Research Projects Key Changes in Global Religion by 2050

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By 2050, for the first time in history, the number of Muslims around the world is projected to nearly equal the number of Christians. Over the same period, the number of atheists, agnostics, and other people who do not affiliate with any religion—though increasing in countries such as the United States and France—will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.

These are two of the key findings in a major new report, The Future of Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050, from the nonpartisan think tank Pew Research Center. The study, which has been years in the making, is part of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, which analyzes religious change around the world and is funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

The report confirms that we live in a time of rapid religious change. Differences in fertility rates and the size of youth populations among the world’s major religions, as well as people switching faiths, are the central factors driving this transformation.

Although it looks as if Islam will grow much faster than any other major religion over the next four decades, Christianity will remain the largest group by about 1.5 percent. By 2050, it is estimated that four out of every ten Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa. “We can be quite confident that Muslims are going to grow rapidly in the decades ahead,” said Conrad Hackett, the study’s demographer, in a report carried by USA Today.

The world’s nations will experience these demographic shifts very differently. In Europe, Muslims are projected to reach 10% of the population. India will become the largest Muslim nation, the study suggests, surpassing Indonesia, although the subcontinent will retain its Hindu majority. “The quality of interfaith relations in such a country will be of global importance,” said Alan Cooperman, Pew’s director of religion research, to The Huffington Post. In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.

The only world religion that will not experience growth is Buddhism; the global Buddhist population is actually expected to fall. Global Hindu and Jewish populations will grow numerically though retain roughly the same percentage share of the world population, which itself is predicted to rise 35% over the period, to 9.3 billion.

The number of religiously unaffiliated individuals is projected to fall as a percentage globally—from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of this century— but will grow in absolute numbers; it should exceed 1.2 billion by 2050, up from 1.1 billion today. In a handful of countries, however, atheists, agnostics, and others will grow as a proportion of the population. For example, in the United States, the unaffiliated will reach 26% of the total population, from an estimated 16% in 2010. A related shift will occur in countries that are likely to cease to have Christian majorities over the next four decades. In Europe, these nations include France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. “Christians will be a minority in the U.K. by the middle of this century,” reported the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph.

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Although there is evidence in Europe of secularization—broad population shifts away from religious affiliation as countries become more economically developed—the report does not find that this is a universal pattern. “There is little evidence of such a phenomenon in Muslim-majority countries. Moreover, in Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation is still nearly universal despite rapid economic and social change,” explains Michael Lipka of the Pew Research Fact Tank team.

A niche area of growth will be the various folk religions, including traditional African, Chinese folk, Native American, and Australian aboriginal religions. These groups seem likely to increase by 11%, approaching half a billion followers. Other religions, which include Baha’is, Jains, Sikhs, and Taoists, are projected to grow by 6%, with a total of about 61 million by 2050. As a percentage of the global population, this means a relative decline.

Switching religions is also likely to play a significant role in these shifts, though conversion patterns are complex and vary by geographical region. It is common in some parts of the world for young adults to change from the religion of their parents and youth; in others, changes in religious identity are rare, legally cumbersome, or even illegal. All in all, Christianity is expected to experience the largest net losses by this means: globally, about 40 million people are projected to switch into Christianity, while 106 million are projected to leave, with most joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. The report also attempts to factor in the impact of international migration, which is closely linked to unpredictable changes in government policy and world events and is therefore challenging to predict.

Religious change has never been projected on this scale—though the authors stress that words of caution are also in order. In particular, patterns of religious change in China, the world’s most populous nation, are not currently well-researched. Therefore, it is possible that the number of Christians in China will grow faster than expected. This would mean that there would not be more Muslims than Christians by 2050, and also that the proportional decline of the unaffiliated may be greater than currently predicted. The report also looks beyond 2050. Given that Muslims are projected to almost equal Christians numerically for the first time in history by 2050, the report projects that Muslims will outnumber Christians by 2070. The impact of entirely unforeseen events becomes highly significant when attempting to project so far ahead.

The Pew Research report is the first to offer formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration, and religious switching. The work is based on the number of people who self-identify with each religious group. Demographers at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria, gathered data from more than 2,500 censuses, surveys, and population registers, an effort that has taken six years and will continue into the future.