Religion across the globe is changing -- but not the way that you think
Silhouette of a man praying at sunset (Shutterstock)

AlterNet and other progressive news sites frequently publish articles about the decline of Christian hegemony in the United States. While this view is to some extent true, it doesn’t necessarily account for other long-term demographic trends, including population growth and migration. In a new report, The Future of World Religions, the Pew Research Center attempts to round out the picture and look at patterns of faith on a global scale.

Because of the difficulty of anticipating world events far in the future, the report tracks projections through 2050, a span of time during which the world’s population will increase from 6.9 to 9.3 billion. The findings are fascinating. Over the next few decades, the world’s religious composition will shift dramatically, thanks primarily to “differences in fertility rates and the size of youth populations among the world’s major religions.” By 2050, for the first time in history, the percentage of the population that is Muslim (30%) will be nearly equal to the percentage that is Christian (31%). And while all the major religious groups except Buddhists will see an increase in absolute numbers, many, including the unaffiliated, will decline as a share of the global population.

The overall decline in the unaffiliated population speaks to the importance of geography in analyzing patterns of religious growth. Countries such as the United States and France will see a rise in people who identify as atheist, agnostic or other, helping to drive the total number of unaffiliated from 1.13 to 1.23 billion. In the U.S., they will grow from 16 to 26 percent of the population by midcentury, an increase that will have a significant impact on our political culture and legislative focus. In 40 years, for instance, we may not be battling for so-called religious freedom bills in three states. We know that “nones” tend to be more politically liberal, more highly educated and younger than other religious groups.

But globally, their share of the population will fall:

Religions with many adherents in developing countries—where birthrates are high, and infant mortality rates generally have been falling—are likely to grow quickly….Today’s religiously unaffiliated population…is heavily concentrated in places with low fertility and aging populations, such as Europe, North America, China and Japan.

Youth and fertility rates help explain the huge projected increase in the Muslim population, which will grow by an astonishing 73 percent. Islam will spread faster than any other major religion, in part because Muslims have the highest fertility rate (3.1 children per women) and the youngest population (34 percent are under the age of 15).