A Visual Map of the World’s Major Religions (and Non-Religions)

Images by Car­rie Osgood

“The nones are grow­ing,” we hear all the time, a ref­er­ence to the huge increase in peo­ple who check the “none” box in doc­u­ments that ask about reli­gious beliefs. In the U.S., at least, the response to this news seems to be five­fold: fear, denial, anger, cel­e­bra­tion, and spec­u­la­tion that can seem to go beyond what the data war­rants. Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, for exam­ple, trum­pets “The World’s Newest Major Reli­gion: No Reli­gion,” though it’s not exact­ly clear what no reli­gion means.

Check­ing “none” does not sig­ni­fy hold­ing spe­cif­ic con­vic­tions or affil­i­a­tions. It can be an irri­tat­ed reac­tion from those who find the ques­tion intru­sive, an eva­sion from those who refuse to think about the issue, a response from those whose beliefs are not reflect­ed in any of the choic­es offered, a con­fi­dent state­ment of thor­ough­go­ing philo­soph­i­cal nat­u­ral­ism…. One way to look at the data is that it’s incon­clu­sive.

But it could tell some big sto­ries as well, such as “the sec­u­lar­iz­ing West and the rapid­ly grow­ing rest” (a sto­ry com­pli­cat­ed by Chi­na, the coun­try with the largest “atheist/agnostic” pop­u­la­tion). While the inter­net has made it eas­i­er for athe­ists and agnos­tics to con­nect and orga­nize, these labels do not name any con­sis­tent set of beliefs or non-beliefs, and they can apply to sec­u­lar human­ists as well as to cer­tain adher­ents of forms of Bud­dhism, Tao­ism, pagan­ism, etc., who may not explic­it­ly iden­ti­fy as reli­gious but who have some spir­i­tu­al prac­tices…

But who­ev­er they are, the “nones” do appear to be grow­ing, account­ing for around a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion in the U.S. and Europe—where in some coun­tries, such as the Czech Repub­lic, clos­er to half the pop­u­la­tion iden­ti­fies as non­re­li­gious. The sto­ry of the nones is coun­ter­bal­anced by the mas­sive spread of reli­gion, most­ly Chris­tian­i­ty but also Islam, among the “rest” of the world. Design­er Car­rie Osgood of the world trav­el site Car­rie On Adven­tures has giv­en us a handy visu­al ref­er­ence (view in a large for­mat here) for the glob­al sit­u­a­tion in the info­graph­ic above.

Draw­ing on data from the Unit­ed Nations Pop­u­la­tion Fund—which she pre­vi­ous­ly used to cre­ate a series of pop­u­la­tion and urban­iza­tion maps—and from the World Reli­gion Data­base, Osgood visu­al­izes the rel­a­tive pop­u­la­tions of each coun­try by siz­ing them as pro­por­tion­al pie charts, with their major reli­gions rep­re­sent­ed by dif­fer­ent col­ors. (These num­bers are based on 2010 fig­ures and may have changed con­sid­er­ably in the past decade.) Chris­tian­i­ty is still the world’s largest reli­gion, at 32.8%, with Islam close behind at 22.5%.

Yet as Frank Jacobs points out at Big Think, such sweep­ing generalizations—like those about the “nones”—miss crit­i­cal details need­ed in any dis­cus­sion about world reli­gions. “The map bands togeth­er var­i­ous Chris­t­ian and Islam­ic schools of thought,” writes Jacobs, “that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly accept each oth­er as ‘true believ­ers,’” and may even view each oth­er as ene­mies and heretics. Large, thriv­ing reli­gious groups like Sikhs are lumped in with “oth­ers,” a cat­e­go­ry that can include numer­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al or dis­ap­pear­ing belief sys­tems.

Like­wise, “there’s that whole mine­field of nuance between those who prac­tice a reli­gion (but may do so out of social coer­cion rather than per­son­al­ly held belief), and those who believe in some­thing (but don’t par­tic­i­pate in the rit­u­als of any par­tic­u­lar faith).” Espe­cial­ly in coun­tries with a major­i­ty faith—and with painful social or legal penal­ties for those who don’t subscribe—the ques­tion of how many peo­ple real­ly iden­ti­fy out of true con­vic­tion can­not be ignored.

Which brings us back to the “nones,” a cat­e­go­ry, how­ev­er fuzzy, that may be far larg­er than the num­bers show, and could include mil­lions more in major­i­ty-faith coun­tries, if those peo­ple lived under a sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment, in a plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety, and felt free to speak their minds. The “nones” have maybe always been around. Only now, in much of the world at least, they’re far more vis­i­ble. But that’s just one pos­si­ble sto­ry among the many we can tell about this data.

View and down­load a larg­er ver­sion of the info­graph­ic map at Osgood’s site and see a detailed break­down of the data at Big Think.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Take Harvard’s Intro­duc­to­ry Course on Bud­dhism, One of Five World Reli­gions Class­es Offered Free Online

Chris­tian­i­ty Through Its Scrip­tures: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty 

Intro­duc­tion to the Old Tes­ta­ment: A Free Yale Course 

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

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