New -- 18 May 2008
Pope Benedict recently received some bad news. Apparently, the number of people considered to be Muslims now outnumber those who consider themselves to be Catholics. Pope Benny thus found himself in the unenviable position of his faith being second best in the numbers game for the greatest number of true believers.
How could this be? Surely it could not be about inquisitions, burnings at the stake, pedophilia by priests, and fanatical circumcisions; that's all water under the bridge, no skin off my teeth, and let's forget and forgive, right? And hopefully it's also not about the fact that more and more Catholics are opting for the title of being known as “Recovering Catholics”. And one can only pray that it is not due to the fact that Islam has the apparent and unrelenting policy (sanctioned by many governments) that once a Muslim, always a Muslim – with the alternative being death (typically beheading being the favorite method of discouraging apostasy). Clearly such a policy is a good deterrent to a loss of religious adherents in any religion, and was in fact long practiced by Catholics (and sanctioned by various governments in the past)... until, of course, a large number of Protesters got organized and fought back.
Nevertheless, the real truth -- and far be it for me to offer hope and reassurance to the world's current leading proponent of Holy War – is that counting the heads of Christians/Muslims/Hindus/Etceteras [pardon the pun] really doesn't mean a thing if we really look into the mathematics (specifically long division) of this situation.
For example, National Geographic  recently (albeit briefly) reported on the “States of Faith”, to wit that the percentages of population of religious followers are:
The classification was based on the World and its four most populous countries. Some interesting notes are:
One might think that Pope Benny might take comfort in knowing the Christians still outnumber the Muslims, but alas Catholics and Christians are not synonymous. In fact, such simplistic designations as “Christian”, “Catholic”, “Muslim”, “Hindu”, “Buddhist”, “Pagan”, “Rastafarian”, “Marcionite”, “Jew”, or “Whatever” (the list goes on and on)... don't really mean much.
If on the other hand one carries the negative designation of atheist (someone who believes god does not exist) or agnostic (someone who does not believe the nature or existence of god can be known), such designations apply equally to all atheists and agnostics. The result is that the category of “nonbelievers” is much more definitive, i.e. they all have the same religious belief, to wit that all atheists do not believe in a god and all agnostics do not believe god or god's existence can be known.
The same simplicity of what constitutes a “true believer” does not exist for religious designations such as “Christian”, et al, where definitive, common religious beliefs simply do not exist.
For example, Christians can be split into Catholics and Protestants. Catholics can then be split, as per the East-West (Great) Schism into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. There is also the Alexandrine Schism, the Lefebvrist schism, and a whole host of schisms pitting the orthodox or traditionalists against the (lumped together) Schismatics. The latter include the ultra orthodox Catholic sect of Kansas' Pope Michael, the Society of St. Pius X, and others who decry what they call Vatican II's new "hootenanny Masses." Even more dramatic in the Catholic sphere of influence is the more fundamental distinction between Reformed Catholicism and Evangelical Catholicism. Contributing to this is the large numbers of “Catholics”, “former Catholics”, and “recovering Catholics”, all of whom have apparently determined that Pope Benny's brand of Catholicism and its de facto support of pedophiles is not exactly the same religion they may have once embraced.
The tendency of splinter groups at every level, in every country, in every parish, to recoil at the apostasy and heretical views of their fellow Christians is not confined to Pope Benny's sect and its rapidly waning popularity. The Protestants (those who “protested” the Catholic Church's brand of Christianity) have their own schisms, including Wikipedia's sub-categories of:
Did we forget anybody? Well... how about the Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites, and, of course, Zwinglianism, Pietism, Puritanism, Revivalism, Methodism, Evangelicalism, Disciples of Christ, and Adventism, as well as members of Unity Church. It would appear that the latter has not quite pulled it off... yet?
All of the above does not include all the local churches who have split for many and sundry reasons and just didn't bother to notify Wikipedia of their new existence and new name (for example, one “Unity” church spin-off is named “Tapestry”). So much for unity. Come to think of it, perhaps “unity” is fundamentally (pardon the pun) against human nature... certainly the nature of humans in their philosophical view of life.
How about the Muslims, the alleged new winners in the numbers game? Most infidels have now begun to recognize the split between the Sunni and Shi'ite schools of thought. But then we must not neglect the Sufi (including Tariqah) and Kharijite, and their subdivisions – such as the Wahabi, a subset of Hanbali, which is a subset of Sunni (the latter a subset of Islam). But lest you think you've got a handle on this one, consider also Wikipedia's list:
It is interesting to note that in the distinction between Sunnis and Shiites -- as well as other segments of Islam -- the differences are less a matter of faith than a violent disagreement of exactly who's in charge... and therefore who is thus qualified for the all-important task of interpreting the Qur'an and the other holy books and writings of Islam.
This is in fact a common problem with all religions, where splinter groups are created as often by the ambitions of individuals for more power and authority as they are because of important differences in fundamental religious beliefs. Different religious beliefs are, of course, often claimed as the motive, when in fact the split is far more often just a matter of a power play between groups and individuals with an extraordinarily high opinion of the rightness of their position.
While adherents to Judaism might constitute less than one percent of the World's population, they have in the tradition of all religions had their own splits. One can, for example be a Jew and also be... are you ready..? You can be: Orthodox · Conservative · Reform Haredi · Hasidic · Modern Orthodox Reconstructionist · Renewal · Rabbinic Humanistic · Karaite · Samaritanism.
What is truly scary is that we haven't even begun to talk -- or as John Paul Jones was reputed to have said, "I have not yet begun to fight" -- about Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, the numerous variations in Native American cultures, local sects who for security reasons don't like to advertise their existence, pagans, neo-pagans, neo-reformed-pagans, neo-reformed-orthodox pagans, Pan's Labyrinth, the many and sundry adherents of what are allegedly mythological characters and/or creatures, and the very latest, most prolific of all religious sects, Ismismismismadinfinitumism.
Clearly what is needed here is for National Geographic [Editors: please take note] to do a slightly more detailed analysis of the States of Faith and give the latest estimates of the adherents to... well... all of the above. This might put the matter of religious faith into a slightly more reasonable perspective. Not that the concept of reason really has anything to do with religious faith, but it's always instructive for adherents, heretics, and those inclined to apostasy to realize that their highly personal, religious philosophy to which they cling with all the power of their being... such faith may have a population that very likely constitutes less than one tenth of one percent of the world's total population. And that furthermore, the other more than 99.9% are out to convert you!
There is one possible solution to this religions dilemma, and that is for every sane individual (all five of us... and you know who you are) to embrace (very gingerly and very, very, very carefully) all of the religions of the world. It's more than a matter of live and let live; an acceptance that his god, Zeus, may or may not be able to take her goddess, Inanna, or that Set has just flat had it with Osiris, or that Woden is the bosom buddy of Ningishzidda. This embrace of all the religions is also far more than cafeteria style religion where one picks and chooses on any given day whichever religious doctrine will allow you to do precisely what you wanted to do (and simultaneously feel really good that you've done the righteous thing). [The cafeteria style is of course highly advantageous to the Epicureans among us.] Rather the all-embracing antithesis to Ismismismismadinfinitumism is Universal Pantheism.
The fundamental problem is, of course, that in viewing most of the religions (following virtually any link above) one is struck by the anal-retentive, control-freak nature of most of the various founders of religions. One must of course, distinguish between founders of religions and those individuals whose name is used... often quite literally in vain... to identify the religion. For example, Pauline Christianity is Saint Paul's version of Jesus, his history and teachings, and is not necessarily the kind of thing Jesus would have anything to do with. One might recall, for instance, that Jesus Christ was in fact a Jew -- in many respects a rabbi. A shocking revelation, but it is nonetheless true.
In any event, a concerted reinterpretation of ancient, traditional, and sacred texts might find commonalities among the religions (like, for example, maybe the Golden Rule), and thereby a Universal Pantheism might actually be possible. Of course, clearly such a massive conversion of beliefs and paradigms could pose a few, hopefully minor problems. But as in all great journeys, it can be done, one step at a time.
And for our first step: one is urged to immediately begin enthusiastically and zealously celebrating each and every holiday which has ever been set aside by any religion or group of religions.
To accomplish this one need only reference such sites as Earth Calendar (which conveniently gives you each day's holidays) and/or Interfaith Calendar (which provides a day-to-day listing for upcoming holidays). These sites provide easy access to a whole slew of religious holidays and sacred times for the worlds' religions. With even a reasonable effort, one can find a religious holiday (sometimes a week or a month at a time) where one can celebrate the positive aspects of the sacred commemorations – and by the way, hang the rest). One could also add National holidays, inasmuch as patriotism (being another “ism”) is often treated as a religion (and/or simply an excuse to just quit work and celebrate). In filling your calendar, be sure to use your imagination! Create your own holidays, even expanding your world to include such pagan holidays as Imbolc (aka Lughnasadh, St. Brigit's Day, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day), Beltane, Lammas, and Samhain. And for pity's sake, don't forget birthdays!
In this way, by checking any given day, figuring out why that day was chosen as the orthodox holiday, and celebrating, everyone who is into this rather Epicurean delight can then celebrate each and every... blessed... day! Yea!
Today, for example, at the time of this writing, included the following holiday celebrations:
Feel free to pick and choose.
For me, it's: Happy Birthday, Buddha! And to all you other Buddhists... Many Happy Returns!
 Shelley Sperry, “States of Faith”, National Geographic, December 2007.
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