World Religions from 30,000 Feet

The article linked below provides a treat for the data junkies and map nerds among us. If you can’t resist digging in, don’t stop at the global map headlining the article; take time to peruse the individual maps provided for each major religion. But, as usual, let us note a few caveats and questions that might help frame (or spark) some of our thinking.

First, even though I love this kind of graphic presentation, I remain skeptical about the underlying data. The maps portray percentages of the population that identify with a major religion, and the data probably come from a number of surveys and statistical extrapolations. But if you ask someone about their religion, to what extent might their answer be affected by who does the asking and by whether the process protects their identity? Islam shows up as the majority religion in Iran (no surprise), but recent anonymous surveys found only 37% of Iranians identifying as Muslim. Maybe the results depend on the questions and the survey process more than we realize.

Second, remember that the maps show which major religion is most prevalent in a country, but do not show whether that religion is a 95% majority or only a 51% majority. Nor do the tallies reveal the second-most prevalent religion in each country, although in some cases we might be able to make an educated guess. The picture gets even muddier when we realize that the survey lumps a lot of odds and ends into the “unaffiliated” and “folk” religion categories. Read the article and you will see what I mean.

Third, we always need to be cautious about how words and names are defined, used, or misused when it comes to this kind of data collection process. Just because someone claims to identify with a major religion does not make it so. Years ago one of my friends claimed to be a Christian, but denied the miracles of Jesus reported in the New Testament, and was dubious about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This survey would surely count him among the Christians, but I expect he will have some interesting conversations with Jesus when they meet face to face.

Having said all of this, it is still interesting to note that all parts of the world seem to have a predominant major religion of one form or another. Deniers notwithstanding, humans are religious beings. Even atheists practice a form of religion in asserting their atheism. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “he (God) has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” I take this to suggest that every person yearns for God, even if we do not always realize what that hunger is all about.

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