A cautionary tale (updated)

applesOn my way to opening night at the new Nationals ball park last night, a man who was walking to a late Mass at a local church told me that he was upset by the report that Muslims had overtaken Roman Catholics as the largest single denomination. The story he read came from Reuters reporter Silvia Aloisi and here's how it begins:

Islam has overtaken Roman Catholicism as the biggest single religious denomination in the world, the Vatican said on Sunday.

I read that first paragraph and immediately had some questions about statistics and fruit.

I get that Roman Catholicism is a denomination within Christianity. But why are we comparing it to Islam, a religion that itself has denominations? Why this apple to apple by the bushel comparison? Aren't we dealing with apples and oranges, here?

Monsignor Vittorio Formenti, who compiled the Vatican's newly-released 2008 yearbook of statistics, said Muslims made up 19.2 percent of the world's population and Catholics 17.4 percent.

"For the first time in history we are no longer at the top: the Muslims have overtaken us," Formenti told Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano in an interview, saying the data referred to 2006.

We've been discussing in recent weeks how things that appear in the Vatican newspaper are frequently misreported upon translation. Or they're taken as official Vatican pronouncements instead of quotes in a newspaper.

Either way, Monsignor Formenti says that Muslims are increasing their percentages because of higher birth rates, something that is definitely worth exploring further.

Another point for media coverage to consider is whether Formenti is even right that this is the first time Muslims have overtaken Roman Catholics.

But we need, more than anything else, to know the number of Christians and then the number of Muslims. Here is one take on that, showing 2.1 billion Christians to 1.5 million Muslims. There are other statistics out there, but the size of that gap is pretty consistent.

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