Pew Forum does its thing again: Gazing into a global crystal ball of religion stats

Pew has spoken. And the world of religious affiliation will be forever changed.

I refer, of course, to last week's blockbuster report from the Pew Forum's Religion and Public Life project on what global religious affiliation might look like in 2050, and, in at least one key indicator, by this century's end (more on this below). I say blockbuster not because of its immediate impact but because of the many interesting projections it contained.

The report's projected changes in religious affiliation harbor potentially monumental geopolitical ramifications. That's why I found it at least mildly surprising that most of the media attention so far has been restricted to first-day stories. Two such examples are here, at Religion News Service, and here, at The New York Times.

But perhaps I should not have been surprised. As a specie we're far more reactive than proactive -- as are the preponderance of our mainstream news providers, trapped as most are in the 24/7 rat race. Excuse me. I meant news cycle. Though I bet think tanks, security agencies, religion watchers, multinational corporations and entrepreneurs, and even some savvy novelists will pore over this report for some time to come.

The report was careful to limit its political projections -- a wise choice, I think, given how iffy this all is -- about the possible consequences of its numerical projections. That, of course, does not stop us here at GetReligion from adding our two cents of analytical commentary. Nor did it stop The Atlantic, which tends to be more intelligently analytical than your average mainstream news source anyway.

So here comes our two cents, starting with the report's major shortcoming, China.

Pew took a blank-slate approach toward China. But what else could Pew do? The Beijing government's squeamishness about religion data in any form left Pew largely in the dark about possible religious affiliation projections in the world's most populous nation. So the shortcoming is understandable. Still, that lack of data cannot help but skew considerably any global projections about affiliation.

For example, Pew projects that the religiously unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics, "nones") will swell to 1.2 billion by 2050, even as that category's percentage of the global population drops from 16 percent in 2010, the report's base year, to 13 percent. Unsurprisingly, Western nations such as the United States, France, the Netherlands and New Zealand, will be home to the largest unaffiliated blocs.

But a huge percentage of today's unaffiliated live in China (more than half of China's population is considered unaffiliated by Pew). Should they become more religiously identified with any faith group, assuming the government relinquishes its stranglehold on religious life as its growing middle class clamors for greater individual freedoms, the number of unaffiliated could plunge.

Pew's headline projection -- in its own press summary and in news reports -- rightly focused on the relative numbers of Christians and Muslims in 2050. Pew projects that by 2050 the global population percentages for the world's two largest faith blocs will be virtually tied, 31.4 percent for Christianity and 29.7 percent for Islam. While both faiths are projected to grow considerably in absolute numbers, Islam's growth will outpace Christianity's, said Pew, because of fertility rates and younger populations.

Pew projected that "Islam will grow faster than any other major religion." Projecting out even further, Pew said Islam is likely to surpass Christianity in absolute numbers by 2100. Staggering population growth in sub-Sahara Africa, the Middle East and North Africa will contribute mightily  to this demographic change.

I think the projections about Islam's growth will likely come to pass. The question is, given the many conflicts today between Muslims and Christians (and others; and certainly among Muslims), what stories might we expect to gather additional steam?

Let's start in Africa. Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation, is currently divided about equally between Christians and Muslims, has just elected a Muslim president and, of course, faces the murderous Boko Haram Islamist insurgency. Pew projects that Nigeria will have a Muslim majority by 2050.

How will Nigeria's Christian community react? And although Goodluck Jonathan, the recently defeated Christian president, is peacefully handing over power to President-elect Muhammadu Buhari -- a huge democratic step forward in Nigeria -- given Boko Haram's presence the state of future relations between the two faith communities is anything but clear.

The same may be said all across sub-Sahara Africa, from Nigeria in the west to Somalia and Kenya in the east. The region is a powder keg, and as its population continues to expand, and as climate change projections (not part of this Pew report, of course) disrupt water and food supplies the potential for even greater strife is frightening.

Now Europe: Pew projects that continent's Muslim population will increase to 10 percent by 2050. Already, blow back against Muslim immigrants is on the rise in France, Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. The latest indication of this is Bulgaria's decision to build a fence along its southern border to cut rising immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, which is to say to keep out Muslims.

Islam has been making inroads in Europe since the faith's founding century. But how will this projected Muslim growth affect Europe's political picture? Will Muslims gain considerably more political power in Europe than they currently have? Will that alter Europe's attitude toward Muslim nations? Will we see more reactions akin to that of Bulgaria's? Here, too, the possibility of continuing conflict is pretty much a given.

South Asia. Pew projects that by 2050 India will be home to the globe's largest Muslim population, surpassing Indonesia, the current leader. Hinduism will retain its place as India's majority religion, but will rising Hindu nationalism clash even more than it does currently with a swelling Muslim minority, currently approaching 200 million individuals?

Once again, the possible scenarios are myriad. What will happen with India's unstable, Muslim, nuclear neighbor and arch rival Pakistan? Will Indian Muslims demand more political power, prodded perhaps by Pakistan? It's almost too dizzying to contemplate.

This blog post is by no means exhaustive. The Pew report is, I'll say it again, an informational  blockbuster. Note I haven't even mentioned the U.S., except to say above that the number of unaffiliated will grow (Pew projects that sector to account for more than a quarter of the U.S. population by 2050). So let's quickly mention that the report also says that by 2050 the American Christian community will decline from 78 percent in the report's 2010 base year to 66 percent.

Moreover, by 2050 American Muslims are projected to outnumber American Jews (though together both groups will account for just 3.5 percent of the total U.S. population). Will this impact U.S. support for Israel? We'll see. Just as we (or perhaps our children or grandchildren) will see just how much of the Pew report is spot on.

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