World Religious Preferences


Estimating the distribution of worldwide religious adherents is not for the statistically faint of heart. Categorizing people by religion is fraught with potential criticism, given it requires the grouping together of very different, but related denominations. That said, among the world’s six billion people, one can with some effort arrive at some reasonable estimates of the general distribution of the world’s major religious adherents. Combining denominations into major religious categories was necessary not just for Christianity, but also for the various sects of Islam and Buddhism in order to make the cartogram even remotely informative from a visual standpoint.

The cartogram highlights one very important fact: no single religion in the world is practiced by a majority of the world’s people. Every religion is a minority-held point of view. Therefore, it is probably important for those who hold their religion to be superior to all others to realize that they are dramatically outnumbered by those who disagree with their point of view. With the vast diversity among world religious beliefs–all of them minority outlooks–it certainly makes one wonder just who may or may not be right

Main Insights

  • Christianity, in all its various denominations and sects, is the world’s largest religion with approximately 2 billion adherents. It may be challenging for certain denominations of Christians to accept being categorized into a group that includes Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and even Mormons in the general faith known as “Christian.” However, even grouping all of these very different sects together results in a number of people that represent only one third of the world’s population.
  • When viewing the areas in which Christianity is practiced, one can discern the effective limits of Western European colonial and religious imperialism during the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Wherever Spanish, English, and Portuguese explorers journeyed, missionaries and converts seem to have followed. In a similar vein, one can trace the approximate borders of the first Islamic Caliphate after the imperial age of Islam in the seventh century. Even far-away Indonesia retains its Islamic faith, converted by Muslim missionaries and soldiers brought in ships. Only with great effort and over a long period of time were Muslim dominions in Spain and the Balkans slowly reclaimed by Christians.
  • Islam is the world’s second largest religion with 1.3 billion adherents, or 21% of the world’s total population. Despite such status, only one in five world citizens is a Muslim. As of the year 2000, there were approximately 54% more Christians than Muslims.
  • In most of the countries where there are sizeable Muslim minorities co-existing with a much more dominant religion, there is a history of bloody civil strife. This is not always the case, but it does occur in many countries where this condition exists: the former Yugoslavia, Israel/Palestine, the Philippines, India, Russia, Sudan, Nigeria, and Chad. Other religious minorities in the modern age seem to have a much lower rate of civil strife based on religious principles. In terms of recent history, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, and Animists seem to coexist more easily with one another.

Other Observations

  • Hindus are the third largest religious group, with 900 million believers, or 15% of the world’s population. Hindus are extremely concentrated in the religion’s birthplace, India. Since India never embarked on the imperial warpath in the way that Christians and Muslims did, Hindi beliefs appear to have stayed local.
  • Buddhism is the fourth largest religion with 360 million adherents, or 6% of the world. This religion is also not associated with an expansionist power, except perhaps the short-lived Japanese Empire of the twentieth century. The fifth largest religious faith is Confucianism, with an estimated 225 million adherents (4%). However, as Chinese religious affiliation estimates are particularly difficult to discern and subject to sharp debate, the actual number of Confucians is highly speculative.
  • “Other” religious beliefs (or lack thereof) not included above are held by 22% of the world’s population, or 1.3 billion people. This very general category includes African Animist religions, Judaism, American Indian practices, Wiccans, atheists, deists, Rastafarians, and many others. There are as many people in this category as there are believers in Islam.
  • It may be easy to miss seeing Israel on the map. In some respects, the country resembles a small island of Judaism (Judaism is considered to be in the “Other” religious category) surrounded by a sea of Muslims in neighboring countries. There are only 5 million Jews in Israel–less than in the United States–compared to perhaps 700 million Muslims in all of the Arab and North African countries. Doing this math, Israeli Jews are outnumbered by regional Muslims by a factor of 120 to one.
  • The cartogram reveals significant Muslim minorities in France and England. As their numbers grow and they progress from being less of a novelty to more of a powerful and noticeable minority, social frictions in these countries may increase. If Turkey joins the European Union and Turkish emigration becomes increasingly frequent, Western European countries could well see even fastergrowing Muslim minorities.
  • Perhaps due to the determined efforts of the Jesuit order and others in the Catholic church, Latin America is remarkably homogenous– it is not merely Christian but overwhelming Catholic. Probably as a result of this religious similarity, the continent has not been particularly wracked by religious-based warfare or conflict.

Sources and Methodology

In something as difficult to quantify as world religious affiliations, many data sources are needed. The four primary sources for this cartogram are: the CIA World Factbook (2002 edition), the internet database of world religious affiliations (, the New York Times Almanac (2002 edition), and a not insignificant amount of author’s estimates and data deconfliction. The CIA World Factbook provides one measure of religious affiliations by country, the New York Times Almanac, another. provides a plethora of estimates and sources for different countries’ religious affiliations, many of which are widely different even for a single country. Based on the different data sets, certain data are treated as more accurate or reliable than others (particularly for China) based on the author’s subjective “best estimate.”

In the various sources, religious affiliation estimates are usually presented as a percent of a country’s total population. The estimated year 2000 population for each country was multiplied by these percents to arrive at the total gross number of adherents in each country which was then used to calculate the degree of coloring appropriate to each country.

It is very important to note that this cartogram does not show where the different adherents of a particular religion are located within a country’s border. The placement of the coloring is completely abstract and simply intends to show, in easily interpreted collective blocks and in the simplest way possible, the number of each group’s adherents in a country.