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.
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 a greater allegiance to the Dalai Lama and pre-Chinese Tibet than the new government. The Chinese are trying to encourage immigration to Tibet from other parts of China by building new roads, hospitals, schools, and power plants.
A universalizing religion appeals to people in a broad range of locations. The three universalizing religions with the largest number of adherents are Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Ethnic religions tend to be most appealing to a particular group of people in a particular place. The largest ethnic religion by far is Hinduism.
Universalizing religions can be divided into branches, denominations, and sects. Branches are fundamental divisions within a religion. A denomination is a division of a branch that unites a number of local congregations into a single legal and administrative body. A sect is a relatively small group that has broken away from an established denomination.
Christianity 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 are more common in the south, and Eastern Orthodox adherents in far Eastern Europe from Russia to Greece.
Many smaller branches of Christianity are also followed. Many of these smaller branches were isolated from other at an early point in the development of Christianity. This was partly the result of Islamic control of intervening territories in Southwest Asia and Northern Africa. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a smaller branch of Christianity in the Western Hemisphere.
Islam Islam has two major branches, Sunni and Shiite. Shiites are concentrated in Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan. Sunnis comprise 83 percent of all Muslims and are the largest branch in most Muslim countries in Southwest Asia and North Africa. A large population of Sunni Muslims also lives in Indonesia.
Muslim-adhering populations make up small but growing percentages of Europe and North America. France and Germany have the largest Muslim population in Europe. France has had a large number of immigrants from North Africa and Germany has had a large number of immigrants from Southwest Asia, South Asia, and North Africa migrated to the United States during the 1990s. The United States also has a small population of African Americans who have converted to Islam.
Buddhism 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. It also makes it difficult to get an accurate count of the number of Buddhists in the world.
Other Universalizing ReligionsThe fourth- and fifth-largest universalizing religions are Sikhism and Baha’i, which are relatively young religions. There are an estimated 23 million Sikhs in the world and the vast majority of them live in the Punjab region of India. There are 7 million adherents of the Baha’i faith and most of them are dispersed among many countries, primarily in Africa and Asia.
Hinduism 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 personal choice; holy places for worship are geographically concentrated for some deities.
Other Asian Ethnic ReligionsChinese traditional religions combine several traditions. It is difficult to count the number of adherents. Confucianism is based on ethical norms of behavior in daily life, such as following traditions, fulfilling obligations, and treating others with respect. Taoism is another Chinese ethnic religion and emphasized the mystical and magical aspects of life rather than the importance of public service. Several hundred million people practice primal-indigenous religions in Asia and the South Pacific islands.
Other Ethnic ReligionsEthnic African religions commonly follow animistic beliefs in the spiritual properties of plants, stones, and physical phenomena. Approximately 12 percent of Africans are animists. The number of animists in Africa has greatly declined in the last 30 years because Christianity and Islam are on the rise in Africa. This illustrates the growth of two universalizing religions at the expense of ethnic religions.
Judaism represents an exception to the usual distribution of ethnic religions, as its 14 million adherents are relatively widespread around the world. Judaism is significant because it was the first monotheistic religion. Judaism offered a sharp contrast to the polytheistic religions that worshiped multiple gods. Also Christianity and Islam find some of their roots in Judaism.
Key Issue 2: Why Do Religions Have Different Distributions?
Origin of Buddhism Buddhism originated in the experiences and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who was transformed into the Buddha. Siddhartha grew up in present-day Nepal and was the son of a very wealthy lord. He left his life of comfort and security at age 28 and spent the rest of his life preaching his views across India. Different branches formed over competing interpretations of the teachings of the Buddha.
Origin of Christianity Christianity originated with the teachings of Jesus, who was born in the city of Bethlehem in present day Israel and was raised as a Jew. Christian branches formed over the differences in which set of doctrines (rules made after the death of Jesus) to adhere to. Roman Catholics accept the teachings of the Bible as well as the interpretation of those teachings by church hierarchy, headed by the Pope. Orthodox Christians have rejected doctrines that the Roman Catholic Church has added since the eighth century. Protestants believe that individuals have primary responsibility for achieving personal salvation through direct communication with God.
Origin of Islam Muhammad was born in the city of Makkah in present day Saudi Arabia. At age 40 Muhammad received his first revelation from God. The Quran is a record of God’s words as revealed to the prophet Muhammad. By Muhammad’s death at age 63, the armies of Islam controlled most of present day Saudi Arabia. The two branches of Islam formed over a disagreement of which person had a more rightful claim to the succession of leadership from Muhammad.
Origin of Other Universalizing ReligionsSikhism and Baha’i were founded more recently than the three universalizing religions. 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.
Unknown Origin of HinduismIn 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. The Aryan tribes from Central Asia invaded India about 1400 b.c. and brought their religion with them. Centuries of intermingling with the Dravidians already living in the area modified their religious beliefs.
Diffusion of ChristianityChristianity originated in the eastern Mediterranean and spread by relocation diffusion through Christian missionaries. The most notable missionary was Paul of Tarsus, who traveled extensively through the Roman Empire. Many people at that time practiced pagan or polytheistic religions. Christianity later spread by hierarchical diffusion through military conquest and conversion of rulers. Roman emperors Constantine and Theodosius were instrumental in spreading Christianity in Europe and areas near the Mediterranean Sea.
Migration and missionary activities continue to diffuse Christianity all over the world. Through permanent resettlement of Europeans, Christianity became the dominant religion in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. Certain regions of North America are predominantly Catholic while others are predominately Protestant. Utah and large areas of some of the states adjacent to Utah are predominantly Mormon. Christianity has further diffused to Africa, where it is now the most widely practiced religion.
Diffusion of Islam Within a century of Muhammad’s death, Muslim armies conquered areas in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Some of the territory that was conquered by Islamic armies was eventually lost and some of those areas started practicing another religion. As was the case with Christianity, Islam diffused well beyond its hearth. Indonesia, which is the world’s fourth most populous country, is predominately Muslim because Arab traders brought the religion there in the thirteenth century.
Diffusion of Buddhism Buddhism diffused through missionaries also but diffused rather slowly compared to Christianity and Islam. The hearth of Buddhism is in northeastern India. The person most responsible for the diffusion of Buddhism was Emperor Asoka of the Magadhan Empire. The Magadhan Empire controlled a large area of South Asia between the sixth b.c. and the eighth century a.d. and Asoka sent missionaries to territories not controlled by the empire. Merchants diffused Buddhism to China and the Chinese were quite receptive to it. It later diffused to other countries in East Asia, though it lost its original base of support in India.
Diffusion of Other Universalizing ReligionsSikhism has remained relatively clustered in the Punjab region of Northern India. The Punjab region was divided in half by the British government in 1947. The western Punjab region is part of Pakistan and the eastern Punjab region is part of India. The Sikhs prefer to live in Hindu dominated India instead of Muslim dominated Pakistan. Baha’i diffused more widely.
Lack of Diffusion of Ethnic ReligionsEthnic religions lack missionaries and so are more likely to lose adherents to universalizing religions. Ethnic religions may blend with universalizing religions. In Africa traditional religious ideas are merged with Christianity. Desire for the merger of traditional practices with Christianity has led to the formation of several thousand churches in Africa not affiliated with established churches elsewhere in the world. In East Asia, Buddhism is the universalizing religion that has most mingled with ethnic religions. Ethnic religions may also be diffused through the migration of adherents.
The diffusion of Judaism represents an exception to the usual concentrated distribution of ethnic religions. Judaism is practiced in many countries, not just in its place of origin. Jews were forced to migrate from the Eastern Mediterranean after a.d. 70, mostly into Eastern Europe. They lived among other nationalities but retained their religious practices. Many of the Jews were persecuted and forced to live in neighborhoods, known as ghettos, that were exclusively inhabited by Jews. The distribution of Jews changed after the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis in World War II, when survivors migrated to Israel.
Key Issue 3: Why Do Religions Organize Space in Distinctive Patterns?
Places of Worship in Universalizing Religions 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 to attendance at the services. Muslim mosques are not considered sacred in Islam but instead are important gathering places for worship. Buddhism features elaborate pagodas which contain relics of the Buddha’s body or clothing. Pagodas are typically tall, many-sided towers arranged in series of tiers, balconies, and slanting roofs. Pagodas are not designed for congregational worship.
Sacred Places in Universalizing ReligionsUniversalizing religions are more likely to consider places holy that are 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. There are eight places that are considered holy to Buddhists because they were important events in the Buddha’s life. The cities of Makkah and Madinah are sacred to Muslims. Every healthy Muslim who has adequate financial resources is expected to undertake a pilgrimage to Makkah.
The Landscape in Ethnic Religions Ethnic religious holy places are typically based on the physical environment of the hearth region of that religion. Hindu holy places are all located in India and many Indian Hindus undertake pilgrimages to visit these sites. The natural features most likely to rank among the holiest shrines in India are riverbanks and coastlines. Because Hinduism has no central authority, the relative importance of shrines is established by tradition, not by doctrine. Hindu temples are built to house shrines for particular gods rather than for congregational worship. The temple does not need a large closed interior space filled with seats. Hindu temples only contain a small dimly lit room where a symbolic artifact or some other image of the god rests.
Cosmogony Cosmogony refers to a religion’s conception of the relationship between humans and nature. A variety of events in the physical environment are more likely to be incorporated into the principles of an ethnic religion. 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. Most universalizing religions believe that humans should modify the natural environment. Muslims and Christians believe they can serve God by cultivating land, draining wetlands, clearing forests, building new settlements, and otherwise making productive use of natural features that God created.
Disposing of the Dead Religions observe different practices in the disposal of their adherents’ remains. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all practice burial in dedicated cemeteries. Cemeteries are used as parks in Muslim countries, where the idea of using a cemetery as public open space faces less opposition than in Christian societies. Hindus favor cremation to burial. Hindus consider cremation an act of purification because it frees the body from the soul for departure to the afterworld. Other groups leave the body exposed for scavengers or dispose of the human remains at sea.
Religious Settlements and Place NamesSome 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. Salt Lake City is an example of a utopian town and it has a regular grid pattern and church-related buildings situated at strategic points. Another way religion is reflected in geography is through the names given to towns. The United States clearly illustrates the differences between place names selected by Roman Catholic and Protestant settlers.
The Calendar in JudaismJudaism bases their calendar on the agricultural calendar of the religion’s homeland in present day Israel. The agricultural holidays later gained importance because they also commemorated events in the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The observation of the solstices is important to some ethnic religions, but Judaism uses the lunar calendar rather than the solar calendar.
The Calendar in Universalizing ReligionsIn 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. Eastern Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar, so they actually celebrate Easter at a different day than Catholics and Protestants. Buddhists celebrate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. Sikhs observe the birthdays and dates of death of the 10 Sikh gurus.
Hierarchical Religions 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. The Mormons exercise strong organization of the landscape. The territory occupied by Mormons is managed by the president and board of the Mormon Church. The Roman Catholic Church has organized much of Earth’s inhabited land into an administrative structure ultimately accountable to the Pope in Rome. The Catholic Church divides the world into parishes, which may be as small as only a few square kilometers and less than a thousand people or as large as several hundred square miles and 5,000 people.
Locally Autonomous ReligionsOther religions give local autonomy to individual churches and only loosely coordinate their operations. Islam provides a lot of local autonomy because it does not have a formal religious hierarchy or formal territorial organization. Strong unity within the Islamic world is maintained by a relatively high degree of communication. Protestant Christian denominations vary in geographic structure from extremely autonomous to somewhat hierarchical.
Key Issue 4: Why Do Territorial Conflicts Arise among Religious Groups?
Religion versus Social Change Various conflicts have occurred between religions and governments. Conservative religious adherents sometimes oppose social change, sometimes brought on by economic development. In Afghanistan, the Taliban imposed very strict laws inspired by Islamic values. The Taliban believed they had been called by Allah to purge Afghanistan of sin and make the country a pure Islamic state. The Taliban not only opposed Western values, but also destroyed very old Buddhist statues. Many developed countries in the world completely oppose the Hindu caste system in India. The caste system still exists to a certain extent in India but has been considerably relaxed in recent years.
Religion versus Communism Religions have conflicted with communist governments, which have either downplayed the role of religion in everyday life or worked actively against religions. The Soviet Union pursued antireligious programs because the government believed that religious doctrine was a potential threat to the success of the country. All church buildings and property were nationalized and could be used only with local government permission. The communist governments in Southeast Asia have vandalized Buddhist monuments.
Religious Wars in IrelandThe most troublesome religious conflict in Western Europe is in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is 46 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic and is part of the United Kingdom. Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland have been victimized by discriminatory practices, such as exclusion from higher paying jobs and better schools. A small number of Roman Catholics joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a militant organization dedicated to achieving Irish unity by any means possible. Since 1968, more than 3,000 people have been killed in Northern Ireland—both Protestants and Catholics—in a continuing cycle of demonstrations and protests.
Religious Wars in the Middle EastFundamentalist interpretations of religious principles may increase the likelihood of conflict with other religions. 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 Christians intent on reclaiming Jerusalem. The Muslim Ottoman Empire controlled Palestine/Israel for most of four centuries between 1516 and 1917. Upon the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, the United Kingdom took control of the region. The present-day conflict in Palestine/Israel has its roots in ancient history but more recently with the creation of the state of Israel by the United Nations in 1947. There have been several wars in the region since 1948.
Conflicting Perspectives of the Holy LandConflict 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 the Palestinians. The Palestinians are Muslims that either formerly lived or are currently living in Israel or territories under Israeli control. Some Palestinians are willing to recognize the state of Israel in exchange for the all the territory taken by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Other Palestinians do not recognize the right of Israel to exist and want to continue fighting for control of the entire territory between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.
Jerusalem: Contested Geography Jerusalem feature sites holy to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Controlling Jerusalem represents a key geographic problem to peace in the region. The most sacred space in Jerusalem for Muslims was literally built on top of the most sacred space for Jews. Israel allows Muslims unlimited access to their holy structures in Jerusalem and some control over them. However, because the holy Muslim structures literally sit on top of the holy Jewish structures, the two sets of holy structures cannot be logically divided by a line on a map.