Religion as something ‘eminently social’ (as described by Émile Durkheim) finds its expression in the distribution of the major religious groups in the world. These have distinct geographical patterns to them, showing the regional influences that each of the groups define, as well as the spread of these influences in the course of history which have significantly changed over the past centuries.
Today, the three largest religions as well as the group of the non-religious put together make up 5.8 billion people, accounting for almost 80 per cent of the world’s population. This highlights their importance in understanding some of the world’s social, cultural and political realities that define how people live together within countries but also between borders. As much as religion can unite and reconcile, it can equally be the cause of conflict and violence.
Conflict and peace are both elements that are replicated in the diverse religious shapes that emerge in the cartogram series of these four largest religious groups as assembled in the World Religion Database (adjusted to today’s populations). The cartograms above show the countries of the world resized according to the distribution of people within each of the four groups. A consistent colour scheme is used throughout all the maps giving every region an individual shade and every country a unique colour within this shade.
Christianity is the largest group with 2.2 billion followers and is also the most spread large religion. While numbers in the wealthy world are in constant decline, this group remains strong and stable in regions such as Africa and South America.
Islam, with 1.6 billion followers, forms the largest religious group in about 57 countries concentrated in Northern Africa and Asia (including the Middle East), where the majority of Muslims live.
The third-largest group related to religion are the approximately 1 billion ‘unbelievers’ or irreligious people. It is a very diverse group (as much as it is the hardest to quantify), ranging from agnostics to atheists. The geographical distribution reflects the long history of irreligion in China over a long period of time, still outnumbering the growing numbers in the wealthier parts of the world, such as Europe and North America.
The third-largest religious group, and fourth-largest group in this feature, is Hinduism with one billion followers. It is, geographically, the most concentrated group, forming the largest religion in India and being generally strong in South Asia.
Benjamin Hennig is a senior research fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. He is involved in the Worldmapper project and maintains the visualisation blog www.viewsoftheworld.net.
This article was published in the June 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine