Religion 2050 and What We Believe Beyond the Labels

In this week of the defining Christian holiday, the Pew Research Center forecast that by 2050 the number of Muslims will nearly equal Christians.

It’s a striking and reasonable forecast extrapolated from current global population trends. Yet this forecast will only heighten growing anxiety about radical Islam and its connection to global terrorism. Not to mention further alarm those who see the empty church pews every Sunday except Easter and Christmas.

Pew should not have buried the report’s wise observation that within every major religious group there is a spectrum of belief and practice. This report projects religious affiliation based on how people self-identify and not their level of observance. That is really the important question for people of faith concerned about their belief’s future.

This makes this additional Pew caveat all the more significant:  “What it means to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or a member of any faith may vary from person to person, country to country, and decade to decade.” Given the histories of all major religions, we can only pray we will evolve in ways that improve the human condition and assure our shared future.

The Muslim growth rate will be 73% between 2010 and 2050 largely because Muslims are in faster growing areas with larger youth populations. The Christian growth rate tracks with the expected global population growth rate of 35%.  Most of the worldwide growth for both Islam and Christianity will be in sub-Saharan Africa. About 4 out of every 10 Christians will live there. 

The US will remain a majority Christian nation, although the number of Christians will decline from three quarters to two thirds of the population between 2010 and 2050. While India will remain majority Hindu, it will also have the world’s largest Muslim population.

And for Christians concerned about evangelism, Pew estimates about 40 million people will switch into Christianity, but another 106 million are expected to leave with many becoming religiously unaffiliated. There is little comfort in knowing that the number of atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated will decline as a percentage of overall population.

Pew cautions that demographic trends like those used in this forecast of world religions can shift in unseen ways. Pew cites "scientific discoveries, armed conflicts, social movements, political upheavals, natural disasters and changing economic conditions" among the many ways these trends could change.

And sometimes a wildcard event changes the trajectory of the future. Jesus’s resurrection, celebrated at Easter, was the wildcard event that inspired Christianity. God can always break in mysterious ways we lack the imagination to dream.