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.