Roger W. Stump: The Geography of Religion. Faith, Place, and Space. New York u.a. 2008. 423 S.
After Sopher (1967) and Park (1994), this is the third English language textbook on the subject (so far, there is only one in the German language: Rinschede 1999). It is not an easy text to read, mainly because of its highly scholarly language, but also because illustrations such as tables, figures and photos are scant. The book certainly has matured over a couple of years. It has been edited and proofread very carefully. One hardly finds any orthographic mistakes - in contrast to many new instant books these days.
In his introductory chapter, Stump perceives religions as cultural systems, and focuses on place and space aspects of these systems. The author's definition of religion (p. 7) is closer to a substantive than to a functional one. This implies that it is quite narrow and that it excludes the study of non-religious belief systems or "quasi-religions" like environmentalism and political ideologies.
Chapter 2 looks at the spatial dynamics of the distributions of religions, one of the classical fields of the geography of religion: religious hearths, the spread of religions by migration, war and missionary activity are topics here but also the contraction and disappearance of religions in certain areas are looked at. Chapter 3 presents the development of the five major global religious groups, i.e. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, in their contextuality. Their different sub-branches and denominations are also treated quite extensively, and it is fascinating to see how religions change and develop in specific ways in response to new physical, political and social environments when they are brought to new areas. That these five religions are selected reminds one of the concepts of Weltreligionen of German Religionsgeschichte, which no longer reflects current developments in view of growing globalisation. Smaller religions like Sikhism, Jainism, Bahai, and ethnic or African and other "traditional religions", the different East Asian philosophical and ethical systems and new religions, which have developed from the latter are rarely mentioned. In Chapter 4, titled "Religious territoriality in secular space", the author, somewhat artificially, distinguishes between internal and external expressions of territoriality. He cites numerous examples of how religious convictions and activities interact with spatial behaviour at different scales: the communal (which he regards as central), narrower (e.g. body and family) and wider (national and global). Chapter 5 explores the meanings and uses of sacred space, again a classical field studied by geographers.
The author is not only professor (at the University of Albany - State University of New York) of geography but also of religious studies. Due to this wider view, he treats the basic ideas of the religions, their "theology", quite extensively. This is ambivalent: On the one hand one does not expect this in a textbook on the geography of religion but rather in one on religious science at large and therefore one tends to skip longer passages. On the other hand, it gives the geographical reader the chance to acquire religious knowledge situated in the context of the specific religion. Yet of course it is not possible to capture all theological details in a single book, let alone in one on the geography of religion, and therefore generalisations are made which sometimes do not do justice to the complex issues.
A theme that I miss but should be covered in a book like this is environmental ethics and ecological theology. The book also leaves out current developments like the question of "religiousness" and secularization and of the growth of individualized, syncretistic "patchwork" religions. The recent increase of religious fundamentalism is frequently mentioned, however, following the author's former extensive treatment of this subject (Stump 2000). Although Stump tries to systematize and conceptualize the treatment of the spatiality of religion, to me it is not convincing. Over many pages, the book is mainly a collection of case studies. These are described very carefully, and one is impressed by the detail knowledge of the author who takes them mainly from sources of religious science rather than from works in the geography of religion. Theoretical approaches like secularization or rational choice theories which, it is true, have been developed within sociology, not geography, are not discussed at all.
In the concluding chapter 6, "Religion and Human Geography", Stump discusses the question why, in contrast e.g. to sociology, religion has continued to be treated only marginally in geography, even in the new cultural geography. One of the reasons he gives is that "to the extent that academics have believed that religion has little bearings in their own lives, they may also have become less likely to study it" (p. 369). This is an interesting observation on the geographer as researcher and "private person" as well as on the philosophy of geography and on the question which research topics we choose. Very often, as Stump argues, the geography of religion has been regarded "the domain of individuals having a strong commitment to religion in their personal lives" (p. 370). There is increasing need, however, to acknowledge that religion is a major force in the lives of the great majority of people in the world and that we (intellectuals) in the West are but a tiny minority for many of whom this seems not to be the case.
Park, C. C. (1994): Sacred worlds. An introduction to geography and religion. London, New York.
Rinschede, G. (1999): Religionsgeographie. Braunschweig.
Sopher, D. E. (1967): Geography of religions. Englewood Cliffs.
Stump, R. (2000): Boundaries of faith. Geographical perspectives on religious fundamentalism. Lanham.