The Geography of Religion Basics Page

Here's the stuff on the Geography of Religion...

This page makes this website more than just a collection of religions with odds and ends. In fact, geography can lead to a fascinating study into the "Why's", "Wherefore's", and "Gee wizzes" of religions and their respective cultures. To help you get started, we've included the basics to it all below.

The texts we used in the study of the geography of religion in 1996 were A World Religions Reader by Ian S. Markham (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996) and Geography of Religions by David E. Sopher (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967). The book by Sopher is currently out of print but is an excellent study of the subject with an emphasis on the geographical aspects of religion. Check your library or look into an interlibrary loan for a copy. In 1999, we used Sacred Worlds by Chris C. Park (New York: Routledge, 1994). What is presented here is information from these texts as well as material presented as lecture and discussion in class by Tim Pitts. The material and order of this webpage closely follows that of Sopher.

Table of Contents

Labeling Religions
Methods of Study
Exclusivity versus Non-exclusivity
Ethnic versus Universalizing
Structural Organization
Physical Environment and Religion
The Relationship between Religion and Geography
Physical Features and Religion
The Ecology of Religions
Religion and the Land
Environmental Determinisim, Possibilism, and Probabilism
Effects of Religion on the Landscape
Religious Structures
How Practice affects the Landscape
How Doctrine affects the Landscape
Religious Organization of Space
Religious Centers
Religious Hierarchy
Sacred Languages
Religion and Government
State Religions
The Distribution of Religions
Processes of Diffusion
Contact Conversion
Missionary Work
Interaction between Religions
Religions and Political Power

Labeling Religions

The first question in studying religion is how we approach religion. To best understand religion, we should approach the world's religions with the attitude of religious pluralism; that is, with the view that all religions are equal.

There are several methods used in the study of religion. The first is the historical comparative method which involves the comparison of a faith's history and traditions. It focuses on orthodoxy, or "correct thought". The second method is the phenomenological method, which is centered on orthopraxy, or "correct practice". Information on a faith is gathered through unbiased, empirical observations.

Other methods involve subjective modes of study such as the confessional method of study. The confessional method interprets a religion based on the particular point of view of the religion. This approach can lead to bias in comparing differing religions. The final method is the empathetic approach, which is based on putting oneself in the place of the practitioner of a particular religion. You see with their eyes and feel as they feel.

All of these approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. They can give us a start in understanding as well as labeling the world's religions. Religions can be labeled along several axes.

All of the world's religions can be labeled along an axis of exclusivity and non-exclusivity. This is based on how false a religion regards other religions. Exclusive religions are more often than not monotheistic and occidental. Examples include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Non-exclusive religions are usually polytheistic and oriental. They include Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Shintoism. It is not uncommon for a practicer of one of these traditions to also practice another non-exclusive religion. This does not usually happen in the practice of exclusive religions.

Another axis is whether a religion is ethnic or universalizing. Ethnic religions are based on place, ethnic group, or nationality. Simple ethnic religions are usually based on place or kinship groups and include animism and shamanism. Compound ethnic religions lose some of the kinship characteristic but is more tied to nationality, ethnicity, and state. Shintoism is an example of this. Complex ethnic religions exist when ethnicity and religion become inseparable. An example of this is Hinduism, where social order is determined by religious ideals.

A universalizing religion is dependent on how open the religion is to accepting outsiders. Universalizing religions have four characteristics:

  1. adherents believe what they think is proper for all human kind
  2. have a means of transmission
  3. are not inextricably linked to a nation, ethnicity, or place
  4. are dominant somewhere
Universalizing religions include Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Universalizing religions can have an ethnic "flavor" and may include ethnic subgroups such as the Amish and the Nation of Islam. These groups may be referred to as segmental religious systems.

Religions may also be classed according to organization. A church is a comprehensive and balanced set of teachings as found in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Anglican Church. A denomination is comprehensive, but has more strict rules as with the Presbyterian Church. A sect is a group in which the characteristics of that group are more important. Examples of various sects are Pentecostals, Assembly of God churches, and Mormonism. A cult is a very small, geographically isolated group usually with a charismatic figurehead. Examples of cults include Moonies and the Peoples' Temple. Note that this definition of cult does not include doctrinal definitions used by certain "cult bashing" organizations and deprogrammers, although major departures from orthodox doctrines are often characteristic of cults.

What often separates these groups are some variation of orthodoxy, or correct thought. Heresy is some violation of orthodoxy.

Physical Environment and Religion

A mistake often made in the studying the relationship between geography and religion is to assume that geography is an explanation for the origin of certain features within a religion. We study this relationship to understand the effect of geography upon a religion, and the effect of that religion upon the geography of a region.

Across many of the world's religions, mountains have been associated with talking to God or as the abode of a god. Mount Sinai was the place where God talked to Moses and the Jews. The Mount of Olives was where Jesus ascended into heaven and where he is supposed to return. Mt. Athos in Greece as an ancient monastery where monks dedicate their lives to living in seclusion devoted to God. Olympus was the home of the ancient Greek pantheon and Mt. Fuji was the dwelling place of gods in Japan. Man even built artificial mountains in an attempt to reach the divine in the form of pyramids, ziggarats, and mounds.

Rocks also had religious significance. Stonehenge and Easter Island provide examples from ethnic religions of the past. The Kotel (the "Wailing Wall" in Jerusalem), being the last vestiges of the Second Temple, is a modern example.

Other physical features have had religious significance as well. Trees were used to create totems. The Nile River was sacred in ancient Egyptian religion and the Ganges Rivers is sacred today to the Hindus. Water is used as a means of purification in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The desert is often seen as a means of spiritual refinement. It is seen by many as having given rise to monotheism.

The Ecology of Religion

In simple ethnic religions, the processes of nature become ritualized in an attempt to entreat, placate, or change these processes or the powers behind them. The simple ethnic religions are built around the cycles of nature as manifested by fertility rituals, ritualization of agriculture, and harvest festivals. As the society and religion becomes more complex, the type of ritual practiced also changes. The pastorialist society of ancient Israel despised the fertility rites of the surrounding agricultual societies and the pigs associated with them.

When Christianity began, it had many of the values from the Mediterranean agricultural societies from which it originated. Gradually, freed from the strictures of Jewish law, and with the relative ease of transmission through the Roman road system, Christianity began to take on the characteristics of the peoples who accepted it. The Jewish Passover became Easter. Christmas was not originally celebrated by early Christians, but absorbed the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Christianity lacks the celebration of the harvest season, and eventually allowed the observance of Hallowe'en. The celebration of Thanksgiving Day in North America has also come to fill this gap in the Christian calendar.

Religion and the Land

Environmental determinism is the belief that the physical environment determines religious thought. According to this idea, the importance of the Ganges River in India eventually gave rise to the belief that it is sacred. Possibilism is the idea that the environment put very broad limits on religious thought. Probabilism theorizes that for each environment, there is a range of possibilities where some conceptual structures are more probable than others.

Religion can have a number of different effects on landscape. The most well known is that of sacred structures. Sacred structures would include such things as cathedrals, churches, temples, cemetaries, shrines, and monuments. These structures represent organization within the society and an economic level which allows for surplus and specialization.

Study of these structures include form, orientation, and density. Places of worship occur in areas of concentrated population, and tend to be larger than other concentrations of people. Dwelling places of God(s) such as shrines or temples can be located anywhere. Orientation of houses of worship in both Islam and Judaism is important. Function often dictates form. The density of places of worship is often dictated by function as well. For example, orthodox Judaism teaches that a mikvah (a pool for ritual cleansing) is the most important structure in a Jewish community, and should be built even before a synagogue.

Religious practice may also affect landscape in how a community handles the world around it. Such things as crop rotation, acceptable and unacceptable commodities, and burial practices all have their effects. Food taboos may alter the area fauna and flora. Work taboos will affect the daily rhythms of life and commerce. The prohibition of usury (interest on loans) might hinder the economic well-being of a region. Social ranking sanctioned with religious justification will structure the society.

Religious doctrine may have far reaching effects. Religiously dictated rates of fertility affect population. Religiously sanctioned wars may cause widespread destruction and upheaval. Renunciation of the world by significant a portion of a population may affect the economy of a region. Monastic institutions may provide services needed in an area. An obligation to read scriptures will favor a high literacy rate.

Locally dominant religions may affect a landscape to provide it with certain characteristics. Amish settlements exist without electric power or automobiles. Mormon settlements in the western United States resulted in cities having wide streets, square blocks, centered around a concentration of religious, administrative, and economic institutions, and were usually surrounded by irrigated fields.

Religious Organization of Space

Religions differ in how they divide the geographical space of earth (and beyond!). Simple ethnic religions often ritualize their living space through myths about ancestors. Australian Aboriginal "dream time" is a reflection of their living space. Whether or not a religious system produces a mythical geography that corresponds to their physical reality, it will have some sacred connection to elements of the original territory. For example, a common biblical term for a place of eternal fiery punishment is gehenna. This is a varient rendering of Hinnom, a valley south of Jerusalem, where child sacrifices by fire were conducted by the heathen priests.

As religion becomes more complex, space is divided and often separated from the outside world. The divided space may then be divided into varying degrees of holiness, or separation. In an ethnic religion, a national land itself may become holy as found in Zionism and other nationalist movements.

Sacred places may be found in lakes, rivers, rocks, mountains, and groves, possibly in association with a particular person or event. Unusual physical features, the birthplace of a religion or religious figure, may also contribute sacred places. Shrines may be constructed, becoming a focal point within the religious system. Shrines were an important feature of the medieval Catholic Church, and may be found throughout India today.

Eventually sacred places may become religious centers as religious systems evolve. The sacredness of a religious site might be transferred to another, conquering religion. Churches were often built over pagan sites, and mosques were often built over destroyed Hindu temples.

Some religious centers may rise to preëminence because of their intense sanctity as religious capitals. Before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, Jerusalem was the religious capital of Jerusalem, center of the temple cult. Today, Jerusalem is sacred to Jews because of the importance it has in the Jewish faith, history, ritual, and identity. Every Passover is ended with the proclamation, "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Holy places, shrines and religious centers may become places of pilgrimage. Even today, millions of people trek each year to the Ganges River to bath in it's sacred water. The hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is the sacred obligation of every Muslim once in his life. The yearly pilgrimage puts great demands upon the infrastructure of the region. Pilgrimages may also be responsible for spread of ideas, increasing trade, transmitting disease, and altering existing traffic patterns.

More complex religious systems may divide space into hierarchical territories. Other religious bodies maybe more or less autonomous. The following chart illustrates the spectrum with various examples:

Complete Autonomy Between the Extremes Hierarchical
ShamanismJudaismCongregationalismPresbyteriansEpiscopaliansRoman Catholicism
Tribal religionsHinduismIndependent BaptistsThe Reformed ChurchLutheransMormons
Islam (Sunni)Unitarian UniversalistsSouthern BaptistsMethodists

Hierachical religious systems often follow systems theory in setting up nodes and linkages to these nodes. In medieval Europe, the Church provided nodes in the form of monasteries which provided a hierarchical diffusion of knowledge. They were often resting places for travelers on pilgrimages.

Ethnic religions with strong ties to place may either stay or become dispursed. As a result of interaction with a new environment, a religion may exhibit cultural divergence, a tendency to change after separation from the homeland. Cultural convergence occurs when a religion maintains connections with the homeland.

Sacred languages may become an important element in the religious organization of space. Although Latin died out of common usage, it's continued use as an ecclesiatical language within the Roman Catholic Church allowed learned people across Europe to communicate. Hebrew was the liturgical language of the Judaism. The use of Hebrew helped to maintain Jewish identity and was actually revived for use as a living language when modern settlers arrived in Palestine. Old Church Slavonic was an early slavic tongue used by missionaries to the slavic lands. It became the uniting force behind much of the eastern Orthodox Churches, becoming the language of the liturgy and the common version of the Bible. Arabic is the only language of the Koran. Any translations of the Koran is not considered a translation, but the rendering of the meaning of the Koran.

The influence of religion has historically been great in government. The idea of a truly secular state is a recent invention, although the idea has existed since the Greeks. A complete merging of religion with political power is called a theocracy, where the religious organization provides the body of government. This form of government has rarely existed, but Israel in the time of the judges is an ancient example and the Mormon church in early Utah is a modern example.

State religions provide the state with rituals and validation and the state in turn provides the religion official recognition and protection. State religions were established in England, Scandinavia, and in some Roman Catholic countries. A prohibition against a state religion was one of the central planks in the constitution of the United States. States proscribe religions either because it already has an officially sanctioned religion or because it provides a political threat to the state.

Religion can also provide justification for both national unification as well as independence. The protestant characters of the churches of Scotland and Wales has allowed integration into the greater identity of a protestant United Kingdom. Religious difference divided colonial India into the independent nations of India and Pakistan.

The Distribution of Religions

Approximately 33% of the world's population is Christian. Another 18% is Muslim. Another 13% is Hindu. Where do they all live? How are these and other religions distributed throughout the world? To answer these questions involves delving into a fascinating realm of history, geography, and culture. You'll find the facts on distribution in the pages of the each of the religions on this website. We will discuss here some of the processes and terminology involved in the distribution of religions.

Usually three processes are involved in creating the distribution of a religion: diffusion, migration, and competition for space. The diffusion of religion is one the principle ways of transmitting culture and ethical values.

Migration is one of the ways of transmitting religion spatially. It can occur through the natural expansion of population or through the processes of conquest and exile. One result of conquest and exile may be a diaspora, where there is a lack of a core area of dominance for a particular religion. An example of a diaspora is found in history of Judaism. The Jewish Diaspora was scattered in small villages and ghettos throughout Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia. Only in our day has the Jewish people again found a home in their ancient homeland of Israel.

Religions can also grow through contact conversion. This usually happens when two groups are in close contact with each other. Buddhism spread from it's land of origin in India into China and beyond by means of contact conversion, even after Buddhism virtually disappeared in India. Islam often spread through trade which resulted in the mosques now found on the far flung islands of Indonesia. Intermarriage is also brings conversion, depending upon how universalizing the religion is.

Another means is through missionary work. Many of the churches of the west have been well known for their organized missions to many different parts of the world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or "Mormons" are known today for their practice of sending missionaries not only door-to-door in most western nations, but also to many other parts of the world as well.

Another fact to consider in distribution of religions in the pattern of it's interaction with other religions. A religious system will either seek peaceful co-existence, competition, or exclusion. The type of interaction a religion exhibits may be more of a function of history than of religious doctrine.

Peaceful co-existence occurs when two systems not only tolerate each other, but may actually be compatible with each other. This unique balance is often found in the eastern Asia where people may be either Taoist, Confucian, Buddhist, or any combination thereof. It is not necessary for one religion to dominate or replace another. On the other hand, Christianity has a strict and narrow set of teachings which do not allow for a diversity of opinions or a piecemeal selection of important doctrines. Ecumenicism is that movement now found among most of the major Christian denominations which seeks to minimize differences and to strengthen and unite the church.

Competition exists when at least one of the religious systems involved is characterized by instability. When Christianity sent missionaries to the simple ethnic religions of the world, the ethnic religions often showed the greatest instability. Interaction does not always result in a complete adherence, but may result in more of a transfer of culture rather than religion.

Intolerance may be found in religious systems that exclude the religious beliefs of others as being incompatible with truth, as understood by the adherents of that religion. This attitude has historically been found in the monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Spatially, enforced religious orthodoxy usually creates large homogeneous blocks marked by sharp boundaries.

Political power may also be used to enforce this orthodoxy as was the case among the Zoroastrians of Persia, in the imposition of Christianity by the late Roman Empire, the Inquisition conducted by the Catholic Church, and in our day by the Ayatollah Khomeini within the Islamic Republic of Iran. Holy wars backed by politically empowered religious institutions were, for example, fought in Palestine during the Crusades, and have been proclaimed today by certain Muslim extremists as jihads.

The universalizing religions have shown the greatest distribution and growth as a result of being able to open their doors to the peoples of the world. These faiths place the responsibility for an individual's ultimate destiny within the hands of the individual--not through the actions of another or the vagaries of enchantment.

We hope that this basic introduction to the Geography of Religion will encourage you to explore this interesting topic. Return to the Website Menu for webpages about the geography of several of the World's Religions.


Berkeley's Geography of Religion (with a great reading list!)

Version 1.01 dated 4.15.99
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