The global trends in religious belief  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , ,

When I was in college, way back in the fabled Sixties, the demise of religion was not argued but assumed. The progress of science, technology, and education, we were told repeatedly, made secularism inevitable. Increasingly superstition would be replaced by reason, and religious belief would fade away before the onslaught of to an enlightened modernism.

Needless to say, it hasn’t turned out that way. Not even close, in fact.

Lamin Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity at Yale, draws together some of the latest statistics in an essay, “The Return of Religion” (which you can read here):

The total world population in 1900 was 1.6 billion; Muslims numbered just below 200 million, and Christians 558 million. In 1970, the total world population was 3.7 billion with a Muslim population of 549 million and Christians at 1.2 billion. In 2006, Muslims numbered 1.3 billion and Christians 2.15 billion, including 1.3 billion Catholics. In less than forty years, the number of Christians in the world had nearly doubled, and Muslims had more than doubled…

Religious expansion in Africa entered its most vigorous phase following the end of colonial and missionary hegemony. In 1900, the Muslim population of Africa was 34.5 million, compared to roughly 8.7 million Christians, a ratio of 4:1. By 1985, Christians outnumbered Muslims in Africa. Of the continent’s total population of 520 million, Christians numbered 270.5 million, compared to about 216 million Muslims. By 2000, Christians in Africa had grown to 346 million, and Africa’s 315 million Muslims were concentrated mostly in the Arabic speaking regions of Egypt and in north and west Africa. Projections for 2025 are for 600 million Christians and 519 million Muslims in Africa. The Christian figures represent a continental shift of historic proportions.

Europe (including Russia) and North America in 1900 had a combined Christian population of 423 million—82 percent of the world’s Christians—compared to 94 million for the rest of the world. By 2005, Europe and North America accounted for only 35 percent of the world’s Christians; their 758 million Christians were far fewer than the 1.4 billion in the rest of the world. Thus, 65 percent of the world’s Christians now live in the southern hemisphere and in East Asia, areas that have become Christianity’s new stronghold. Increasingly, Europe is a new Christian margin.

Charismatic Christianity has been the driving engine of this expansion and is largely responsible for the dramatic shift in the religion’s center of gravity. In 1900 there were 981,000 Pentecostals; in 1970, over seventy two million; and in 2005, nearly 590 million. The projections are that by 2025, Pentecostals/Charismatics will number nearly eight hundred million. Now exploding in Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and China, Pentecostal Christianity may become the most widespread form of Christianity, with as yet unquantifiable effects on mainline churches and on global politics.

Obviously statistics tell only a small part of the story, but the part they tell is important. Religious belief, not secularism is the primary story of the 21st century. The center of world Christianity is no longer in America and Europe, but in the majority world.

Christians in America have never been hesitant to tell Third World Christians what to believe, why, and how to order their churches and lives. I wonder how eager we will be to listen to the majority world church, which is grateful for the western missionary movement but isn’t always impressed with how we live out our faith.

[Lamin Sanneh’s essay appeared in The Cresset: A review of literature, the arts, and public affairs, a publication of Valparaiso University (June 2009) p 15-23].

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