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Chapter 13 - Religion, Culture and Conflict


Of the forces shaping the geography of culture, language and religion are two of the most powerful, but as a divisive force religion plays a more prominent role. People may speak the same language but have quite different beliefs either as members of different major religions or different branches of the same faith. As you read this chapter you will gain insight into the perpetuating of cultural strife by religion, a problem that adds to the difficulties of peaceful human coexistence. It is important for you to realize that religious conflicts usually involve more than differences in spiritual practices and beliefs. Religion functions as a symbol of a much wider set of cultural and political differences. The key points of this chapter are discussed below.

Interfaith Boundaries

Compare Figure 11-1 with a political map and you will see that some countries lie entirely within the realms of individual world religions, while other countries straddle interfaith boundaries, the boundaries between the world’s major faiths. Boundaries between major religions that cross countries can be powerful sources of conflict, with serious implications for political cohesion and stability.

Examine Figure 13-1 and you will see that several countries in Africa are in this situation, including Nigeria , Africa ’s most populous state. Nigeria is a multilingual country of 110 million inhabitants. Superimposed on its linguistic diversity is religious regionalism: the north is a Muslim zone, whereas Christianity prevails in the south along with local traditional religions. Ethnic groups in the north and south see religion as the focal point of differences that go much deeper than that. Will Nigeria ’s location astride an interfaith boundary ultimately destroy the country? The potential for a fracture along religious lines is growing, and any such development would have enormous social and political consequences. Nigeria is a crucible of West African culture and has served as a model for other countries with two or more religious groups within their borders. The breakup of Nigeria would indeed have far-reaching consequences.

Intrafaith Boundaries

Boundaries between branches of a major religion are generally less divisive than boundaries between different religions. A number of Western European countries have Catholic as well as Protestant communities, and often these are reflected in the regional distribution of the population, as in the case of Switzerland (Figure 13-4). In the late l990s the great majority of these countries were not experiencing religious or ethnic conflict. But intrafaith boundaries are still are capable of producing cultural conflict that can threaten the stability of entire countries. Consider the situation in Northern Ireland , where a Protestant majority and a Catholic minority are in conflict over coexistence and their future. This issue is not strictly religious, but stems from a time when all of Ireland was a British dependency and British Protestants migrated to Ireland . Most settled in the northeastern corner of the island (see Figure 13-5) where, following partitioning, they constituted the majority of the population and held all the economic and political advantages. The conflict today is over access to opportunities, civil rights, and political influence. But religion and religious history are the banners beneath which the opposing sides march.

Religious Fundamentalism

In the world of the late 1990s, religious leaders and millions of their followers are seeking to return to the basics of their faith. This drive toward religious fundamentalism is often born of frustration at the perceived breakdown of society’s mores and values, loss of religious authority, failure to achieve economic goals, corruption of political systems, and loss of a sense of local control in the face of the globalization of culture and economy. People of one society often fear fundamentalism in other societies without recognizing it in their own. In the United States , fundamentalism is often associated with Islam. However, religious fundamentalism is a world-wide phenomenon that affects virtually all religions, including Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. Fundamentalism and extremism are closely related, and their appeal is global. Today religions are affected by modernization. Education, radio, television, and travel have diffused notions of individual liberties, sexual equality, and freedom of choice; questions about religions as well as secular authority; and other ideas that may clash with religious dogma. The drive toward fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam alike is creating a climate of mistrust that could lead to strife. The cultural cores of Christianity and Islam lie in close proximity in Europe and Southwest Asia , North Africa ; the prospect of disharmony and conflict between them is growing.


1. Which South American country, according to Figure 11-1, has the largest area of Traditional and Shamanist religions?

a.   Argentina

b.   Brazil

c.   Chile

d.   Uruguay

2. The largest number of adherents to the Christian faith are found in:

a.   Europe

b.   Sub-Saharan Africa

c.    North America

d. South America

3.  The most populous Muslim country is:

a.    Iran

b.    Saudi Arabia

c.    Indonesia

d.     Pakistan

4. Hinduism evolved in what is today the country of:

a.   Pakistan

b.   Nepal

c.   Sri Lanka

d.   India

5.  Taoism was probably founded by which of the following.

a.    Confucius

b.    Lao-Tsu

c.    Chug-Lee

d.    Mao Tse-tung

6.  The rise of secularism is associated with which of the following events.

a.    the Industrial Revolution

b.    the Third Agricultural Revolution

c.    the Reformation

d.    the rise of the Eastern Orthodox faith

7.     When we look at a map of Africa displaying religion locations there is an obvious division where  ?  dominate the north.

a.    Christian religions

b.    Animistic faiths

c.    Muslims

d.    traditional religions

8. When the USSR collapsed, the Soviet Republics became independent states. In which of the following is there an interfaith boundary dividing Muslims and Christians that presents a serious problem for the future of the state.

a.    Azerbaijan

b.   Ukraine

c.    Kazakhstan

d.    Belarus

9. The most destructive war of its kind in modern times was a conflict between two Muslim countries following different branches of the Islamic faith. These two countries were:

a.   Syria and Jordan

b.   Iran and Kuwait

c.   Turkey and Greece

d.   Iraq and Iran

10. This North African country suffers from the desire of some groups to create an Islamic Republic.

a.   Tunisia

b.   Morocco

c.   Algeria

d.   Mali


1. Religion has condemned women to an inferior status in many societies. (TF)

2. In today’s world, the Christian religions are the most widely dispersed. (TF)

3.  The Hindu religion has a bureaucracy similar to that of Christianity and Islam. (TF)

4.  Animistic religions are centered on the belief that animals possess spirits. (TF)

5. Traditional religions still prevail where people resist outside influence. (TF)

6. The caste system is part of the Hindu religion. (TF)

7. Hinduism is a very low key religion, and leaves very little visual evidence on the cultural landscape. (TF)

8. Because of the take-over of China by the communists, Confucianism no longer has much influence on the people. (TF)

9. Even today, cathedrals built in Medieval European towns are still a dominating feature. (TF)

10.  In Iran , after the Shah was deposed, women suffered a set-back in freedoms they had gained. (TF)


1.  Although it can not be defined exactly, list the different rituals that are commonly found in various religions - discuss two universalizing religions and two ethnic religions.  Be sure your answer is complete.

2. Identify the hearths of the four major world religions and discuss their diffusion routes.  Be sure to identify time periods and means of diffusion (contagious, hierarchical).

3.  Using information from previous chapters explain how Christianity spread across the globe?

4.  Where is the heartland of Islam? Where in this region are the two divisions located?

5.  List the ways Hinduism is different from Christianity and Islam.

6.  List the factors that have led to the rise of secularism. Can you think of other factors in your culture that might play a role (hint: materialism)? List them.

7.  What are the true global religions? What are regional religions? Name them and their locations. Where are most traditional religions located?

8. List the major world religions and their source areas. List their differences and similarities. How have some of these changed over the centuries?

9. Which religions are cultural or regional? Define the difference between cultural and secular. What are some of the traits that make a religion cultural?

10. Which of the major religions was spread by migrant diffusion? What religion replaced it in its source region?

11. Trace the diffusion of Islam. How does Islam impact its cultural landscape? Discuss Islamic architecture.

12.  Going region by region and country by country, describe the problems of interfaith boundaries. Be sure to study the appropriate maps.

13.  Why do many intrafaith boundaries cause less trouble? (Hint: what commonalities do people have?)

14.  Where is the most contested religious site in the world located? Why are there so many conflicts over this particular site?

15.  Discuss the rise of religious fundamentalism. Is it confined to one religion or many? What are some of the reasons given for this resurgence?

Subject X2: 

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