How are religions classified?

Religion, which is a system of beliefs that usually centers on whatever is beyond the known or the natural, is commonly divided between elementary forms and higher religions.

Some elementary forms, or “traditional religions,” are animism (the belief in spirits in nature or in natural objects), ancestor worship (revering the spirits of the dead), and totemism (belief in a mystical relationship between a group of people and an emblem). Animists might believe in spirits living in the sea or in the mountains. Believers in ancestor worship will both honor and fear the spirits of dead family members—for if they are neglected by the living, these spirits are believed to be able to bring harm to their descendants. Within clans, some tribal peoples adopt totems, such as a lion or a turtle. Totemists will be careful throughout their lives not to harm the animal or object that serves as their clan’s emblem.

Higher religions are those that embody a concept of transcendence. Higher religions are classified as polytheistic (believing in many gods), dualistic (believing in equally powerful gods of good and evil), monotheistic (believing in one god), and pantheistic (believing in god as the forces and laws of the universe, or the worship of all gods). Religions are further classified as revealed or nonrevealed. Revealed religions are those that followers know through divine agency; both Christianity and Islam are revealed religions. Nonrevealed religions, such as Buddhism, Brahmanism, or Taoism, are known only through inquiry.


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