A More Religious World

The Atlantic reports on a major new Pew study on global religious demographics that projects two-thirds of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim — with the latter outnumbering the former, albeit by a percentage point or two.

The Muslim population, for example, is expected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world’s population between now and 2050, largely because Muslims tend to be young and have high fertility rates. A majority of Muslims will still live in Asia and the Pacific region, as they do now (even though Islam is the predominant religion of the Middle East, only one in five Muslims live there). While their life expectancy will likely rise over the next four decades, on average, Muslims will still die younger than members of any other religion, including folk religions. Jews, on the other hand, will live the longest; in 2050, the group’s life expectancy will be 85, compared with 75 for Muslims. This is partly because the Jewish population is so concentrated, Hackett said: Roughly 80 percent of Jews live in Israel or the United States, both highly developed countries.

But perhaps the most significant finding is that Muslims may gradually overtake Christians as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades.

The following graph charts this progression:

This trend is part of the wider shift in population and cultural power to the developing world, especially Asia, where countries like India and China will become battlegrounds of the world’s major religions:

One open question is how religiosity will play out in China. Right now, there isn’t a lot of reliable data about religious affiliation in the world’s most populous country, Hackett said. Most population information comes from the government, which has been more or less hostile toward organized religion since the late 1960s; even if the country’s citizens are religious, they might be unlikely to share their beliefs on a government questionnaire, he said. One scholar, the Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang, says the country is becoming more faithful, though. He estimates that the percentage of Christians in China could grow from 5 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2050, based on the growth rate of the religion over time; if this came true, it would significantly shift the world’s total Christian population.

Meanwhile, the historic core of Christianity, Europe, will see its religiosity and subsequent influence over that faith decline:

In Europe and beyond, age, fertility rates, and migration are the most important factors in projected population changes, but religious conversion also plays a minor role in the results. Despite Christianity’s tradition of evangelism, the faith is expected to lose a net total of about 66 million people around the world due to conversions, accounting for both those who convert into the faith and those who convert out. A significant portion of those converts will likely become unaffiliated, a group that’s expected to grow by a net total of roughly 61 million purely due to people leaving their religions (as opposed to via higher birth rates, etc.)

We may well see a future where Christian aesthetics and even doctrine starts to become shaped by Chinese and African culture (not to mention visa versa). One can see widespread blending (e.g. syncretism) of folk traditions with Christianity in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, which is another center of growth for the faith and Islam:

For both Christianity and Islam, the region with the most potential will be sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double in roughly four decades due to extremely high fertility rates. The number of Christians in the region is also expected to double, reaching over 1.1. billion people, and the Muslim population is projected to grow by an astounding 170 percent, hitting nearly 670 million. Largely because of these trends, researchers estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population will be Christian or Muslim by 2100.

And what about all the research and debate concerning the rise of secularism and atheism? Well as noted before, the religiously unaffiliated — which run the gamut from hard atheists to the nonetheless spiritual — will increase significantly, albeit mostly in the “old” Christian West.

Here is what the projections show from 2010 to 2050. Note that it looks at conversions alone, not natural birth rates (which are typically much higher among Muslims, Christians, and Hindus than among Buddhist, Jews, and the non-religious).

It is worth reiterating that these are just estimates, albeit ones based on fairly comprehensive and substantive research (Pew tends to have a good track record). There is no telling how much will change over the coming decades, especially in a world where religious conflict, dialogue, and interaction alike is higher than ever.

Moreover, this is hardly as clear-cut as Christianity vs. Islam vs. secularists etc. Each of these groups have their own internal problems and divisions; Protestants, namely the Evangelical kind, are making inroads into historically Catholic strongholds like Brazil and Central America, and are competing amongst themselves for souls. The Shia and Sunni split continues to spill more blood, while the more mystical and liberal Sufis are often distrusted and persecuted by Islamic conservatives.

Meanwhile, the broad tent that is “unaffiliated” encompasses such divergent groups as explicit atheists, agnostics, the vaguely spiritual and deistic, and even New Agers who otherwise believe in some sort of divine or supernatural power or another yet choose not to label themselves religious. Secular people hardly represent a united or coherent front (especially as the broader and more technical definition of the term would include practicing Christian or Muslims who simply do not want their religion to influence politics or social policy).

In short, the picture, as can always be expected, is complicated. But if these projections hold out, it does indeed seem to be the case that while the world will remain religiously diverse — look at the growth, by conversion alone, of various folk traditions and “other” non-major religions — Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser degree Irreligion will represent the dominant strains of thought and lifestyle.

But even this does not show how such labels will change and what these faiths (or lack thereof) will look like doctrinally, culturally, and ideologically. Will Christianity continue to take on the indigenous concepts of its majority African and Asian populations; will Islam shift towards more traditional, moderate, or mystical forms, as it is currently contending with? Will secular people become more hardened into outright atheism or agnosticism, or lean towards vaguely spiritual New Age or Eastern manifestations?

I guess I will see for myself in my lifetime. What are your thoughts?


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