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The Pitfalls and Promises of Mapping World Religion

Submitted by on October 15, 2015 – 7:05 pm 9 Comments |  
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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  • laxman

    Religions in the world are many and people born out of parents belonging to a particular religion do boast of the religion in which he/she is born. Eversince people started getting themselves converted or embracing other religion for better living/by marriage or more faith the tenets of various religions got diluted.There are pitfalls and false promises in most of the religions in the world.There is politics in every religion in the world and vice versa.
    But the population of people in Islam is soaring and due to various sects in Islam conflict amongst the people of Islam the world over continues.

    • Yes, Islam is growing rapidly. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center Report:

      “The religious profile of the world is rapidly changing, driven primarily by differences in fertility rates and the size of youth populations among the world’s major religions, as well as by people switching faiths. Over the next four decades, Christians will remain the largest religious group, but Islam will grow faster than any other major religion. If current trends continue, by 2050 …

      The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.

      Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.

      The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.

      In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.

      India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.

      In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.

      Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.”

      • I was rather surprised at the prediction that Islam will surpass Judaism in the United States: I’ve thought it was already the case. But not according to the figures reported, which are anywhere between 5-7 million. There’s quite a controversy about these numbers:

        I think the largest problem is figuring out who to count: just as there are many non-believers in predominantly Christian cultures, many Jews are non-believers or “high holidays only” or something in between. (Another problem is that certain religious strands in Judaism don’t recognize others, but that’s more of a problem in Israel than in the USA.)

        The problem of Jews-by-religion vs. Jews-by-ethnicity becomes worse when world numbers are combined: in Eastern Europe (e.g. Russia), “Jewish” = ethnicity, and population census data there includes Jews who are of other faiths (nonsense if one takes “Jewish” to mean a religion).

        When adding up the numbers of “Jews” in the US (mostly religion but counting is problematic), in Israel and Russia/FSU (mostly ethnicity), what is added is “apples and oranges”.

        Anyway, all that is to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more religious Muslims in the USA already than religious Jews.

      • laxman

        Dear Martin,I concur with ur views expressed.However statistics of population religionwise mentioned will not have much bearing as long as conflict exists amongst Muslims itself(shia-sunnis-wahabis-jamaat and deobandh etc)Also among Hindus of different sects and upper and lower catses the bitterness continues.People born out of parents of a particular religion have no respect for the religion and parents when they opt for conversion.Religion and mankind will suffer from pitfalls for generations to come as I envisage.

  • “Jordan is Jewish” — and Israel is not (at least on this map)…

  • mountleek

    Thank you for a very discussion-triggering article. This is a continuation of your previous article I have several notes.

    1) In many works about civilizations, Subsaharan Africa is considered not yet determined to which civilization it will belong. The amended world religions and syncreted religions in Africa are part of this phenomenon.

    2) There are quite a few terms for “primitive” religons: mixed syncretic faiths, animism, tribal religions, folk religions, shamanism, traditional, indigenous, ethnic, nature religions, local religions. I’m not sure of the exact meaning of each of these terms. Interestingly, “Chinese folk religions” are always depicted separately as well as other East Asian local religions, such as those in Korea, Japan, Vietnam… Actually it is understandable because East Asia is a different cultural area.

    3) One can indeed rarely see Buddhism divided in the maps. Perhaps because it doesn’t have that big cultural and political implications as in the case of Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox and Sunni/Shia divisions? And because it often co-exists with local religions?

    4) Mapping religion and issues concerning the population indeed can’t be done by anybody. The first reason is the lack of statistics. One also must have a general notion of the area’s history, settlement patterns, cultural and political history, current trends and so on. Many simple maps lack such understanding. For making very good religious maps, one must also have a notion of the history (and preferably also the theology) of the inquired religion and a notion of the differences between the religion’s divisions and the history of them.

    5) Let’s not forget that religious landscape is very changeable in time. Different rates of fertility, population movements and displacements (very very common in the greater Middle East), Islamic immigrantion to Europe, religious conversion (may be forced or encouraged through discrimination), leaving religion for irreligion, different levels of sticking to a particular religion etc.

    • Excellent points — many thanks. All of this makes mapping religion very difficult, but I do think that it is still worth a try. But as your second point makes clear, it is almost impossible in some areas. How, for example, to map China with its traditional blend of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism (which is not even necessarily a religion), and “folk” beliefs, as well as its more recently established Marxian atheism along with its burgeoning Christian population? Quite a challenge!

  • mountleek

    And a few words about mapping techniques:

    Maps usually don’t manage the fact that in big cities there are also religions different from the surrounding areas. The most used mapping method is coloring the country in the map, but big cities are not differentiated from the surrounding areas. So from maps we can’t find out the big communities of Muslims in Marseille and in Paris and so on. People of all religions move to big cities all over the world and this is not mapped.

    When there is a mixed religious area, maps employ colored stripes of the coexisting religions in the area. I find the stripes not very good, because it sometimes can’t be recognized the exact shape of the mixed area. The better method would be to employ dots, so one can recognize the shape better.

    All in all, I think that religions maps could use more methods than just coloring a country and striping a mixed area.