The Geography of Religion

By Shelley Sperry, National Geographic staff

The meaning of religious belief varies in different places, among different people. In general, religion refers to a set of tenets and practices regarding what is sacred or spiritual—tenets and practices held in common by a group. Religion usually encompasses beliefs about the origin and meaning of the world and of human life as well as guidelines for moral behavior.

Nearly 86 percent of people worldwide profess adherence to some religious belief, according to the World Christian Database.


Sperry, Shelley. “States of Faith.” National Geographic (December 2007).

World Christian Database

Counting Adherents

There are many ways to approach the geography of religion, the simplest being to quantify numbers of believers by location. Data for the National Geographic map “States of Faith” came from the World Christian Database, which, despite its name, tracks data not just on Christianity but on hundreds of world religions in 238 political entities. It uses thousands of sources, including informants “on the ground” (particularly important in countries where religious freedom is restricted).

To show the percentage of religious adherents in each country, National Geographic cartographers combined two categories—“atheists” and “nonreligious”—for a total percentage of nonbelievers in each nation, then subtracted that figure from 100 percent to arrive at the percentage of believers.

An atheist is defined as someone who actively professes “disbelief in the existence of God or any other deity” or “the doctrine that there is no God.” Nonreligious is a broader category that includes people who profess no religion, including “agnostics, freethinkers, liberal thinkers, and nonreligious humanists.” This category can also include the apathetic—those who aren’t necessarily opposed to religion on principle, but who aren’t interested in the question.

Rather than a traditional map of major world religions, in which variety and difference are highlighted, the National Geographic map unites believers in one category and nonbelievers in another. The result is an ecumenical geography of the faithful and not so faithful.

Some other maps that count believers by location are:

Encyclopedia Britannica World Religions Map.

Cengage Learning, Map of Modern Distribution of World Religions. From: Matthews, Warren. World Religions. Wadsworth Publishing.

Other approaches to understanding religion through geography include looking at sacred places and examining why some points on a map are considered so special to one or more religions that they become destinations for pilgrims. Another approach is to ask what direct physical impact a religion has had on a particular landscape: for example, the erection of cathedrals in Europe or the use of less-modern technology in Amish farming practices in North America.


Sperry, Shelley. “States of Faith.” National Geographic (December 2007).

World Christian Database

The World’s Most Religious Places

Not surprisingly, the only country with no atheists or nonreligious citizens at all is the Holy See, or Vatican City—home of the Roman Catholic Church—with about 800 true believers. Afghanistan is next in line, with a 99 percent Muslim population and a 99.99 percent religious-adherence rate (rounded up to 100 percent adherence on the National Geographic map). The U.S. State Department’s 2006 human rights report on Afghanistan states, “The government requires all citizens to profess a religious affiliation and assumes all Afghans to be Muslim.”

Other countries with at least a 99.90 percent religious-adherence rate:

Bhutan (Buddhism)
Botswana (Christianity)
Burundi (Christianity)
Kenya (Christianity)
Bangladesh (Islam)
Chad (Islam)
Comoros (Islam)
Maldives (Islam)
Mali (Islam)
Niger (Islam)
Pakistan (Islam)
Somalia (Islam)


World Christian Database

U.S. State Department 2006 human rights report on Afghanistan

The World’s Least Religious Places

Countries with more than 10 percent of the population professing atheism are few and far apart, and include North Korea (15.6 percent) and Sweden (11.7 percent).

According to the 2006 State Department report on human rights in North Korea, that country’s constitution nominally protects freedom of religion, but in practice that freedom is “severely restricted” and traditional faiths have been replaced by the “personality cult” of leader Kim Jong Il.

In Sweden the opposite situation exists: It has liberal freedom of religion. And by some measures, notably those of sociologist Philip Zukerman, Swedes are the least religious people in the world.

When you add the nonreligious and atheist populations together, however, the list of countries with significant percentages of nonbelievers grows. According to the WCD statistics, the following countries have nonbeliever populations of over 15 percent:

North Korea (71.3%)
Mainland China (49.8%)
Mongolia (39.1%)
Czech Republic (35.6%)
Kazakhstan (35.7%)
Estonia (34.4%)
Uruguay (32.8%)
Russia (32.1%)
Latvia (31.3%)
Sweden (29.8%)
Belarus (29.3%)
Kyrgyzstan (27.4%)
Cuba (24.5%)
Montenegro (21.9%)
Moldova (21.9%)
New Zealand (21.4%)
Netherlands (20.8%)
Germany (20.4%)
France (19.9%)
Albania (17.7%)
Ukraine (17.5%)
Australia (16.9%)
Italy (16.3%)
Slovakia (15.2%)

Many public figures have made news lately for espousing atheism, including scientist Richard Dawkins and writer and social critic Christopher Hitchens.

Richard Dawkins

Christopher Hitchens debates Reverend Al Sharpton.

Shadows of Doubt, a BBC documentary on the history of atheism, presented by Jonathan Miller


The 2006 State Department report on human rights in North Korea.

Zukerman, Philip. “The Largest Atheist/Agnostic Populations.”

The Problem of Numbers

The vast majority of the world’s people—almost 86 percent, according to information compiled by the World Christian Database—adhere to some type of religious belief. But precise information about religious adherence is among the hardest sociological data to pin down accurately, because there are so many variables. Religions and denominations within religions count their members in a variety of ways, making comparisons difficult. Some include regular attendees at services; others tally all known members of a community, whether they attend services or not. Some religious institutions count children from birth; others require potential members to undergo a particular rite of passage before including them in the total.

Scientific polls, such as those collected by the Association of Religious Data Archives or conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, are frequently used to count believers and understand patterns of belief, but results can vary widely, depending upon how questions are asked and respondents’ willingness to identify themselves according to the researchers’ categories. For example, the 2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS) was considered the most thorough count of U.S. religious congregations and members when it came out, but immediately underwent revision when researchers realized that it dramatically undercounted traditionally African American churches and their members as well as a few other groups that had refused to respond to the survey. Researchers Roger Finke and Christopher Scheitle detailed the elaborate methods they used to “count the uncounted” in a 2005 article.


World Christian Database

Association of Religious Data Archives

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

Christianity’s Center of Gravity

In 2004 Todd M. Johnson and his colleague Sun Young Chung published “Christianity in Global Context: Trends and Statistics,” in which they traced the shift in Christianity’s “center of gravity” from A.D. 33 to A.D. 2100. They showed how the Christian population spread from the Holy Land and eastern Mediterranean into Europe, until today, when as many Christians live south and west of the center of gravity, now in western Africa, as live north and east of it.

According to the article, “In 1900 over 80% of all Christians lived in Europe and Northern America, by 2005 this proportion had fallen to under 40%, and will likely fall below 30% before 2050.”


Johnson, Todd M. “Christianity in Global Context: Trends and Statistics.”


Q: What two countries are on both the list of the top-ten most populous Christian countries and the top-ten most populous Muslim countries?

A: India and Nigeria.