Modes of Mapping Religions

Since the early days of political and social carthography, mapping religion has been common. The design of today's world religions map  can be traced back to the second half of the 18th century, in the hight of colonialism, when European and US-American cartographers drew such territorial maps. They divided the world map in different coloured territories, each of them for one religion.

Dividing the World Map into religious territories

Mapping religion as territories (as in example map 1 below) makes a very strong visual argument: The world is divided into different and clearly distinctable territories of religious creeds. In doing so, world maps about religions overcome the common visualisation of political maps, in showing cohesive territories that do not stop at the borders of an empire or nation-state. Europe as well as the U.S. appear to be as Christian, while the Indian subcontinent is drawn as Hindu territory. 

Map 1: Territiorial distribution of religions by state

Original source: "Prevailing world religions map" by Original uploader was LilTeK21
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In this kind of maps, it is rather common to display different dominations and subgroups of Christianity as of other religions such as Hinduism, Judaism or what is called indigenous religions. In some maps, these subdivisions of one religions are illustrated by different colours of one colour family. They either appear as strippes or as blocks, so that countries with two dominant religious groups such as Germany appear either as stripped or halfly into a more Northern Protestant territory and a Catholic South.

Mapping religions in the limits of the "Westphalian system"

However, even if borders of different religious affiliation go directly through countries and are visualised, this model has its bold limitations and constraints, because it only focuses on what the majority of the population believes. Religious minorities, as for example Jews in Europe, Bahá'í in the Middle East, are rarely pictured. In a nutshell, this type of visalisation follows in greater or lesser extent the leading motto of the Westphalian system cuius region eius religio (Latin for "Whose realm, his/her religion").

Explaining world politics through religious blocks

Mapping of religiously cohesive territories, however, hit its peak in the work and theories of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. In his well-known and influential work The Clash of Civilisation (1996) he argues that the religious and cultural identities of the people are the primary source of conflict after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In order to visualise his assumption, he presents a world map of civilisation blocks, each of them for him influenced by a different religion or religious subgroup.

Map 2: Map in accordance to Huntingtons The Clash of Civilisation (1996)

Original source: "Clash of Civilizations world map". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Huntington presents a map that even simplifies the traditional mapping of religions as territories. It rather aims on setting a geopolitical system of powers as to map religions. He rather maps his idea for world as of the world.

From mapping religions to mapping religious diversity

Traditional maps of religions rarely present religious differences in one territory. Religious plurality is commonly plotted as blocks and the smaller religions with minority status simply disappear. As a first step of a suitable solution, researchers of the Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at Ruhr University Bochum have produced a world map that show religious diversity.

Map 3: CERES Religious Diversity Map

Original source: CERES map on religious diversity,
(c) CERES. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

The advantage of this map is that despite of the major religion, the religious diversity of each country is shown. While countries like the U.S. and the Netherlands appear in traditional maps as purely Christian, the religious diversity map mark them as highly diverse religious countries with a vast plurality and diversity of religions that exist side by side. In colouring countries in accordance to the diversity index, beholders can relate countries visually to each other and easily assess which country bears more diversity and which less.

The future of mapping religions and religious diversity

Nevertheless, mapping religious diversity on a world map is just the first step to overcome traditional models of mapping religions. Further steps have to follow. Many challenges in visualising the religious diversity index on a world map are similar to that of other social and economic indices such as income, fertility rate or illiteracy rate. The visualisation is made out of total figures. Territorial differences within one nation state are not represented.

For a innovative interacitve future map, the following data shall be included:

  • local, national, and global data on religious membership,
  • the religious diversity index by country,
  • self-reported religiosity or importance/non-importance of religion by country,
  • differences between religions and their innerreligious traditions/subgroups.

Novel forms such as dot-density maps as introduced by Bill Rankin for data of the U.S. census open up new possibilities for this quest. However, more data on religious affiliation need to be collected in general and the existing ones need surely to be revised.


Religious Diversity Index


Prof. Dr. Volkhard Krech

CERES, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany

Dr. Kimmo Ketola

Kirkon tutkimuskeskus, Tampere, Finland


Prof. Dr. Stefan Huber

Fakultät für Theologie, Universität Bern, Schweiz