Religious Symbols on National Flags

Switzerland-FlagAccording to a new Pew Research analysis, a third of the world’s countries have national flags that contain religious symbols.  The 64 flags with religious imagery can be categorized by religion as follows:

  • Christianity – 31
  • Islam – 21
  • Other Religions – 6
  • Hinduism/Buddhism – 3
  • Buddhism – 2
  • Judaism – 1.

So What?

According to data gathered a few years ago by Pew Research, more than half of the global population are adherents to one of the world’s two largest religions: Christianity – 31.5% and Islam – 23.2%.  Additionally, more than 2 out of every 10 people living are adherents of either Hinduism (15.0%) or Buddhism (7.1%).

If one considers only nations with religious flags, it would seem reasonable to expect the breakdown would be similar to the percentage of people adhering to each religion.  The actual breakdown, however, varies significantly:

Religion

% of Global Population

% of Flags

Over or Under Representation

Christianity

31.5%

48.4%

+16.9%

Islam

23.2%

32.8%

+9.6%

Hinduism & Buddhism
(combined)

22.1%

7.8%

-14.3%

  •  Are you surprised to learn that roughly 1/3 of all national flags contain a religious symbol?
  • Why do you think Christianity and Islam have an over-representation of religious symbolism while Hinduism and Buddhism suffer from an under-representation when compared to their respective population sizes?

Comments

  1. I suspect that the religious significance or origins of some of those flag symbols have been lost or forgotten, such as the crosses on the Union Jack of the United Kingdom (especially the X shaped St. Andrew cross) and the crosses common to the flags of the Scandinavian countries. Without doing the research, I suspect that some of these religious symbols (at least the “Christian” ones) trace to a history in the feudalism that rose out of the collapse of the Roman Empire. They have been reduced to graphic designs, which actually might be good. Also interesting that the United States which has such a vehement contingent shouting to insist it is a “Christian” country does not have a Christian symbol on its flag. I’m not sure I would think of Hinduism and Buddhism suffering from under-representation, as though justice insisted they should catch up. Is it possible that is a symptom of colonialism? I’m not suggesting countries that do not have an official religion should redesign their flags, but maybe that we acknowledge that like the flags, many religious symbols have been emptied of meaning when they are used in secular settings.

  2. Norm, I appreciate your response. My initial reaction to this research was surprise that such a high percentage continue to feature religious symbols. While I recognize many are slow to update any national symbolism with a long history (flag or otherwise), I would expect some movement toward less symbolism. Perhaps that will come in this century. Given the number of nations with religious symbols on flags I think your remark about the US lacking such is key.

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