How did religion diffuse throughout the world?

Have you ever seen a Hindu or Buddhist temple somewhere in the US? If you are not Hindu or Buddhist, it may be a surprise to realize that these religions have spread so far from their original homelands. Perhaps someone would be just as surprised by seeing St. Philomena's Cathedral, a place for Catholics, in Mysore in the state of Karnataka in South India. Isn't India a Hindu country? Overwhelmingly, it is, but Christianity has also been there for many centuries.

What we are talking about here is the diffusion of religion. Religions, like the people who believe in them, rarely stay put. They diffuse wherever people go. Let's take a brief tour of this enormous and significant topic. Keep on reading to learn more about the gradual diffusion of religion, the cultural diffusion of religion, and more.

Diffusion of Religion Definition

While some religions never leave their places of origin, many diffuse widely over a region or even worldwide.

Diffusion of Religion: the movement of a religion outward from its hearth via means such as missionaries, a diaspora, conquest, or the Internet.

Ethnic religions, the belief systems of ethnic groups, accompany people as they migrate from the ethnic group's culture hearth in the process of relocation diffusion. Because these religions typically do not seek and may not even allow converts, they are not found widely across regions where other ethnicities are found. Instead, they tend to cluster wherever populations of an ethnic group are found other than their cultural hearth.

How did religion diffuse throughout the world?
Fig. 1 - The Sri Venkateswara Swami Temple of Greater Chicago is a Hindu place of worship in Aurora, Illinois

Universalizing religions, which proselytize (seek converts) and are not limited to people of any one ethnicity, diffuse from their hearths through the successful efforts of their followers to convert people wherever the followers go. This expansion diffusion results in entire regions dominated by a single religion, wherever conditions permit conversion. Where conditions do not allow conversion (i.e., where it is banned), a universalizing religion may diffuse only via relocation diffusion, limited to followers but not spreading to others.

Religions vary in the rate at which they spread. This is closely related to available means of transport and the speed of media transmission. Nowadays, it takes only a couple of days for a person to reach any point on Earth from any other, while communication travels at the speed of light. But it was not always this way.

Compared to today, religions of the past tended to diffuse gradually, even though from a historical distance, it appears as if they spread like wildfire.

Diffusion of Universalizing Religions

Generally, universalizing religions such as Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam have spread the farthest in the least time, but this does not mean it happened overnight.

Islam started spreading via expansion diffusion from its hearth in the Arabian Peninsula in the 600s AD, and it is still spreading today in places like sub-Saharan Africa, western Europe, and North America. Buddhism spread out of India in the 200s BC and continued to diffuse throughout much of Asia for the next millennium; it is still spreading via expansion and relocation today. Christianity radiated from the area of modern-day Syria in all directions beginning in the first century AD and continues to spread two thousand years later.

The speed at which universalizing religions have diffused depends on many factors; here are three of the most important:

Political Backing

Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism could diffuse rapidly, at least by appearances, when leaders converted and inspired or required their subjects to convert.

Methods Used to Achieve Conversion

At many points in history, both Christianity and Islam diffused rapidly via the "sword." Believers engaged in military conquests and forced non-believers to either convert or die. In the case of Islamic conquests, some "people of the Book" (Jews and Christians) were allowed to continue practicing their religions by paying a jizya, a tax collected by Muslim authorities. Nowadays, forced conversion still occurs, but is considered a form of religious extremism.

Acceptance/Resistance among the Unconverted

People often pretended to convert and adopted some outward appearances of new religious faith, but later abandoned it. In India, Hindus forcefully resisted being converted to Islam, a conflict that in some ways is ongoing today. In the Americas after 1492, Indigenous people were baptized in a language they did not understand, with little or no comprehension of Roman Catholic Christianity. Often, they later rebelled and refused to practice the religion.

Therefore, for universalizing religions, they may appear to diffuse rapidly to some areas, but whether widespread conversion happened as quickly as advocates for the faith proclaim is a thorny question.

For ethnic religions such as Hinduism and Judaism, relocation diffusion can happen slowly, if at all, for a very long time, and then an event occurs that sends large populations of the religion to a new place. This happened multiple times to Jews who fled European persecution and settled in the Americas.

Hindus relocated from India to other parts of the British Empire, such as Uganda, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago, in the 1800s, for labor reasons. Hindus had to relocate from Uganda in the 1970s due to persecution by the dictator Idi Amin. Many ended up in the US South, a fictional account of which appears in the Hollywood movie Mississippi Masala.

Diffusion of Religion Map

The diffusion of religion is a spatial process, leaving a cultural pattern that can be mapped. This is easy to see on the map we use as an example. Christianity diffused from its hearth around modern-day Syria, following water and land transport routes as its followers moved to and proselytized in new areas within the Roman Empire.

How did religion diffuse throughout the world?
Fig. 2 - Expansion diffusion of Christianity from its hearth in the eastern Mediterranean in the first three centuries AD

Cultural Diffusion of Religion

Religion is one of the primary expressions of culture, so cultural diffusion is the leading way religions move from one place to another.

Economic and political geographical factors are also involved in religious diffusion, but they are secondary to culture. For example, in the case above, economic reasons lured Hindus from India to overseas locations in the British Empire, but political reasons forced them out of Uganda; economic opportunity and political freedoms lured them to the United States and elsewhere after that.

Religion crosscuts many elements of culture, from language and the arts to food, drink, and leisure time. These elements often accompany religions as they diffuse.

For example, certain foods are prepared in specific manners as religion dictates. This includes kosher in Judaism and halal in Islam. In the areas to which these religions diffused, one can see stores dedicated to selling kosher and halal products. In New York City, such places are relatively prominent parts of the commercial landscape in ethnic neighborhoods but are also available to the broader public. This demonstrates how cultural practices associated with religions can diffuse beyond a specific religious purpose per se.

Liturgical languages are those used in religious practice. Arabic is such a language for Islam, diffusing along with the religion wherever it goes. In many cases, the ancient Arabic found in the Q'uran and used in religious ceremonies differs from the actual language spoken by many Muslims, whether it is a different dialect or another language altogether. In Christianity, Latin was used exclusively for Roman Catholic masses until the 20th century but was not used as a spoken language outside liturgical settings such as the Mass.

Diffusion of Religion in Shaping Place

Places are shaped by myriad factors of physical and cultural geography, but religion can play a very prominent role. Take towns across the world, for example. The steeples preferred by many Christian denominations stand out from a distance, whether you are arriving at a town in North Dakota, the Philippines, Ecuador, or France. Similarly, the minarets of mosques are a dominant feature of the cultural landscape across the Muslim world. At the same time, giant statues of Buddha, as well as Buddhist temples, may be found from Thailand to Texas, and Sikh gurdwaras from Punjab to Toronto. Such monuments are symbolic markers of the cultural and sometimes political and economic power that religions exert, and their presence in places to which they have diffused are markers of their prominence in their new homes.

How did religion diffuse throughout the world?
Fig. 3 - Parishioners leave a Catholic church in the Philippines on Palm Sunday

Religions, whether separate or not from the state, have considerable power to shape places beyond the construction of religious architecture.

Eruvin (singular: eruv) are sacred spaces in Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel and certain parts of the diaspora, particularly in large US cities. They are symbolic, delineated private neighborhood spaces that permit certain Jews to engage in activities outside their homes that would otherwise not be allowed in non-sacred spaces.

Religious elements of culture are part of what contributes to the sense of place in ethnic neighborhoods. This includes the presence of people dressed in religious attire, burial grounds, places of worship, the sound of sacred music and calls to prayer, and the sights, sounds, and smells associated with cultural activities in which the religion's practitioners engage. This includes whatever happens in restaurants, shops, and numerous other locations. The overall effect is to recreate a variant of a place that might be found in the religion's hearth.

Diffusion of Religion - Key takeaways

  • Religions spread from the hearths via expansion diffusion and relocation diffusion
  • Universalizing religions most commonly spread via expansion diffusion, while ethnic religions most commonly spread via relocation diffusion
  • Factors such as the method of conversion, political support, and resistance or acceptance among local people help determine how quickly a universalizing religion can diffuse
  • The diffusion of religion results in the diffusion of other cultural elements from one place to another