RELIGION CAN BE DEFINED as a unified set of beliefs, values, and practices of an individual or a group of people that is based on the teachings of a spiritual leader. It includes codes of behavior, faith in and devotion toward a supernatural power or powers, and a framework for understanding the universe. Religion is an important component of many individuals' lives and identities, and it is deeply embedded into most if not all societies. From a geographer's standpoint, however, religion is meaningful for the following reasons: It has a varying presence in every inhabited locale on Earth; religion displays clear geographical patterns; many of the characteristics of religions and their development and their impact are rooted in geographic factors; in order to better understand a place, we must consider its religious character; religion is one of the most or the most important components of cultural groups; and religious issues are often the root cause of many geopolitical problems.


The geography of religion examines the way in which religion is expressed on the Earth and its social, cultural, and environmental impacts. More specifically, it looks at, maps out, interprets, compares, and analyzes various religions' origins, diffusion, subsequent distributions and effects, and the religious landscapes they create. The geography of religion additionally investigates how religion impacts lifestyles, commerce, demography, gender issues, political geography, the environment, and other components of society and culture. With the growing issues of militant ISLAM, religious fundamentalism, and cultural politics, there is an increasing awareness of the field.

Geographers primarily categorize religion into two types: universal and ethnic. Universal or proselytic religions actively solicit new converts and have widely and quickly diffused across the globe. Christianity, Islam, and some forms are Buddhism fall into this category. Ethnic religions, on the other hand, are associated with a particular ethnic group and customarily do not proselytize. They often dominate a certain cultural group, are usually confined to a particular country, and spread spatially at a slow rate. Common examples are Judaism, Hinduism, and Shintoism. Many individuals also add a third type of religious faith, those that are tribal or traditional. These animistic faiths usually believe in spirits inhabiting inanimate objects such as plants, animals, and other natural features. A religion can be can be either monotheistic, meaning believing in only one god, or polytheistic, which is having belief in multiple supernatural entities. Atheists, in turn, do not believe in an existence of a god or gods.

The geographic study of religion can be divided into five main themes: religious regions, religious ecology, religion and society, religious landscapes, and religious diffusion. Religious culture regions are areas that are based on religious characteristics. They can be formal regions, such as the Muslim dominated northern SUDAN, where there is a particular religion practiced. They can also be functional in nature or serve a specific administrative purpose, such as a Roman Catholic Church diocese or parish. Religious regions can be as small as a city block or can exist worldwide. Their characteristics are a result of diffusion and the interplay of religion with components of culture, society, and the environment.


The most commonly described religious regions are those where a religion is practiced. Christianity is the world's largest religion in area and in the number of adherents. The faith, an offshoot of Judaism that is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, is fragmented into numerous different denominations. The most common division is between Western and Eastern Christianity. Western Christianity is made up of the unified Roman Catholic Church and the highly divided Protestant denominations. Eastern Christianity includes groups such as Coptics, Maronites, Nestorians, and various Eastern Orthodox churches.

Christianity is almost a completely global religion but is most common in the Americas, Europe, RUSSIAAUSTRALIA, and southern Africa. The Eastern Orthodox Church is strong in the former Soviet Union, parts of Europe, and North Africa. Roman Catholicism is concentrated in Europe and South and Middle America. Protestantism dominates much of North America but is also found in Europe.


The UNITED STATES has a distinctive geography of religion because of its unmatched religious diversity. Baptists and other conservative fundamentalist groups are common in the Bible Belt region in the South. Lutherans dominate most of the Upper Midwest, influenced by Scandinavian settlement of the region.

Roman Catholics are strong in the northeast United States and southern LOUISIANA but are also found in large numbers in the southwest part of the country, which has a strong Mexican influence. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Mormon Church, is concentrated in UTAH and other parts of the Mountain West. Other smaller denominational religions, often at the county or local level, also exist. These “religious islands” are influenced by the presence of small ethnic groups, religious universities, and other religious group concentrations.

Islam, like Christianity, is proselytic and monotheistic. It is common in Southwest Asia, northern Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia. Its prophet, Muhammad (570?–632), gained many converts during his lifetime, but the faith has spread worldwide since his death. Today there are over 1 billion Muslims worldwide, distributed among two main divisions. Shiites constitute about 10 to 15 percent of all Muslims and are mainly found in IRAN and IRAQ. Sunni Muslims, the largest group, are common in other Muslim-dominated areas, such as North Africa.

Hinduism, which has no specific founder, is a polytheistic faith common in India. It evolved over a 4,000-year period as indigenous faiths and cultural practices merged with a religion brought to India by Aryans tribes. Today, Hinduism is made up of numerous sects and splinter groups such as Sikhism and Jainism. Perhaps the most prominent offshoot of Hinduism is Buddhism. This widespread religious faith is especially common in East and Southeast Asia. It was founded in India around 525 by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha. Buddhism had the tendency to merge with native religions, and as it spread, it created divisions including Lamaism, Mahayaha, and Zen Buddhism.

Another religion worthy of mention is Judaism. Associated with the Jewish people, this monotheistic, ethnic faith of many subgroups is widely dispersed across the globe in small clusters. Many Jews are found in North America and Europe. Eighty percent of the population of the country of ISRAEL is Jewish.

There are also several parts of the globe where animistic or traditional religions are found. Animism is common in less developed parts of Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia. What makes animism especially interesting is that each tribe has its own unique belief system that creates distinctive practices and geographies.


The second theme of the geography of religion, religious ecology, deals with how different religions perceive and interact with their natural environments. For example, geographers analyze environmental attitudes of various faiths, because some religions appear to promote preservation and others seem to encourage environmental exploitation. Many faiths also view natural features as sacred, including rivers, forests, springs, and mountains.

For example, the GANGES and Bagmati rivers in South Asia are important to Hindus. The Jordan River around Israel, PALESTINE, and JORDAN, for example, is holy to Christians. Mt. Fuji in JAPAN is sacred in Japanese Shintoism.

Religion additionally plays a vital role in environmental perception and whether or not people view the environment as an ally or something to fear. The environment may also influence the characteristics of religious faith. While the influence of the environment on most major universal religions is less significant, it is especially visible in animism and also in terms of the philosophy of feng-shui in Chinese and Korean Buddhism. The geography of religion also concerns itself with how religious belief aids in appeasing the forces of nature.

There is additionally a high level of integration between religion and society. This third theme analyzes how religious faith interacts with other components of culture. Because it is a strong human motivator at the personal and group level, religion consistently impacts other human traits, cultural group history, lifestyles, economic systems, political geography, and demography. Religion is also an important, if not the primary, component of ethnicity. For example, most Arabs are Muslim, most Mexicans are Roman Catholic, and the majority of Norwegians are Lutheran. Their religious faiths play a strong role in group identity.

Religion can also influence economic geography. For example, many religious groups have overt taboos, or the prohibition against certain items or activities. Caffeine is forbidden to members of the  church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, subsequently, influences the sale of some beverages. Alcohol is forbidden to Muslims and some Christian denominations, and patterns reflecting these taboos are visible on the landscape. Religion can also influence agriculture in the absence or occurrence of certain crops and farming activities. Wine is important to Holy Communion among many Christian groups, and this has demanded a need for vineyards and grape cultivation in Christian regions. Since Jews and Muslims forbid the consumption of pork, pigs are rare in areas dominated by these two groups.

Religious faith also influences birth rates and other demographic characteristics. The Roman Catholic Church and other groups, for example, prohibit most forms of contraception and encourage large families. Such practices often increase the number of adherents and, subsequently, the spreading of the religion.

There is an increasing awareness today that religion can be frequently integrated with politics and government. Many countries are divided by religious faith, and religion is often a rallying point for political action. Religion played an important role in the partition of India in 1947 and also shaped the 20th-century geopolitics of IRELAND and its relationship with the UNITED KINGDOM. Many countries, such as Iran, are theocracies, or governments guided by a church or a religion. The Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic group, ran AFGHANISTAN from 1996 to 2001. Some countries, including the Lutheran Norway, have an official state church. There is increasing controversy worldwide, including in  the United States, about the role of religion in government.


Pilgrimages provide a unique example of how religion impacts culture and society. This act of religious devotion usually involves large numbers of people traveling in various ways to places that are often the setting of miracles, sacred physical features, or the geographic origin of a faith. A sense of duty or hope of receiving healing or a special blessing may be the motivation behind most pilgrimages. Pilgrimages are especially common among Muslim, Hindu, Shinto, and Roman Catholic adherents. They also have a significant impact on local economies and environments.

Often, religious tourism is created because so many people visit specific places. Many Roman Catholics, for example, travel to Rome, the French town of Lourdes, or the Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in MEXICO. Hindus make pilgrimages to Varanasi on the Ganges River in India. Japanese Shintos visit Ise. Perhaps the most famous pilgrimage is the hajj to Mecca in SAUDI ARABIA. The hajj is an important pillar of the Muslim faith, and it is the duty of all Muslims to travel to the city.


The most studied component of the geography of religion is the religious landscape, or the religious imprint on the material cultural landscape. Because there are differences in the characteristics, history, and interaction with the environment and society, religions also have distinctive landscapes. Variations in religious landscapes also give particular regions a unique character and can be seen in the form, orientation, density, and architecture of structures. The most prominent religious landscape feature is the house of worship. These church buildings, temples, synagogues, or mosques frequently have distinctive architecture based on religion. For example, it is usually easy to differentiate between an Islamic mosque and a Hindu or Buddhist temple.

Various Christian church buildings also have unique attributes. Roman Catholics usually perceive the house of worship as being the house of God, and subsequently the structures are very ornate. Most Protestant denominations view a church building as simply a place to worship and congregate. Because of this, the majority of Protestant structures are modest, smaller, and more functional than a typical Catholic church.

Some church buildings are also unique because of the congregation's ethnic background. For example, there are often visible differences, both exterior and interior, between a German Lutheran church and an Icelandic Lutheran building.

Every religion also has its own practice for burial of the dead. Some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, use cremation, so cemeteries dedicated to these faiths do not exist. Most other religions, such as Christianity and Islam, do bury their dead, but there are often differences in the architecture and orientation of grave sites. Other common man-made religious landscape features include yard and roadside shrines, religious murals and statues, and parochial schools.

It is also important to consider the symbolic and sacred qualities of the religious landscape. Why are some places special and others not? Religions often designate sacred space or features because they are worthy of devotion, loyalty, or fear, or because they have supernatural or mystical qualities. All man-made religious features can be considered sacred, but sacred space also extends to physical features such as Mt. Sinai for Judaism or Ayers Rock for Aboriginal animism in Australia.


The fifth and final theme is religious diffusion, or the spreading of religion across space. Religious diffusion is important because the landscapes and regions that religions create are all products of spatial expansion. Geographers are interested in how religions diffuse, how they change over time, and what processes encourage these changes. Most religions have spread through contagious expansion diffusion, meaning increasing numerically through direct contact of individuals. This occurs through various conversion methods. Barriers to religious diffusion exist as well.

All religions have a source area or a hearth where their diffusion started. The most widespread religions today originate out of two primary religious hearths. The Semitic Hearth, found in Southwest Asia, is the source area of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Judaism started about 4,000 years ago, and Christianity evolved out of Judaism about 2,000 years ago. Islam, with its origin in the Arabian Peninsula, began approximately 1,300 years ago. Hinduism and Buddhism both originated in the Indo-Gangetic Hearth at the northern edge of the Indian subcontinent of Asia.