Quick: Which religion would have the most believers by 2050, if current population growth trends continue? Christianity, Islam or the “unaffiliated” with any faith?
According to a global survey by Pew Research Center released on Good Friday, Christians would still comprise the biggest group—2.92 billion or 31.4 percent of the projected world population of 9.3 billion by mid-century. But Muslims would be close behind: 2.76 billion or 29.7 percent of humanity.
Many may expect people with no formal religion to increase well above the current share of 16.4 percent— third-largest bloc in the survey today (see chart)—especially with affluence, education and secularization across
Yet while the unaffiliated would still grow from 1.13 billion in 2010 to a projected 1.23 billion after four decades, their share of the planet’s population would drop to 13.2 percent.
They would fall behind the fast-growing Hindu faithful, tipped to reach 1.38 billion, surging by over a third to maintain their current share of about 15 percent.
Now, if one might think that these trends show humankind getting more religious, think again. In fact, the main reasons for growth or decline among religions is demographic: fertility rates and percent share of young believers yet to bear children.
Since 2010, Muslims recorded the highest average fertility rate of 3.1 children per woman in her lifetime, followed by Christians (2.7) and Hindus (2.4). Islam also has the biggest share of young people in the population procreating in years ahead. A third are under 15, with Hindus (30 percent) and Christians (27 percent) following.
And the unaffiliated? Barely one-fifth are below 15 — not surprising since many who don’t belong to any faith left their former religions only in or near adulthood. But their 1.7 fertility rate is also low, perhaps due to wealth, learning, late marriage, and birth control.
Only Buddhist women are less fertile, bearing 1.6 children in their lifetimes on average.
Fertility rates change, of course. Muslims, Christians and Hindus are projected to see declines, to 2.3 for the first two groups, and 1.8 for the third. Unaffiliated women would have more children, at 1.9. But that’s still below the projected global fertility rate of 2.1 by 2050-55.
So religions having and raising more children grow faster. As God declared in the Book of Genesis, “Go forth and multiply.”
Leaving the faith
Where the unaffiliated add more numbers than others is in switching, or the shift of believers from their faiths. Some 97 million members of religions are expected to leave them and not join another. Nearly 36 million of the unaffiliated would gain faith, leaving a net gain of 61.5 million for the group till 2050 — the largest in the study.
The biggest loser is Christianity, especially in the West. Fully 106.1 million faithful are forecast to leave, with only 40 million coming in. That’s a net loss of 66 million — 11 times the Luneta papal mass crowd. These projections are for 70 countries with switching statistics (85 did not have data, including the Philippines).
Most of that shift would occur in North America and Europe, where net loss for Christianity hit 27.7 million and 23.8 million, respectively. By comparison, in Latin America, which has the most Christians, net decline due to switching is forecast at 9.36 million, just over a third of the North American drop.
Among Americans, the unaffiliated would raise their share to 26 percent by 2050, from 16 percent in 2010. Christians would drop to two-thirds of all Americans from nearly four-fifths. There would be similar decline among Europeans — three-quarters to less than two-thirds — while the unaffiliated reach 23 percent.
Further on switching, Islam, folk religions and other faiths would also be net gainers. There would be 5.46 million people transferring into Islam, while 2.85 million would leave, for a net gain of well over 3 million. Net gains for folk religions and other faiths are forecast at 2.6 million and 1.9 million, respectively.
Where Christians will be
Switching gains and losses are small, however, compared with demographics-driven growth. Thanks to Africa’s rapid population growth rate, two out of every five Christians would be African, and five African countries — Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Uganda — would be among the top ten countries with the largest Christian populations.
The Philippines would rise from fifth- to fourth-largest Christian nation, with Filipino faithful projected to grow from 86 million estimated in 2010 to 144 million by 2050.
Moreover, overseas Filipinos have helped revive congregations in places where the faithful are stagnant or declining in population and devotion.
What does all this mean for Christianity? Is its growth down to the faithful making more babies, especially where lower incomes, learning, and living standards keep believers believing rather than switching?
No, the Church is not playing a global contest of counting heads. Rather, we live the Gospel in our everyday lives, and by our personal and collective faith, hope and love, we preach what God wishes for us, and let His Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven, in the world we see and touch, as in what we conceive of and aspire for.
And if Christianity falls behind the numbers game, fear not. As the Lord’s Passion, Death and Rising unequivocally declare, nothing — not death, devils, demographics, disparate devotions, or departures from the faith — can separate us from God. Even if just one believer is left on earth, heaven will find ways to save all souls seeking and practicing the goodness and love that He is. Amen.
(The Pew report is available at: http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/03/PF_15.04.02_ProjectionsFullReport.pdf.)