At their most basic, the religions of the world have been categorized into two types by religious researchers. The newest type of religion is doctrinal, and text-based, which are also referred to as “universal religions” or “transnational religions,” or “revealed religions.” The second are much older faiths usually referred to as "community-based" or "traditional religions", also referred to as “natural, native, ethnic,” or “folk” religions. James Russell summarizes the differences between these two types of religion—earlier proposed by Gustaf Mensching and Roger Pearson—as follows:
It appears that the primary sacral focus of most folk religions, including Indo-European religions, is the folk community itself. The sacrality of the community is expressed in ritual ceremonies that celebrate it with its own exclusive gods and that “promote a strong sense of in-group identification and loyalty.” In contrast, the primary sacral focus of universal religions, such as early Christianity, appears to be the salvation of the individual by access to an existence which transcends that normally associated with a biological view of human life. According to most universal religions, this existence is attainable by all mankind through initiation into a community of belief and adherence to a universal ethical code.
The most obvious examples of universal religions today are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The most basic structural elements of such universal religions are that they are doctrinal or “revealed” in a book. They are belief-based, providing teachings intended to apply universally to all people, regardless of nation, region, or tribe, and they place an emphasis on some form of individual spiritual evolution and eventual transcendence, be it related to obtaining entrance to paradise or reaching spiritual perfection. Because these religions are codified in textual sources, they are derived from a (more or less) static source which can be referenced by adherents. While interpretation of the content within these sources may vary, the content itself rarely does.
As a result, universalist religions are more likely to shape their host society than vice versa, and social and political change may not necessarily cause much change in religious practice.
In comparison, ethnic or folk religions exist or have existed in different expressions among all people on earth and can be observed today among many tribal societies of native North & South Americans. This category clearly also includes the heathen religions of northern Europe before and during the process in which those regions developed from being tribal, folk societies to becoming metropolitan, Christianized states. As noted above, ethnic folk religions are essentially community-based and tradition-focused, developing organically in a dialogue within a specific society, its organic laws & weltanschauung, and the perceived “unseen world” which is enmeshed within that paradigm.
In such societies, the sacred and the mundane are not easily distinguished and may not even be separable from one another. The land is often seen as being infused with the sacred history of the people living on it. It may, for example, contain metaphysical creation stories, such as those of a valley being formed from a god’s footprint, or a cliff being an ancient spirit turned to stone. The community sees itself as sharing the landscape with the local flora and fauna, the dwelling places of their dead ancestors, and the sanctuaries of spirits and gods. Stories and taboos are then used to explain and preserve this relationship between people, their history, and the seen and unseen landscape. As a result, routine farming techniques, political rituals, hunting practices, day-to-day life are interwoven with interactions with the unseen and metaphysical. Mythology and history are interlacing and have vaguely distinct dividing lines. Law, faith, ethics, and morality similarly are entwined with traditions and taboos that serve to maintain social and natural order.
If we were to compare ethnic folk religions with universalist world religions, we could state that while the source of a universalist world religion tends to be contained in a single source of compiled ideologies, which affects & has an impacts on a society, an ethnic folk religion arises from and is contained within the culture of the society itself. It changes as the community does and is impacted on by the actions of those individuals and by its social, political, and natural environment. Rituals, myths, symbols, and traditions form the components of culture for a given society, even when drawing on tradition and native ancient lore. They are a source of reinforcement for social and hierarchical -relations within that society, including social hierarchies, group-identity, and the transformation into newly recognized tribal positions.