Mapping Source-Places and the Roots of Religion

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Business Insider recently shared a thought-provoking video on the spread of religion around the world. Producer Alex Kuzoian used a spinning globe to map the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in under three minutes. A timeline of the last five millennia progresses in correspondence with the changing domains of each religion. Annotations pop up intermittently to apprise viewers of noteworthy moments:

Approximate Date — Key Event 
2500BCE               — Hinduism takes root in the Indus Valley
1800BCE               — Abraham is born in Ur
1000BCE               — Israel conquers the Canaanites
500BCE                 —  Buddha is born in Lumbini
30CE                     —  Jesus is crucified
70CE                     —  Jerusalem is sacked, Jews exiled.
630CE                   —  Muhammad is born in Mecca.
700CE                   —  Islam spreads rapidly.
1400CE                 —  The Age of Discovery begins.
1750CE                 — The Partition of Africa begins.
1948                     — The State of Israel is established.

Online, religious studies scholars are reuniting in their affirmation that there’s nothing new under the sun. As Russell McCutcheon noted, the video is reminiscent of the World Religions Paradigm. I see it as especially in line with the way that paradigm finds expression in Axial Age theory (cf. Karen Armstrong’s popular work, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions). There, religion is synonymous with the development of civilization and the key events serve as the watershed moments that have propelled humans toward “progress” in the here and now, aka modernity.

Still from How the Five Major World Religions Spread. Click the image to watch the video.
Still from How the Five Major World Religions Spread. Click the image to watch the video.

The video will surely find itself under the scrutiny of many religious studies scholars. Specialists in the areas mapped may quibble about where and when certain events are charted. Theorists are sure to inquire what is implied by identifying religion at any one or combination of the featured sites. And methodologically, there’s a question as to the most effective way to chart changes correlative with the rises, falls, competitions, alliances, and exchanges in social movements. I share these as just some of the directions scholars might go with Kuozian’s map as they work on drawing their own.

For my part, the map begs some of the same questions that I’m tracing with Alex Haley’s Roots. Haley believed that “in all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage–to know who we are, where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness”(What Roots Means to Me, Alex Haley: The Man Who Traced America’s Roots, 158). The solution to this was by taking hold of roots so that he too may be affixed to a “source-place.” (Roots, 439). Before African American was a politically correct category, Haley underwent a global and historical odyssey to map himself in the American landscape.

I really like Kuzoian’s use of geography to map genealogy, but I see this as him telling the continuing saga of his viewing audience. Like other Business Insider digital shorts (such as “How to Use Math to Win at Monopoly“), it is designed to enhance viewers understanding of themselves–more specifically, who they might become should they learn more. Learning where religion comes from similarly promises an increased ability to place oneself in a time and a space. And should one see the world as going to Hell in hand basket, the map becomes a source-place from which to mount a response.

I’m very appreciative of Kuzoian’s animation, but how one might use similar animations to map a critical genealogy of religion. Kuzoian’s key events are very much the stuff of myth-making. Origin stories, tragedies, victories, incursions, the frontier– all of these are familiar to students of religion. While the map makes them sound like they’re some how at the root of religion, Haley has me thinking that they’re actually reverberations from the hollow yearnings that make palpable our most savage pursuits for complacency. If you’re having trouble imagining how this works, watch how Greece has gone from classy (Hellenism) to ashy (suffering from a financial well run dry) in the eyes of the EU or the politics of naming (and hence constructing) one’s social location in ethnic studies. The news writes itself…except not really. How easy do we forget that maps do not draw themselves either.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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