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

Submitted by on May 6, 2014 – 12:07 pm 29 Comments |  
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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  • jemblue

    The “Tribal, Christian and Muslim” description (for a broad swath of Sub-Saharan Africa) in one of the maps made me chuckle. They couldn’t get more precise than that?

    • Xezlec

      I think that’s just that amateur cartographer’s way of saying “nobody cares”.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      It is extremely difficult to map religion across much of Sub-Saharan Africa, as Christianity (in many forms), Islam, and “animism” or often intermixed in a very complex manner. A former student of mine, Eugene Adogla of Ghana, did an interesting project on this topic, but he had to use country-level data. Unfortunately, his work does not seem to be on the web any longer. Here, however, is one of his max:

  • Luke S.

    The last map you talked about is so strange! I hope he sends a message back to you, I would like to know what he was thinking!

  • Dan

    You are right, Martin Lewis, there’s a lot of issues concerning religion maps and you’ve perfectly summed them up. The first is the basic data. Do you know any good sources on the geography of religions?

    As of “irreligion”, I don’t think it’s a good idea to put it into maps together with religions. Irreligion is usually a lack of religion, not a substance on its own. In the possible cases of changing attitudes in the society (new interest in spirituality, polarization of society, war, …), the irreligious people will turn to the religion of their country, not to a totally foreign religion. That’s why it’s generally not helpful to mix religion and irreligion in one map. The second reason is that religion/irreligion has many shades and levels, so irreligion and religion shouldn’t be placed against each other, in fact, it can be seen as a continuum.

    Let’s illustrate some points on the Netherlands: according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netherlands#Religion) 51 % irreligious, 24 % catholic, 14 % protestant, 5 % islamic. What would happen in the case of social polarization? Where would the 51 % go? I think they’d end up with the protestants, because historically there was a protestant majority in the Netherlands, but the secularization was faster and stronger by them. So today the biggest religion are catholics. So if we had to colour the country on the map with one colour, isn’t the Netherlands in fact a protestant country?

    As can be seen from the above maps:
    – they fail to show more than one religion in an area, not to speak of percentages, proportions.
    – they often assign a country to a single religion, which really diminishes the information value

    - they exaggerate the tribal religions – Do really the remnants of native Siberian and North American people have any solid connection to their original religions?
    – sometimes, they’re totally wrong

    And, by the way, what is the religious situation in N Korea?

    • Xezlec

      I’d like to know where you’re getting this idea that “irreligious” people will inevitably turn to religion in the case of a changing society. History doesn’t seem to bear that out at all. Somewhat the opposite, actually.

      • Dan

        Well, I in fact wanted to say that if there are changes in the society towards ideology, possibly a conflict with another ideology, the irreligious people will side with the religion which is close to them. Even if they’re not religious, somewhere back in the brain they have some cultural identity that is also connected to a particular religion.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for the interesting observations. ItI agree that it is probably best to map “irreligion” separately. Siberian “Shamanism” does seem to hold on in some areas, but I can’t say to what extant. In North Korea, some religion is allowed, but in a highly restricted manner. Some sources count the official ideology of “Juche” (self-reliant Korean nationalism, in essence) as a religion. Other don’t.

  • Guest

    “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.” Is this reflected in the census? If it is, there should be a corresponding revision of existing maps.

    But then, what is to be done about places where no recent censuses have been conducted, but where changes have unquestionably taken place since that time? In Lebanon, for instance, there is widespread agreement that the percentage of Christians has fallen to about 30 percent or so, even if, in the last census, conducted, if I am not mistaken, back in 1932, Christians still constituted a majority? Or places like Togo (?), where it is reported that “animists” (itself an ambiguous category, as you say) are the majority group, although this is not reflected in many estimates. Or reports (I am not sure how reliable they are – they could be exaggerated figures by exteme rightists, bigots or xenophobes) that in some places in Europe, such are Marseille in France Muslims are now the biggest religious group, since the “majority” group, among whom Christianity would be expected to predominate, native-born French/Europeans, now mostly have no religion, or have become “neo-pagans”.

  • Jeronimo Constantina

    “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.” Is this reflected in the census? If it is, there should be a corresponding revision of existing maps.

    But then, what is to be done about places where no recent censuses have been conducted, but where changes have unquestionably taken place since that time? In Lebanon, for instance, there is widespread agreement that the percentage of Christians has fallen to about 30 percent or so, even if, in the last census, conducted, if I am not mistaken, back in 1932, Christians still constituted a majority? Or places like Togo (?), where it is reported that “animists” (itself an ambiguous category, as you say) are the majority group, although this is not reflected in many estimates. Or reports (I am not sure how reliable they are – they could be exaggerated figures by exteme rightists, bigots or xenophobes) that in some places in Europe, such are Marseille in France, Muslims are now the biggest religious group, since the “majority” group, among whom Christianity would be expected to predominate, native-born French/Europeans, now mostly have no religion, or have become “neo-pagans”.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Good points. Lebanon has indeed refused to conduct a census in recent years, as its “confessional” mode of government is based on out-dated religious percentages. This Wikipedia map shows the current ethnicity figures for Xinjiang:

  • Jeronimo Constantina

    The “The Religions of the World” map does seem to be generally reliable. Nevertheless, I’m mystified by that Indonesian island that has a Buddhist majority. Is there any basis for this, or is it a clear error?

    • Dan

      It is Christmas Island, a territory of Australia. According to Wikipedia: The ethnic composition is 70% Chinese, 20% European/Australian, and 10% Malay.
      A 2011 report by the Australian government estimated that religions
      practised on Christmas Island include Buddhism 75%, Christianity 12%,
      Islam 10%, and other 3%. (The population is 2,072 people.)

      • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

        Good point; Christmas Island is the one to the south of western Java.

      • Jeronimo Constantina

        Thank you. Because of its proximity, I mistook it for an Indonesian island. Now it all makes sense.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      I assume that it is supposed to be Bali, although it is located too far to the east, and Balinese religion is usually classified as as Hindu rather than Buddhist, although it does arguably have some Buddhist elements.

  • Jeronimo Constantina

    The “World Religions” map, which depicts North Korea as Christian, might have intended to identify South Korea, which is labeled as “Buddhist,” as Christian, and missed the mark. You see, in the same map, South Korea is considered Buddhist, when many recent accounts and estimates of religious adherents there now consider Christians the most numerous religious group, overtaking Buddhists and Confucianists.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Good points. Here is a Wikipedia chart of religion in south Korea

      • Jeronimo Constantina

        Thanks for sharing this chart. I find the percentage classified under the heading “Irreligion” intriguing. Could they be referring to Confucianists? You will notice that Confucianism is totally absent in the map, despite the fact that many estimates of religious adherence consider Confucianism to be one of the major religions of South Korea. On the other hand, there are those who consider Confucianism a philosophy and not a religion, so one might expect the cartographers to have subsumed Confucianism under “Irreligion”. The reports about people lapsing into irreligion are mostly about Europe and to some extent North America, as well as China, but I am not aware of reports that this is the case in South Korea. But if Confucians have been lumped into the “Irreligion” category, the map will certainly make sense.

        • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

          Good points. Confucianism is deeply present in South Korea. It can be considered a religion (there are many Confucian Temples in China and Taiwan), but it can also be practiced as a largely secular philosophy. I probably should have mentioned such complications in the main article.

  • SirBedevere

    The really odd map is certainly an alternate history game sort of thing. “Zuranism” is, I would suspect, Zurvanism. He even indicates his in-game holy places, such as the “Great Punic Synagogue.” That he is a Kurd sympathetic to Israel makes a great deal of sense to me. In his world, there was no Islam, Hinduism appears to have become a tendency within Buddhism, and Christianity, if it existed, arose possibly in Central Asia and merged with Buddhism, which never spread to Korea, much less Japan. Judaism and the Zoroastrian religions appear to have become the great missionary religions. My guess is that Nkisism refers to nkisi, a Bantu term for spirits, so it is probably his term for an institutionalized African animism. I’ve seen crazier.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Fascinating observations, which make a lot of sense. Many thanks!

  • Guest

    Despite the glaring errors of the Major Religions of the World map, such as labeling Northern Manchuria as Christian and
    Central Saudi Arabia as an area of “Mixed” Religion, one of its virtues is that places with significant minorities are indicated, particularly for Judaism and Islam. And this is certainly very significant for several parts of Europe. According to estimates show below (from Wikipedia, though the primary sources are given), a quarter of Amsterdam and Brussels is now Muslim, as is a third of Bradford, and nearly 40% of Marseille. Considering that many Europeans, a majority according to some, are now non-practicing or have lapsed into irreligion, Muslims would be expected to have become the biggest religious group in many parts of Europe, or are expected to be in a few years.

    List of cities in the European Union by Muslim population

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_in_the_European_Union_by_Muslim_population.

    Amsterdam Netherlands 14%,[8] 24%[7]

    Bradford UK 15%,[12] 32.4%[13]

    Brussels Belgium 15%,[4][5][12] 17%,[7][14] 25.5%[15]

    Marseille France 20%,[7][12] 37.8%,[4][5][22][23]

    [4] ^ a b c d e f g h i j Nydell, Margaret K. Understanding Arabs: a contemporary guide to Arab society. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press. p. 132. ISBN 9780983955801. “In 2011 they constituted 25 percent of Rotterdam, Marseilles, and Amsterdam; 20% of Malmo; 15 percent of Brussels and Birmingham; and 10 percent of London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Vienna.
    Muslims in Western Europe originate from both Arab and non-Arab countries. Those in the United Kingdom are primarily from South Asia, in France from North and West Africa, in Germany from Turkey, in Belgium from Morocco, and in the Netherlands from Morocco and Turkey.”

    [7] ^ a b c d e f g h i “When town halls turn to Mecca”. The Economist. 4 December 2008. Retrieved 28 January 2013. “see the chart [4]”

    [8] ^ “Bureau voor Onderzoek en Statistiek: ‘Geloven in Amsterdam'” [Bureau of Research and Statistics: Faith in Amsterdam] (PDF). Retrieved 25 April 2012.

    [12] ^ a b c d e f g h Micklethwait, John; Wooldridge, Adrian (2009). God is back how the global revival of faith is changing the world. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781101032411. “Muslims are highly concentrated—they make up 24 percent of the population in Amsterdam; 20 percent in Malmo and Marseille; 15 percent in Paris, Brussels, Bradford, and Birmingham; and 10 percent or more in London and Copenhagen.” Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)

    [13] ^ a b c d e f g “2011 Census: Religion, local authorities in England and Wales”. United Kingdom Census 2011. Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 12 December 2012.

    [15] ^ Jan Hertogen, “In België wonen 628.751 moslims(*), 6,0% van de bevolking. In Brussel is dit 25,5%, in Wallonië 4,0%, in Vlaanderen 3,9%,” BuG 100 – Bericht uit het Gewisse – 11-09-2008, http://www.npdata.be, (*)Berekend aantal – indicatief cijfer, zie methodologie hieronder

  • Guest

    Despite the glaring errors of the Major Religions of the World map, such as labeling Northern Manchuria as Christian and
    Central Saudi Arabia as an area of “Mixed” Religion, one of its virtues is that places with significant minorities are indicated, particularly for Judaism and Islam. And this is certainly very significant for several parts of Europe. According to estimates shown below (from Wikipedia, though the primary sources are given), a quarter of Amsterdam and Brussels is now Muslim, as is a third of Bradford, and nearly 40% of Marseille. Considering that many Europeans, a majority according to some, are now non-practicing or have lapsed into irreligion, Muslims would be expected to have become the biggest religious group in many parts of Europe, or are expected to be in a few years.

    List of cities in the European Union by Muslim population

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_in_the_European_Union_by_Muslim_population.

    Amsterdam Netherlands 14%,[8] 24%[7]

    Bradford UK 15%,[12] 32.4%[13]

    Brussels Belgium 15%,[4][5][12] 17%,[7][14] 25.5%[15]

    Marseille France 20%,[7][12] 37.8%,[4][5][22][23]

    [4] ^ a b c d e f g h i j Nydell, Margaret K. Understanding Arabs: a contemporary guide to Arab society. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press. p. 132. ISBN 9780983955801. “In 2011 they constituted 25 percent of Rotterdam, Marseilles, and Amsterdam; 20% of Malmo; 15 percent of Brussels and Birmingham; and 10 percent of London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Vienna.
    Muslims in Western Europe originate from both Arab and non-Arab countries. Those in the United Kingdom are primarily from South Asia, in France from North and West Africa, in Germany from Turkey, in Belgium from Morocco, and in the Netherlands from Morocco and Turkey.”

    [7] ^ a b c d e f g h i “When town halls turn to Mecca”. The Economist. 4 December 2008. Retrieved 28 January 2013. “see the chart [4]”

    [8] ^ “Bureau voor Onderzoek en Statistiek: ‘Geloven in Amsterdam'” [Bureau of Research and Statistics: Faith in Amsterdam] (PDF). Retrieved 25 April 2012.

    [12] ^ a b c d e f g h Micklethwait, John; Wooldridge, Adrian (2009). God is back how the global revival of faith is changing the world. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781101032411. “Muslims are highly concentrated—they make up 24 percent of the population in Amsterdam; 20 percent in Malmo and Marseille; 15 percent in Paris, Brussels, Bradford, and Birmingham; and 10 percent or more in London and Copenhagen.” Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)

    [13] ^ a b c d e f g “2011 Census: Religion, local authorities in England and Wales”. United Kingdom Census 2011. Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 12 December 2012.

    [15] ^ Jan Hertogen, “In België wonen 628.751 moslims(*), 6,0% van de bevolking. In Brussel is dit 25,5%, in Wallonië 4,0%, in Vlaanderen 3,9%,” BuG 100 – Bericht uit het Gewisse – 11-09-2008, http://www.npdata.be, (*)Berekend aantal – indicatief cijfer, zie methodologie hieronder

    • jemblue

      There seems to be a pretty big discrepancy for Marseille, with sources ranging from 20% to 40%. I guess that may come to how we’re defining “Muslim”.

  • Jeronimo Constantina

    Despite the glaring errors of the Major Religions of the World map, such as labeling Northern Manchuria as Christian and
    Central Saudi Arabia as an area of “Mixed” Religion, one of its virtues is that places with significant minorities are indicated, particularly for Judaism and Islam. And this is certainly very significant for several parts of Europe. According to estimates shown below (from Wikipedia, though the primary sources are given), a quarter of Amsterdam and Brussels is now Muslim, as is a third of Bradford, and nearly 40% of Marseille. Considering that many Europeans, a majority according to some, are now non-practicing or have lapsed into irreligion, Muslims would be expected to have become the biggest religious group in many parts of Europe, or will be in a few years.

    List of cities in the European Union by Muslim population

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_in_the_European_Union_by_Muslim_population.

    Amsterdam Netherlands 14%,[8] 24%[7]

    Bradford UK 15%,[12] 32.4%[13]

    Brussels Belgium 15%,[4][5][12] 17%,[7][14] 25.5%[15]

    Marseille France 20%,[7][12] 37.8%,[4][5][22][23]

    [4] ^ a b c d e f g h i j Nydell, Margaret K. Understanding Arabs: a contemporary guide to Arab society. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press. p. 132. ISBN 9780983955801. “In 2011 they constituted 25 percent of Rotterdam, Marseilles, and Amsterdam; 20% of Malmo; 15 percent of Brussels and Birmingham; and 10 percent of London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Vienna.
    Muslims in Western Europe originate from both Arab and non-Arab countries. Those in the United Kingdom are primarily from South Asia, in France from North and West Africa, in Germany from Turkey, in Belgium from Morocco, and in the Netherlands from Morocco and Turkey.”

    [7] ^ a b c d e f g h i “When town halls turn to Mecca”. The Economist. 4 December 2008. Retrieved 28 January 2013. “see the chart [4]”

    [8] ^ “Bureau voor Onderzoek en Statistiek: ‘Geloven in Amsterdam'” [Bureau of Research and Statistics: Faith in Amsterdam] (PDF). Retrieved 25 April 2012.

    [12] ^ a b c d e f g h Micklethwait, John; Wooldridge, Adrian (2009). God is back how the global revival of faith is changing the world. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781101032411. “Muslims are highly concentrated—they make up 24 percent of the population in Amsterdam; 20 percent in Malmo and Marseille; 15 percent in Paris, Brussels, Bradford, and Birmingham; and 10 percent or more in London and Copenhagen.” Cite uses deprecated parameters (help)

    [13] ^ a b c d e f g “2011 Census: Religion, local authorities in England and Wales”. United Kingdom Census 2011. Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 12 December 2012.

    [15] ^ Jan Hertogen, “In België wonen 628.751 moslims(*), 6,0% van de bevolking. In Brussel is dit 25,5%, in Wallonië 4,0%, in Vlaanderen 3,9%,” BuG 100 – Bericht uit het Gewisse – 11-09-2008, http://www.npdata.be, (*)Berekend aantal – indicatief cijfer, zie methodologie hieronder

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Many thanks for providing this information.

  • Andre Engels

    The “Religion mixed” in Saudi Arabia seems to be an error of the legend rather than the map itself. Judging from the areas that have that yellow on the map, it actually means “very low population density”. Which also explains why Tibet has thsi colour rather than “buddhist”.

  • http://blog.zolnai.ca/ Andrew Zolnai

    Well u sure know how 2 stir up a hornets nest, n I love it! Your trials show why I ‘roll my own maps’. On this theme I found great tabular data on data.un.org I then posted on Google Fusion Tables (GFT search for either on my blog)… tho of course that doesn’t achieve ur level of detail! Also just posted a discussion paper for Anthropocene Review to crosspost on their blog, arguing how DIY maps can help.