Todd Johnson

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Yes, numbers make news. But how can careful journalists find and evaluate them?  

Newsworthy poll numbers from ABC News and The Washington Post, which combine 5,017 interviewees during 2017, say self-identified “evangelical or born again” white Protestants have slumped to a mere 13 percent of U.S. adults. That compares with 21 percent for “nones” who lack any religious affiliation.

Americans With No Religion Greatly Outnumber White Evangelicals,” New York magazine’s headline proclaimed. If so, that would be political dynamite due to evangelicals’ importance for the Republican coalition and Democrats’ growing dependence on “nones.”

Now, let's be skeptical for a moment -- like journalists. 

Mysteriously, 13 percent is well below counts in other recent polls, so journos ought to dig into whose numbers are best and why.

The 21 percent for “nones” closely tracks other surveys. However, two experts would argue that the “With No Religion” claim in the hed above is misleading. They are Todd Johnson and assistant Gina Zurlo who lead the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC), at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. Zurlo is also a researcher with Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs.

In the 2016 academic compendium “Sociology of Atheism,” Zurlo and Johnson spent 24 pages analyzing “nones.” One main point was that in the U.S., at least, those who list no affiliation or call their religious identification “nothing in particular” often hold to beliefs or practices -- only minus membership. They include “spiritual but not religious” seekers and young free-floating evangelicals who shun institutional commitments.

The key: This article distinguishes between the unaffiliated and fully non-religious atheists and agnostics. It also explains pitfalls in overseas polling.

Johnson, Zurlo, and other CSGC colleagues are a go-to source for religious statistics that are used in standard reference works, and for interpretation of them. Their regularly updated World Christian Database, newly spiffed up this year, exploits every imaginable source for past, present and future numbers for each religious and ethnic group in 234 nations and territories, alongside ample backgrounding.

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