Shared faith, identity, and community influence our lives. Human geography both shapes and is shaped by religions and their practices. How do these work? A brief look at this today.


As always, let us look at the words we are talking about.

Religion is “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.” (Source:

Religion comes to us from the Latin re-ligāre: ligāre = to bind, to tie, to join; re– = again … religāre is to ‘re-bind, re-tie, re-join.’ (Source:

Geographical aspects

Where we live

Since it is shared, it is part of a group identity (such as Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Shinto, etc.). All identities have geography as a component. Well, because people live somewhere, don’t they? Therefore, we have further fine-tuned identities such as “Indian Muslim” , “Malaysian Hindu”, “Pakistani Muslim”, “Arab Muslim” etc.

The areas where people of any particular religion live is often used to signify that particular region. For example: Christian nations, Islamic nations, Hindu nation, and so on. Notice that I used ‘nation’ instead of ‘country’ or ‘state.’

What’s the difference?

A state or country is a geographical-political entity marked by a boundary. A ‘nation’ is a ‘notion’ – it has many emotional aspects to its definition. Thus, when we say “Indian nation”, we mean more than just the geographical-political entity legally called India. Instead, we mean an area of land that is loved and revered by a group of people. Here you may recall the word geopiety – reverence for a place.

Organizing geography

Various religions organize their space (i.e., the spaces they are in) in different ways. For example, in the Roman Catholic religion, The Vatican (a microstate – we’ll look this and related concepts another time) is the central place for Roman Catholics worldwide. The Church (i.e., the whole of the religion, not an individual building) is divided and subdivided into various geographic units all the way down to the parishes. Another example is Islam: its centre is Makkah (or Mecca) and from there radiates a hierarchy of smaller and smaller mosques and their areas of influence.

All hierarchies eventually end up in the individual person!


Map of world religions. [Source: Accessed on: 10 Sep. 2019]

Another geographical view

Geographically speaking, there is another way we can look at the religions of the world. This view classifies religions as:

  1. Universalizing religions – religions that believe in proselytizing, i.e., they “seek worldwide acceptance and actively look for new converts.”
  2. Ethnic religions – “… are identified with a particular ethnic group and do not seek converts.” You can only be born into such religions, you cannot convert into them.

Not everyone accepts this classification for various reasons. We’ll skip that argument for now.

Because universalizing religions seek converts to their beliefs and ideas, they spread in geographic space. In this process, they bring about changes in religious affiliation among people and, to an extent, change people’s identity. Most early spread of universalizing religions happened by what geographers call contact diffusion – it occurs from direct people-to-people contact.

However, universalizing religions encounter old and enduring traditions where they are trying to spread.

Example 1: When the spread of the Roman Catholic religion occurred in the Andes mountains areas of Peru, the local traditions became part of the practice of Roman Catholicism there. To this day, ancient local religious practices happen along with Roman Catholic practices.

Example 2: In India, many churches have incorporated the pre-existing cultural patterns into their practices. Two examples: the icon of the Divine Mother Mary in the church (basilica) at Velankanni, Tamil Nadu wears not a gown in the western fashion, but a silk saree in the Indian style. Many churches in southern India have a form of the dhvaja-stambha in front of them – this is an Hindu temple element.

The dhvajastambha at Infant Jesus Church, Bengaluru. [Photo credit: Chandra Shekhar Balachandran]

Thus, universalizing religions do (have to) syncretize in order to be able to continue in the areas into which they spread.

In the geographical hierarchy of universalizing religions, there is a central authority that guides and instructs followers. In folk religions (e.g.: animistic religions, ancestor-worshiping religions) there are no such central authorities. Much of the religious practice is determined locally (especially in folk religions), or regionally (in large ethnic religions such as Hinduism). We’ll talk about this aspect in a little more detail another time.

Hinduism, though classified as an ethnic religion, has a certain other kind of spread. Without conversions, Hinduism’s most prominent physical presence in other countries is through the various temples built there. Its cultural presence is seen in many practices in diverse countries – celebration of deepaavali, holi, street parades, processions, weddings, etc.


  1. Make a list of universalizing and ethnic religions.
  2. Find out which religions are considered among the five largest religions in the world and how many people follow each of them.
  3. What are the components of ‘modern telecommunication technology’ ? What are the ways in which these technologies are changing the method by which universalizing religions spread?
  4. How is the spread of Hinduism different from any of the universalizing religions? How is this spread related to the concept of migration in geography?

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 11 September 2019

Featured image: Map of the world’s religions. Source:


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