Geography of Religion

GEOGRAPHERS HAVE ALWAYS RECOGNISED a relationship between religion and landscape. However, what this relationship is and whether there is, or has been, a real field which can be called ‘geography of religion’ has been debated. In 1967, geographer C.J Glacken, recognising the relationship, commented:

“In ancient and modern times alike, theology and geography have often been closely related studies because they meet at crucial points of human curiosity. If we seek after the nature of man and the earth, and if we look at the earth, questions of divine purpose in its creation and of the role of mankind on it inevitably arise”.

Almost ten years later, Yi-Fu Tuan would pronounce in 1976 that the geography of religion is a field “in disarray”.

THE PROCESS OF WORLDWIDE SECULARIZATION begun in the 1960s led to Buttner in 1980 calling for “the incorporation of this widespread process of secularization into the geography of religion to prevent it from becoming a ‘geography of relics’, restricted to the study of those ever-shrinking areas in which religion still has a formative effect on the environment”.

In 1981 David E. Sopher asked whether there was, indeed, a ‘Geography of Religion’. Sopher asked to what extent should the geographer, as social scientist, defer to the scholar of religions? Should the geographer become a scholar of religions if, as Erich Isaac in 1962 thinks, the key to the geography of religion is the study of religion itself?

Sopher concluded that geographic work that deals with religion is likely to remain diffuse. In fact, questions about the validity and viability of geography of religion as a separate subfield are not important. Rather, one could look forward to the withering away of geography of religion as a subfield, as the discipline of geography as a whole matured, “to the extent that geography is prepared and able to take man seriously, to accept as data his symbols, rites, beliefs and hopes in all their cultural actuality, religion broadly conceived must become a central object of the discipline’s best endeavours”.

IN FACT ‘GEOGRAPHY OF RELIGION’ was not withering away so much as broadening and metamorphising into a geography of spirituality. It’s establishment as a field within geography was not at issue in 1990 when Lily Kong presented a broad historical and contemporary perspective on religio-geographical literature.

Kong concluded that “the geography of religion may develop into a ‘geography of spiritual attitudes’ instead”.

Kong asked “How does the spiritual come to be expressed and conveyed, particularly in an area of human life where words are presumably an inadequate way of expressing feeling?”

Towards a Geography of Landscape Spirituality

BY THE EARLY 1990s, reciprocity was becoming important when thinking about landscape. “The reciprocity of meaning between place, landscape and religious experience is receiving increased attention among geographers of religion” wrote geographer A. Cooper in ‘New directions in the geography of religion’ in 1992.

It was as if he was addressing J. Kay, who two years earlier had expressed frustration with the ways in which religio-geographical analysis had failed to engage with the interaction between individual’s interpretations of place and landscape and their religious experience. S. Bhardwaj, 1990, also recognised the need to engage in interaction and emphasised the active role of human individuality, imagination and emotion.

Religious experience perceived as being passive and consensual was being rejected. Emphasis was now on interaction, symbolism, imagination, emotion, reciprocity – particularly with the natural environment – and experience which is active and individual rather than passive and consensual. These are all defining characteristics of spirituality and a postmodern landscape meaning.

EMPHASIS ON SPIRITUAL MEANING within landscape was this-worldly and of the inner psyche rather than other-worldly and authoritarian, as in the traditional monotheistic religions. In reflecting on the ways in which geographers of religion were beginning to regard reciprocity between geographical and religious experience, one of Cooper’s conclusions was that:

“the ways in which places, landscapes and religious experience are being conceived are not isolated from other aspects of social and material relations. That is, religio-geographical reciprocity is located within the contested, negotiated and dilemmatic context of other forms of cultural and ideological meaning, and social and material relations”.


1 Lily Kong, ‘Geography and Religion: Trends and Prospects’, Progress in Human Geography, v.14 (1990), 355-371. Kong gives a succinct description of historical development of geography and religion – delineating ‘religious geography’, ‘ecclesiastical geography’ and ‘biblical geography’ and an ‘environmentally deterministic’ approach all prior to the twentieth century. For Kong the development of the geography of religion in the twentieth century can be characterised as “undergoing a thesis – antithesis – synthesis cycle” (p. 358). Initially focus has been on religion as determined by its environment. In the second stage of antithesis, the geography of religion has moved to a focus on the moulding influence of religion on its environment .(p.359).

2 C.J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore (CA: University of California Press, 1967), 35.

3 Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Humanistic Geography’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 66, (1976), 271.

4 M. Buttner, ‘Survey Article on the History and Philosophy of the Geography of Religion in Germany’, Religion, v.86 (1980), 100-104.

5 David E. Sopher, ‘Geography and Religions’, Progress in Human Geography, v.5 (1981), 510. 50 Erich Isaac, ‘The Act and the Covenant: The Impact of Religion on the Landscape’, Landscape 11, (1962), 12-17.

6 Sopher, ‘Geography and Religions’, Progress in Human Geography, v.5 (1981), 519.

7 Lily Kong, ‘Geography and Religion: Trends and Prospects’, Progress in Human Geography, v.14 ( 1990), 355-371.

8 Ibid, 359.

9 Ibid, 367.

10 A. Cooper, ‘New Directions in the Geography of Religion’, Area, v.24, no.2 (1992) 123.

11 J. Kay, ‘Human Dominion over Nature in the Hebrew Bible’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v.79 (1989), 214-232.

12 See S. Bhardwaj, Sentimental Journeys: Thoughts on the Nature of Pilgrimage. Conference paper, Department of Geography, Kent State University, Ohio, 1990.

13 Cooper (1992) ‘New Directions’, 127.


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