Between 60% and 65% of all Laotians, including nearly all the Lao-Loum, are adherents of Theravada Buddhism, a large part of whose daily life is shaped by its rituals and precepts. Buddhist temples, found in every village, town, and city, serve as intellectual as well as religious centers. Vientiane and Luangprabang have been called cities of thousands of temples. More than 70 pagodas were built in Vientiane alone in the 16th century, including the famous Wat Phra Keo and That Luang. Despite the major role that Buddhism, its temples, and its priests have played in Laotian life, the average lowland Lao regulates a large part of daily activities in accordance with animistic concepts. Certain spirits ( phi ) are believed to have great power over human destiny and to be present throughout the material world, as well as within nonmaterial realms. Thus, each of the four universal elements (earth, sky, fire, and water) has its special phi; every road, stream, village, house, and person has a particular phi; forests and jungles are inhabited by phi . Evil phi can cause disease and must be propitiated by sacrifices.
Approximately 30% of the population practice animism. About 34% of Laotians, including the upland tribes, are almost exclusively animists, although influenced by Buddhism to some extent. Christian missionaries have been active in Laos, but less than 2% of all Laotians profess the religion.
About 2% of the population are Christians, with about 60,000 Protestants and 40,000 Roman Catholics. Most Protestants are members of the Lao Evangelical Church or Seventh-Day Adventists, which are the only two officially recognized Protestant groups. Other minority religions include the Baha'i faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Though religious activity was discouraged by the state from 1976 to 1979, freedom of religion has been legally guaranteed since the constitution of 1991.