Animated Map Shows How the Five Major Religions Spread Across the World (3000 BC — 2000 AD)

Hin­duism, Judaism, Bud­dhism, Chris­tian­i­ty, Islam.… Claims to ancient ori­gin and ulti­mate author­i­ty notwith­stand­ing, the world’s five major reli­gions are all of recent vin­tage com­pared to the cou­ple hun­dred thou­sand years or more of human exis­tence on the plan­et. Dur­ing most of our pre­his­to­ry, reli­gious beliefs and prac­tices were large­ly local­ized, con­fined to the ter­ri­to­r­i­al or trib­al bound­aries of indi­vid­ual groups.

For peo­ple groups in the British Isles a thou­sand years ago, for exam­ple, the Lev­ant may as well have been anoth­er plan­et. How is it that Britain became a few hun­dred years lat­er one of the most zeal­ous­ly glob­al evan­ge­liz­ers of a reli­gion from Pales­tine? How is it that an Indi­an sect, Bud­dhism, which sup­pos­ed­ly began with one man some­time in the 5th Cen­tu­ry B.C.E., became the dom­i­nant reli­gion in all of Asia just a few hun­dred years lat­er?

Answer­ing such ques­tions in detail is the busi­ness of pro­fes­sion­al his­to­ri­ans. But we know the broad out­lines: the world’s major reli­gions spread through impe­r­i­al con­quest and forced con­ver­sion; through cul­tur­al exchange of ideas and the adap­ta­tion of far-off beliefs to local cus­toms, prac­tices, and rit­u­als; through migrant and dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ties mov­ing across the globe. We know reli­gions trav­eled back and forth through trade routes over land and sea and were trans­mit­ted by the painstak­ing trans­la­tion and copy­ing by hand of dense, lengthy scrip­tures.

All of these move­ments are also the move­ments of the mod­ern glob­al­ized world, a con­struct that began tak­ing shape a few thou­sand years ago. The spread of the “Big 5” reli­gions cor­re­sponds with the shift­ing of mass­es of humans around the globe as they formed the inter­con­nec­tions that now bind us all tight­ly togeth­er, whether we like it or not.

In the ani­mat­ed map above from Busi­ness Insid­er, you can watch the move­ment of these five faiths over the course of 5,000 years and see in the span of a lit­tle over two min­utes how the mod­ern world took shape. And you might find your­self won­der­ing: what will such a map look like in anoth­er 5,000 years? Or in 500? Will these glob­al reli­gions all meld into one? Will they with­er away? Will they splin­ter into thou­sands? Our spec­u­la­tions reveal much about what we think will hap­pen to human­i­ty in the future.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

5‑Minute Ani­ma­tion Maps 2,600 Years of West­ern Cul­tur­al His­to­ry

70,000+ Reli­gious Texts Dig­i­tized by Prince­ton The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, Let­ting You Immerse Your­self in the Curi­ous Works of Great World Reli­gions

Har­vard Launch­es a Free Online Course to Pro­mote Reli­gious Tol­er­ance & Under­stand­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • John the Baptist says:

    What about the East Roman/Byzantine Empire in the Mid­dle East!?! The whole of the Mid­dle East used to be chris­t­ian before islam con­quered it!?! Isn’t it!? I mean: the Kopts in Egypt, chris­tians in Syr­ia, Ethiopia.…. And so on and so forth!

  • G. Engene says:

    Why was Chi­na ignored? Is the Tao not under­stood, or too diverse? Too ‘dis­or­ga­nized’? Or just not ‘major’ enough? Cer­tain­ly Chi­na has rep­re­sen­ta­tive groups of Chris­t­ian, Islam­ic, Bud­dhist fol­low­ers.

  • Stephen Roney says:

    A lot of inac­cu­ra­cies in the ani­mat­ed map. The biggest is that the entire Mid­dle East and North Africa is shown as pagan until Islam spreads there. It was Chris­t­ian. The fun­ni­est is that it shows New­found­land as pagan even today. Also leaves out the spread of Bud­dhism to Sri Lan­ka.

  • Aaron Abbott says:

    Inter­est­ing, but com­plete­ly inac­cu­rate.

    They for­get that Chris­tian­i­ty (believ­ers in Jeho­vah who looked for­ward to the ‘Mes­si­ah’, Hebrew form of the Greek ‘Christ’) start­ed before 4000 BC and that cor­rup­tion of it spread. That cor­rup­tion of it is the begin­nings of the east­ern reli­gions, which cor­rup­tion con­tin­ued because of super­sti­tions. Islam starts years after Christ, before then, they were believ­ers in Jeho­vah, and looked for­ward to the Mes­si­ah just like their ances­tors for over 4000 years. Even Moses received the priest­hood by the lay­ing on of hands by one who was an autho­rized priest­hood hold­er, from Jethro, a Medi­an­ite (A south east­ern Ara­bi­an). Then the doc­trine became cor­rupt even among them. Even the Quran speaks more of Jesus than any oth­er per­son. They are Chris­t­ian and don’t even know it.

  • A says:

    Did any of you read the first para­graph?

  • Pure says:

    Per­fect for Dou­glas Cou­p­land’s DGlobe

  • John the Pope says:

    I could not agree more my dear fel­low.

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