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This is the best (and simplest) world map of religions

Both panoramic and detailed, this infographic manages to show both the size and distribution of world religions.

(c) CLO / Carrie Osgood
  • At a glance, this map shows both the size and distribution of world religions.
  • See how religions mix at both national and regional level.
  • There's one country in the Americas without a Christian majority – which?

China and India are huge religious outliers

Credit: Carrie Osgood

A picture says more than a thousand words, and that goes for this world map as well. This map conveys not just the size but also the distribution of world religions, at both a global and national level.

Strictly speaking it's an infographic rather than a map, but you get the idea. The circles represent countries, their varying sizes reflect population sizes, and the slices in each circle indicate religious affiliation.

The result is both panoramic and detailed. In other words, this is the best, simplest map of world religions ever. Some quick takeaways:

  • Christianity (blue) dominates in the Americas, Europe and the southern half of Africa.
  • Islam (green) is the top religion in a string of countries from northern Africa through the Middle East to Indonesia.
  • India stands out as a huge Hindu bloc (dark orange).
  • Buddhism (light orange) is the majority religion in South East Asia and Japan
  • China is the country with the world's largest 'atheist/agnostic' population (grey) as well as worshippers of 'other' religions (yellow).

The Americas are (mostly) solidly Christian

Which is the least Christian country in the Americas? The answer may surprise you.

Credit: Carrie Osgood

But the map – based on figures from the World Religion Database (behind a paywall) – also allows for some more detailed observations.

  • Yes, the United States is majority Christian, but the atheist/agnostic share of its population alone is bigger than the total population of most other countries, in the Americas and elsewhere. Uruguay has the highest share of atheists/agnostics in the Americas. Other countries with a lot of 'grey' in their pies include Canada, Cuba, Argentina and Chile.
  • All belief systems represented on the scale below are present in the US and Canada. Most other countries in the Americas are more mono-religiously Christian, with 'other' (often syncretic folk religions such as Candomblé in Brazil or Santería in Cuba) the only main alternative.
  • Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago are the only American nations with significant shares of Hindus, as well as the largest share of Muslim populations – and consequently have the lowest share of Christians in the Americas (just under half in the case of Suriname).

Lots of grey area in Europe

The second-biggest religious affiliation in Europe isn't Islam, but 'none'.

Credit: Carrie Osgood

  • Christianity is still the biggest belief system in most European countries, but the atheist/agnostic share is strong in many places, mainly in Western Europe, but especially in the Czech Republic, where it is close to half the total.
  • Islam represents a significant slice (and a large absolute number) in France, Germany and the UK, and is stronger in the Balkans: The majority in Albania, almost half in Bosnia and around a quarter in Serbia (although that probably indicates the de facto independent province of Kosovo).

Islam in the north, Christianity in the south

The map of Africa and is dominated by the world's two largest religions

Credit: Carrie Osgood

  • Israel is the world's only majority-Jewish state (75%, with 18% Muslim). The West Bank, shown separate, also has a significant Jewish presence (20%, with 80% Muslim). Counted as one country, the Jewish majority would drop to around 55%.
  • Strictly Islamic Saudi Arabia, but also some of its neighbors in the Gulf, have significant non-Muslim populations – virtually all guest workers and ex-pats.
  • Nigeria, due to its large population and even split between Islam and Christianity, has more Muslims and more Christians than most other African nations.

Different majorities across Asia

Close neighbors India, Bangladesh and Myanmar each have a different majority religion.

Credit: Carrie Osgood

  • Because countries are sized for population rather than area, some are much bigger or smaller than you'd expect – with some interesting results: There are more Christians in Muslim-majority Indonesia than there are in mainly Christian Australia, for example.
  • Hindus are a minority everywhere outside India, except in Nepal.
  • North Korea is shown as three-quarters atheist/agnostic, but this is debatable, on two counts. In what is often referred to as the last Stalinist state on Earth, religious adherence is probably underreported. And the state-sponsored ideology of 'Juche', although in essence based on materialism, makes some supernatural claims. For instance: despite having died in 1994, Kim Il-sung was declared 'president for eternity' in 1998.
Of course, clarity comes at the cost of detail. The map bands together various Christian and Islamic schools of thought that don't necessarily accept each other as 'true believers'. It includes Judaism (only 15 million adherents, but the older sibling of the two largest religious groups) yet groups Sikhism (27 million) and various other more numerous faiths in with 'others'. And it doesn't make the distinction between atheism ("There is no god") with agnosticism ("There may or may not be a god, we just don't know") *.

And then there's the 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). To be fair, that requires more nuance than even a great map like this can probably provide.


This map found here at map infographic designer Carrie Osgood's page. Information based on 2010 figures for religious affiliation.

Strange Maps #967

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.


*: Definitions matter, but definitions vary. The ones above, equating 'atheism' with a rejection of the belief in god and 'agnosticism' as the mere doubting of his existence, may be common, but not necessarily precise. Merriam-Webster defines atheism as "a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods". Many in the atheist community subscribe to this definition, which avoids any specific claims to truth (such as "there is no god").

As one reader clarifies, the difference between 'knowing' there is no god and 'not knowing' there is no god can be expressed by the adjectives 'gnostic' and 'agnostic' (both from the Greek root 'gnosis', i.e. 'knowledge'): "A gnostic atheist is making a truth claim that there is no god and does not believe in a god; an agnostic atheist says there is no proof either way and does not believe in a god. They are both atheists because they both hold the position that they don't believe in any god(s)."

Another reader offers a slightly different take: "The misunderstanding of what the word ('atheist') means to people who actively call themselves (thus) is at the root of a lot of the arguments between believers and non-believers. 'Agnosticism' is the opposite of 'gnosticism', the knowledge of the existence of gods. Most atheists are agnostics, I myself would say I'm an agnostic atheist. As opposed to most believers who would be either gnostic theists or agnostic theists."

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
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  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
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Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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