Will Muslim babies rule? Journalists take their shots at dissecting latest Pew findings

At one newspaper where I used to work, a co-worker was a Seventh-day Adventist whose chief mission in life seemed to be getting his wife pregnant. As his tribe went from four to five to six kids, the editors I worked with kept on teasing him about his growing brood.

He would joke back at us, saying his family would be taking over the world in contrast to us, all of whom (at the time) were childless.

Progeny was power, he said. His genes would live on.

Which is why I found the latest Pew Research Center findings highly interesting. Because Muslims are having more babies than any other world religion, Pew reported last week, their numbers should reach parity with the world’s Christians by mid-century. In other words, both groups will contain some 3 billion adherents.

Pew’s report came out of the same data dump that provided the basis for a 2015 report (which co-getreligionista Ira Rifkin reported on here) with added facts about births and deaths among the various religions and extrapolations to 2060 instead of 2050. And, like its report two years ago, it omitted statistics about China, which Ira faulted them for. China contains one-fifth of the world’s population, so that’s a big gap.

The latest Pew report lists the unaffiliated at 1.2 billion, which is larger than any religious group other than Christians and Muslims. Many of those unaffiliated are assumed to be in China, but if it’s true that China is on the way to being the world’s most Christian nation, then Pew’s data is already skewed.

I had to get to a footnote at the bottom of the report before Pew admitted its uncertainty about China. Anyway, I surveyed how the world’s media responded to the Pew findings and it was amazing how each played to its audience. The cleverest piece I found was in Christianity Today which made the demographics-is-destiny argument.

To remain the world’s largest religious group, Christians are going to have to heed Genesis and be fruitful and multiply—not just in the mission field, but also in the bedroom.
Christian births will be outpaced by Muslim births within 20 years, according to new projections released today by the Pew Research Center. Between 2030 and 2035, Christian mothers are expected to welcome fewer babies (224 million) than Muslims (225 million) for the first time in history…
The new report extends Pew’s respected prediction of how Christianity and Islam will change by 2050. It also adds more detail about the expected impact of conversions, which don’t change the size of religious populations as dramatically as birth rates. 

The Times of India led with news about Muslims, which are a significant minority there:

NEW DELHI: More babies are born to Christian mothers than to anyone else currently, but in 20 years, the number of infants born to Muslim mothers will be higher, by a modest amount, according to new estimates released by the Pew Research Center, a US research body.

"Less than 20 years from now, the number of babies born to Muslims is expected to modestly exceed births to Christians", new Pew Research Center demographic estimates show.

That's because in recent years, as well as looking ahead, Christians have had and will have a disproportionately large share of the world's deaths because of their populations' relatively advanced age. By contrast, the relatively young population of Muslims has meant higher fertility rates as a whole across Muslim populations.

CNN took a similar tack

While there will be slightly more babies born to Muslims than Christians between 2030 and 2035 -- according to projections -- the total Christian population will still be larger.
The Muslim baby boom will be largely dictated by regional trends in age and fertility. Places with older populations and low fertility such as China, Japan, Europe, and North America have larger religiously unaffiliated populations -- while Islam and Christianity are growing in developing regions with higher birth rates and falling infant mortality rates such as countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The world's population is expected to increase by 32% to 9.6 billion by 2060. The number of Muslims -- which have the youngest population and highest fertility rate among the major world religions -- is expected to increase by 70%.
The number of Christians is projected to increase by 34%, faster than the overall global population but significantly more slowly than Muslims. By 2060, Muslims are expected to make up 31% of the world's population, and Christians will make up 32%.

The Hindustan Times  understandably saw trouble ahead for India’s largest religion:

While the number of births among Muslims and Christians, the world’s two largest religious groups, are projected to increase over the next decades, an “especially dramatic” drop is expected for Hindus, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.
Hindus are projected to see 33 million fewer births between 2055 and 2060 compared to the 2010-2015 period, due “in large part to declining fertility in India”, which is home to 94% of the world’s Hindus.
This will not bring down the number of Hindus worldwide though. The number of Hindus is projected to rise by 27%, from 1.1 billion to 1.4 billion, according to the study, but the increase will trail the pace of overall population growth.

The New York Jewish Week pointed to data on declining percentages of Jews worldwide in the coming decades.

(Steven Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College) said the study’s statistical findings — which support previous reports and anecdotal beliefs in the Jewish community — hold little good news for most Jews in this country.
In about 40 years, the study projects, the world’s Jewish population will grow from about 14 million today to 16 million — roughly the pre-Holocaust figure — but remain at 0.2 percent of the world’s total religious population.
The study found that the fastest-growing parts of the community in the U.S. are the Orthodox and the unaffiliated “nones,” and that the size of American Jewry will be surpassed by Israel’s Jewish population in just a few decades.
According to several recent studies, Orthodox Jews are the only fast-growing part of U.S. Jewry’s religiously identified Jewish community, which increases their political and economic strength, Cohen said.

Some reports took the Pew findings way too far, such as the Guardian, which touted in a headline: “Islam set to become world’s largest religion by 2075.” Now, Pew didn’t say that, as its findings only went to 2060 and a lot can change in 50 years. During this time a century ago, there was one world war wrapping up and another set to begin two decades later.

Most of the media I surveyed got Pew’s message about the future of the “nones,” which is not as bright as once thought. Nones tend to have less children and the places where they are the strongest tend to be countries like Japan and China where there are rapidly aging populations. Europe, whose Christian population is rapidly getting secularized, is also losing its market share because its older Christians are dying faster than younger Christians can birth them.

A few mentioned Pew’s talk of “religious switching,” which are decisions one makes as an adult to leave the religion in which you are raised. Many more people are switching out of Christianity than Islam, Pew reported (although I don’t recall they produced any data supporting that), so far now, conversions aren’t the fasted way to grow a faith. Births are.

In all, I think most outlets did fairly well, thanks to Pew’s reader-friendly press releases and easy-to-read graphics. I remember my days of covering Pew’s occasional releases and how hard it was to fit in all the main points within the 15 column inches I was given. Other media have similar constraints, so much of what you’ll get are the indications of a trend.

One thing that was not pointed out is that in many Muslim countries: It’s illegal –- and sometimes a death sentence –- to change your religion and several Indian states have anti-conversion laws as well. So it’s difficult to measure underground Christian movements in places like Iran because it's impossible to get reliable data out of there. 

So my Seventh-day Adventist friend was correct. Not only does the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world but so do the hands that helped that cradle get here in the first place. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy