Is Judaism a Major World Religion?

In light of our growing awareness of religious diversity and the sizable number of members of non-major faiths, it might be better to discard terms like “major religions” altogether.

Written by Dr. Adam Gregerman (February 7, 2013)

Two recent studies by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life[i] on the number of adherents of different religious traditions, both in the United States and in the world, have received much attention.[ii] Most provocative and surprising was the number of those in both studies who claim no religious affiliation: About one in five Americans, and about one in six people worldwide, describe themselves as “nones.” (My colleague Dr. Heather Miller Rubens has a great discussion of this.[iii]) These numbers offer more data for important, ongoing discussions about the future of religion and especially about the waxing and waning of secularism in the modern world.

However, I want to focus on a very specific part of the worldwide Pew survey, the choice of which religions get included in the “World’s Major Religious Groups as of 2010” and the “five widely recognized world religions” (to quote the report). According to Pew, these include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. By the numbers, the first four are obvious: Christians comprise 31.5 percent of the world’s population; Muslims, 23.2 percent; Hindus, 15 percent; and Buddhists, 7.1 percent. These communities each number in the hundreds of millions or more, with even the relatively small number of Buddhists totaling nearly a half-billion. Rounding out the major five religions are Jews, who, by contrast, comprise 0.2 percent of the world’s population. This is equivalent to about 14 million people. This small size is noteworthy not only in comparison with the other “major” religions, but also in comparison with religions that either get lumped together as “folk religions” (such as traditional African religions, Chinese folk religions, and Native American religions), which comprise 6 percent of the world population (400 million people), or are put in the category of “other religions” (such as Baha’i and Sikhism). Some of these “others” are actually quite large. Sikhs offer a striking contrast to Jews. There are about 25 million of them, nearly twice the number of Jews.

The reasons for including Judaism are not self-evident, though the survey says little explicitly about why some religions were judged major. The survey does note that, due to practical limitations, there are difficulties in determining the accurate number of members in some non-major religions, as in the case of Sikhs, Jains, and Baha’is. Reliable data is lacking in some cases because of how countries carry out their censuses. Also, some of these traditions are highly concentrated geographically; to call them major or world religions, the survey suggests, may be a stretch. Most Sikhs, for example, live in India (though diaspora communities are found in America and Canada). These explanations, however, are mostly technical and offer little guidance about why Jews are in and others are out. The geographical argument might apply just as much to Jews, who are largely found in two countries—the United States and Israel.

I suspect a mix of factors explains the inclusion of Judaism among the major religions, despite its being completely dwarfed numerically by the other major religions. While the survey’s authors do not explain their logic, the survey at least prompts me to speculate about why such a decision might have been made.

An obvious explanation is Jewish influence on Christianity and Islam. Judaism, the first of the so-called Abrahamic religions, was in varying degrees a prominent influence on these two later, undoubtedly major religions. This establishes a profound connection that explains the interest in Judaism in the present. On the other hand, this early Jewish influence says little about the continuing importance of Judaism to Christians after Jesus or to Muslims after Muhammad. Both Christians and Muslims viewed their religions as fulfillments of or improvements over Judaism. While historical interactions between Jews and Muslims or Christians surely continued, as did some theological influence, this influence was most pronounced in the earliest periods of Christianity and Islam. Overall, it was of limited lasting significance; Jews and Judaism were occasionally noticed, but as time went on they were seldom prominent topics in mainstream Muslim and Christian religious discourse. In the last few decades, awareness of a close connection to Judaism and of shared religious roots has grown among some Christians and Muslims. The inclusion of Judaism as a major religious tradition alongside these other traditions hints at this recognition.

A more “American” explanation might be the perception that Judaism, along with Protestant and Catholic Christianity, is among the main religious groups in America; to leave out Judaism is to leave out a central American faith community. This tripartite division is famously associated with Will Herberg, whose seminal work from 1954, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, reflected and encouraged a perception in the post-World War II period about the role of religion in uniting a diverse American society. Most relevant here is his elevation of Judaism to an implied coequal status with the two Christian traditions, which were, of course, far larger. Likewise, an emphasis on the notion of a Judeo-Christian society in the same period, partly in contrast to “godless” communism, elevated Judaism in popular consciousness to a sort of coequal status. Regardless of the accuracy of this term (religiously, culturally, historically), it, too, reflects and encourages popular perceptions. For example, it first appears in a Supreme Court case in 1963, and then again numerous times.[iv] “Judeo-Christian” began to be used to affirm a deep link between the traditions, and its usage assigned a prominence to Judaism beyond the small number of Jews. (Not all Jews were pleased with this linkage, and over time the term was increasingly used to support conservative—usually Christian—political and social goals.)[v]

More provocatively, I suggest that the inclusion of Judaism among the major world religions despite its small numbers paradoxically may buttress a widespread misperception about the size of the Jewish population. Earlier studies have shown that Americans tend to overstate the percentage of Jews in America, perhaps because Jews are prominent in some well-known fields such as journalism, as well as in the arts and popular culture. For example, the greatest number of respondents to an Anti-Defamation League survey said Jews comprised 10 to 25 percent of the American population, which is between four and ten times higher than the actual number.[vi] Sizable percentages of other respondents similarly failed to correctly estimate the Jewish population. The Pew survey of course provides the actual lower figures and therefore directly contradicts common overestimates of the Jewish population, in this case, in America. However, Pew’s inclusion of Judaism as a major religion alongside immensely larger and more geographically diffused religious groups imputes some vaguely disproportionate significance to this tiny group. This is precisely the distortion evident in the ADL survey. Pew’s data is very useful and certainly contributes to an evidence-based discussion, but its framing of the survey around major religions may unintentionally and implicitly encourage a somewhat different view than what the numbers alone say.

Finally, I suspect that the most likely reason for including Judaism among the group of “major religions” is that this is what such surveys have usually done, Pew’s included. While the numbers alone may not support the inclusion of Judaism, both precedent and, more importantly, a desire to avoid a perception that Judaism got “demoted” from its earlier position among the major religions probably explain its continuing presence. On the other hand, because of our growing awareness of religious diversity and the sizable number of members of non-major faiths, it might be better to discard terms like “major religions” (and by implication “minor religions”) altogether.

Adam Gregerman, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph's University.