The recent Pew Research Center's forecast for the growth of world religion has been greeted by theists in general with something approaching glee because it appears to forecast a decline in the proportion of people with no religious affiliation, which includes Atheists and agnostics, although this glee tends to become muted, especially amongst Christians, when they look below the headlines, because the same figures show the number of Muslims worldwide almost equalling the number of Christians by 2050.
However, it reveals something dark and nasty at the heart of religion and upon which religion depends; something of which no religious person with any sense of human decency can be proud.
And in the developed economies the forecast is far from good news for theism. Throughout much of it, the forecast is that the recent growth in non-affiliation and non-belief will continue to increase both in absolute numbers and in proportion of the population. In fact, the number of non-affiliated is set to increase throughout the world but is forecast to decline in percentage terms because of a larger increase in the number of religious people.
The major conclusions of the survey were:
- The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.
- 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.
- The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.
- In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.
- India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.
- 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.
- Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
But are these forecasts valid?
I'm not suggesting there has been any deliberate attempt to paint too glossy a picture here but there are a number of inbuilt assumptions behind these forecasts. As the Pew Research Center says:
The report details the projections from multiple angles. The first chapter looks at the demographic factors that shape the projections, including sections on fertility rates, life expectancy, age structure, religious switching and migration.
But much of the detail depends on getting the contribution of these factors right. Small changes in birthrates, religious switching or migration, for example, could have large effects on forecasted numbers.
Basically, the major conclusions are forecasts based on forecasts, not on solid data, with all the inbuilt opportunities for inaccuracy that that entails. Generally, this sort of forecasting technique is only useful for forecasting a range of possible outcomes with upper and lower limits and identifying a most likely outcome somewhere in between, rather like a weather forecast where the longer the forecast period the bigger the range and the lower the confidence that any one forecasted outcome will be the one that actually happens.
So many of these demographic factors are themselves dependent on hard to predict changes in, for example, the level of economic development by the year 2050, the standard of healthcare and the availability of information to the general population, education in family planning and access to contraceptives, changing social attitudes, etc. Look how much damage the scandal of Catholic clerics and nuns using vulnerable children for recreational sex with the connivance of bishops, cardinals and even the Vatican, has done to the Catholic Church, and how it has changed people's attitudes toward religion.
Of course there was already an underlying social change underway which facilitated these exposures now when they had been going on for generations, kept quiet by a de facto conspiracy of silence by a deferential and compliant population cowed by the power of the abusers upon which the abusers had come to depend. People suddenly found the moral courage to point to that stinking turd in the middle of the room and to the person with his pants down. Once that dam was breached the whole stinking cesspit of clerical corruption came gushing out made even worse by desperate attempts by the Church to plug the gap and getting even more covered in its own filth in the process. It would have been impossible to factor that into any forecast of changing religious affiliations of some 35 years ago. Catastrophe and Chaos theories apply.
As we have seen in post-WWII Europe, as general living standards and education rises so birth-rates decline and as the general level of security increases so religion declines, until we now have countries in Europe where established religions are moribund and non-affiliation and non-belief are the norm. We have also seen how an immigrant population moves closer to the indigenous population in terms of its birth-rate and religiosity where even those who may still identify with a religious group as an ethnic identifier, they may well also be non-believers.
No one would seriously argue that the Polish, Italian, and Irish people who filled the immigrant ships to America in the 19th and 20th centuries failed to become American. Sure, they kept some of their old traditions alive, often parodies of the 'Old Country', but they became Polish Americans, Italian Americans and Irish Americans, and three or four generations on they are American Americans with birth-rates, levels of religiosity, willingness to switch into other religions or out of them altogether which are indistinguishable from those of the descendant of the original colonists.
But, religious affiliation is actually a poor measure of religious belief anyway. A recent poll showed that an astonishing 40% of UK Christians who self-identify as such also said they were non-believers. The equivalent figures for Muslims, Jews and 'other religions' were 8%, 48% and 31% respectively. Just as in much of Europe and the USA where the term 'Jewish' is more a term of ethnic identity and shared cultural heritage, so I suspect the terms, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Sikh, etc will soon have similar connotations. Just as we see Atheist Jews so we will see Atheist Christians, Atheist Muslims, etc. It's no joke that in Northern Ireland, an Atheist might well be assumed to be a Catholic Atheist or a Protestant Atheist, depending on cultural background and little matters of surname and which housing estate they were brought up on.
If those areas of the world where Pew forecasts the number of religious adherents to increase significantly because of the factors they outline above, actually failed to follow forecast for economic growth and cultural development and moved closer to Western-style economies, population forecasts could be considerably out.
Social changes can occur very rapidly as we saw in Europe where average family sizes fell from somewhere between 8 and 12 children to about 2 in a couple of generations. As someone whose name I can't recall once remarked of Italy, the traditional massive Italian pram-pushing mama with a dozen ragged, snotty-nosed bambinos in tow, changed in a single generation to a well-dressed, chique mother of two smart children, driving them to school in the family car. The same changes were seen throughout Europe when access to contraception, good education, jobs and social security became available as economies developed way beyond pre-war levels.
There is also the matter of changing social attitudes as the number of Atheists in a society increases. Just as we saw with homosexuality, when the social taboos on it even being mentioned were lifted, the number of gays in the closet was revealed to be far higher than people had anticipated. Just so when the social stigma of being a 'godless Atheist' with its connotations of immorality and untrustworthiness, are removed, so the number of Atheists in the closet turns out to be considerable. Social perceptions and attitudes towards Atheists also changes as it did with homosexuals. In the UK, according to one recent survey, Atheists are now trusted more than religious people, even by a significant number of religious people. In the right circumstances, as with the UK, Atheism and non-affiliation can go from single percentage points to a majority in a matter of two generations.
So, although this Pew report is interesting, I personally don't give it that much credence as an accurate predictor of the future. With the growth of the Internet, like systematised clerical abuses, Atheism is a cat out of the bag - and it's not going back in.
However, if I was religious, I would see this report as a cause for some alarm and more than a little shame. I think it shows something rather unpleasant about religions and how they depend on poverty, hopelessness, denial of personal choice in matter such as family planning, repression (of women in particular), a lack of education and above all, economic and social underdevelopment in order to maintain their numbers and ensure growth. And many of the countries where religions are forecast to increase depend on autocratic governments and denial of democracy to remain that way.
The Pew Research Center has shown us how, far from religions working to increase human happiness, freedom of choice, health, welfare, education, women's rights and the general level of safety and security in the population, it actually depends on exactly the opposite for its success. Poverty, overpopulation, hopelessness and insecurity are the lifeblood of religions and religions act to ensure it stays that way. No sane, decent person could claim this shows religion to be a force for good in the world.
That is something every religious person should be ashamed of, not something to celebrate and proclaim triumphantly.
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