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?

The American Cities With The Most (And Fewest) L.G.B.T. People

The following chart comes from the New York Times, based on Gallup’s latest survey of where L.G.B.T. people live. (Click the image to make it larger.)

Areas With Largest and Smallest LGBT Populations

A summary of the results:

The Gallup analysis finds the largest concentrations in the West — and not just in the expected places like San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, Denver and Salt Lake City are also in the top 10. How could Salt Lake be there, given its well-known social conservatism? It seems to be a kind of regional capital of gay life, attracting people from other parts of Utah and the Mormon West.

On the other hand, some of the East Coast places with famous gay neighborhoods, including in New York, Miami and Washington, have a smaller percentage of their population who identify as gay — roughly average for a big metropolitan area. The least gay urban areas are in the Midwest and South.

Significant as these differences are, the similarities are just as notable. Gay America, rather than being confined to a few places, spreads across every major region of the country. Nationwide, Gallup says, 3.6 percent of adults consider themselves gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And even the parts of the country outside the 50 biggest metropolitan areas have a gay population (about 3 percent) not so different from some big metropolitan areas. It’s a reflection in part of increasing tolerance and of social connections made possible by the Internet.

Frank Newport, the editor in chief of Gallup, notes that the regional variation in sexual orientation and identity is much smaller than the variation in many other categories. The share of San Francisco’s population that’s gay is only two and a half times larger than the share outside major metro areas. The regional gaps in political attitudes, religion and ethnic makeup are often much wider.

“For a generation, they all remember the moment they walked through their first gay bar,” said Paul Boneberg, executive director of the G.L.B.T. Historical Society in San Francisco. “But now they come out for the first time online, and that changes, for some people, the need to leave.”

As with any such research, there are also some caveats to keep in mind:

Before this Gallup analysis, the most detailed portrait of gay demography was the Census Bureau estimates of same-sex couples, including an analysis by the Williams Institute at U.C.L.A. Those estimates and Gallup’s new data show broadly similar patterns: Salt Lake City ranks high on both, and San Jose ranks low, for instance. But couples are clearly an imperfect proxy for a total population, which makes these Gallup numbers the most detailed yet to be released.

Gallup previously released estimates for the country as a whole and for each state. The estimates are based on the survey question, “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?”

As with any survey, the data comes with limitations. Respondents are asked to place themselves in a single category — L.G.B.T. or not — even though some people consider sexuality to be more of a spectrum. The data also does not distinguish between center cities and outlying areas. Manhattan most likely has a larger percentage of gay and lesbian residents than the New York region as a whole.

And the data is affected by the federal government’s definition of metropolitan areas. Earlier, we mentioned that Raleigh’s percentage is low in part because its area does not include Durham and Chapel Hill. Boston’s percentage may be higher because its metropolitan area is relatively small, with fewer outlying areas. On the whole, however, there is no clear relationship between a metropolitan area’s size and the share of its population that’s gay.

What are your thoughts?

How Screens Negatively Impact Health

Thanks to the boom in mobile technology — particularly smartphones and tablets — screens have become ubiquitous in modern society. It is almost impossible for most people to avoid exposing their eyes to some sort of screen for hours at a time, whether it is texting on your phone, bingeing shows and movies on Netflix, or playing video games.

In fact, the introduction of electricity is what first began the disruption of 3 billion years of cyclical sunlight governing the functions of life. What has been the effect of increasingly undermining this cycle, which humans have long been shaped by?

Wired explores some of the troubling research coming out regarding if and how more and more light exposure is negatively impacting us:

Researchers now know that increased nighttime light exposure tracks with increased rates of breast cancer, obesity and depression. Correlation isn’t causation, of course, and it’s easy to imagine all the ways researchers might mistake those findings. The easy availability of electric lighting almost certainly tracks with various disease-causing factors: bad diets, sedentary lifestyles, exposure to they array of chemicals that come along with modernity. Oil refineries and aluminum smelters, to be hyperbolic, also blaze with light at night.

Yet biology at least supports some of the correlations. The circadian system synchronizes physiological function—from digestion to body temperature, cell repair and immune system activity—with a 24-hour cycle of light and dark. Even photosynthetic bacteria thought to resemble Earth’s earliest life forms have circadian rhythms. Despite its ubiquity, though, scientists discovered only in the last decade what triggers circadian activity in mammals: specialized cells in the retina, the light-sensing part of the eye, rather than conveying visual detail from eye to brain, simply signal the presence or absence of light. Activity in these cells sets off a reaction that calibrates clocks in every cell and tissue in a body. Now, these cells are especially sensitive to blue wavelengths—like those in a daytime sky.

But artificial lights, particularly LCDs, some LEDs, and fluorescent bulbs, also favor the blue side of the spectrum. So even a brief exposure to dim artificial light can trick a night-subdued circadian system into behaving as though day has arrived. Circadian disruption in turn produces a wealth of downstream effects, including dysregulation of key hormones. “Circadian rhythm is being tied to so many important functions”, says Joseph Takahashi, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern. “We’re just beginning to discover all the molecular pathways that this gene network regulates. It’s not just the sleep-wake cycle. There are system-wide, drastic changes”. His lab has found that tweaking a key circadian clock gene in mice gives them diabetes. And a tour-de-force 2009 study put human volunteers on a 28-hour day-night cycle, then measured what happened to their endocrine, metabolic and cardiovascular systems.

As the article later notes, it will take a lot more research to confirm the causation between disrupting the circadian rhythm and suffering a range of mental and physical problems. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that in the long-term, for many (though not all) people, too much exposure to screen-light can cause problems. But given the many other features of modern society that are just as culpable — long hours of work, constant overstimulation, sedentary living — identifying which, if not most, aspects of the 21st century lifestyle is responsible can be difficult to do, let alone resolve.

How Secular Is Your City?

The religiously unaffiliated — an identity that broadly encompasses everyone from strong atheists and agnostics, to New Agers, deists, and “unchurched” Christians — make up almost a quarter of the U.S. population (22 percent to be exact). Unsurprisingly, some regions, states, and cities are more likely to be irreligious than others. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) lists the major U.S. cities that have the most (and the fewest) people without formal religion.

Note that the data come from the results of over 50,000 interviews across these metropolitan areas. Perhaps it is little surprise that the northeastern and western parts of the country are where most of the least religious cities are located; these regions as a whole tend to be pretty secular, especially when compared to the “Bible Belt” of the south (where the least secular cities are situated).

With 42 percent of its residents identifying as religiously unaffiliated, Portland occupies a space all its own. “Portlandia”, an urban mecca for eco-conscious free spirits, has substantially more unaffiliated residents than the next three most religiously unaffiliated cities, Seattle (33 percent), San Francisco (33 percent) and Denver (32 percent).

The least unaffiliated city in the U.S.? Nashville, with only 15 percent of its residents identifying as religiously unaffiliated. A plurality (38 percent) of Nashville is white evangelical Protestant.

Granted, by the standards of the historically devout South, 15-18 percent nonreligious is pretty high. A large part of this may have to do migration of people from the less religious northeast, a trend that began in the 1960s and ’70s and has continued to this day. Aside from the secularizing effect of these transplants, the results may also reflect the tendency for cities in general to be less religious than rural or smaller urban areas.

Given the overall growth in “Nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation in Census surveys — it is likely that the percentage of irreligious people in cities across the country will continue to grow. Again, this hardly reflects the growth of atheists or agnostics per se, just in people unwilling to identify or associate with any formal religious label or institution.

As for my hometown and current residence of Miami, I guess I am not too surprised that we are just around the national average. The city has a large youth population buttressed by many international and northern migrants. While Hispanics tend to be fairly religious, their children and grandchildren — like younger generations of most other demographic groups — are often less so.

The American Values Atlas

Keeping up with politics is tough, especially if you are going state by state. There are a wide range of issues, policies, and social attitudes spanning the nation’s fifty subnational entities, and things are changing all the time.

Thankfully, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) has launched the unique American Values Atlas (AVA), an online tool that allows users to navigate the religious, political, and demographic landscape of the United States in real time, as well as Americans’ attitudes toward key issues like immigration same-sex marriage, and abortion. The details even go down to the local level, with most of the major metropolitan areas represented.

Here is a sample of what the AVA looks like:

You can see the breakdown by state (which includes a comparison to the nation as a whole):

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.14.23 PM 640x358 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

And can also view the breakdown by individual state:

Screen Shot 2015 02 23 at 3.00.08 PM 640x631 Introducing the American Values Atlas (AVA)

The PRRI explains how it gleaned such meticulous details about the cultural and religious landscape of the U.S.

[The AVA draws] upon data from 50,000 bilingual telephone interviews conducted among a random sample of Americans in 2014. Roughly 1,000 interviews were conducted every week, with 40,000 interviews on political issue areas. Because of the vast amount of data and large sample size, users have the ability to use the AVA’s dynamic online map to explore specific census regions, all 50 states, and 30 major metropolitan areas. The AVA also provides a rare look into smaller religious communities and ethnic groups, such as Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and more.

You can read more about the methodology here.

The AVA will be updated annually with 50,000 fresh interviews to reflect the changes in demographics, culture, social views, and political policy. It is an invaluable resource for policymakers, academics, and anyone else interested in these details.

Article of Interest: The Cost of Paying Attention

From the New York Times comes a highly relevant reflection on something that bedevils most people in the modern world: the constant bombardment of distractions and stimuli that make it harder and harder for us to focus on any one thing.

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.

How To Build The Ideal City

As human society rapidly urbanizes to an unprecedented degree — for the first time in history, more people live in urban areas than in rural ones, a trend that is advancing quickly — how we design and maintain our cities matters more than ever. Even in the developed world, creating cities that are conducive to human health and well-being can be a challenge.

In a new video from the School of LifeHow to Make an Attractive CityLondon-based Swiss writer  and philosopher Alain de Botton offers an interesting six-point manifesto on the need for making beauty a priority in urban architecture and design. Check out it out below.

While practical concerns like sewage disposal, electrical grids, and the like certainly matter, our social species requires environments that promote psychological stimulation and community cohesion. Check out a quick summary of this manifesto from Slate here. What are your thoughts?

Sleep and Ethics

Coming shortly after my blog about the consequences of sleep deprivation, a common issue in our society, Mic.com published an article about a Harvard study that found yet another negative effect from insufficient rest: bad ethics.

Previous research has shown that people are more likely to become more unethical as the day goes on, but the Harvard team wanted to see if people with different sleeping patterns had different responses to temptation. So the researchers separated study participants into morning larks and night owls and gave them two different decision-making tasks that actually tested their honesty.

The Harvard team found that “larks will be more unethical at night than in the morning, and that owls will be more unethical in the morning than at night” — the more tired people felt, the more they were inclined to lie.

Here’s a chart showing the correlation between lack of energy and lack of ethical scruples:

The results are not too surprising, given that lack of sleep has been linked to a wide variety of mental and emotional problems, including increased likelihood of irritability, depression, impaired judgement, and so on.  It stands to reason that a mind weakened by lack of sleep would under-perform in other areas as well.  You simply won’t be thinking as much or as clearly.

As with my previous post on the subject, the implications of this finding take us back to the socioeconomic paradigms of our society: namely a business culture that makes people work increasingly unpalatable hours that are simply not conducive to optimal physical or mental performance. The Mic article makes a similar note:

Studies like this challenge the notion of a traditional 9-5 workday: If people are naturally inclined to be more productive and ethical at different hours of the day, isn’t it inefficient and ultimately dangerous for a company to ask everyone to work the same hours?

The Harvard team think so. “Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.”

As technological advances make it easier for people to telecommute or restructure their schedules, it’s up to managers to decide whether they want to allow flexible workdays. If you can get people to operate at optimum efficiency and moral uprightness for their shift, does it matter when they do the work?

Unfortunately, Americans employers overall have a bad track record of heeding, much less implementing, such evidence-backed recommendations. There has already been good evidence, not to mention historical precedence, showing that people are more productive when paid better and given more leisure time; yet the trend has increasingly been in the opposite direction, regardless (for their part, most government agencies and school administrations have not followed suit either).

Barring a few forward-thinking and largely niche businesses, it does not seem likely that the average employer will be willing to provide that much flexible without legal and/or organized pressure (though in fairness, I could see some individual local managers in non-9-to-5 jobs designing their schedules to work with their employees’ preferences).

Otherwise, we should do our best, whenever possible, to maintain schedules that are more conducive to the wellness of our minds, bodies, and souls. The connection between our physical health and mental health cannot be understated.

The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation

Sleeplessness seems to be an intractable part of modern living. Nowadays, few people seem to consistently get the right amount of sleep they need — estimated between seven to nine hours — in order to function optimally. The subsequent day-to-day struggle for energy is increasingly becoming the norm, as a recent article in Mic.com noted:

Just 59% of American adults surveyed by Gallup in 2013 got enough sleep — way down from the 84% who reported sleeping that much in 1942. Just 14% said they got five or fewer. That’s enough to seriously endanger health and well-being in most people. According to the CDC, insufficient sleep is an “epidemic,” with a survey conducted by the agency finding 35.3% of people get less than seven hours of sleep on average. A surprising 37.9% reported being tired enough to doze off during the middle of the day in the past month, while an unnerving 4.7% admitted to sleeping at the wheel of a car.

Aside from the obvious lack of productivity and the increased likelihood of accidents, lack of sleep has been linked to such myriad issues as declining intelligence, numbed sex drive, impaired memory, weight gain, depression, and possibly even permanent damage to brain cells (namely those associated with wakefulness).

The following infographic pretty much sums up the potential risks (the likelihood and severity of which vary from person to person).

One of the key characteristics of 21st century society is its constant activity: 24-hour cycles have gone from novelty to norm, whether for business, news, entertainment, or even daily routines. Based on anecdotal evidence, not to mention personal experience, it is not unusual to stay up all night just reading, watching TV, or doing some other mundane activity.

Any number of factors could be responsible for the decline of restful sleep, ranging from the ubiquity of technology (particularly the Internet) as a source of distraction and over-stimulation, to an economic system that demands ever more work at the expense of free-time and energy. It is difficult to find time to sleep when there never seems to be enough time for neither leisure nor work.

Speaking from experience as a former night owl, I can definitely vouch for the positive benefits of getting good sleep. Everything from my depression to my physical fitness have improved markedly since I have made regular sleep a habit. But it took a long time to develop the habits and lifestyle adjustments needed to sleep well: avoiding meals and electronic screens at least an hour before bed, willing myself to cut outings with friends short, and so on.

Eschewing sleep has become so common that it is little wonder so few people even try. Even I continue to flounder at least one or twice a week despite knowing the consequences and benefits firsthand. As usual, taking the long view with regards to health is not easy, especially in our fast-paced and restless society.