribe, which is going to a) confuse your definitions and b) mean you're looking at much much smaller groups.

And then of course you can have a lot of interesting discussions about defining the boundaries of religions, which may not matter much for current and recent definitions, but would definitely matter a lot if you're looking back 2000 years ... and might matter even in the middle ages.

I'm looking forward to people's actual answers, though.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:39 AM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Religion was a lot more fractured, I think. The thing with polytheism is that it's easy to "merge" religions. People wouldn't think "I'm an X and everyone who's !X is crazy!" It's more like "I worship Gods X, Y and Z and these people over there worship A and B" But you wouldn't think that A and B didn't exist.

I suppose there were probably some "Exclusive" religions, but it probably wasn't until Christianity became popular that anyone really had a fixed "religion" and thought That they were right and everyone else was wrong.

The other thing is that, as far as I know a lot of the world didn't have written records yet. Other then the middle east/europe the Chinese had a written language, and Laozi who was an influential Taoist was around in 200 B.C, so you might consider Taoism to be a popular religion. But it was sort of a distillation of ancient Chinese folk metaphysics.

Actually it wouldn't surprise me if there were more Taoism then Christians in the world for a long time after the founding of Christianity. Christianity didn't really spread much beyond Europe until they started colonizing places (did it?). I don't really know that much about Taoism, but in a lot of ways it's more of a philosophy then a religion, although some people take it more religiously then others -- It would be hard to "measure" the number of people who take Taoism as (we would think of it as) a religion and those who just think of it as (we would think of it as) a philosophy.

Confucius, for example, was not very religious.

Would you just count up everyone in China at whatever historical time period who wasn't some other religion as Taoists?
posted by delmoi at 5:46 AM on June 12, 2010

The term "believers" complicates things, as some religions require participants to "believe" (such as Christianity) while others don't (you're living in the Roman Empire = you're in the Roman religion, but that's by nature of your home address, not because anyone convinced you to accept Zeus as your personal savior).
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:48 AM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really don't know but here are some thoughts: before spread of roman empire you'd have the following areas that each had large populations and where the dominant religion would likely have large number of followers: china, india and persian empire. Egypt probably had fewer people but likely more than Hellas (comprising of Greece, Ionia, colonies in Roman area and elsewhere). Religious worship in Mediterranean was definitely interrelated. For example Egyptian god Seth is probably syrian weather-god Baal Zephon. Assyrians worshipped Aphrodite as Aphrodite Mylitta, Arabians - Alitta, persians - Mitra (according to Herodotus, anyway).

There are many examples of this. People would settle in a new area (as mercenaries, slaves or plain settlers) and think "Hey, this god is kind of like our god", and the names, identities and attributes would merge and mix. It depends on whether you count the whole Mediterranean as a loose meta-religion or as separate religions with inter-references. In the former case, you have probably the biggest "religion" right there. If not, it's hard to say if China, India or Persia had largest number of believers.

With the rise of Rome, Roman religion becomes widespread, although they didn't really push it too hard in conquered territories. Now you have these four contending areas. With the rise of Christianity, it soon spread to the East and Africa, establishing some presence in places like China and Mongolia but it did not have large presence in terms of total converts (seems like it was fairly widespread in Mongolia but the total population there wasn't that high to begin with).

You still have the same four areas with high total number of population, up until the rise of Islam, which conquered some areas that were Christian and some that were Hindusitic / Buddhist.

My guess would be that up until Columbus and Da Gama and spread of christian colonizers around the world, there wasn't one clear winner.
posted by rainy at 6:55 AM on June 12, 2010

Evidently Hinduism then Buddhism.
posted by jopreacher at 7:10 AM on June 12, 2010

Pre-literates and children seem to invent animism willy-nilly and have left their relics in various polytheistic pantheons such as Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Catholic, etc.

Depending on how you count there may have been vastly more humans that held animistic sensibilities than anything else. Monotheism is a recent perversion probably no older than - and connected to - the rise of the nation-state.
posted by fydfyd at 7:20 AM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

jopreacher: nice but they go by territory not population numbers, they don't show zoroastrianism or egyptian religions (both with high populations), and some things are inaccurate, for example seems to show Russia becoming christian at about 1500AD vs. ~800-900AD.
posted by rainy at 7:21 AM on June 12, 2010

Isn't the conversion of Constantine generally considered to be Christianity's tipping point, the event that turned it into a dominant religion? What was that, around the 4th century?...googling...Oh, look, Wikipedia has an article on it.
posted by not that girl at 7:37 AM on June 12, 2010

Great responses, looks like the answer is going to be fuzzy for a whole bunch of reasons.

Any thoughts on whether Buddhism or Islam were ever contenders for largest religion?
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:03 AM on June 12, 2010

One more thing to toss in here, to make it even more fuzzy, is that, Muhammad wasn't born until about 570 AD, but Muslims believe that the faith that would become Islam was revealed prior to Muhammad. Indeed, Abraham, Moses and Jesus are all "prophets" in one form or another. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all "people of the book."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:28 AM on June 12, 2010

[few comments removed - please do not turn this into a "Christianity and its wars" question, feel free to ask your own question if you are curious, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 10:44 AM on June 12, 2010

This isn't an area of history I know a ton about, but the Umayyad Caliphate was the largest empire the world has seen up until that point; that would probably be your best bet for Islam as the largest religion, but I don't know if the population of the Umayyad Caliphate was larger than the population of fragmented Christian Europe or not, but wikipedia shows 62 million population in the 7th century (not all Muslim), while "Estimates of total population of Europe are speculative, but at the time of Charlemagne it is thought to be between 25 and 30 million, and of this 15 million were in the Carolingian Empire that covered modern France, the Low Countries, western Germany, Austria, Slovenia, northern Italy and part of northern Spain." (Medieval demography article on Wikipedia.) I think researching into the Umayyad Calphate at its height would probably be your best bet.

Buddhism is and was routinely practiced alongside Taoism and Confucianism in China (The "three jewels" as they're called), so I think you'd have to decide how you were going to count "belief. I'm not sure when the best time to search for the "largest extent" of Buddhism would be, though.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:16 AM on June 12, 2010

Given that there are accounts from the 13th century of Muslim men who traveled from the southernmost points of Africa to the eastern shores of China and considered themselves to never have totally left the Muslim world, I would bet that the numbers of believers at that time in Islam and Christianity were pretty close.
posted by colfax at 12:48 PM on June 12, 2010

The Persian Sassanid Empire, 224-651 CE, was huge (7,400,000 km2 as opposed to Rome at 5,000,000 km2), and Zoroastrianism was made the state religion and false religions were frowned on.

I would guess it was the largest religion in its time.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 3:55 PM on June 12, 2010

Eyebrows McGee's first answer is bang on the money but the second is a bit more questionable. The Umayyad caliphate was indeed very big in area, and by pre-modern standards likely in population too (though probably much smaller than that of the contemporary Chinese empire, for example). However, Islam was the religion of the caliphate's rulers, not its population. The area under Islamic rulers didn't become Muslim-majority in population for centuries--about five hundred years, is the rough scholarly consensus, based on prevalence of 'Muslim' names. I believe this applies in areas where forms of Christianity were previously dominant (i.e. everywhere from Syria west--the old Byzantine/Roman domains) and areas where it was Zoroastrianism (from modern Iraq east--the former Sassanian empire). Stepping onto less certain ground, I believe Zoroastrianism was in turn a religion of the elite rather than of the masses for the Sassanians and earlier Persian dynasties. This also, of course, goes for Christianity in much of contemporary Europe.

But getting to a more fundamental point, as several people have said (including Eyebrows McGee), we're working here with a modern conceptual category ('religion') which simply doesn't apply to much of human history. There's a big discussion to be had on this subject which only tangentially answers the question--or rather, implies that it's the 'wrong' question (no offence meant!)--so I won't launch into it in any detail. A couple of thoughts, though.

The problem of boundaries has already been mentioned: even today it's not usually clear where the boundary of 'a' religion lies, because people are capable of subscribing to different (even competing) beliefs at the same time. I've seen Muslim women praying to an icon of the Virgin in a Christian monastery myself. Defining 'a' religion, as if religion were a thing ("Which is the biggest pile of salt?"), is tricky. The fact that elites in some religious traditions found it so necessary to condemn 'heterodox' beliefs and practices, especially syncretistic ones, only confirms how much of it was going on: complaining about boundaries being transgressed was a way of creating those boundaries. Of course, not all religious traditions are hostile to syncretism: some of them, in fact, are based on precisely that.

This obviously has implications if we're trying to work out which 'religion' had the largest number of believers in the past. We do history for the most part with the textual records of past societies, but these are by their nature likely to be the records left by urban-based literate elites, especially state bureaucracies and religious hierarchies (sometimes one and the same thing, of course). These might imply a pretty standard set of shared beliefs and practices, a common interpretation of a particular body of sacred texts, and a clear condemnation of what was not 'correct' belief or practice--but get beyond the literate elite (5-10%, maybe?) and out of the reach of the senior clergy and state officials, especially out into the countryside, and those standards would slip pretty quickly. (Assuming, of course, that they'd ever been successfully imposed--big assumption.) And in practice, there was plenty of disagreement over correct belief and practice even among those literate elites.

So my answer to the actual question is that it's probably not possible to answer the question, but thinking about why it's not possible is very useful. On this subject, there's an excellent chapter in CA Bayly's book The birth of the modern world 1780-1914 (that link should go to the right page on Google Books) on 'religion', globally, in the 19th century--the period which 'saw the triumphal reemergence and expansion of "religion" in the sense in which we now use the term' [p325], with emphasis on understanding that how we now use the term isn't necessarily helpful for our understanding of the past. It won't answer your question either, but it'll be interesting! He tackles head-on the biggest 'definitional' issue, which I've ducked completely: what is a religion?
posted by lapsangsouchong at 10:44 PM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

My impression of the spread of Christianity in Europe was that it started off top down but penetrated so deeply that every village had its own Church and one could not legally be married or buried outside of church rites because such acts were "religious sacraments". So in this sense Europe became 100% Christian, even if the peasantry still incorporated "pagan" beliefs such as leaving out a saucer of milk for the "wee folks".

In Persia, I don't know if only Zoroastrian marriages were recognized. Persia also has the problem that any time a a new dynasty took over it tried to obliterate all records of the previous dynasties and this also happened during the Muslim conquest. One proxy of how much a religion has hold on a society is how dense its temples are. Europe had enough churches for all its people. If one knew the areal distribution of Zoroastrian fire temples one might be able to tell if they were for the masses or for mainly the elite, but finding this out should be hard because the Muslims destroyed both the temples and any records about them.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 12:35 AM on June 13, 2010

@lapsang: "However, Islam was the religion of the caliphate's rulers, not its population."

Yes, although much the same was true of Christianity in parts of Europe at the same time; hence it's my best guess for a good place to start, but I don't really have the vaguest idea how good a "Muslim population" and "Christian population" estimate you could get to, given that just the total population estimates of the time are so shakey. But certainly the "total Muslim area" was considerably larger and more prosperous than the "total Christian area" of the time, so it would be a starting point.

"The problem of boundaries has already been mentioned: even today it's not usually clear where the boundary of 'a' religion lies, because people are capable of subscribing to different (even competing) beliefs at the same time."

Yes ... I'm uncomfortable with people calling out Hinduism as particularly large in the ancient world, because Vedic Hinduism has unclear boundaries and unclear unity ... while all these various strains feed into what becomes Upanishadic Hinduism, I'm not sure we should feel comfortable lumping all the various pre-Upanishadic strains as part of one "religion." But again, it's not something I know enough about to make a clear judgment.

"because people are capable of subscribing to different (even competing) beliefs at the same time."

Perhaps of interest to the OP on this question would be the origins of Sikhism and the life of Guru Nanak, who lived in a mixed Muslim/Hindu part of what is now India/Pakistan, and received a revelation that God was neither Hindu nor Muslim and so walked around deliberately combining elements of each religion in part to provoke others in conversation (and, he hoped, conversion). It's a little unusual because Nanak and his earliest followers (from both "sides" of the divide) are mostly elites so there's a lot written about them, and instead of just practicing both religions, they are claiming a fresh revelation combining the two. Sort of an elite version of common "peasant" practices. It's interesting in and of itself, and it sometimes helps my American evangelical Protestant students understand how people can consider themselves members of multiple "religions" (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism) or can claim one exclusivist religion but do things clearly disallowed by that religion.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:28 AM on June 13, 2010

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