bad cartography

The Pitfalls and Promises of Mapping World Religion

I have long been dissatisfied with world religion maps, especially those that are available on the internet. To be sure, mapping religion is an inherently difficult task. Many areas contain multiple faiths, just as different places often vary tremendously in regard religiosity itself. Changes in the religious landscape, moreover, are often difficult to capture. Most of Europe, for example, is appropriately mapped as Christian when it comes to its religious heritage, but in the 21st century such a depiction is no longer completely accurate. Over much of Europe, nonbelievers now greatly outnumber believers, and in quite a few places practicing Muslims outstrip practicing Christians. Some reports go so far as to claim that in terms of actual practice, France is now more Muslim than Christian,* although this assertion is probably exaggerated.

Religious “mixture,” moreover, can characterize not just regions but also individuals. An anthropologist friend of mine once characterized the West African country of Guinea as “90 percent Muslim and 90 percent animist,” which could well be true. But animism and so-called tribal religions more generally usually get short shrift in world religion maps. The same is true for syncretic faiths such as Candomblé, which might be the dominant faith in parts of northeastern Brazil, although only around five percent of Brazilians overall report themselves to be adherents. But such numbers are themselves suspect, as it is often difficult to enumerate religious adherents. Polling and census data are partial or non-existent over much of the world, and people often fail to be forthcoming about matters of faith when asked. As a GodWeb post argues, “To put it bluntly, when asked about religious belief and practice, ordinary citizens lie. And they lie about their faith to a greater degree then they lie about their sex life, or political activity.”

World Religion Map 1Another common problem in the mapping of religions is the inconsistent division of major faiths into their constituent branches. If Christianity is divided into its Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox branches, as it often is (see the map posted to the left), then by the same token Buddhism should be broken down into its Mahayana and Theravada forms, just as Islam should be divided into its Sunni, Shia, and Ibadi branches. Making such divisions, moreover, should be done in a rigorous manner. The so-called Oriental Orthodox Christian churches, such as the World Religion Map 3Armenian Apostolic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, for example, should not be mapped with the Eastern Orthodox branch, as they often are (see, for example, “World Religions Map 2006” posted here) for the simple reason that they do not belong. As the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church reject Branches of Christianitythe Creed of Chalcedon that was adopted by the Christian mainstream in A.D. 451, they stand apart from Eastern Orthodoxy as well as Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. But as the diagram posted here shows, this situation is complicated by a number of subsequent unions of theologically disparate Christian branches.

But if the mapping of religion is inherently problematic, that does not mean that all maps of world religions are of equal value—or lack of value. Some basic maps are, of course, much better than others. Recently, moreover, a number of highly innovative and extremely detailed world maps of religion have appeared on the internet. Several GeoCurrents posts next week will examine these maps in some detail. Before doing so, however, I cannot resist pointing out how amusingly bad World Religion Map 2maps of religion can be. I would be tempted to nominate the one posted to the left for the booby prize of the worst world map on the internet.

To begin with, the map deeply distorts basic patterns of both physical and political geography. Note the seaway between North and South America, the misplacement of New Zealand, the division of North Korea into two World Religion Map detailcountries, and so on. A detail of the map’s depiction of central southeastern Europe reveals how laughable it is. But more to the point, consider its portrayal of religion: Guatemala and Costa Rica are non-Christian; Jordan is Jewish: Armenia, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Lake Victoria are Muslim, as is Taiwan; Japan is Christian; both North Koreas are “Chinese”; and Sri Lanka is Hindu. Interestingly, the site on which it is posted, which includes some fine maps of religion, merely notes that it “is a much more generalized map of world religions.” In actuality, this map verges on intellectual malpractice.

*According to a 2012 report by the Gatestone Institute:

Although 64% of the French population (or 41.6 million of France’s 65 million inhabitants) identifies itself as Roman Catholic, only 4.5% (or 1.9 million) of those actually are practicing Catholics, according to the French Institute of Public Opinion (or Ifop, as it is usually called).

By way of comparison, 75% (or 4.5 million) of the estimated 6 million mostly ethnic North African and sub-Saharan Muslims in France identify themselves as “believers” and 41% (or 2.5 million) say they are “practicing” Muslims, according to an in-depth research report on Islam in France published by Ifop.

Taken together, the research data provides empirical evidence that Islam is well on its way to overtaking Roman Catholicism as the dominant religion in France.

In Britain, Islam has overtaken Anglicanism as the dominant religion as more people attend mosques than the Church of England. According to one survey, 930,000 Muslims attend a place of worship at least once a week, whereas only 916,000 Anglicans do the same.


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Wikipedia, the Difficulties of Mapping World Religions, and a Most Bizarre Map

World Religion MapsIn teaching the global geography of religion this term, I have again been disappointed by the quality of relevant maps that are readily available on-line. Making a map of this sort is admittedly a challenge. Many areas contain multiple faiths, and a few religions—Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto—even allow their own adherents to follow other religions simultaneously. Degrees of religiosity and the prevalence of irreligion also vary tremendously from place to place. Syncretic belief systems that draw on multiple religions present a challenge of their own; an anthropologist friend of mine once described Guinea as “90 percent Muslim and 90 percent animist.” “Animism” itself is a problem, as it is not a faith but rather a catchall category. Another difficulty concerns divisions of major religions. How finely should one subdivide by sect, and how consistent should one be across the major religious divisions? If one distinguishes Sunni and Shia Islam, as well as Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, should not Mahayana Buddhism also be distinguished from Theravada Buddhism? How should one map less-widespread but equally distinctive religious branches, such as Ibadi Islam (Oman) and Oriental Orthodox Christianity (Armenia and Ethiopia)? Another problem stems from rapid demographic change in particular places. Most world religion maps, for example, show Xinjiang in northwestern China as dominated by Sunni Islam, as was indeed the case several decades ago, but Islam is now a minority faith across the eastern half of this Chinese region, owing to the massive influx of Han Chinese.

As a result of such issues, I do not expect anything approaching perfection in regard to the mapping of religious communities across the globe. But still, what I encounter when conducting a simple Google search of “world religion map” leaves me frustrated. None of the maps in that appeared in the first few screens are adequate to the task (the top-ranked images from my most recent search are reproduced above). Many of these maps show all countries as religiously homogenous, a problematic but understandable cartographic expedient. But the maps that ignore political boundaries are often even more flawed. To show the extent of such problems, I have placed the top-ranked handful of maps at the bottom of this post, pointing out three major errors in each case. For most of these maps, it would have been easy to have indicated many more.

Wikipedia World Religion Map 2After checking out dozens of maps, I tried a different tactic, this time searching under, “world religion map Wikipedia.” This search immediately returned two serviceable maps, one country-based and the other not. The latter map, entitled “The Religions of the World,” is particularly impressive. To be sure, I still have a few quibbles: why, for example, does it ignore “folk religions” (animism) in the upper Amazon and in the southern half of Africa, and why does it place generally secular areas (such as the Czech Republic) and uninhabited zones (such as central Greenland) in the same “no religion” category? But note as well the map’s exquisite details, which capture, for example, the Pomak Muslim area of southern Bulgaria, the Buddhism of Russia’s Kalmykia, and the Christianity of Mizoram, Nagaland, and Meghalaya in northeastern India.

Wikipedia World Religions Map 1All in all, these Wikipedia maps are so superior to the others that their low ranking in the initial search makes little sense. If one considers as well the scope and significance of the Wikipedia, such failure seems doubly mystifying—although I must admit to my own ignorance of the underlying algorithms that guide such searches. But I cannot help thinking of the continual trashing of the Wikipedia found in certain intellectual and educational quarters. Indeed, I had just finished reading yet another hit-piece, a Sp!ked article by Nigel Scott entitled “Wikipedia: where truth dies online” — which is graced with an even more disdainful tagline: “Run by cliquish, censorious editors and open to pranks and vandalism, Wikipedia is worthless and damaging.” Although I appreciate Sp!ked, especially for its anti-censorship campaign, I must say that I found Scott’s article to be on the “worthless and damaging” side of things. The Wikipedia is so vast that serious problems are inevitable, but all told I find it an indispensible compendium of knowledge. As I tell my students: “always start with the Wikipedia; never end with the Wikipedia.”

Bizarre World Religion MapIn most of the poor-quality world-religion maps found online, the errors are basic and relatively similar. But one high-ranking map, reproduced here to the left, is altogether different. On first glance, I assumed that this map depicts an alternative reality in some elaborate realm of fantasy game playing. I was intrigued, as the cartographer obviously knows something about interesting but obscure religions, such as Mazdakism and Mandaeanism, and as I have long been curious about “alternative world” mapping. But when I went to the website on which the map was posted, I was bewildered, as the site is simply the personal blog of a pro-Israel Kurdish nationalist living in Sweden who favors “liberal social democracy.” Bizarrely, he seems to label this map “Austria-Hungary. Ottoman empire. British, German, French and Russian empires,” and he provides no further explanation. (I have written to him seeking further information, but he has not replied.) Many of the labels on the map remain mysterious. I can find no information, for example, on “Nkisism,” and I have no idea what “Zuranic” means, although “Zuran” is a card in the game “Magic.” Perhaps my initial suspicion was correct.World Religion Map 2World Religion Map 3World Religion Map 4World Religion Map 5World Religion Map 6

World Religion Map 1

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