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The Eight Largest Faith Groups in the United States



Christians are divided into three main branches: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Christians vary widely in how they interpret the Bible (their main text), understand the authority of Church hierarchy, and as to the positions they take on various social issues, such as homosexuality, abortion, or prayer in school.

The cross is a symbol used to represent life, death, and resurrection. Christians believe Yeshua of Nazareth (also known as Jesus Christ), coexisted with God before the creation of the world, was born of a virgin, was resurrected three days after his death, and later ascended to Heaven. Jesus is the Greek form of Yeshua; Christ is Greek for “the Messiah” or “anointed one.” In most Christian communities, Sunday is the day set aside for worship services, although some minority groups, such as the Seventh Day Adventists, insist on a literal observance of the Ten Commandments and the special status of Saturday. About 33 percent of the world’s population regard themselves as Christian, but 88 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. This number has been dropping slowly due to the increase in nontheistic beliefs, an increase in followers of minority religions, and the emergence of new spiritual/religious movements.


Modern religious Jews, whether affiliated with an Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, or Liberal synagogue, are members of a faith community which goes back about four thousand years. Today there are approximately 18 million Jews in the world, the biggest concentration in the United States (about 7 million), followed by Israel (about 4.5 million) and the Soviet Union. The Jewish ritual year is a lunar year of twelve months, each month beginning with the appearance of the new moon. The year begins in late September/early October. Religious days run from sunset to sunset. Festivals and Sabbath begin on the evening before the dates in the calendar. They observe the Sabbath as a day of rest, starting at sundown on Friday evening. Passover, or Pesach, is held each spring. The ten days of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are days of fasting and penitence. Sukkoth, or the Feast of Booths, is an eight-day harvest festival; a time of thanksgiving. Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Feast of Dedication observed in December. Shavout, the Feast of Weeks, is held in late May or early June.



The Islamic crescent symbolizes the new moon, which determines the Islamic calendar. Islam means “submission (to Allah)” in Arabic. “Allah” is an Arabic word which means “the One True God.” Mohammed the Prophet (peace be upon him)* is believed to have founded Islam in 622 C.E. The religion started in Mecca, when the angel Jibreel (Gabriel) read the first revelation to Mohammed (pbuh). Islam is seen as the youngest of the world’s greatest religions. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) estimates that there are more than 1.2 billion Muslims, which make up about 22 percent of the world’s population. Islam is growing about 2.9 percent per year, faster than the total world population at 2.3 percent. The number of Muslims in North America is in dispute: estimates range from under 3 million to more than 6 million. There are more than seventy-two sects, the major ones being the Sunnis and the Shiites. Sunni Muslims constitute 90 percent of the believers; Shiite Muslims make up a small minority of Islam. They split from the Sunnis over a dispute about the successor to Muhammad (pbuh). Muslims follow a lunar calendar. A Muslim’s duties are centered around “The Five Pillars.” These include recognizing that “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet;” performing the salat (prayer) five times a day, if possible; donating regularly to charity through zakat; fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan, which is believed to be the month that Muhammad (pbuh) received the first revelation of the Qur’an from God; and, if economically and physically able, making at least one hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.

* Muslims traditionally acknowledge respect for Muhammad, Jesus and other prophets (peace be upon them) by adding this phrase or an abbreviation “pbuh” after their names.


Hinduism differs from Western religions in that it does not have a single founder, a specific theological system, a single system of morality, or a central religious organization. It consists of thousands of different religious groups that have evolved since 1500 B.C.E. and is represented by the highly diverse beliefs and practices of more than 762 million Hindus, 13 percent of the world’s population. Hinduism has grown to become the world’s third largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. There are about 1.1 million Hindus in the United States. About 80 percent of Hindus are Vaishnavites, who worship Lord Vishnu. Various sects of Hinduism have evolved into separate religious movements, including Hare Krishna, Sikhism, and Theosophy. Transcendental Meditation was derived from a Hindu technique of meditation. Hinduism has been described as a religion of fasts, feasts, and festivals. Festivals are connected with seasons as well as with major gods. Meditation is often practiced, with Yoga being the most common. Other activities include daily devotions, public rituals, and puja, a ceremonial dinner for a God.


A follower of Wicca is called a Wiccan. Wiccans and other Neopagans sometimes regard Pagan and Neopagan as synonyms. Neopagan religions are modern faiths, which have been recently reconstructed from beliefs, deities, symbols, practices, and other elements of ancient religion. Wiccans trace their roots to the pre-Celtic era in Europe. Other Neopagans follow Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and other traditions. Pagan religions are based upon direct perception of the forces of nature. Wiccans celebrate seasonal festivals called Sabbats: four equinoxes and four agricultural and herd-farming times. The basic creed is worship of the Goddess in her three aspects—Maiden, Mother, and Crone—and of her consort, Pan, the Horned God. Wicca is one of the largest minority religions in the United States. There are no reliable estimates of the number of Wiccans in this country due to the fact that most Wiccans hide their religious beliefs and practices. Those who allow their faith to be known publicly have been heavily persecuted in North America. Because of religious propaganda dating from the late Middle Ages, Wicca has often been incorrectly associated with Satanism. Wiccan beliefs and practices are no closer to Satanism than are those of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. It is estimated that there are more than 750,000 Wiccans in the United States, making Wicca the fifth largest religion in the United States, behind Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism. Wicca and other Neopagan religions are currently experiencing a rapid growth. This is seen particularly among teenagers, who are rejecting what they feel is the autocracy, paternalism, sexism, homophobia, and insensitivity to the environment that forms part of some more traditional religions. Many North Americans of European descent, who are keen to discover their ancestral heritage, are also being attracted to this religion.


The word Buddha means “awakened one.” Buddhists commemorate the anniversaries of the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, as well as his first teaching. The exact dates for these days of ritual and meditation are based on the lunar calendar and will vary each year. By the tenth century, Buddhism had coalesced into distinctive, general schools of practice arising from the texts, teachings, and teachers common to a given region. Southern Buddhism—in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Vietnam—is so diverse it has no accurate, specific identifying name. It refers to belief in the Buddha, in his first teaching and his enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism is a second, overarching category that is equally diverse. In addition to the tenets of Southern Buddhism, it holds forth the ideal of a bodhisattva, or enlightened “saint,” man or woman, who reincarnates again and again to help sentient beings attain liberation. This form of Buddhism first grew to prominence in China, Japan, Korea, most of Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia, the Himalayas, and parts of the Soviet Union. One of the largest divisions of Mahayana embodies the more esoteric, tantric practices of the Tibetans and Mongolians. This form uses yoga and manipulates an internal system of channels and centers in what is called the “subtle body” to intensify purification and quicken the path to enlightenment. In the Western nations and Africa, all forms of Buddhism have taken root and are gradually shedding the strong cultural distinctions they once held. Buddhism for this new era is international and includes extensive dialogues and cooperation between all Buddhists and between Buddhist masters and non-Buddhist professionals in fields like psychology, the sciences, and medicine.


Sikhism was formed in 1464 to 1708 A.D. Sikh means “learner.” It is often mispronounced “seek,” but should be pronounced “se-ikh,” with the “kh” pronounced like the “kh” in Mikhal Gorbachev. There are ten Gurus, the first being Guru Nanak, who taught that there was neither Hindu nor Muslim. His followers were known as Sikhs or Disciples. Guru Gobind Singh was the last Guru. He founded the “Khalsa” brotherhood where the initiated adopted the five Ks: Kangha (wooden comb); Kara (steel bracelet); Kirpan (sword); Kaccha (pair of shorts); and Kesh (long hair). The migrant Sikh communities are found mainly in the Punjab in India, commonwealth countries, United States, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Sikhs number about 22.5 million worldwide. Close to 500,000 live in North America, of whom about 150,000 live in Canada.

bahai.gifBahá’í World Faith

Bahá’í began in 1844 with the declaration of the Bab (1819–1850), who claimed to be the forerunner of Baha’u’llah (1817–1892), the Promised One of all ages and religions. Bahá’ís come from a variety of ethnic groups, cultures, professions, and social classes from more than two hundred countries. The Bahá’í World Center is located on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel. The year is divided into nineteen months of nineteen days, each with four intercalary days (five in leap year). The Bahá’í year begins on March 21 and the day begins at sunset. Fasting season lasts nineteen days, beginning March 2. The Bahá’í World Faith claims that there are about 5 million members worldwide; about 2.5 million in India and 140,000 in the United States. Many Muslims look upon the Bahá’í Faith as a breakaway sect of Islam. Bahá’í holy days are April 21, 29, and May 2 (Baha’u’llah’s public declaration of his mission); May 23 (Bab’s declaration of his mission); May 29 (Passing of Baha’u’llah); July 9 (Martyrdom of Bab); October 20 (Birth of Bab); and November 12 (Birth of Baha’u’llah).

Prepared by:
Dr. Sherrill A. Kuckuck — Office of Student Development
Jennifer Zucco — Undergraduate Student Assistant

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