the geography of religion 4044

The Geography of Religion

April 29, 2021
Geographers study religion not only because national boundaries are often influenced by the religious makeup of a population but also because religion can help shape the very way that a culture looks at its landscape. The idea that sacred places exist, whether in the form of mountains or rivers, is common to many religions. These sacred sites are often the inspiration for pilgrimages or spiritual journeys. The following Sidebar lists some of the world’s “sacred sites.”

The Geography of Religion

Religion is nearly universal and as ancient as human culture. Belief systems and traditions of worship have been common to nearly all societies since before the days of recorded history. Despite cultural diversity, these systems and traditions share many common elements. Religion typically involves faith in spiritual, or nonhuman, beings that can influence events, although some religions—notably some forms of Buddhism—do not stipulate belief in the supernatural.


Prayers, teachings, rituals, and rules of behavior are usually maintained by religious specialists. These religious leaders act as caretakers of tradition and sometimes as guides or disciplinarians for those within the faith. Religion is participatory—ordinary practicing members of a religious society help to perpetuate sacred traditions by attending religious services in community churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples. For an individual, a religion offers an explanation of reality and a framework for directing life decisions.


The impact of religions is also significant in a global context. Religious differences over customs, resources, and political policy are common, and throughout history have frequently led to conflict. Many borders and boundaries reflect religious differences as much as political divisions. Religions take many forms, ranging from large, institutionalized faiths that extend across national borders to localized belief systems practiced only within specific ethnic groups in small enclaves.

The Geography of Religion

The prevalence of religion throughout the world allows geographers to study how religions vary and how they are distributed from one region to another. Religions influence the landscape in many ways, directing settlement patterns, architectural styles, and daily activities such as farming and cooking practices.


Geographers are interested in the distribution of religions as a way of studying how religions start and spread, and as a means of providing statistical data about the religious beliefs of a country’s population. It is difficult to interpret the results of such studies because geographers from various countries collect data in different ways. Studies of religion may be biased by the politics of religion, particularly in countries where government and religion are closely tied. Despite these obstacles, some general patterns characterize the major world religions.


Islam, prevalent in North Africa and throughout much of Southwest Asia, also extends into South Asia and some areas of Southeast Asia. Europe is predominantly Christian—Protestant in the north, and Roman Catholic in the south. Both North and South America are mostly Christian, although Roman Catholicism is more common in South America. Australia, since its settlement by the British, has also had a large Christian population. Orthodox Christianity remains the main religion of Russia. The major religions of India include Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism. Buddhism, which originated in India, is now found primarily in East Asia and in some areas of Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Judaism is centered in Israel, although the large cities of Europe and the United States also have significant Jewish populations.


It is important to note that these examples of the general and historical distribution of world religions have many exceptions, and that most countries are home to members of a diversity of faiths. There are many smaller-scale religions and distinct sects of larger religions within the distributions generalized above. The region of Africa south of the Sahara is home to many local religions, and shamanism is still practiced throughout Central Asia and in areas of South Asia. Some native peoples of North America, Central America, and South America still engage in religions they practiced before the arrival of Europeans.


Human activities such as evangelism, migration, and commerce can make the distribution of religions fluid. Some religions are spread by evangelists, who openly preach the virtues and beliefs of their religion, inviting others to join. Migration also serves as a means of changing the distribution patterns of religion—when people migrate, they take their religions with them. Countries with particularly rich religious diversity include those with large immigrant populations, such as Australia, Brazil, and the United States, and those encompassing ancient cultural crossroads, such as Egypt, India, Israel, and Turkey.


In the modern world, ancient religious traditions are frequently mixed with modern ones to form cross-cultural, or syncretic, religions. This phenomenon can be seen throughout South and Central America and Mexico, where the Roman Catholicism practiced by conquering European cultures has only partially subdued native religions. Many festivals are based on both Christian and pagan beliefs, and in some Andean villages, earth and water deities are still worshiped alongside images of the Virgin Mary. Likewise, people of African descent in the Americas have retained some of their traditional beliefs, which are sometimes mixed with Catholicism. An example is the Santería religion practiced in Cuba.


Most religions are complex, incorporating ideas, traditions, and technologies that may be specific to certain cultures or regions. It would be difficult to make a precise map outlining the range of religious practices, but general distributions and trends of change in religious traditions give geographers a valuable tool for studying the widespread movement of peoples and ideas throughout history.

Sacred Sites

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the geography of religion is the study of sacred sites and spaces. Certain locations are viewed as sacred because they are associated with religiously significant events or because of their unique geographic characteristics. For example, Bodh Gaya in India acquired sacred significance because it was the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Mount Kailas, in western Tibet, is considered important because its slopes give rise to the four major rivers of South Asia. Collectively, the sacred sites, paths, and spatial relationships connected with a religion make up what can be called a “sacred geography,” in which these places are embodied with a specific meaning derived from the beliefs of that particular religion.


In many cultures mountains are viewed as links between humans and the spiritual world. In addition to Mount Kailas, Mount Catherine in Egypt, Mount Olympus in Greece, Mount Fuji in Japan, and Navajo Mountain in the western United States are examples of mountains that are considered sacred. Rivers and other natural features can likewise acquire religious significance. For example, Hinduism celebrates seven holy rivers, the holiest of which is the Ganges. In pre-Christian Europe, forests were regarded as the abode of gods, and the Celts worshiped at springs and pools throughout the British Isles and Europe. Similar beliefs about nature were held in Japan before the spread of Buddhism.


In addition to sacred natural places, humans have constructed religious shrines, churches, temples, and observatories—often on sites that were considered holy from prehistoric times. An example is Stonehenge in England, which is believed to have been built for the observation of stars, planets, eclipses, and the sun, possibly for religious purposes. Structures such as roadside shrines in Japan or rock cairns at mountain passes in the Himalayas are small-scale markers that identify sacred sites. All of these represent places that, to the religious believer, have a special spiritual quality that sets them apart from ordinary localities.


Beyond recognizing specific sacred sites, religion has played a central role in the development of secular aspects of the community. Religion has influenced architecture, commerce, and settlement patterns throughout history. In areas dominated by Islam, the mosque serves as an orientation point. In Hindu towns, the sacred space extends from the temple and includes neighboring territory. Likewise, in medieval Europe, monasteries and cathedrals were focal points for communities and trade.


Religious attitudes toward death also affect the landscape. Shrines, tombs, and groves are established according to religious tradition in honor of deceased ancestors. The Taj Mahal of India, the Egyptian pyramids, and the clay army of Xi’an in China are examples of tombs marked by striking structures that define their surroundings, drawing visitors of many beliefs. The beliefs of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions have led to the dedication of tracts of land as cemeteries. Some of these cemeteries have become integral parts of urban landscapes, serving as parks, historical sites, cultural treasures, and even neighborhoods. Examples include the City of the Dead in Cairo, the National Cemetery in Jerusalem, and Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.


To people of many faiths, the act of traveling to a sacred site for the purpose of religious observance is itself a religious experience. Each year, millions of faithful pilgrims go on religious journeys to sacred destinations all over the world. Pilgrimages have greatly influenced communities housing sacred sites as they strive to accommodate large numbers of visitors. Lodging, food, hygiene services, transportation, and security must be provided to support the religious crowds.


Lourdes, a town at the base of the Pyrenees in southern France, is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Europe. Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary appeared in visions here in 1858, and that the water from a nearby underground spring has healing powers. This site is an example of a location that became sacred because a divine being is believed to have been present there. The influence of this holy site extends well into the neighboring community—Lourdes has swelled with new hotels, restaurants, and facilities to support the many pilgrims visiting the shrine.


The largest religious pilgrimage takes place each year when more than a million devoted Muslims travel to Mecca (Makkah) in Saudi Arabia. Birthplace of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, Mecca is the spiritual hub of the Islamic world. All Muslims try to make this pilgrimage, called the hajj, at least once in their lives. The primary destination of the hajj is the main mosque, where a cube-shaped stone building, the Ka’abah, is dramatically situated in an immense, theater-like plaza. The ceremonies associated with the hajj take several days, during which most pilgrims stay in Mecca to take side trips to other sacred locations, placing heavy demands on regional food supplies, sanitation, and medical facilities. Another effect of the pilgrimage has been to shape transportation routes throughout the region, as Muslims arrive from all directions and by various means of transport.

Sacred Geographies

For many religious pilgrims, the arrival at a sacred site is the goal of the pilgrimage. But for others, the journey itself constitutes a personal spiritual transition. In such cases, the associated geography of such experiences may take on special spiritual meaning. Following the rituals of the Islamic hajj, for example, pilgrims make a series of journeys to a network of holy sites in the area. These sites form a spiritual landscape, and visiting them is a religious rite of passage for each pilgrim. Another case in which the pilgrimage route takes on sacred significance is the circuit of 88 Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Legend tells that the circuit was established in the 9th century by Kobo Daishi, the founder of the Japanese Shingon sect. The pilgrims believe that Kobo Daishi accompanies them along the route, and his perceived presence sanctifies the circuit of the journey. The pilgrimage destination is not one individual site but rather a network—a sacred geometry covering the island.


This type of sacred visualization of space can also be found among the aboriginal people of Australia. They believe that their ancestors sang into being the physical characteristics of Earth, the myriad forms of life, and the codes governing conduct and relationships among humans. Through rituals, aboriginal people dissolve the temporal boundary between the present and the time of the ancestors, which they call the Dreamtime. These Australian indigenous groups define their landscape with symbolic markers that organize territory and give spiritual meaning to the land. The most famous of these markers is the massive red sandstone mound called Uluru, formerly Ayers Rock, in the heart of the Australian continent.


Spirit journeys in dreams enable aborigines who have been separated from their homelands to visit their sacred ancestral sites. The map of the aboriginal territories is drawn with descriptive musical “songlines” that must be sung, and physically marked by totemic rocks, trees, and caverns. Explanations of the landscape are given through allegory and by spiritual connections between the Dreamtime ancestors and the succeeding generations leading up to the present. This worldview of the Australian aborigines is another example of sacred geography—a way of ordering space that imbues the landscape with spiritual meaning.


Sacred geographies, these networks of spiritual spaces and places, are found in many forms around the world. From the small-scale layout of a religious structure to the broader webs of commerce surrounding pilgrimage sites, to the vast territories ascribed to the work of ancient ancestors—religion has a profound, ever-changing effect on the landscape and on our fundamental perception of the place of humanity in the world.


Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas


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History of Churches

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