|Chapter 6: Religion
Introduction. Geographers are concerned with the distribution of the world's religions because of the potential for religious conflict and the different ways that religions use space. Religion is another core value of culture but unlike other cultural values, few religions allow for people to join more than one religion.
Case Study: The Dalai Lama versus the People's Republic of China. The Dalai Lama is the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet. He left Tibet over the conflict between the government of China and the people of Tibet, which China invaded. Many Tibetan Buddhists feel greater allegiance to the Dalai Lama and pre-Chinese Tibet than to the new government.
Key Issue 1. Where are Religions Distributed?
Universalizing religions appeal to people in a broad range of locations. Ethnic religions tend to be most appealing to a particular group of people in a particular place.
Universalizing Religions. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, the three main universalizing religions, can be divided into branches, denominations, and sects. Branches are fundamental divisions. Denominations are smaller divisions of branches, and sects are smaller groups that have split from a denomination.
Christianity is the largest religion in the world with an estimated 2 billion adherents (followers). Important branches of Christianity are Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. Christians are concentrated in the Western Hemisphere, with Catholics in Latin America, French Canada, and the U.S. Northeast and West. In Western Europe Protestants are more common in northern countries, Catholics more common to the south, and Eastern Orthodox adherents in far Eastern Europe from Russia to Greece. Many smaller branches of Christianity are also followed.
Islam had two major branches, Sunni and Shiite. Islam is found predominantly in North Africa and Southwest Asia, with Shiites concentrated in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. A large outlying population of Sunni Muslims lives in Indonesia. Muslim-adhering populations make up small but growing percentages of Europe and North America.
Buddhists are concentrated in China and Southeast Asia. There are three main branches: Mahayana, Theravada, and Tantrayana. In contrast to Christianity and Islam, Buddhism does not require exclusive adherence, so Buddhists may also follow ethnic religions.
The fourth- and fifth-largest universalizing religions are Sikhism and Baha'i, which are relatively young religions.
Ethnic Religions. Hinduism is an ethnic religion concentrated in India. Its 900 million adherents make it larger than Buddhism's 400 million and third in the world after Christianity and Islam. Hindus decide on particular deities based on their personal choice; holy places for worship are geographically concentrated for some deities.
Confucianism is an ethnic religion common to China based on ethical norms of behavior. Daoism is another Chinese ethnic religion. Shintoism is an ethnic religion of Japan. Judaism represents an exception to the usual distribution of ethnic religions, as its 14 million adherents are relatively widespread around the world. Ethnic African religions commonly follow animistic beliefs in the spiritual properties of plants, stones, and physical phenomena.
Key Issue 2. Why Do Religions Have Different Distributions?
The origins of universalizing religions are tied to a particular man in each religion's history. Ethnic religions usually have less distinct origins.
Origin of Religions. Christianity originated with the teachings of Jesus. Differences in Christian branches are over which set of doctrines (rules made after the death of Jesus) to adhere to, if any. Islam follows the same biblical narrative of the Old Testament as Christianity and Judaism for a while, but then diverges with the birth of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. The two branches of Islam formed over a disagreement of which person had a more rightful claim to succession of leadership from Muhammad. Buddhism originated in the experiences and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who was transformed into the Buddha. Different branches formed over competing interpretations of the teachings of the Buddha. Sikhism is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and his successors. Baha'i originated in the teachings and writings of the Bab and Baha'u'llah.
In contrast to the universalizing religions, Hinduism has unknown origins as the religion existed before any recorded history. The earliest Hindu religious documents are about 3,500 years old.
Diffusion of Religions. Christianity and Islam both originated in the eastern Mediterranean, with the spread of Christianity starting about 600 years later than Christianity. Both religions relied on relocation diffusion of missionaries and the hierarchical diffusion of military conquest or the conversion of rulers. Migration and missionary activities today continue to diffuse the religions from source areas to new locations. Buddhism diffused through missionaries but slowly compared to Christianity and Islam. Sikhism has remained relatively clustered in the Punjab region of northern India. Baha'i diffused more widely.
Ethnic religions lack missionaries and so are more likely to lose adherents to universalizing religions. Ethnic religions may blend with universalizing religions. Ethnic religions may also be diffused through the migration of adherents (see the Amish example in Chapter 4).
The diffusion of Judaism represents an exception to the usual concentrated distribution of ethnic religions. Jews migrated from the Eastern Mediterranean after AD 70, mostly into Eastern Europe. The distribution changed after the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis in World War II, when survivors migrated to Israel.
Holy Places. Ethnic religious holy places are typically based on the physical environment of the hearth region of that religion. Universalizing religions are more likely to consider holy places associated with key events in the founder's life. This can be observed in the holy places of Buddhism and Islam, which trace the movements of the Buddha and Muhammad. Sikhs consider the Golden Temple at Amritsar the most holy structure. Hindu holy places are all located in India and many Indian Hindus undertake pilgrimages to visit these sites.
Cosmogony refers to a religion's conception of the relationship between humans and nature. Religious interpretations of this relationship vary from treating the environment as something to be respected for its spiritual nature to something to be dominated for maximum human benefit.
The Calendar. Ethnic religions base their calendars on agricultural events, including Judaism. The observation of the solstices is important to some ethnic religions.
In universalizing religions, the calendar tends to be more oriented to holidays celebrating events in the founder's life. The Islamic and Baha'i calendars do not follow the more common Gregorian 12-month calendars. Christians observe the resurrection of Jesus on Easter and his birth on Christmas. Buddhists celebrate the Buddha's birth, Enlightenment, and death. Sikhs observe the birthdays and dates of death of the ten Sikh gurus.
Key Issue 3. Why do Religions Organize Space in Distinctive Patterns?
Places of Worship. Christian churches were traditionally constructed to be the tallest building. Churches represent holy structures for many Christian branches and are built large because of the importance given attendance at services. Muslim mosques are not considered sacred in Islam but instead are important gathering places for worship. Hindu temples are largely shrines devoted to a particular deity, not sites of group worship. Buddhism features pagodas and the Baha'i faith has built Houses of Worship on each continent.
Sacred Space. Religions observe different practices in the disposal of adherents' remains. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all practice burial in dedicated cemeteries. Hindus favor cremation to burial. Other groups leave the body exposed for scavengers or dispose of human remains at sea.
Some settlements were designed with religious principles in mind. The ultimate expression of this idea was the utopian settlement, but many communities feature designs giving religions a prominent role in the community, for instance in locating a church in the center of the town. Another way religion is reflected in geography is through the names given to towns.
Administration of Space. Universalizing religions may have hierarchical structures where leadership at a local level reports to a higher-order regional level until a final authority, governing the entire branch, is at the top of the hierarchy. Examples include the Latter-day Saints and the Catholic Church. Other religions give local autonomy to individual churches and only loosely coordinate their operations. Examples include Islam and Protestant denominations of Christianity.
Key Issue 4. Why Do Territorial Conflicts Arise Among Religious Groups?
Religion Versus Government Policies. Various conflicts have occurred between religions and governments. Conservative religious adherents sometimes oppose social change, sometimes as brought on by economic development. Examples include the Taliban's opposition to social change in Afghanistan and the conflict of Hinduism's caste system with Western goals of social equality. Religions have also conflicted with communist governments, which have either downplayed the role of religion in everyday life or worked actively against religions. Examples include the former Soviet Union and the role of Buddhism in Southeast Asia (and Tibet, from the Case Study).
Religion Versus Religion. Fundamentalist interpretations of religious principles may increase the likelihood of conflict with other religions. In Northern Ireland a protracted conflict between Catholics and Protestants over the allegiance of Northern Ireland. In the Middle East a long history of religious wars is the result of overlapping histories of three religions: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The Crusades were a series of wars fought against Muslims in the Middle East by Europeans intent on reclaiming Jerusalem.
The present-day conflict in Palestine/Israel has its roots in ancient history but more recently with the creation of the state of Israel and subsequent wars since 1947. Conflict today centers around the status of the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip, which are all territories under Israeli control but claimed by Palestinians.
Global Forces, Local Impacts. Jerusalem: Contested Geography. Jerusalem features sites holy to all three religions in conflict in the region, in some cases one on top of the other. Control of Jerusalem represents a key geographic problem to peace in the region.
Contemporary Geographic Tools: Building a Barrier in the Middle East. Israel is building a 420 mile-long separation barrier between Israeli territory and the occupied area of the West Bank. The barrier is seen by many as a solution to attacks by Palestinians, though it has been declared illegal and is controversial on several counts.