On the future of religion

Background and method of analysis

There are many ways to look at the future of religion. In almost every religion you will find prophetic references to the future. The theological term used for this is “eschatology”. These prophesies are communicated through oral tradition and/or the written holy scriptures of the particular religion. In a world of uncertainty, many people have tried to unravel the so-called “signs of the times” in order to assess whether these predictions were correct and, more importantly, what we can expect in the days to come. In this short overview of what we can expect, we will not try and answer the question from a theological perspective.

There are other perspectives through which we can view the future and, in particular, the future of religion. There is a numerical perspective, but also a sociological perspective. In 1965 Harvey Cox published his book, The Secular City, in which he basically worked with the theory that we are facing the end of religion in a secular world. However, in 1995 he re-write his thesis and in Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century (1995) he declared that the charismatic movement was now the fastest growing “religion” on the planet. This is just a simple example to illustrate how complex the question has become.

What do the statistics tell us?

Source: The future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections (2010-2050).

People love to play with statistics, especially when they sense that it can strengthen their own ideology or belief. In the field of religion we see how this plays out when people try to determine who will be the next “numerical winner” between Christianity and Islam or believers and non-believers. Analysts agree that there are many wild cards that could determine the outcome. Although there are many trends that could help us, it remains difficult to predict the actual growth or decline of faith itself. In the following paragraphs we will look at some research of the Pew Research Centre. They are well respected, but even they use basic demographical information and, although we have seen that certain faiths have dominated certain regions for centuries, it is difficult and dangerous to predict that this trend will continue ad infinitum for those specific regions.

Let us look at some of the findings of this 245 page report (The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050). If current trends continue, according to Pew, we will see the following by 2050 and beyond:

  • The world is going to become more religious, with the number of people who identify as non-religious shrinking as a percentage of the world’s population.
  • Christianity is still the most dominant religion on the planet, but Muslim numbers could equal and even pass those of Christians by 2070. This is partly due to an estimated 73% growth in the population of traditional Muslim communities worldwide.
  • The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, but Hindu and Jewish populations could be bigger than they are today.
  • In Europe Muslims will make up 10% of the general population. Our own assessment is that, looking at current events and trends, this will indeed be the case.
  • India (apart from their Hindu population) will have the largest Muslim population on the planet, surpassing Indonesia.
  • In the US Christians will drop from 75% of the population to 66.67% of the population.
  • Four out of every ten Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The Independent newspaper and Statista developed an interesting map that gives us an overview of the regional dominance of the different religions. Again it must be stated that we do see another trend developing which is the surprising growth of “new” religions in regions that were traditionally dominated by a specific. (E.g. Islam in Europe and Christianity in China and South Korea).

Christianity :             The Americas, Southern Sahara, Europe,  Eastern Europe and Russia

Islam :                        Northern Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and surrounding countries

Hinduism:                 India

Buddhism:                China

Judaism:                   Israel

Further Trends

If we take a closer look at some global and regional trends we see the following:

  •  A steady growth of Islam in Europe. Massive migration due to regional conflicts is the dominant factor, but we are now starting to see second and third generation Muslims in Western Europe.
  • On the other hand we have seen massive growth in Christianity in countries like South Korea and China.  According to the Public Radio International media company (PRI) the biggest mega-church in the world is in Yeouido Island Seoul, where the South Korean National Assembly building is situated. It has an estimated congregational membership of 800 000 and an average attendance of 200 000 on a Sunday.
  • China is experiencing an explosion of faith. Although the Chinese government attempts to regulate religion and churches strongly, the decades of anti-religious campaigns that followed the 1949 Communist takeover are giving way to exponential growth in churches, especially the “unregistered” churches. Once called “house” or “underground” churches because they were small and met in secret, these groups have become surprisingly well-organised, meeting openly and are often no longer able to meet in a house because of their numbers. When the Communists took power, the number of Protestants soared from about 1 million to the roughly 60 million they are today. Of these believers, about two thirds are unaffiliated or in unregistered churches. In other words, Protestants in non-government churches outnumber worshippers in government churches two to one.
  • According to the Pew research the following countries will no longer have a Christian majority by 2050: Australia, United Kingdom, Benin, France, Republic of Macedonia, New Zeeland, Bosna-Herzegovina and Netherlands.
  • We see a rise in fundamentalism all over the world. American right-wing fundamentalism and ISIS are simple examples.
  • Despite the number of Christians remaining stable and even growing, we see a growing number of what we call “churchless” Christians, especially in the Western world. In 2014 David Kinnaman from the Barna Institute published the following statistics in his book, Churchless (2014): In the 1990’s churchless people in the USA totalled 30%. By the 2000’s it had increased to 33% and by 2014 it had increased to 43%.
  • Kinnaman also defined the following sociological and psychological global trends that will surely impact on the Christian religion, but also other religions, especially in the Western world (see The hyperlinked life: Live with wisdom in an age of information overload [2014]).
  • We are more connected than ever before (smartphones), but more lonely than ever before.
  1. We have more support systems than ever before, but are more uncertain and feel more insecure than ever before.
  2. People are longing for meaning.
  3. We struggle with a massive information overload.
  4. We are addicted to the media (in all its forms).
  5. We have seen massive changes in the moral fabric of society and especially sexual morality.
  6. The true outcome and impact of the digital era is still to be understood.
  7. Popular culture is beginning to challenge religion. In answer to the question “Who will you trust to give a Biblical or Christian view of things?”,  Americans listed the following amongst their top ten: Morgan Freeman, Mel Gibson, Oprah Winfrey, Russel Crowe, Tyler Perry, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren and TD Jakes.

Summary and final predictions

Religion has been part of the culture of mankind since the beginning of time. Over the centuries there were many attempts to discredit religion. We think of Karl Marx, David Hume, Dan Brown and many others. But religion is still very much with us. We have seen major transformations and changes in the face of religion. Churches have come and gone. Denominations grew and declined. The patterns of religious practices have changed dramatically. One thing, however, remained with us constantly: The reality of religion in the everyday lives of (by far) the majority of the world’s population. It was Voltaire who said that if God does not exist, mankind will invent God.

If we look at the future from a purely sociological and demographic perspective, it is safe to say that religion will be with us for many more years to come.

  • This article was written in July 2017 by dr Braam Hanekom and is published here with the author’s permission.
  • Hoekom Engels? Kerkbode publiseer, ter wille van inklusiwiteit, ook af en toe inhoud in Engels.