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Muslim population to pull close to Christians worldwide by 2050, survey says
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A rapidly growing global Muslim population will challenge the Christian cohort, according to "The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050," the new study from the Pew Research Center. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Christianitys claim as the worlds top religious affiliation may be more tenuous by the middle of this century, a report released Thursday revealed.

A rapidly growing global Muslim population will challenge the Christian cohort, according to "The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050," the new study from the Pew Research Center.

"If current trends continue, by 2050," the report indicated, "The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world."

Specifically, 2.76 billion Muslims will nearly equal the worlds 2.92 billion Christians in 2050. The Christian population will have grown by 35 percent during the period, but Muslim population growth, fueled by marriage and child birth, is expected to reach 73 percent in the same time frame.

Currently, the study said, there are 2.17 billion Christians in the world and 1.6 billion Muslims.

A potential "wild card" in the calculations is China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, which for decades after the 1949 Communist revolution enforced atheism on its population, and today officially recognizes several state-sanctioned religious movements, which are tightly controlled. Researchers say China's politically sensitive environment makes it difficult to project the growth of faith there.

As many as 5 percent of Chinese may today be Christians, but that number may rise exponentially by mid-century, one knowledgeable observer predicted, to as much as 66 percent. Such a growth likely would not only have massive societal impacts, but the addition of several hundred million Chinese Christians to world totals would cement the faith's leadership role.

Pew said the study was the first time such research had been undertaken, using 2,500 global data sources to compile estimates for 175 countries, representing 95 percent of the world's population. The remaining 5 percent were measured from data in the World Religion Database and other sources.

"Nothing quite like this has ever been done before," Pew demographer Conrad Hackett said about the survey. "While the United Nations estimates size of population growth, no one has rigorously analyzed" this kind of data in the religious arena.

Changing global picture

By the middle of this century, the number of people identifying as religiously unaffiliated will comprise 13 percent, or 1.23 billion people, of the world's population, down from 16 percent today, according to the Pew study. However, the unaffiliated, whom Pew defines as "atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion," will see their numbers rise in the United States and France during that period.

Pew said the world's Buddhist population will remain relatively constant between now and mid-century, while the Jewish and Hindu populations will increase. However, Judaism "will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion" in the United States by 2050, outpaced by Islam, the group said.

There are about 14 million Jews in the world today, Pew noted, a number that is expected to rise to just over 16 million by 2050. Buddhists are expected to see a 1.5 million-person decline from 488 million now to 486 million in 35 years, according to the study. The Buddhist numbers can be attributed to "low fertility rates and aging populations in countries such as China, Thailand and Japan," according to the Pew report.

According to Hackett, a key factor in Muslim population growth will be the high birth rates among Muslim women. Where Buddhists have a fertility rate of 1.6 children per woman the world's lowest the average Muslim woman will have 3.1 children. Christians are second, Pew said, with 2.7 children per woman, followed by Hindus at 2.4 and Jewish women at 2.3 children per woman.

The projections take into account the age distribution of religious groups as of 2010, and 34 percent of Muslims were reported as being under the age of 15. That's a larger percentage than Hindus, Christians, Jews or Buddhists, or of the unaffiliated. The younger the faith group, Pew said, the more childbearing potential, and more children mean more adherents.

"Muslims have the most children per woman of any of the groups we've studied, and they're also the youngest (in age) of the religious groups the Muslim median age is younger than any of the groups," Hackett explained. "A larger share of Muslim women have many years of childbearing ahead of them" than any other constituency, he said, and that will account for a significant share of Muslim population growth, which is expected to total 1.2 billion new Muslims over the next 40 years.

"I think that for many of us, who live in countries where young people are less religious than older people, it's a big surprise that young people in high fertility countries are the most religiously engaged," said Michael Hout, a sociology professor at New York University who reviewed the survey results. "The global sum of all that demography is going to be an increase in the prevalence of religiosity."

'Switching' in and out

But even with Islam's global growth, there will be declines in that faith tradition, the Pew report indicated.

While an estimated 12.6 million people are expected to "switch in" to Islam and identify as Muslim during the next 35 years, 9.4 million are also expected to "switch out" to other religions or to the ranks of the unaffiliated, the survey said. Although Hackett said the net "loss" for Islam is small in comparison to overall population growth, the shift joins an exponentially larger net move of 66 million Christians "switching out" of that faith.

"Latin America is overwhelmingly Christian and will be stable in terms of the Christian population share," Hackett said. "The exodus will be from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where there is movement for switching away from Christianity."

But he cautioned not to read too much into the Christian decline.

"A lot of the countries where we are now seeing a big movement away from Christian identity, not so long ago had such a large population identifying as Christian, so a Christian identity may be taken for granted," Hackett explained. "People may have found it more convenient to say 'I am Christian, at a given point in time than to say they are unaffiliated.

Now, "the people who retain Christian identity are those whose levels of (religious) commitment may be higher," Hackett said.

The outlook is mixed for those claiming no faith as "the unaffiliated are expected to add 97 million people and lose 36 million via switching, for a net gain of 61 million by 2050," according to the Pew report.

China wild card

China is a difficult calculation because of the sensitive status of organized religion even 40 years after the death of founding leader Mao Zedong and the end of his Cultural Revolution.

"For people who worship in unregistered churches, for people who are members of the Communist Party, identifying as Christian is dangerous, especially in a survey context," Hackett said.

That means China's officially reported 3 percent Christian population may be as high as 5 percent right now. The future could hold even greater surprises, Hackett said, although there isn't enough data available to model those potential changes.

Hackett pointed to Perdue University sociologist Fenggeng Yang's prediction published in Slate magazine that, by 2030, China's Christian population could range from 16.1 percent of a projected 1.4 billion Chinese to as much as 66.7 percent by 2050. Yang wrote "it is almost certain that China will become the largest Christian country in the world by 2030" if the country's burgeoning Roman Catholic population is included in the religious headcount.

But Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and an expert on Asian demographics, cautioned that China's political situation might impact those projections.

"If you can tell me what sort of government China is going to have in 2050, I might be able to tell you about the religious composition of the society," said Eberstadt. "There may indeed be an even larger Christian population in China than the (Pew) report suspects or surmises today. Evangelization in China may proceed more rapidly than many people may expect."

Despite the uncertainties, Eberstadt lauded the Pew effort, which he predicted would become the "gold standard" for religious population research.

"Only God knows, for sure, how many believers there are and how they talk to him in different parts of the world," he said. "But this report creditably uses available data to eliminate many of the unnecessary uncertainties in this area. I think they've done about as good a job as one can do."
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