March 24, 2010

Finding Religion

We've received many comments in response to our latest series of maps of online representations of religion. Some were full of praise while others, well, weren't.

The critiques focused mainly on the fact that the maps didn't include the full diversity of religious beliefs in the world, or that the dominant belief systems of an area didn't necessarily appear in a place's cyberscape. A lot of this can be tied to our decisions about what to map and how to display it. Any map represents a whole range of decisions about what to include and how to display it and obviously some of our decisions rankled the sensibilities of some folks. The Anglicans of the United Kingdom seemed particularly incensed about being classified as Catholic. Jeez, it is almost as if there were decades of dynastical conflict and civil war about the issue of religion in England.

So, in response to the concerns raised by our readers we're featuring a series of maps of different religious terms. All of the maps below plot only the raw number of mentions of a particular keyword in the Google Maps database. Because these maps are not adjusted based on population or the relative specialization of placemarks with the given keyword, densely populated areas and those with higher levels of internet access are more prominently shown. Also, the sizing of the circles are unique to each map and therefore one CANNOT make direct comparisons between maps.

Despite these shortcomings, the maps are more or less indicative of the places where our readers expected to find high concentrations of Anglicans (particularly the U.K.) and Lutherans (northern Europe and the Nordic countries).

Map of Anglican
Map of Lutheran

Although it would appear that parts of the US, Canada and Australia rival the UK in the number of Anglicans, this isn't necessarily the case. Indeed, terms such as the "Church of England," "Church or Scotland" or "Church of Ireland" are used equivalently to "Anglican" in the U.K. but were not one of the keywords in our study.

For sake of comparison, we've also include a map of references to "catholic" in Google Maps placemarks. Remember, one CANNOT directly compare the size of the circles between maps. The sizing is unique for each.

Map of Catholic

The inability of capturing the variety of language used to described a single phenomenon remains a methodological issue for us, but it is one that we are continuing to address. Regardless, our concern is not with purporting to show the actual number of people subscribing to a particular religious doctrine in a particular place, but rather only how religions are represented in the cyberscapes of places.

For example, the terms Atheist and Agnostic are largely located within the U.S. (Southern California and the Northeast) and Europe. Few other parts of the world show the presence of these keywords.

Map of Atheist and Agnostic
References to Scientology, the domain of Hollywood actors like Tom Cruise and John Travolta, are similarly concentrated in the places one would expect of them. Although Scientology's status as a religion can surely be debated (and continues to be in many countries, which could help explain the cluster in Germany), one sees large pockets in Los Angeles, where the Church of Scientology is now headquartered, New Jersey, where it was founded, and Clearwater, Florida, where it maintains a large complex.

Map of Scientology

Even Google Maps references to Zoroastrianism, purported to be the oldest known religion but now claiming relatively few adherents, are located in the parts of Iran, the United States, Pakistan and India that continue to have clusters of Zoroastrian believers.

Map of Zoroastrianism
So even the descendants of a religion founded in the 5th century B.C. are on Google Maps. Who knew?


  1. Some of the spots are bigger than the maps. Anyway that's ok.

  2. "So even the descendants of a religion founded in the 5th century B.C. are on Google Maps. Who knew?"

    Why wouldn't they be? What an odd statement.

  3. Come on, Scientology is everywhere. I've seen large Scientology buildings in Madrid, and Germany. There is also a building in Tainan, Taiwan.

    No Atheists in Russia or China?

  4. I live in Minnesota, so there are a lot of Lutherans. I really enjoyed the liquor store to grocery store map and Wisconsin being exposed as the brandy soused hell hole it is.....but alas,to be fair, and I don't want to be....but they can sell liquor in their groceries so the data is probably skewed. We can't enjoy that maturity because we have so many Lutherans in the legislature. After all Volstead was an OLE!

  5. Thanks again for pointing these data visualisation examples out which I didn't yet know and will put in my Data Visualisation References (hat tip to you of course).

  6. Nice too read such article. Good Information. keep it up Dud.

  7. dude this is very informative. cool article. anyway, i'm just wondering why there are no circles in the other parts let's say Russia. good job here!

  8. What a great concept for a blog

  9. You haven't actually acknowledged that your maps of Europe and Australia are just bunkum. It is entirely possible to collate the terms Lutheran and Anglican into the over-arching term Protestant. You mother maps are completely misrepresentative of the truth.

  10. The point about our maps being "completely misrepresentative of the truth" is an interesting one, albeit one that I think the three of us would all strongly disagree with. This is primarily because we don't purport to represent "the truth" in any of our maps, nor would we want to. Indeed, our maps only purport to represent how others have represented what they see as "the truth" (is that postmodern enough for you?).

    The fact that these representations aren't perfectly reflective of the offline realities they are associated with doesn't mean that these maps are "bunkum" or intentional misrepresentations on our part. Instead, we see these differences as something of interest, in and of themselves. They point to the incongruities between the physical world we live in and the online representations of it. Often times, these maps show that the online and the offline world are actually very closely related. But whether the differences that exist are caused by linguistic differences, inequalities in internet access, methodological shortcomings or any number of other things, they still point to the mutual relationship between the online and the offline (which is, as is stated in some of our earliest posts, the primary object of study for this ongoing research project).

  11. Where are the Hindus? Besides India, of course.

  12. Hey we need to give the Mormons some love!!

  13. Very nice work, but I've come to expect that from floatingsheep. However... I wondered why Judaism was not included as a major world religion. Perhaps there aren't many Jews? And what would be a good religious keyword to use?

    So I Google-searched phrase "comparative religious prevalence", and used an arbitrary non-sponsored site, religion for source data. Counts were Buddhism 360 mil; Christianity (incl Mormon, Unitarian, ChrSci) 2 bil; Islam (Sunni and Shia) 1.3 bil; Hindu 900 mil; "Chinese religion" (indigenous folk religion, incl Taoism, Confusc) 394 mil; Sikh 23 mil; Judaism 14 mil; 7thDay Adventist 10mil; Shinto 4 mil and for @Todd, Mormon 14mil.

    This answered my question, and possibly the point raised in the prior article as to why there was no coverage in China. Was the category "Chinese religion" included?

    I had similar curiosity about the former USSR. Was Russian/ Greek Orthodox included in the Christianity category?

    PS Sorry, I tried to post this on last month's religion mapping article, but couldn't post til now...

  14. Hi there! Thanks for the comment and questions. I'll try to address your points:

    First, we do have a searches for both "Jewish" and "Confucius", although neither shows anything particularly interesting (e.g., Israel doesn't actually show up very well on a map of the keyword "Jewish"). Again, this could just reflect a poor choice of keywords - "Judaism" or "Confucianism" could potentially yield quite different results.

    As for the inclusion of the Orthodox Church, we don't have any maps that show it exclusively, although it is included in the map that compares it to the keywords Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal. You can find a couple different versions of that map on the post entitled Mapping Christianity.

  15. Taylor, I'm the prior poster, @myindigolives, to whose questions you so thoughtfully responded.
    Thank you! I needed a mere four months to find my way back here...better late than never? Maybe?

    Anyway, I'm continuing to learn from your site, and find it interesting how various commercial applications seemed to have followed floatingsheep's lead of gauging and developing the "cyberscape". I'm thinking of Microsoft Tag in particular, but that is merely one of many.

    P.S. I just visited your Zazzle site, registered as a member of your "fan club". Any plans to offer magnets or coasters with your delightful sheepy insignia?

  16. Church of Scotland" is used equivalently to "Anglican" - who told you that ?

    It is "Presbyterian" according to their own statement which means they are Calvinist, or Reformed.