The World’s Most and Least Religiously Diverse Nations

An extensive new report by the Pew Research Center, a leading pollster and think-tank, has yielded interesting and often surprising results about religious across the world.

Before proceeding, keep in mind that for the sake of simplicity, Pew’s methodology looked at only eight main groups: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, folk religion, other religion, and unaffiliated (counting non-religious people towards diversity of belief makes sense, since being secular reflects a society’s overall openness). If one were to include the thousands of varying sects and nuances within these categories, chances are that the diversity of certain areas would increase.

In any case, here is the data mapped out, courtesy of Vox. Blue represents the most diversity and yellow the least.

Many of the world’s most religiously diverse countries are found in West Africa and Southeast/East Asia, with the top three being Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The least religious diverse nations are largely in the Muslim World, across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia (unsurprisingly, the least religiously diverse country in the world is Vatican City, in a crude sense the “capital” of the Roman Catholic Church).

The following chart from the Pew report compares select countries from across the spectrum.

As Vox’s analysis points out, while the U.S. isn’t the most religious diverse country in the world, it does nonetheless have a diverse Christian population, characterized by numerous Protestant denominations as well as Catholicism (by contrast most Christian countries, save for those in Sub-Saharan Africa and part of Central America, tend to be dominated by Catholicism or a particular Protestant sect).

Singapore’s religious diversity reflects its unusually cosmopolitan history and heritage: the city-state was founded in a Muslim-majority region by the British to serve as an entrepot for their sprawling, multicultural empire. For generations it received immigrants from India, neighboring Malaysia, and China, each bringing their own faith traditions and establishing communities that continue to attract newer generations from these regions.

Vietnam’s high diversity reflects a similar cosmopolitan history: the country is on the cusp of Indian and Chinese spheres of influence (and thus respective belief systems),  is in close proximity to Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia (whose trade routes introduced Islam to some degree), and was colonized by Catholic France.

Apparently, Asia lends itself well to such diversity, as Vox notes:

What’s really interesting to look at is China, which Pew ranks at the ninth most religiously diverse country in the world. Though it’s widely perceived as an atheistic country, given the avowed areligiosity of the Communist Party, it turns out to have hundreds of millions of faithful. Here’s a chart of China’s religious breakdown, alongside Taiwan, which is ranked second and was a part of China until 1949, and Hong Kong, which is ranked tenth and is a Chinese special autonomous region that spent 150 years under British rule.

Yes, the largest group in China (and in Hong Kong) is of the unaffiliated, who are presumably mostly faithless as designed by Communist Party rule. China also turns out to have just massive populations of Buddhists and folk religionists. Christianity is far from freely practiced — it’s tightly controlled by the government, which fears it as a possible threat — but it is still popular, with about five percent of Chinese professing to be Christian. Another 1.8 percent are Muslim, which may not sound like much, but that comes out to 23 million people — more Muslims that live in some Middle Eastern countries.

You see somewhat similar trends in Taiwan and Hong Kong: lots of unaffiliated, lots of Buddhists, lots of folk religionists. Taiwan also has a huge Daoist population, which shows up here as “other religions.” And Hong Kong, owing to British rule and immigration, has lots of Christians.

What about Africa’s high marks for religious diversity? Well, the factors differ from those in Asia:

Unlike East Asian countries that score as diverse because people are spread out across several religions, in Africa that high diversity score often reflects a sharp and sometimes even divide between Christians and Muslims.

These divides have been the source of some conflict, particularly in West Africa. In Ivory Coast, for example, the heavily Christian south and the heavily Muslim north are also divided between political parties. That sense of division contributed to a civil war that began in 2002, ended in 2007, restarted in 2010 and “ended” the next year with an international intervention.

This map shows a rough approximation of the divide.

Note that many Africans adhere to syncretic forms of Christianity and Islam, meaning they retain and combine traditional folk traditions, such as ancestor worship, shamanistic medicine, and belief in spirits. Moreover, Christianity in particular is split along numerous sects, many of them uniquely African in character and origin.

Finally, we come to the Middle East, which along with a few solidly Catholic countries like Mexico and Poland, is among the least religiously diverse — minus three key exceptions:

Unsurprisingly, all three of these nations are located on the Mediterranean side of the region, thus encompassing centuries of east-west intermingling. It has even been suggested that the mountainous terrain of the area allowed for minority faiths to remain largely untouched amid the shifting tides of dominant faiths; similarly mountainous regions in Iraq and Iran have also been popular havens for minority groups, such as the ancient Yazidi and Zoroastrian faiths, respectively.

I am curious to see what impact globalization will have in the religious makeup of certain societies and regions. Christianity’s rapid spread across Africa is one clear indication, especially as most of that growth occurred after much of the continent was decolonized. Similarly, non-religion of all forms — from hard atheism to agnosticism and vague spirituality — seems to be making inroads in parts of the world that are rapidly modernizing. Meanwhile, certain established faiths, will no doubt resist such developments, though that will be a tall order amid the fast-growing and nonstop exchange of cultures, beliefs, and communities across the world.

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