The wide array of current religions, plus many that died in the past, are pretty much impossible to count.
“There are tens of thousands of religions on Planet Earth today … excluding all the religions that came and went (and are now lost) during the first 190,000 years of Homo Sapiens,” states a Psychology Today report. As a blind guess, I estimate the grand total at perhaps 50,000. Alongside major world faiths are hundreds of branches and thousands of small sects, cults and tribal folk groups in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
Scholars list multitudes of new faiths created just since the start of the 1800s: Mormons, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Moonies, Hare Krishnas, Adventists, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, Scientologists, rattlesnake-handlers, New Age mystical groups, Rastafarians, Unity Church, Urantia, Christadelphians, to name just some, plus a flood of Asian sects. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religions informed The New York Times readers that 40 to 50 new religious movements emerge each year in the United States alone.
Religions have bizarre variety: from Thugs strangling victims for the many-armed goddess Kali to Pentecostals erupting in uncontrollable glossalalia — from Sufi “whirling dervishes” to Canada’s Dukhobors (Spirit Wrestlers) who stage naked protests and burn buildings — from Voodoo priestesses sacrificing chickens to Raelians who espouse open sex and think humans were created by space aliens.
This zoo of supernatural worship has one common quality: It’s all based on fictional fantasy and untrue claims — in other words, lies. Gods, devils, heavens, hells, visions, prophecies, saviors, blessed virgins, angels, demons, apparitions, miracles, holy visitations — none of this stuff is real. It’s all concocted by the human imagination. (Exceptions to note: Some Asian religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and Confucianism are mostly philosophical, with few supernatural claims.)
What does it all mean? I think it means that supposedly logical humans have a streak of lunacy, of pure irrationality. Why on Earth do people invent magic tales and declare them real — even turn violent to defend them?
All supernatural religions are absurd because they proclaim “truths” that aren’t true. As educated modern people become more knowledgeable, the absurdity grows more obvious.
Something is wrong with Homo Sapiens. If our species were truly rational, it wouldn’t concoct 50,000 fairy tales and waste whole lifetimes on them.
This column is adapted from a piece originally published in the April-May 2020 issue of Free Inquiry.