Reading Time: 4 minutes By Connecticut Valley Atheists [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The demographics of religion around the world is a mottled picture. Here, The Journal states:

Attendances are plummeting, there aren’t enough people entering the priesthood to replace the ageing clerics and masses are being reduced across the country. There has been a revolution in societal attitudes and laws – on the Eighth Amendment, marriage equality and more – and the church has found itself out of step with the majority of Irish voters in each case. Even the recent visit of the Pope descended into an undignified spat about how many people actually turned up for the Papal mass.

Trends from Europe, North America and Australia tell the same story. Decades of shocking outrages – in country, after country, after country – have shattered the faith of many who grew up with organised religion. The socially conservative and dogmatic doctrines of organised religion are seen as having little relevance to modern society, particularly amongst the young.

Young adults

A recent study of religious affiliation among young Europeans puts this decline in stark view. The study finds the proportion of young adults with no religious affiliation as high as 91% in the Czech Republic and 75% in Sweden.

In the UK, just 2% of young adults identify as followers of the Church of England, while seven out of 10 under-24s say they have no religion.

I could post a whole host of statistics, as indeed I have done in the past, to show the decline of organised religion across the Western, developed world.

There is a stark difference in other parts of the world, though. Much of this relies on birth rates. The Western countries in which religious affiliation is shrinking have higher education rates and higher birth rates, with very great in-group religious normalisation that is very difficult to be outside of, within the given country.

The Guardian reports:

The median age of the global population is 28. Two religions have a median age below that: Muslims (23) and Hindus (26). Other main religions have an older median age: Christians, 30; Buddhists, 34 and Jews, 36. The religiously unaffiliated come in at 34.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world – more than twice as fast as the overall global population. Between 2015 and 2060, the world’s inhabitants are expected to increase by 32%, but the Muslim population is forecast to grow by 70%. And even though Christians will also outgrow the general population over that period, with an increase of 34% forecast mainly thanks to population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, Christianity is likely to lose its top spot in the world religion league table to Islam by the middle of this century.

Hindus are set to grow by 27%, and Jews by 15% mainly because of the high birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox. The religiously unaffiliated will see a 3% increase. But proportionately, these religious groupings will be smaller than now because their growth is lower than the increase in the overall global population. And Buddhists are forecast to see a 7% drop in their numbers.

It’s mainly down to births and deaths, rather than religious conversion. Muslim women have an average of 2.9 children, significantly above the average of all non-Muslims at 2.2. And while Christian women have an overall birth rate of 2.6, it’s lower in Europe where Christian deaths outnumbered births by nearly 6 million between 2010 and 2015. In recent years, Christians have had a disproportionately large share of the world’s deaths (37%).

And while the religiously unaffiliated currently make up 16% of the global population, only about 10% of the world’s newborns were born to religiously unaffiliated mothers between 2010 and 2015.

But 23% of American Muslims say they are converts to the faith, and in recent years there has been growing anecdotal evidence of Muslim refugees converting to Christianity in Europe.

China has seen a huge religious revival in recent years and some predict it will have the world’s largest Christian population by 2030. The number of Chinese Protestants has grown by an average of 10 % annually since 1979, to between 93 million and 115 million, according to one estimate. There are reckoned to be another 10-12 million Catholics.

As The Journal continues:

But while things looks grim for religion in the West, anyone thinking that we are evolving towards a post-religious world hasn’t been paying attention to Asia. Home to 60% of the world’s population, religion of all stripes is not just surviving but thriving. And in many countries, it is the younger generations who are driving the increase in devotion.

In Indonesia, religion is an integral part of life; like nothing I have experienced since preparing for my confirmation in rural Kildare. Many of my workmates will find a quiet corner of our small office to pray at least once a day, something I never experienced once in Ireland or Australia. Friday prayers see the mosques overflow onto the surrounding streets.

It is not just Islam that’s thriving in Indonesia however – Christianity is vibrant, trendy and growing. Across Indonesia there are over 26 million Christians and Catholics, more than four times the population of Ireland, north and south. The last time I went to church in Jakarta, the place was so full I had to sit in an overflow room with another 200 people who joined in the service in the next building via video linkup. American-style megachurches, mainly evangelical, are also springing up across the country.

The central role of religion in Asia extends far beyond Indonesia. From an almost standing start at the beginning of the 20th century, close to 30% of South Koreans now identify as Christian or Catholic. Huge evangelical churches are commonplace – including the Yoido Full Gospel Church where nearly 200,000 people attend services every week – although so too are the scandals involving church leaders.

Asia is a fascinating place in terms of religion – it is “home to 99% of Hindus, 99% of Buddhists, and 90% of those practising folk or traditional religions. The region also hosts 76% of the world’s religiously unaffiliated people, 700m of whom are Chinese”. The religion that does preside in some of these countries is Buddhism, which has its own particular characteristics that are markedly different from the Abrahamic faiths that exist elsewhere. But even China with its state atheism might have over 100 million Christians and may have the largest number of Christians in the world by 2030.

We often get carried away with the decline of organised religion in our Western countries (making assumptions of my readers here), but this hides the reality that elsewhere in the world, religion looks set to grow, and it is often the sorts of religion and the sorts of countries that may give us the most cause for concern.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...