Native Tongue

Did you go to church this weekend or practice any other spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation or reading from a sacred text? If so, you weren’t alone. Based on extensive surveys the Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that only about 12% of Earth’s population is non-religious (with 2.3% being outright atheists). This means 88% of us are religious to a greater or lesser degree.

We each have a native tongue when it comes to communicating with God and the unseen realm. These spiritual languages are shaped by distinct histories and cultures, myths and metaphors, words and art, traditions and rituals. The largest linguistic groups are:

  • Christianity – 2.1 billion
  • Islam – 1.5 billion
  • Hinduism – 1 billion
  • Buddhism – 250–500 million
  • Chinese Folk Religions – 400 million
  • Shinto – 120 million
  • Taoism – 20-50 million
  • Sikhism – 25 million
  • Judaism – 14 million

Within each of these are various major and minor dialects (read denominations).

Christianity: (over 34,000 varieties)

  • Roman Catholic – 1.1 billion
  • Eastern Orthodoxy – 200 million

Islam: (only 20% live in Arab countries)

  • Sunni – 85%
  • Shi’a – 15%
  • Other sects – less than 1%

Hinduism: (90% live in India)

  • Vaishnavism
  • Shaivism
  • Shaktism
  • Smartism

Buddhism: (hard to count because it’s non-exclusive)

  • Theravada
  • Mahayana

Shinto: (almost all live in Japan)

Taoism: (influences the 400 million adherents of Chinese folk religion)

Sikhism: (almost all live in India)

  • Namdharis
  • Nirankaris
  • Nihangs

Judaism: (1% of the human race)

  • Orthodox
  • Conservative
  • Reform

Many people believe their religion is right and the others are wrong, or at least more primitive or unenlightened. However, it is seldom selected as a result of comparative study. It has more to do with where we’re born than anything else. I grew up speaking Roman Catholic and learned Evangelical after my born-again experience in 1970.

I have studied different spiritual vernaculars since then and have picked up a few insights along the way, such as:

  • There are so many languages because humans have such diverse experiences and perspectives.
  • Some languages are more accurate but all legitimate ones attempt to describe the indescribable and to relate to a reality beyond the senses. In this regard they serve a vital purpose.
  • One should be careful in dismissing different belief systems as completely wrong. Seeing through other eyes and hearing through other ears can teach wisdom, tolerance and humility.
  • One should not mistake symbols for substance. God is who he/she/it is regardless of the grunts and gestures we make to describe the Deity.
  • God has a good ear for languages.


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