Apparently, 3000 years isn’t old enough to count as “traditional.”

I really enjoy the Economist blog Graphic Detail‘s daily chart posts. They often provide great material for quick comparisons of OECD countries or major economies on various economic issues. Today’s chart is a bit different: a breakdown of world population by religion.

My first complaint is graphical: I think a blog devoted to good data visualization could come up with something better than a donut chart to represent the data, although I suppose it’s slightly better than the pie chart from the underlying Pew Report.

My second complaint is more substantive: the categories. The top categories are, unsurprisingly, Christians and Muslims, followed by “unaffiliated” and Hindus. Unaffiliated is an interesting amalgamation of agonistic, atheist, and “no religion” – three groups that might be worth disentangling, especially given that the group seems to be large enough to make that possible without overly cluttering the chart (16% are classified as unaffiliated, while just .2% are Jewish). Pew does this sometimes (see this post for the US, note how small the self-identified atheist group is), but perhaps did not provide the data for a world breakdown of unaffiliated.

More worrisome to me is the category “folk/traditional” which covers about 6% of the world’s population. The Economist offers no explanation for this category whatsoever, nor its implicit statement that somehow Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are not “traditional.” The Pew report summarizes this group in the chart’s footnotes as “followers of African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions, and Australian aboriginal religions.” Hm, I wonder what these groups have in common? Another page on the Pew website describes folk religionists in more detail: “An estimated 405 million people – or about 6% of the world’s total population – are adherents of folk or traditional religions. These are faiths that are closely associated with a particular group of people, ethnicity or tribe. They often have no formal creeds or sacred texts.” I don’t know enough about any of the religions Pew is lumping together here to say for sure, but “no formal creeds” sounds suspicious to me. Who decides what counts as a formal creed? After that, Pew actually does a pretty nice job of complicating the picture there, by noting how prevalent these various “folk” religious practices are in many places, but also how difficult they are to measure, especially in China where they are not recognized officially, and how much syncretism goes on (individuals who fluidly mix big, institutionalized world religions like Christianity with smaller, more local religious practices). But still, there’s more than a little bit of colonialism lurking about this categorization and its lumping together of such diverse groups of (primarily) subalterns.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of the Pew report, and one that I wish the Economist had picked up for its graphic rather than the decidedly less interesting average age data, is the percentage of adherents of a religion that live in a country where their religion is the majority. For example, 97% of Hindus live in a majority-Hindu nation (presumably mostly in India), while just 28% of Buddhists do so. This comparison makes evident the most unifying feature of “folk” religionists: they are all minorities.

The title of this post is meant to be cheeky, of course. Judaism is 3000 years old (or thereabouts), Christianity pushing 2000. That certainly sounds old enough to count as “traditional.” But when it comes to world religious classifications, “traditional” is not a marker of legitimacy, nor even just of small size, but rather political marginalization.*

* Though, that doesn’t explain why some of the “other” religions get called out by name. And where are the Jedi?



  1. Go read The Sacred Canopy and a textbook or two on comparative religion and then we’ll talk.

  2. Jason Kerwin

     /  December 26, 2012

    I haven’t done any formal study of comparative religion, but I do think a lack of written texts is a unifying feature of these faiths that pre-date the younger religions that now dominate the world. Maybe not official creeds, I’m less clear on that part. Another is polytheism – they existed long prior to the newer, monotheistic traditions that came out of the Middle East.

    Another is that they are all either verging on extinction, or have been incorporated into syncretic belief systems with a newer faith, or both. I think their slow march into oblivion is related to the other two, especially the first. I spend a lot of time pondering the deep roots Christianity has set down in Africa in just a short time, and why it didn’t do so in India, and I think the lack of written sacred books is critical to that distinction.

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