In recent articles, I have written on the geography of food, water, sports, and music, and how geospatial technologies and geographic methods are applied to these topics, all of which have been an essential part of the human experience since the beginning of civilization and even before. Likewise, religion and spirituality are and have been ubiquitous elements of humanity.
In this article, we’ll explore the fascinating geography of religion. For clarity and brevity, I will use the term religion to include all facets of belief in a world beyond what is tangible to our physical senses. Of course, those senses are part of that connection, as are material elements ranging from a drop of holy water or a stack of vision-seeking stones, to the monumental architecture of the Mayan and Egyptian pyramids.
The material aspects of religion are far beyond the scope of this article. Instead, let’s explore the amazing realm of world religions and what they mean to so many elements of human existence. As universal as religion is, so is geography, and the two are closely related. There are countless religions and faiths around the world, and with limited space, this piece can only touch on a few examples. The mention or omission of a religion or a faith does not imply any opinion of the author.
The migration of religion
Of course, there is no way to know when and where religion started, but we do know that as humanity has spread across the world, we have taken our beliefs with us. . These trips were sometimes short, and at other times, hundreds of generations. Homo sapiens has been shown to be incredibly adaptable, both to the physiographic and cultural setting, so that beliefs and religion have changed over time in dogma and space.
As an undergraduate student at Indiana University, I wrote an article on the migration of Buddhism from India to China. (With all due modesty, I got an A +, and I still have it in a box somewhere.) This was long before GIS and the Internet became ubiquitous tools, there was therefore only text and paper maps. Since then, however, researchers have used GIS to map the centuries-old migration of this faith, which has shaped the lives of billions of people.
As is the case with many web maps, this one on the Spread of Buddhism can be hard to digest at first, but once you dive into it it shows a fascinating history, illustrating many elements of this religion. It shows the routes taken by sects of Buddhism in various countries, spanning both space and time, and also, in a larger context, it shows how many different factors can be mixed together for individual stories to create one. much larger image, spanning centuries.
An interesting University of Arizona project, the Buddhist Geographic Information System, “… aims to digitally present data on Chinese Buddhism with the potential to expand the scope to include the entire Buddhist world to the ‘to come up “. The site is a bit complicated to use, but it offers downloadable data on temple sites, pilgrimages, and other aspects of the vast geographic scope of Buddhism.
Religion and geopolitics
Religion, as one of the most defining elements of identity, binds people together in a common culture. Unfortunately, as much religion has enriched humanity, it has been a constant source of conflict throughout the world. These conflicts have been, are now, and perhaps always will be, important elements of global geopolitics, shaping the lives of countless generations.
Every day we hear about religious conflicts in the news. One of the most lasting is that between the Jewish State of Israel and Islamic Palestine, a nation without a state of its own. Maybe no religious conflict at 20e and 21st centuries has affected American politics and interests as much as this one.
I was teaching “Geography of the Non-Western World” (admittedly an outdated term) in the state of Oregon, and one of my students was confused about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A young exchange student from Asia asked, “But why are they fighting so much? This place is so… it is so small! He had a degree in political science, so he raised his eyebrows and added, “There is no oil there.
This ongoing and incredibly complex conflict is described in a story map. While offering no resolution, the story map illustrates the many religious and political factors that continue to fuel conflict, not least of which is the use of the vast aquifer that lies beneath the shore. west of the Jordan, as well as, of course, the claim to Jerusalem, which both religions consider holy.
National Geographic has released a video series on the subject that uses interviews and maps to illustrate the complexity of life in the conflict zone.
Fortunately, there are people who seek peace. The Economic Cooperation Foundation, an Israeli think tank, has created an interactive database using Mapbox and OpenStreetMap. These are open source tools, and the site offers over a hundred downloadable maps and layers. Being open source, this site also offers editing possibilities for users who sign up for a group account. (Since I don’t know anything about the field, I chose not to contribute. This brings up the topic of ethics in GIS, especially in such a volatile environment, which I will cover in a future article.)
Mapping religion in the classroom
Mapping religion in the classroom can be difficult at any grade level, as Martin W. Lewis explained in his insightful article on GeoCurrents, “Wikipedia, the Difficulties of Mapping World Religions, and a Most Bizarre Map”.
Why is this difficult?
There are many religions and just as many ways to map them.
In the dynamics 21st century, people are moving faster than ever, often because of conflict, but also of opportunity, so collecting empirical data can be difficult.
There are also issues of scale and units of measurement. The majority religion in a country may be only 51%, and national borders, like many in Africa, have been redrawn by colonial powers without regard to previous allegiances.
So what exactly defines a religion? Islam and Christianity, for example, each have multiple belief systems, so simply putting them together can be unintentionally misleading.
Nonetheless, there are excellent map resources for showing religion across the country and the world. Lewis found a map on Wikipedia that shows a more nuanced picture, with religions defined by region rather than country. However, even the most basic maps can be an introduction to the big picture.
For decades, the CIA has compiled and published demographic and geopolitical data in various forms, both tabular and spatial, in The World Factbook. This data has been used for countless projects by many organizations, from humanitarian agencies to national defense (and sometimes to national crime).
From Bahai to Zoroastrianism and Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, The World Factbook offers comprehensive data sets on the world’s religions, country by country, and this data is incorporated into many online maps. One example is a basic AGOL map showing world religions by country, which is a great class tool for showing the global distribution of religion as it currently exists, albeit on a rough scale.
These maps illustrate the diversity of beliefs and, of course, spatial patterns will become evident. Africa is predominantly Muslim in the north and Christian in the south, while Buddhism is most prevalent in East Asia. Judaism is concentrated primarily in Israel, but the geographic scope of a particular faith may not reflect its importance on the world stage, as noted above.
Nationally, several resources are available. Although obsolete (2003), GIS Lounge has a Map Gallery of Religion in the United States. However, the data is mostly based on self-declaration, so this is another example of always checking your sources and creating metadata. They are very nice maps though, and reveal some interesting spatial patterns.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has an interactive map that includes religious data down to the provincial level. The audience-oriented site is clunky and mostly attribute-based, but it has some useful information that students could use.
Few of us are likely involved in geopolitical analysis and intelligence, and while demographics and religion are essential to conflict resolution, they can seem esoteric in our day-to-day lives. However, an understanding of the vast scope and diversity of this ingrained and perhaps timeless part of human history is essential to understanding the world. We have the power, and therefore the responsibility, to share this knowledge. Regardless of faith, we are still the same species and we all share the same world.