Geographic Settings, Prevalence, and Influence of Modern Religions

By Dr. Michel Clasquin-Johnson / 01.19.2017
Professor of Religious Studies
University of South Africa

Religion in Africa

The three religio-political regions of Africa

In Africa, religion is particularly strong. We can see Africa as a continent that is divided into three distinct regions:

North Africa

This region, which includes the vast Sahara desert, was conquered by Muslim forces between the sixth and ninth centuries and remains Muslim and largely Arabic–speaking to this day. Muslim influence also stretches down the east coast of Africa, down into Kenya and Tanzania, but there it has rivals. On the other side of the continent, the Muslim region stretches across the borders of countries like Nigeria. This has recently caused a lot of conflict, since the northern, Muslim regions of Nigeria wanted to institute Muslim law, while the Christian regions in the south did not. In the Central African Republic, the tension has gone the other way and Muslims have fled the country in large numbers. Sometimes the dividing line cut right through a country: In Sudan, a civil war between Muslim Northerners and mostly Christian Southerners raged for thirty years and led to the creation of the first new country in Africa in a century, namely Southern Sudan.

Islam flourished in North Africa: places like Cairo in Egypt and Timbuktu in Mali were great centres of Islamic learning, attracting students for hundreds of kilometres. Before the coming of Islam, the Mediterranean coastline was mainly Christian, while tribal religions were practised deep in the desert. Christian (and Jewish) communities remained under Muslim rule for many centuries, and even today there are many Christians in Egypt. But of the old tribal religions of the desert, little more remains than some old customs and sayings.

Although Islam is strongest in North Africa, there has been a large Muslim population on the East African coast since the middle of the nineteenth century. They derive from the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which was part of Oman (in Arabia) until it became an independent country in 1861. Zanzibar is today part of Tanzania. Muslim traders travelled the continent from Zanzibar as far inland as the Congo basin. In fact, it is quite amusing to read the diaries of nineteenth-century European “explorers”. No matter how deeply they travelled into Africa, they always seemed to find a Muslim trader’s station to stay in!


Here we find that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the overwhelmingly dominant religious force, and has been since the fourth century. It is a very old form of Christianity, which has survived for centuries despite being surrounded by powerful Muslim neighbours. Ethiopian Christians have retained several old Jewish customs, like circumcision, that were abandoned by Christians elsewhere at an early stage. Ethiopians also maintain that the original Ark of the Covenant is stored in a safe place in their country. Ethiopian Christianity has become so dominant that we are no longer quite sure what the original religion of the country was like.

Sub-Saharan Africa

That leaves us with the rest of Africa. Here we find that African Religion, in all its many variations, was the only tradition practised until late in the 19th century. Then came colonialism, with Whites from Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal claiming huge tracts of land and ruling thousands of black people. Along with the colonialists came the missionaries, and we can see their influence today. Where the missionaries came from Catholic countries like France or Belgium, the Catholic Church is strong today, as is the case in the Congo and in Mali. If they came from a Protestant country like Britain, then there will be a lot of Anglicans or Methodists in that area. Zambia and Kenya are good examples of this.

According to, Christianity in sub–Saharan Africa grew from a mere 500 000 in 1875, to 5 million by 1925, to 100 million by 1980.

But Christianity and Islam never quite managed to eradicate African religion completely. All over sub–Saharan Africa, the old ways are still practised, sometimes in opposition to Christianity, more often alongside it. The African scholar Ali Mazrui has coined the useful phrase “Africa’s Triple Heritage” to describe the way in which African Religion, Islam and Christianity exist side by side, and for the most part in peace, in large parts of Africa south of the Sahara.

Religion in Asia

The distribution of religious traditions in Asia

When we look at a map of Asia we see that it is an enormous continent stretching from Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the West, to Japan in the East, and from Russia in the North to India and Indonesia in the South. This is the continent on which all five the major religions of the world originated. Let us start in the West with the area that is also known as the Middle East. This includes countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel.

Israel is also part of Asia, and Jews regards it as their Holy Land. Today Judaism is the state religion and the faith of the majority of Israelis. But there have been Jews in other parts of Asia for centuries. In India, for example, there are synagogues that were built hundreds of years before the arrival of European explorers and colonists.

Israel was settled by Jewish people, most of them from Europe, in the twentieth century. It continues to maintain close cultural and political links with Europe and North America. But look at the map: it really is an Asian country! Israel’s ambivalent status can be seen in the fact that its artists compete in the Eurovision Song Contest, but its national football team used to play in Asian competitions. Israel hosted and won the Asia Cup in 1964, but has since been forced by security concerns to join UEFA, the European football federation.

Christianity also started off in Israel, and although a form of this religion spread as far as the borders of China and the South coast of India, it later died out. It was left to missionaries from Europe and the Americas, centuries later, to bring both the Catholic and Protestant types of Christianity to Asia. Today, Korea and the Philippines are largely, though not exclusively, Christian countries. Christianity has not historically been as successful in the rest of Asia, but in recent years there have been reports of Christian advances in China.

Fact File

  • There are approximately 300 million Buddhists in Asia.
  • The world’s most populous Muslim country is Indonesia, where over 150 million Muslims live.
  • Close to 900 million Indians are Hindus.

Islam was founded in Arabia, which is also part of Asia. Since then, enormous parts of the Asian continent have adopted Islam as their major religion: almost all of Southwest Asia (the “Middle East”, countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), West Asian countries like Iran and Turkey, and Central Asian countries like Afghanistan, but also in Southeast Asia, where Malaysia and Indonesia are predominantly Muslim countries.

Hinduism comes from India, and nearly a billion (one thousand million) people in that country are Hindus. Hinduism is also found in Nepal, where it is the state religion, and versions of it can be found in parts of Indonesia (A “state religion” is a religion that is recognized and/or supported by the state or government).

Buddhism comes from India too, but is no longer a major religion there. Instead, Buddhism has spread to other Asian countries. There are two main forms: Theravada Buddhism is an old, conservative faith that can be found today in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Mahayana Buddhism developed later on, and spread to the northeast of India. Today it is found in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

When we look at the Northern parts of Asia we see that Russia dominates that part of the continent. The part of Russia called Siberia stretches right across Asia. Russia is both a European and an Asian country. Orthodox Christianity is the most prominent Russian religion, but Islam and Buddhism are practised in Siberia too. For a long time during the twentieth century, communist governments in Russia, China, Vietnam and other countries suppressed the practice of religion. When these governments fell or at least softened their hard–line stance in the 1990s, religion immediately made a comeback in all these countries.

Fact File

There are many other religions in Asia, but you do not need to know them in detail at this stage. We will just name a few of them for interest’s sake:

  • Shinto is a Japanese religion in which the appreciation of nature is very important
  • Confucianism is a Chinese religion that emphasises ritual, social conformity and orderliness
  • Taoism is another Chinese religion, but it emphasises magic, spiritual experience and longevity
  • Jainism is related to Hinduism and Buddhism, but is more strict in its ethical rules than those two. It is only found in India.
  • Sikhism was an attempt to combine aspects of Islam and Hinduism, and eventually it grew to an important religion in its own right.
  • Zoroastrianism was founded in Persia and was the first major monotheistic (believing in one god) faith. Today, most Zorastrians live in Bombay, India, where they are known as Parsees (i.e. Persians).
  • The Baha’i Faith originated in Iran and later moved its headquarters to Israel. Although it is not as big as the other religions, it is widely distributed across Asia.

In many remote parts of Asia, mostly in mountainous areas covered by thick forests, various people continue to practice the ancient religions of their ancestors.

Religion in Europe

The distribution of religious traditions in Europe

Unlike the other continents, Europe can be hard to define. Geographically speaking, there is no such thing, just a series of peninsulas on the western edge of Asia. Culturally, however, those peninsulas have an important place in history. When we speak of Europe we refer to the countries from Portugal in the West to Russia in the East (but not Siberia, which is that part of Russia east of the Ural Mountains). It also includes the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland and all the Scandinavian countries.

Today all these countries are generally regarded as Christian and mostly Roman Catholic (with some exceptions). But this does not really reflect the state of religion in Europe at all. Although Roman Catholicism is the denomination most prevalent in Europe, there are parts where the Orthodox Church (Greece, Russia) is most prevalent and others where the population is mostly Protestant (the Scandinavian countries).

The truth about Christianity in Europe is however, that people might mainly belong to Christian Churches but the church plays a very small part in their lives. Consider that while 82 per cent of Italians belong to the Roman Catholic Church, less than 50 per cent attend Church services on a regular basis. The Roman Catholic Church does not allow its members to use contraceptives, but the birth rate in Italy is one of the lowest in the whole of Europe. The sociologist Grace Davie (1994) has pointed out that the link between “believing” and “belonging” just is no longer the automatic one it used to be, and nowhere is this more obvious than in Europe.

Any map of religion in Europe represents an idealised situation dating to about 1900. But a map that showed the entire continent as “mixed” would not be very helpful, would it?

There are many who believe that Christianity is fast becoming a minority faith in Europe, as church attendance falls. Faith is, however, reappearing in unexpected places, some Christian, some not.

Christianity is still Europe’s main religion, with about 550 million adherents. But the number of Catholic Christians in Europe, for example, has fallen by more than a third since 1978.

Across Europe churches are being closed and turned into theatres, pubs and supermarkets. In fact, there are a growing number of missionaries from places such as Uganda, South Africa and Brazil working in Europe among Europeans. Despite this there has been a remarkable increase of Christian faith among the youth. In Denmark the number of 18 to 29 year olds who believe in God has leapt from 30 per cent in 1981 to 49 per cent in 1999 and in Italy from 75 per cent to 87 per cent.

This brings us to a further notable characteristic of faith in Europe and that is that it grows best outside of religious structures. As many people rediscover spirituality they do not necessarily return to the church. People are more likely to construct their own religion and often take elements from different religions into their own belief system. Although this worries some religious leaders, it does fulfil the spiritual need of many people who no longer want guidance from traditional institutions.

Another interesting development in Europe has been that other kinds of faith are blossoming in many places. Among recent immigrants to Europe, faith, Christian or otherwise, is particularly strong as people from Africa, the Caribbean and Muslim countries find support and comfort in faith congregations. In France today there are about 5 million Muslims and their numbers are increasing steadily. Germany has more than 3 million Muslims and the United Kingdom more than 2 million. These communities are amongst the most devout in all of Europe. Their way of practising Islam is, however, being adapted so that it differs from the ways in Morocco, Egypt and Turkey.

But not all European Muslims are recent immigrants. The Balkan areas used to belong to the Ottoman Empire and over the course of centuries conversions and resettlements created large Muslim populations in South-eastern Europe. Albania is a Muslim country and there is a large community in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There is even a Buddhist country in Europe! What we call “Russia” is actually a federation of regions with different levels of independence from Moscow. One such region is the Republic of Kalmykia, on the shore of the Black Sea, where a form of Tibetan Buddhism is practised.

References Cited:

Davie, G. 1994 . Religion in Britain Since 1945: Believing Without Belonging. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Religion in the Americas


The Americas are divided in a Northern and Southern continent and comprise many different countries, the major ones in North America being Canada, the United States of America and Mexico – and in the South, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela. The major religions in these countries today are still the religions which were brought by colonists from Europe.

North America

In the United States, with its history of British colonisation and immigration from all over Europe, half of the population belong to about 900 Protestant churches, and about a quarter of the population are Roman Catholics. No single Protestant church in the USA is larger than the Roman Catholic Church. The Jewish adherents number less than ten per cent but this is the largest concentration of Jews In the world – by one estimate, there are as many Jews in New York City as there are in Israel. Since the revision of immigration laws, which banned Asian immigration to the USA, in 1965, a steady stream of immigrants together with religious teachers and missionaries have arrived from Asia and has led to sizeable numbers of adherents to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

The group that has grown the most in recent years is those who belong to no religion (this now stands at about 20 per cent) although these people are not necessarily atheists. Many still believe in God and think of themselves as spiritual despite avoiding organised religion.

When compared with European statistics Americans are more religious with 97 per cent saying they believe in God and about half of them reporting that they attend church services weekly, but only a quarter declared themselves “deeply religious”.

In Canada, where there were mainly English and French immigrants, about half of the population are Roman Catholic (from the French stream) and 36 per cent Protestants (from the English immigrants). Once again. as in other Western countries, more Canadians than ever are reporting no religious affiliation

Three quarters of the Canadians who list themselves as not belonging to any religion, are under the age of 45 – but 40 per cent of these people actually believe in a God who cares about them personally.

Mexico lies just south of the United States and was colonised by Spain in the early sixteenth century. Ever since that time, Roman Catholicism has had a strong influence on the country. Today 90 per cent of Mexicans belong to the Roman Catholic Church, and just a tiny group to Protestant denominations – mostly of a Pentecostal variety.

South America

With regard to the countries of South America, the pattern is the same as in Northern America inasmuch as the religion of the colonisers (Spain and Portugal) have all but wiped out the traditional religions of the sub–continent, both the religions of great Andean civilisations such as the Incas and those practised by tribes deep in the Amazon rain forest. In Brazil, the largest country in South America, three–quarters of the population belong to the Roman Catholic Church, and in Argentina, Colombia and Venezuela the percentages are even higher. Lately Protestantism, particularly of the Pentecostal/Evangelical variety, has made some inroads, but still Protestants remain in the minority. The way evangelicalism is growing in Brazil, though, that might no longer be true by the time you read this. One or two Brazilian pentecostal churches are even being exported: The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, for example, has branches in South Africa, where it evangelises in inner-city environments.

An interesting development that has its roots in this part of the world is Liberation Theology, which emphasises that the church should lead the struggle against oppressors for a better life on earth. A number of Catholic and Protestant theologians led the way in countries such as Brazil, Columbia, Mexico and Argentina in protesting, on theological grounds, the way in which the poor masses of the rural and large urban slums were treated in these countries. The movement eventually brought people together in Christian–based communities, to study the Bible and to fight for social justice. This movement also had an influence on the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Religion in Oceania

The term Australasia refers to Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, New Guinea, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands. Under the term Pacific is understood the islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, scattered all over the Pacific Ocean. The best known of these islands are Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti and Hawaii. Another name that is often used for this entire region is Oceania. Today, this is the most religiously homogeneous of all the rmajor geographical regions.

The first people to inhabit the regions of Australasia and the Pacific arrived by boats or dug–out canoes from different parts of Asia. These arrivals took place more than 30 000 years ago. In fact, the oldest known boat on earth was found on the coast of New Guinea and is believed to be more than 33 000 years old.

Before the coming of British colonial settlers to Australia during the nineteenth century, the country was inhabited by the Aborigines who had their own religious beliefs and practices. Today, approximately 70 per cent of Australian Aborigines indicate on census forms that they are Christians. With the first immigrants, mainly coming from Britain, all the major Christian denominations found their way to “down under”, as Australia is known. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and members of the Greek Orthodox Church all made Australia their home. In the period after the Second World War, adherents of other world religions, started entering the country. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Muslims together constitute less than 3 per cent of the Australian population, but their numbers are growing

More than a million present day Australian Catholics were born overseas, with the largest group coming from Italy.

The Maoris in New Zealand practised their own form of Polynesian religion until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Then a great number of Christian missionaries, who came in the company of the colonial powers or soon afterwards, actively promoted the Christian faith. The result was that most of the Maoris converted to Christianity.

The majority of islands in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia have given up the worship of family and village gods in favour of Christianity. Some islands, such as Samoa for instance, appear to be one hundred percent Christian. Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists appear to be present in large numbers. It is only on the island of Fiji where there is a significant presence of people of other faiths. 38 per cent of all Fijians are Hindus, while Muslims account for 8 per cent of the population. But this is because of immigration from India, not because the native Fijians accepted those religions.