As someone with both an interest in religion and futurism I wonder often about the future of spirituality. What will people believe in the coming centuries? How will technology continue to impact religion (and vice versa)? How might the faithful react to the discovery of alien life or the emergence of human-like artificial intelligence? And so it is with some curiosity I’ve been following polling institute Pew Research’s investigations into recent trends in religion, including a recent report which purports to predict the religious landscape of the world in 2050.
The report comes to a number of interesting conclusions, such as the fact that, if current trends in both birth rates and conversion rates hold Islam will be tied with Christianity for the world’s dominant religion, with both boasting about 30% of the world’s population as adherents. Conversely, the percentage of people who adhere to no religion in particular (a group which includes atheists, agnostics, and people who are religious/spiritual but are unaffiliated) will shrink from about 16% to 13%, seemingly in opposition to the impression of emerging irreligiousity in both North America and Europe.
Now, naturally, any study which projects future demographic figures has to be taken with some grain of salt. Futurism is a notoriously fickle field and it’s easy to read present trends as self-sustaining and interminable when in fact they are neither. Just last week Pew Research showed one case where this happened, as 2007 predictions about the ethnic makeup of California in 2060 were probably premature and based on trends (in immigration) that have not lasted since then. Once most always remember that these are probable outcomes on the basis of current information, rather than definite outcomes.
However, as Pew details here and here this was a fairly carefully considered study and not just a bunch of numbers they threw at the wall. Essentially, what matters are two basic figures: birth rates and religious switching (aka conversion rates). Based on Pew’s gathered data, Islam is experiencing (and may be expected to continue to experience) a significant advantage in the former and a slight one in the latter. Conversely, Christianity’s birth rates are slowing (although still considerable) while it’s experiencing a net loss in religious switching and the religiously unaffiliated, while benefiting to some degree from conversion rates in Europe and North America, have very low birth rates, which is the chief reason for their projected decline as a share of the world population.
Of course, one reason to potentially doubt this report’s conclusions is that irreligiousity often picks up as countries modernize. But this hasn’t held as true in all parts of the world as it has in Europe and North America:
Some social theorists have suggested that as countries develop economically, more of their residents will move away from religious affiliation, as has been seen in Europe. But there is little evidence of such a phenomenon in Muslim-majority countries. Moreover, in Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation is still nearly universal despite rapid economic and social change.
China, with its large population and lack of reliable data on religious switching, is something of a wild card when it comes to the future of world religion. This is especially true for the religiously unaffiliated population; more than half of the world’s people who do not identify with any religion live in China (roughly 700 million).
Some experts believe the Christian population in China is rising while the religiously unaffiliated population is falling. If this is true – and the trend continues – religious “nones” could decline as a share of the world’s population even more than the Pew Research Center study projects.
Now these numbers aren’t set in stone, but they’re certainly something to consider. And I expect they hold more than a grain of truth to them. Which means that the religious landscape of the late 21st century will probably be quite a different place than that of the late 20th century.