Sat, Jun 08, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Christianity not losing to Islam, despite opinions

By Paul Seabright

Populists in Europe and North America like to claim that Christianity in the modern world is on the retreat against a resurgent and confident Islam. Even observers who do not subscribe to the idea that a “clash of civilizations” is occurring often conclude that Christianity is on the decline.

At first blush, the facts at the world level might seem to support this view. Between 1950 and 2015, according to census figures gathered by the World Religion Database, a large comparative project based at Boston University, the share of the world’s population that is Muslim rose from 13.6 percent to 24 percent. Over the same period, the share that is Christian fell from 35 percent to 33 percent.

However, this is no open-and-shut case. The same trends look different when broken down by region. Christianity has grown slowly since 1950 because in that year it was concentrated in two types of regions: those, like Europe, that were populous, but growing slowly, and those, like Sub-Saharan Africa, that were fast-growing but still small. Islam has grown quickly since 1950 because it was concentrated in populous regions that were destined to grow fast over the subsequent 65 years, particularly in Asia (contrary to a widespread stereotype, roughly 80 percent of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs). Christians made up less than 3 percent of Asia’s population in 1950. So, although this share had risen to 9 percent by 2015, too many of the world’s babies born in the intervening period were never going to be Christian anyway.


However, the world is converging demographically, and fast. One of the only iron laws governing human societies is that when women are both educated and free to work for money, they choose to have fewer children, whatever their bishops and imams might say. Fertility in Muslim-majority Iran fell as fast in the 1980s and 1990s as it had done in Communist China under the one-child policy a decade earlier. In the 21st century, demography will lose almost all of its earlier importance in shaping the relative growth of the world’s religions.

One way to see the importance of demography up to now is to calculate what would have been the shares of Christianity and Islam in the world’s population in 2015 had the number of each religion’s adherents simply grown at the average rate of the population in their own country since 1950. Islam would have had a share of 20.2 percent, so its share of 24 percent is indeed a lot higher than expected, but Christianity would have had only 27.7 percent, so its actual share of 33 percent is also much higher than expected.

To understand what has been going on, consider Africa. In 1950, Muslims represented 36 percent of Africa’s population, a share that had risen by 2015 to 41.8 percent. Christians represented a mere 21 percent of the population in 1950, but by 2015 this had risen to an astonishing 48.5 percent. Much of this reflected the massive expansion of evangelical and pentecostalist churches across the continent, from Abidjan to Zanzibar. So, if Islam and Christianity were both getting a bigger share of the pie, who was losing out?

The answer is a large number of different religions that the World Religion Database classifies as “Ethnoreligions.” These local and folk practices encompass everything from spiritual healing to rites of passage, fortune telling, and preparations for love, death and war. They might recognize gods of the village, the river, the forest and the mountain. While they commanded the allegiance of 42.6 percent of Africa’s population in 1950, this share had dropped to a mere 8.6 percent by 2015.

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