The Future of Religions
Roma Tre University, Italy
Overall, religions tend to increase the number of the members they attract. Some of them are expected to register substantial increases over the next few decades, according to a recent report (Pew Research Center 2015), which foresees a strong increase in the spread of Islam which should represent 30% of the world population by 2050, to reach and outstrip Christianity in later years; 38% of Christians should be found living in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2050; those without religious affiliation seem destined to decline by 2050 (from 16% in 2010 to 13% by the middle of the century), Christians in the US are expected to decrease in 2050 from three-quarters to two-thirds of the population, even Buddhists will suffer a decline (from 7 to 5% in 2050); the largest number of Muslims will probably live in India by the end of the first half of this century, in 2070: the numbers of Muslims and Christians should balance out evenly. Meanwhile, the so-called nones (atheists, agnostics, indifferent and others) will suffer the impact of this wave of religious growth and reduce their numbers. In the long run, the idea of the diffusive nature of religion will not only be confirmed but should provide further evidence of its ability to expand (Kurtz 2007).
If it is true that Christianity may tend to disappear as the majority religion in some countries (Australia, the United Kingdom, Benin, France, the Republic of Macedonia, New Zealand, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Netherlands) it is also true that Islam will increase its presence in various countries, in particular in Europe (Knippenberg 2005: 88-106: Holland has sold some of its churches and mosques are being built; Byrnes, Katzenstein 2006) but also in many African and Asian countries where Islam is the tradition. Increases in the diffusion of religion (Rigal-Cellard 2010) may be deduced from the following table which compares trends for 2010 and 2050, thus fully justifying the concept of “world diffused religions”:
The numbers of Latin-American Catholics dropped from 92% in 1970 to 69% in 2014; during that same period the number of Protestants rose from 4% to 19%, which does not fully account for the reduction of adhesions to Catholicism (in fact we need to look further into the 8% of the population which did not remain Christian but chose other religions or even opted for non-religion).
At worldwide level, there are six diffused religions in 188 countries: Catholicism in 61 countries, 50 Islamic nations, Protestantism in 35 states, Orthodox Christianity in 12 countries, Hinduism in two nations and Judaism in Israel. Eastern religions are distributed according to their various characterizations, from Confucianism to Shintoism and are dominant in 15 other areas because of their peculiar expansion. Then there remain 12 cases of other religions, historically predominant in their own particular enclaves (Alesina, Devleeschauwer, Easterly, Kurlat, and Wacziarg 2003).
According to recent estimates, with projections up to 2050, the spread of the Catholic religion in the world should increase by a few percentage points, but it is mainly the Islamic religion that will grow in numbers of members. On the other hand, unbelief is expected to lose while an increase of independent churches of various denominations is foreseen. Another interesting fact is the estimated increase in the Christian population (thanks to Pentecostalism) in Latin America, Africa, and the East (Asia and Oceania).
For availability of these and other data, the meritorious work on statistical and socio-religious demography (Johnson, Grim 2013) conducted by Todd M. Johnson and collaborators (Grim, Johnson, Skirbekk, Zurlo 2014 ) at the Center for the Study of Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Global Theological Seminar of South Hamilton (Massachusetts) in the United States is well acknowledged.
One very important finding is that religions do not tend to disappear, as some authors used to predict beginning from the 1960’s. A projection of data for 2030 actually shows an increase of almost 10% compared to 1970, with a pronounced upsurge during the first three decades, a slower growth rate for the last three decades (Grim, Johnson, Skirbekk, Zurlo 2014).
The trend was verified in 2013, and showed that religious affiliation had reached 88.4%. Increases are most visible among Christians and Muslims in Africa. According to the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae published by the Vatican in 2015, baptized Catholics in particular are on the increase –according to data updated to 2013 – recording a growth of 12% between 2005 and 2013; in Africa the rate is 34%. The same statistical source informs us that in 2013 the Catholics in North America numbered about 87 million, 10 in Oceania, 206 in Africa, 137 in Asia, 287 in Europe, 527 in Latin America and the Antilles. Christians, on the whole, numbered 275 million in North America, 26 in Oceania, 411 in Africa, 351 in Asia, 553 in Europe, 517 in Latin America and the Antilles, according to the World Christian Database and the Pew Research Center.
Muslims tend to increase in Asia too: in 2013 they stood at 26%, and this figure could rise to 29% by 2030. In Latin America, spiritualism is making some headway, to 2.2% in 2013. The arrival and presence in 2013 of Muslims (5.3 million), Buddhists (4.6 million) and Hindus (1.9 million) in North America are significant. Even in Oceania the spread of Christianity is increasing: with 28.2 million in 2013. Atheists and agnostics are found mostly in Asia.
Some scholars have even gone so far as to make projections for 2050 (Hackett, Stonawski, Potančoková, Grim, Skirbekk 2015: 836; Pew Research Center, 2015; Jenkins, 2011: 113-115), but obviously these data cannot be considered totally reliable. Christianity is expected to spread mainly in Africa, more than doubling the number of its members. China too should increase the numbers of its believers. The phenomenon of switching between religions is also foreseen: if one church closes, others will be open in the same place. So the decisive role of religions will continue, especially that played by those with stronger historical roots in given areas. The forecasts regarding movement (defection and conversion) confirm once again the phenomenology of a substantial numerical balance between losses and increases of members (Pew Research Center 2015: 9).
Projections arriving up to 2050 provide a picture that does not correspond to the profiles of the past for single religions while they highlight some substantial changes, though not to the extent of overturning the previous status quo (Pew Research Center 2015: 5):
Moreover, the general level of the predominance of a widespread religion in a given context is of considerable relevance. From this point of view, Hinduism seems favoured since it almost always occupies a dominant position. Christians are a minority in a little over one third of the areas in which they are present. The minority rate for Muslims is even higher: one in every four, roughly. On the contrary, Jews are much more often subjected to the prevalence of other religions, while Buddhists are in an even weaker position: two out of three times they are confronted with a prevalent religion:
In the course of one century alone the spread of religions and their importance have changed significantly, even as far as the direct ratio between the numbers of members to the single confessions are concerned. With the exception of agnostics and atheists on the one hand, and spiritualists and other neo-religionists on the other, the tendency is generally towards growth. But it should also be pointed out that a certain crisis emerges concerning some of China’s historically traditional religions such as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
Alesina A., Devleeschauwer A., Easterly W., Kurlat S., Wacziarg R. 2003, “Fractionalization”, Journal of Economic Growth, 82, pp. 219-258.
Byrnes T. A., Katzenstein P. J. (eds.) 2006, Religion in an Expanding Europe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Grim B. J., Johnson T. M., Skirbekk V., Zurlo G. A. (eds.) 2014, Yearbook of International Religious Demography 2014, Leiden-Boston, Brill.
Hackett C., Stonawski M., Potančoková M., Grim B. G., Skirbekk V. 2015, “The future size of religiously affiliated and unaffiliated populations”, Demographic Research, open-access, 32, pp. 829-842 – https://www.demographic-research.org/Volumes/Vol32/27/.
Jenkins P. 2011, The Next Christendom. The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 3rd edition.
Johnson T. M., Grim B. J. 2013, The World’s Religions in Figures. An Introduction to International Religious Demography, London, Wiley-Blackwell.
Knippenberg H. (ed.) 2005, The Changing Religious Landscape of Europe, Amsterdam, Het Spinhuis.
Kurtz L. R. 2007, Gods in the Global Village: the World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective, Thousand Oaks, CA, Pine Forge Press.
Pew Research Center 2015, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Why Muslims Are Rising Fastest and the Unaffiliated Are Shrinking as a Share of the World’s Population, April 2nd, 2015, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/
Rigal-Cellard B. (ed.) 2010, Religions et mondialisation: exils, expansions, résistances, Pessac, Presses Universitaires de Bourdeaux.
Roberto Cipriani is sociology senior professor at Roma Tre University. He is Past President of the European Council of National Sociological Association. Among his recent publications is “Religious Differentiation and New Religions in Italy”, in Jones, Pasquino (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015), pp. 440-52, in cooperation with Verónica Roldán.
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