The Demographics of Religion
Those who have studied the demographics of religion have grown accustomed over the last two decades to the statistical forecast of the extinction of Christianity (and religion in general). The popularity of the ‘New Atheists’ bolstered faith in such a forecast. The ‘rise of the nones’ (a demographic which, if not truly atheist or agnostic simply describes itself as not associated with or identifying as - any ‘religion’ – religion: none) raised the volume of secular prophesies of a non-apocalyptic end of the Christian world. Evidence that neo-paganism (Wicca et al) may be the fastest growing religion in the west, while perhaps dimming the view of the coming secularist utopia, offered little encouragement to practicing Christians.
I have studied all these trends as best I might. At the end of the day, I just keep preaching the gospel and trusting God. My faith does not require a turn-around in the forecast. Faith may die in any country – or globally (the bible predicts something of the sort) – without affecting the actual existence or goodness of God! But, while my faith does not require it, I can’t help smirking, just a little, at the latest turn in these kinds of demographic studies. It is now projected that the religious will outflank the nones et al as a percentage of world population by a factor of 29 between now and 2050. Wait. I thought we were on the way out. What happened?
Well, some of it is just the birth rate. Religious peoples start families younger and have more children than their secular counterparts. Faith, it seems gives courage and a more optimistic view of the future as well as a less ‘self-focused’ attitude. Also a factor – faith and traditional marriage enhance prosperity. Skeptics keep hoping this effect will disappear but it doesn’t. So, more kids. This trend works so fast that already the average ‘none’ is 7 years older than the average religious devotee. The trend toward the nones has only been tracked carefully for a couple of decades and it already appears that it peaked before we were really aware it existed!
Granted, that factor of 29 is for religious people in general – not Christianity specifically and global rather than just in my neighborhood. The same forecast estimates that by 2050 Islam will almost have matched Christianity in size. But I am not so sure about that either.
The projections indicate that Christianity will in fact grow but that most of the growth will be in Sub-Saharan Africa which will replace the United States as the hub of the faith. Whatever happens here – I praise God for the growth of the faith in Africa! But, there is a growing suspicion that the statisticians are missing something – or are only beginning to catch a glimpse of it.
For one thing, there’s China – home to about 18% of the world’s population but about 60% of the world’s nones (atheists included): That’s a large imbalance! And Christianity is growing in China. A real shift there (which many are beginning to envision) would change the picture considerably.
And there’s India – which may soon replace China as the most populous nation on the planet. For years, according to the official census, Christianity has remained stable at about 2.5% of India’s population. But that official number seems suspect to many who observe more and more Christian churches and witness more and more conversions without ever seeing the percentages change. It is of course true that Christianity can grow in raw numbers without growing as a share of the population. It requires only that the non-Christian segment grow even faster than the Christian. Quite possible in a place growing at the speed of India. Still, observers have long felt something is out of kilter in this picture.
As it turns out, the government of India confers some financial aid on ‘Scheduled Caste Hindus’ – also known as the Dalits or Untouchables – India’s largest and poorest caste. This aid is known as ‘reservation’. Converts to other religions are often excluded from reservation and there are efforts in the government of India to see that they are universally excluded.
A word here for any who may not completely understand the religion to politics connections. Hinduism teaches that we are all reincarnated over and over and that our situations improve only ‘life to life’ rather than in the course of any one life. The soul builds up good karma over cycles allowing progress in cycles to come. This ‘religious’ tenet is also a political control. The poor are supposed to remain poor – in the current life. Wealth is supposed to be concentrated at the top and if the poor want to move up, they need to build up good karma in this life (while staying poor) positioning them for a better shot in future lives. The Indian government thoroughly resents the Christian tendency to upset this system.
Consequently, it has become the strategy for Christian converts to remain registered as Hindu so as to keep getting the reservation. This has provided for a stealth (so far as official record keeping is concerned) growth of Christianity. But the growth is becoming too big to hide. The government of India is catching on and regards the previously unrecognized growth of Christianity as a crisis. Some areas of India may well be 25% Christian and in four northern Indian States Christianity may very well already be the majority religion.
I find these things very encouraging and wonder how much else God has been doing right under the noses of those who have so vociferously forecasted His demise.
I do not know if we will have anything resembling a Christian revival in the United States and/or Europe. But it becomes more and more obvious that rumors of the death of faith were, to quote Mr. Twain, greatly exaggerated.
*Just a few articles you can easily find and read on this subject.
Pew Research – The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010 – 2050
Explainer: Are Scheduled Caste Converts Eligible for any Reservation?
The Jaipur Dialogues – The Mysterious Rise of Christianity in India
Some years ago I carried on an extensive two year conversation/debate with a group of atheists. It was a valuable learning experience for me – I can only hope for them as well. The core subject of the discussion was why they considered Christianity intrinsically ‘hateful’. The discussion ranged considerably in all kinds of directions. It got started because of comments made by an old friend of mine – once a fellow minister – since turned atheist. When I questioned him about his comments, he felt the discussion would be more profitable if held with the online atheist group to which he belonged. The discussion was hosted by an atheist blogger whose online title was SEB (Stupid Evil B******) While it lasted, this conversation became the single most popular and enormous blog SEB had ever had. I often thought he should have paid me for upping his online stats. Ah well. The conversation ended when enough of the atheists resented its continuation sufficiently that I called a halt. I tell you all that so I can tell you this. Every once in a great while I have checked in on the SEB blog just to see what was going on there. I will say, sadly, that I never saw any great change. But, I just recently checked in and saw that SEB (his real name was Les Jenkins) passed away this last March. In one of his last posts he observed that he was approaching the age at which his father had died of pancreatic cancer – a specific possibility he felt he didn’t have to worry over since his doctor kept on top of that. He did worry that he was obese, diabetic and physically inactive. He hated exercise and dieting, feeling that in a just world, healthy food would taste better than the unhealthy kind and exercise would show positive results in just a couple of days. His doctor told him that his happiness would increase if he just stuck with things long enough for the benefits to accrue. He decided that, while he did not wish to die young, he was ‘happy’ eating and sitting and could not justify the ‘misery’ of better eating and regular exercise. After all, ‘happy’ is the goal of life, right? Then came a period of extreme weariness and some abdominal pain. Tests, procedures, stage 4 pancreatic cancer, spread to the liver; (the very thing he thought he wouldn’t have to worry about) chemo, blood thinners, internal bleeding, hospice, a post by a relative announcing the final arrangements. In recent years I said goodbye, for this time, to my parents with gut wrenching grief. There was none of that for SEB. Just a flat blanket of sadness. I never met the man in person. We agreed about almost nothing. I deeply resented his brand of gleeful ‘thumb in the eye’ blasphemy. But I know that God loved him and I know from having read and been a participant in his blog that he had plenty of opportunities to come to know God – all squandered in unrelenting and largely unreasoning malice toward the very concept of the divine. But this is the nature of free will and is encompassed in God’s love – He will not force us to come to Him. I wish SEB’s widow and children well. In all cases, I trust the love, mercy and justice of God implicitly. As to that: SEB’s sins are not worse than or even particularly different from mine. If our eternal destinations differ (left with God) it is only a matter of accepting an invitation. I can only encourage everyone to accept that invitation while you can.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Pastor of Indian Run Christian Church