3.4 Geography of World Religions

Origins and diffusion of World Religions

Our world’s cultural geography is very complex with language and religion as two cultural traits that contribute to the richness, diversity, and complexity of the human experience. Nowadays, the word “diversity” is gaining a great deal of attention, as nations around the world are becoming more culturally, religiously, and linguistically complex and interconnected. Specifically, in regards to religion, these prestigious cultural institutions are no longer isolated in their place of origin, but have diffused into other realms and regions with their religious history and cultural dominance. In some parts of the world, this has caused religious wars and persecution; in other regions, it has helped initiate cultural tolerance and respect for others.

These trends are, in some ways, the product of a history of migratory push and pull factors along with a demographic change that have brought together peoples of diverse religious and even linguistic backgrounds. It is critical that people critically learn about diverse cultures by understanding important cultural traits, such as the ways we communicate and maintain spiritual beliefs. Geographers need to be aware that even though our discipline might not be able to answer numerous questions related to language structure or address unique aspects of theological opinion, our field can provide insight by studying these cultural traits in a spatial context. In essence, geography provides us with the necessary tools to understand the spread of cultural traits and the role of geographic factors, both physical and cultural, in that process. People will then see that geography has influenced the distribution and diffusion of differing ideologies, as well as the diverse ways they practice their spiritual traditions.

As is the case with languages, geographers have a method of classifying religions so people can better understand the geographic diffusion of belief systems. Although religions are by themselves complex cultural institutions, the primary method for categorizing them is simple. In essence, there are two main groups: universalizing religions, which actively invite non-members to join them, and ethnic religions, which are associated with particular ethnic or national groups. Everyone can recount moments in his or her life in which there was interaction with individuals eager to share with others their spiritual beliefs and traditions. Also, that same person might have encountered individuals who are very private, perhaps secretive, when it comes to personal religious traditions deemed by this individual as exclusive to his or her family and the national group. A discussion of these life experiences can generate fascinating examples that serve as testimony to our world’s cultural richness when it comes to different religious traditions.

Origins of World Religions

A significant portion of the world’s universalizing religions has a precise hearth or place of origin. This designation is based on events in the life of a man, and the hearths where the largest universalizing religions originated are all in Asia. Of course, not all religions are from Asia. The three universalizing religions diffused from specific hearths, or places of origin, to other regions of the world. The hearths where each of these three largest universalizing religions originated are based on the events in the lives of key individuals within each religion. Together, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism have over 2.5 billion adherents combined. Below are links to websites that analyze the diffusion of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

Religious Conflict

Religion is often the catalyst of conflict between local values or traditions with issues and values that come with nationalism or even globalization. Religion tends to represent core beliefs that represent cultural values and identity, which, along with language, often represent local ideology rather than national or international ideology. There are some reasons why, but some include:

  • Culture is often the manifestation of core belief systems determined by the interplay between language and religion.
  • Universal religions try to appeal to the many, whereas ethnic religions focus on the few in a specific region.
  • Cultural landscapes or language and religion are often represented in the physical landscape. When opposing forces come and threaten the physical landscape, it threatens the cultural landscape.
  • Universal religions require the adoption of values that make conflict with local traditions and values. If the universal religion is forced upon another universal religion or ethnic religion, conflict may ensue.
  • Migrants tend to learn and simulate the language of the region they migrate to, but keep the religion they originated from. This can be viewed as a threat to the people the migrant moved to.

Types of World Religions

The major religions of the world (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, Taoism, and Judaism) differ in many respects, including how each religion is organized and the belief system each upholds. Other differences include the nature of belief in a higher power, the history of how the world and the religion began, and the use of sacred texts and objects.

Religious Organizations

Religions organize themselves – their institutions, practitioners, and structures – in a variety of fashions. For instance, when the Roman Catholic Church emerged, it borrowed many of its organizational principles from the ancient Roman military and turned senators into cardinals, for example. Human geographers and sociologists use different terms, like ecclesia, denomination, and sect, to define these types of organizations. Scholars are also aware that these definitions are not static. Most religions transition through different organizational phases. For example, Christianity began as a cult, transformed into a sect, and today exists as an ecclesia.

Cults, like sects, are new religious groups. In the United States today this term often carries pejorative connotations. However, almost all religions began as cults and gradually progressed to levels of greater size and organization. The term cult is sometimes used interchangeably with the term new religious movement (NRM). In its pejorative use, these groups are often disparaged as being secretive, highly controlling of members’ lives, and dominated by a single, charismatic leader.

A sect is a small and relatively new group. Most of the well-known Christian denominations in the United States today began as sects. For example, the Methodists and Baptists protested against their parent Anglican Church in England, just as Henry VIII protested against the Catholic Church by forming the Anglican Church. From “protest” comes the term Protestant.

Occasionally, a sect is a breakaway group that may be in tension with the larger society. They sometimes claim to be returning to “the fundamentals” or to contest the veracity of a particular doctrine. When membership in a sect increases over time, it may grow into a denomination. Often a sect begins as an offshoot of a denomination, when a group of members believes they should separate from the larger group.

Some sects dissolve without growing into denominations. Social scientitsts call these established sects. Established sects, such as the Amish or Jehovah’s Witnesses fall halfway between sect and denomination on the ecclesia–cult continuum because they have a mixture of sect-like and denomination-like characteristics.

A denomination is a large, mainstream religious organization, but it does not claim to be official or state-sponsored. It is one religion among many. For example, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, and Seventh-day Adventist are all Christian denominations.

The term ecclesia, initially referring to a political assembly of citizens in ancient Athens, Greece, now refers to a congregation. In geography, the term is used to refer to a religious group that most all members of a society belong to. It is considered a nationally recognized, or official religion that holds a religious monopoly and is closely allied with state and secular powers. The United States does not have an ecclesia by this standard; in fact, this is the type of religious organization that many of the first colonists came to America to escape.

One way to remember these religious organizational terms is to think of cults, sects, denominations, and ecclesia representing a continuum, with increasing influence on society, where cults are least influential, and ecclesia are most influential.

Scholars from a variety of disciplines have strived to classify religions. One widely accepted categorization that helps people understand different belief systems considers what or whom people worship (if anything). Using this method of classification, religions might fall into one of these basic categories.

Note that some religions may be practiced – or understood – in various categories. For instance, the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit) defies the definition of monotheism, which is a religion based on a belief in a single deity, to some scholars. Similarly, many Westerners view the multiple manifestations of Hinduism’s godhead as polytheistic, which is a religion based on a belief in multiple deities,, while Hindus might describe those manifestations are a monotheistic parallel to the Christian Trinity. Some Japanese practice Shinto, which follows animism, which is a religion that believes in the divinity of nonhuman beings, like animals, plants, and objects of the natural world, while people who practice totemism believe in a divine connection between humans and other natural beings.

It is also important to note that every society also has nonbelievers, such as atheists, who do not believe in a divine being or entity, and agnostics, who hold that ultimate reality (such as God) is unknowable. While typically not an organized group, atheists and agnostics represent a significant portion of the population. It is essential to recognize that being a nonbeliever in a divine entity does not mean the individual subscribes to no morality. Indeed, many Nobel Peace Prize winners and other great humanitarians over the centuries would have classified themselves as atheists or agnostics.

Religions have emerged and developed across the world. Some have been short-lived, while others have persisted and grown. In this section, we will explore seven of the world’s major religions.

Hinduism

The oldest religion in the world, Hinduism originated in the Indus River Valley about 4,500 years ago in what is now modern-day northwest India and Pakistan. It arose contemporaneously with ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. With roughly one billion followers, Hinduism is the third-largest of the world’s religions. Hindus believe in a divine power that can manifest as different entities. Three main incarnations—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—are sometimes compared to the manifestations of the divine in the Christian Trinity.

Multiple sacred texts, collectively called the Vedas, contain hymns and rituals from ancient India and are mostly written in Sanskrit. Hindus generally believe in a set of principles called dharma, which refers to one’s duty in the world that corresponds with “right” actions. Hindus also believe in karma, or the notion that spiritual ramifications of one’s actions are balanced cyclically in this life or a future life (reincarnation).

Buddhism

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama around 500 B.C.E. Siddhartha was said to have given up a comfortable, upper-class life to follow one of poverty and spiritual devotion. At the age of thirty-five, he famously meditated under a sacred fig tree and vowed not to rise before he achieved enlightenment (bodhi). After this experience, he became known as Buddha, or “enlightened one.” Followers were drawn to Buddha’s teachings and the practice of meditation, and he later established a monastic order.

Buddha’s teachings encourage Buddhists to lead a moral life by accepting the four Noble Truths: 1) life is suffering, 2) suffering arises from attachment to desires, 3) suffering ceases when attachment to desires ceases, and 4) freedom from suffering is possible by following the “middle way.” The concept of the “middle way” is central to Buddhist thinking, which encourages people to live in the present and to practice acceptance of others (Smith 1991). Buddhism also tends to deemphasize the role of a godhead, instead of stressing the importance of personal responsibility (Craig 2002).

Confucianism

Confucianism was the official religion of China from 200 B.C.E. until it was officially abolished when communist leadership discouraged the religious practice in 1949. The religion was developed by Kung Fu-Tzu (Confucius), who lived in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. An extraordinary teacher, his lessons—which were about self-discipline, respect for authority and tradition, and jen (the kind treatment of every person)—were collected in a book called the Analects.

Some religious scholars consider Confucianism more of a social system than a religion because it focuses on sharing wisdom about moral practices but does not involve any specific worship; nor does it have formal objects. Its teachings were developed in the context of problems of social anarchy and a near-complete deterioration of social cohesion. Dissatisfied with the social solutions put forth, Kung Fu-Tzu developed his model of religious morality to help guide society (Smith 1991).

Taoism

In Taoism, the purpose of life is inner peace and harmony. Tao is usually translated as “way” or “path.” The founder of the religion is generally recognized to be a man named Laozi, who lived sometime in the sixth century B.C.E. in China. Taoist beliefs emphasize the virtues of compassion and moderation.

The central concept of tao can be understood to describe a spiritual reality, the order of the universe, or the way of modern life in harmony with the former two. The ying-yang symbol and the concept of polar forces are central Taoist ideas (Smith 1991). Some scholars have compared this Chinese tradition to its Confucian counterpart by saying that “whereas Confucianism is concerned with day-to-day rules of conduct, Taoism is concerned with a more spiritual level of being” (Feng and English 1972).

Judaism

After their Exodus from Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C.E., Jews, a nomadic society, became monotheistic, worshipping only one God. The Jews’ covenant, or promise of a special relationship with Yahweh (God), is an essential element of Judaism, and their sacred text is the Torah, which Christians also follow as the first five books of the Bible. Talmud refers to a collection of sacred Jewish oral interpretation of the Torah. Jews emphasize moral behavior and action in this world as opposed to beliefs or personal salvation in the next world.

Islam

Probably one of the most misunderstood religions in the world is Islam. Though predominantly centered in the Middle East and Northern Africa, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world with 1.3 billion and is only second to Christianity is members. Islam is also divided into two major branches: Sunni and Shiite. The Sunni branch is the largest, composed of 83 percent of all Muslims. The Shiite branch is more concentrated in clusters such as Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Islam is monotheistic religion and it follows the teaching of the prophet Muhammad, born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 570 C.E. Muhammad is seen only as a prophet, not as a divine being, and he is believed to be the messenger of Allah (God), who is divine. The followers of Islam, whose U.S. population is projected to double in the next twenty years (Pew Research Forum 2011), are called Muslims.

Islam means “peace” and “submission.” The sacred text for Muslims is the Qur’an (or Koran). As with Christianity’s Old Testament, many of the Qur’an stories are shared with the Jewish faith. Divisions exist within Islam, but all Muslims are guided by five beliefs or practices, often called “pillars”: 1) Allah is the only god, and Muhammad is his prophet, 2) daily prayer, 3) helping those in poverty, 4) fasting as a spiritual practice, and 5) pilgrimage to the holy center of Mecca.

In Western nations, the primary loyalty of the population is to the state. In the Islamic world, however, loyalty to a nation-state is trumped by dedication to religion and loyalty to one’s family, extended family, tribal group, and culture. In regions dominated by Islam, tribalism and religion play determining roles in the operation of social, economic, cultural, and political systems. As a result, the nation states within the Islamic civilization are weak and generally ineffectual. Instead of nationalism, Muslims are far more interested in identifying with “ummah,” (Islamic civilization).

Furthermore, despite the lack of a core Islamic state, the leaders of the many Muslim nations created (1969) the Organization of the Islamic Conference in order to foster a sense of solidarity between Muslim states. Almost all nations with large Muslim populations are now members of the organization. Additionally, some of the more powerful Muslim states have sponsored the World Muslim Conference and the Muslim League to bring Muslims together in a unified block.

It is instructive to notice that the concept of ummah rests on the notion that nation-states are the illegitimate children of Western Civilization, designed to further Western interests at the expense of others. Currently, Islamic Civilization has no identifiable core state, but nations such as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia could assume that role in the future.

It is common for Americans to suggest that they do not have a problem with Islam; only Islamic extremists. Huntington, however, argues that the lessons of history demonstrate the opposite. In fact, over the last fourteen hundred years, Christians and Muslims have almost always had stormy relations. After Muslims were able to take control of North Africa, Iberia, the Middle East, Persia, and Northern India in the seventh and eighth centuries, relatively peaceful boundaries between Islam and Christendom existed for about two hundred years. In 1095, however, Christian rulers launched the Crusades to regain control of the “Holy Land.” Despite some successes, they were eventually defeated in 1291. Not long after this, the Ottoman Empire spread Islam into Byzantium, North Africa, the Balkans, and other parts of Europe. They eventually sacked Vienna, and for many years, Europe was under constant threat from Islamic forces. In the fifteenth century, Christians were able to regain control of Iberia, and the Russians were able to bring an end to Tatar rule. In 1683, the Ottomans again attacked Vienna but were defeated, and from that time on, the people of the Balkans sought to rid themselves of Ottoman rule. By the beginning of World War I, the Ottoman Empire was referred to as the “sick man of Europe.” By 1920, only four Islamic countries (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan) were free of non-Muslim rule.

As Western colonialism began to wane in the twentieth century, the populations of about forty-five independent states were solidly Muslim. The independence of these Muslim nations was accompanied by a great deal of violence. 50% of the wars that occurred between 1820 and 1929 involved battles between Muslims and Christians. The conflicts were primarily products of two very different points of view. Whereas Christians believe in the separation of Church and State (God and Caesar), Muslims view religion and politics as the same. Additionally, both Christians and Muslims hold a universalistic view. Each believes that it is the one “true faith,” and both (to one extent or another) believe that they should convert others to their faith.

In addition to the importance of the religious foundations of the Western and Islamic Civilizations, practical, real-world factors also play important roles. For example, Muslim population growth has created large numbers of unemployed, angry youth who have been regularly recruited to Islamic causes. Furthermore, the resurgence of Islam has provided Muslims with confidence in the worth of their civilization relative to the West. Western policies and actions over the last century have also played a significant role in cracking the fault line between Islam and Christendom. From the Islamic point of view, the West (particularly the United States) has meddled in the internal affairs of the Islamic world far too often, and for far too long.

Huntington is convinced the Western and Islamic Civilizations are in for many years, perhaps more than a century, of conflict and tension. He points out that Muslims are growing increasingly anti-Western while at the same time, people in the Western Civilization are increasingly concerned about the intentions (and excesses) of modern Islamic states such as Iran. Europeans express a growing fear of (and impatience with) fundamentalist Muslims who threaten them with terrorist attacks. They are also growing weary of Islamic immigrants who refuse to adhere to European traditions, and in some cases, laws.

Huntington does not mince words. He boldly states,”…the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam; a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture, and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” He goes on to add, “…the problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West; a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture, and believe that they are superior, if declining, power imposes on them an obligation to extend that culture throughout the world.” From Huntington’s perspective, these differences will fuel conflict between Western and Islamic cultures for many years to come.

Many Western leaders do not agree with Huntington’s view. Instead, they argue that Americans need not to fear Islam; only radical Islam. They point to the millions of Muslims living throughout the world in peace with their non-Muslim neighbors. If, they reason, Islam were indeed a religion of war and conquest, why is it that millions of Muslims lead peaceful lives? Instead of applying a negative stereotype to all Muslims, they believe our national security would be better served by making more considerable effort to understand the motivations and goals of radical fundamentalists. In a sense, they are calling for in-depth cultural studies that will lead to accurate cultural intelligence about the nature of Islamic terrorists — simply branding all Muslims as potential terrorists are, from those who do not agree with Huntington, simplistic and dangerous.

Christianity

Today the largest religion in the world, Christianity began 2,000 years ago in Palestine, with Jesus of Nazareth, a charismatic leader who taught his followers about caritas (charity) or treating others as you would like to be treated yourself.

The sacred text for Christians is the Bible. While Jews, Christians, and Muslims share many of same historical religious stories, their beliefs verge. In their shared sacred stories, it is suggested that the son of God—a messiah—will return to save God’s followers. While Christians believe that he already appeared in the person of Jesus Christ, Jews and Muslims disagree. While they recognize Christ as a prominent historical figure, their traditions do not believe he is the son of God, and their faiths see the prophecy of the Messiah’s arrival as not yet fulfilled.

Different Christian groups have variations among their sacred texts. For instance, Mormons, an established Christian sect, also use the Book of Mormon, which they believe details other parts of Christian doctrine and Jesus’ life that is not included in the Bible. Similarly, the Catholic Bible includes the Apocrypha, a collection that, while part of the 1611 King James translation, is no longer included in Protestant versions of the Bible. Although monotheistic, Christians often describe their god through three manifestations that they call the Holy Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a term Christians often use to describe the religious experience, or how they feel the presence of the sacred in their lives. One foundation of Christian doctrine is the Ten Commandments, which decry acts considered sinful, including theft, murder, and adultery.

HOLY RELIGIOUS PLACES

Some of the places that in some ways contributed to the foundation and development of a faith frequently gain sacred status, either by the presence of a natural site ascribed as holy, or as the stage for miraculous events, or by some historical event such as the erection of a temple.  When a place gains that “sacred” reputation, it is not unusual to see peoples from different parts of the world traveling or making a pilgrimage to this site with the hope of experiencing spiritual and physical renewal.

Buddhists have eight holy sites because they have special meaning or essential events during the Buddha’s life. The first one is in Lumbini, Nepal where the Buddha was born around 563 B.C. The second holy site is in Bodh Gaya, Nepal, where it is believed Siddhartha reached enlightenment to become the Buddha. The third most important site is in Sarnath, India where he gave his first sermon. The fourth holiest site is Kusinagara, India where the Buddha died at the age of 80 and became enlightened. The other four holy sites are where Buddha performed/experienced specific miracles. People who practice Buddhism or Shintoism erect and use pagodas to house relics and sacred texts. Pagodas are also used for individual prayer and meditation.

Islam’s holiest sites are located in Saudi Arabia. The holiest city is Mecca, Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Muhammad was born. It is also the location of the religion’s holiest objects called the Ka’ba, a cube-like structure believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael. The second holiest site to Muslims in Medina, Saudi Arabia where Muhammad began his leadership and gained initial support from the people. Every healthy and financially able Muslim is supposed to make at least one pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetime. For Muslims, a mosque is considered a holy site of worship, but also a place for community assembly. Usually assembled around a courtyard, the pulpit faces Mecca so that all Muslims pray toward their holiest site. Mosques will have a tower called a minaret where someone summons people to worship.

Meaning lord, master, or power, a Christian church is a place of gathering and worship. Compared to other religions, churches play a more important role because they are created to express values and principles. Churches also play a vital role in the landscape. In earlier days and smaller towns, churches tend to be the most significant buildings. Also because of their importance, Christian religions spend lots of money and commitment to the building and maintenance of their churches.

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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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