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There are about 4,300 religions of the world. Nearly 75 per cent of the world’s population practices one of the five most influential religions of the world: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Christianity and Islam are the two religions most widely spread across the world. These two religions together cover the religious affiliation of more than half of the world’s population. If all non-religious people formed a single religion, it would be the world’s third largest.

An 1821 map of the world, where "Christians, Mahometans, and Pagans" correspond to levels of civilization. The map makes no distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism (WikiCommons).jpg
An 1821 map of the world, where “Christians, Mahometans, and Pagans” correspond to levels of civilization. The map makes no distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism (WikiCommons).jpg

The classification of world’s major religions and spiritual traditions into a small number of major groups began in the 18th century with the goal of recognizing the relative levels of civility in societies. In world cultures, there have traditionally been many different groupings of religious belief. For example, in Indian culture, different religious philosophies were traditionally respected as academic differences in pursuit of the same truth. In Islam, the Quran mentions three different categories: Muslims, the People of the Book, and idol worshipers. The Christians on the other hand had a simple dichotomy of world beliefs: Christian civility versus foreign heresy or barbarity. In the 18th century, “heresy” was clarified to mean Judaism and Islam; along with paganism, this created a fourfold classification which spawned such works as John Toland’s Nazarenus, or Jewish, Gentile, and Mahometan Christianity, which represented the three Abrahamic religions as different “nations” or sects within religion itself, the “true monotheism.”

Map showing both the size and distribution of world religions (Image: Carrie Osgood/The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform)
Map showing both the size and distribution of world religions (Image: Carrie Osgood/The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform)
  • At a glance, this map shows both the size and distribution of world religions.
  • See how religions mix at both national and regional level.
  • There’s one country in the Americas without a Christian majority – which?
China and India are huge religious outliers (Image: Carrie Osgood/The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform)
China and India are huge religious outliers (Image: Carrie Osgood/The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform)

In the latter half of the 20th century, the category of “world religion” fell into serious question, especially for drawing parallels between vastly different cultures, and thereby creating an arbitrary separation between the religious and the secular. Even history professors have now taken note of these complications and advise against teaching “world religions” in schools. Others see the shaping of religions in the context of the nation-state as the “invention of traditions.”

A picture says more than a thousand words, and that goes for this world map as well. This map conveys not just the size but also the distribution of world religions, at both a global and national level.

Strictly speaking it’s an infographic rather than a map, but you get the idea. The circles represent countries, their varying sizes reflect population sizes, and the slices in each circle indicate religious affiliation.

The result is both panoramic and detailed. In other words, this is the best, simplest map of world religions ever. Some quick takeaways:

  • Christianity (blue) dominates in the Americas, Europe and the southern half of Africa.
  • Islam (green) is the top religion in a string of countries from northern Africa through the Middle East to Indonesia.
  • India stands out as a huge Hindu bloc (dark orange).
  • Buddhism (light orange) is the majority religion in South East Asia and Japan.
  • China is the country with the world’s largest ‘atheist/agnostic’ population (grey) as well as worshippers of ‘other’ religions (yellow).
  • The Americas are (mostly) solidly Christian
Which is the least Christian country in the Americas? The answer may surprise you (Image: Carrie Osgood/The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform)
Which is the least Christian country in the Americas? The answer may surprise you (Image: Carrie Osgood/The World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform)

But the map – based on figures from the World Religion Database (behind a paywall) – also allows for some more detailed observations.

  • Yes, the United States is majority Christian, but the atheist/agnostic share of its population alone is bigger than the total population of most other countries, in the Americas and elsewhere. Uruguay has the highest share of atheists/agnostics in the Americas. Other countries with a lot of ‘grey’ in their pies include Canada, Cuba, Argentina and Chile.
  • All belief systems represented on the scale below are present in the US and Canada. Most other countries in the Americas are more mono-religiously Christian, with ‘other’ (often syncretic folk religions such as Candomblé in Brazil or Santería in Cuba) the only main alternative.
  • Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago are the only American nations with significant shares of Hindus, as well as the largest share of Muslim populations – and consequently have the lowest share of Christians in the Americas (just under half in the case of Suriname).
World map color-coded to denote religion affiliations of the majority population in each country (WikiCommons 2011).png
World map color-coded to denote religion affiliations of the majority population in each country (WikiCommons 2011).png

One way to define a major religion is by the number of current adherents. The population numbers by religion are computed by a combination of census reports and population surveys (in countries where religion data is not collected in census, for example the United States or France), but results can vary widely depending on the way questions are phrased, the definitions of religion used and the bias of the agencies or organizations conducting the survey. Informal or unorganized religions are especially difficult to count.

There is no consensus among researchers as to the best methodology for determining the religiosity profile of the world’s population. A number of fundamental aspects are unresolved:

  • Whether to count “historically predominant religious culture[s]”
  • Whether to count only those who actively “practice” a particular religion
  • Whether to count based on a concept of “adherence”
  • Whether to count only those who expressly self-identify with a particular denomination
  • Whether to count only adults, or to include children as well.
  • Whether to rely only on official government-provided statistics
  • Whether to use multiple sources and ranges or single “best source(s)”

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