I have written a great deal through the years about the Global South, particularly in the context of Christianity. The term Global South was first popularized in 1980, to cover the continents of Africa, Latin America, and (most of) Asia. That concept has always had to be taken flexibly, because the different parts of that vast region were and are so diverse in terms of development, and relative concentrations of wealth. Recently, though, the divergences between regions and societies have grown enormously, a phenomenon I will explore by looking at one key bellwether statistic. To oversimplify, Africa is headed in one direction, Asia and Latin America in quite another. This should be borne in mind whenever we look at the contours of religious faith in “the South,” or the Majority World.
I have argued that demography and pattern of fertility shape religious loyalties and behavior. Briefly, low fertility societies such as Western Europe tend to be “low faith,” and secularized. High fertility societies such as most of Africa are correspondingly high faith. I won’t expand on this here, as I have covered the topic quite extensively in the past, especially in my recent book Fertility and Faith (Baylor University Press, 2020). Here, let me focus on one particular part of the demographic argument, namely the age profiles that result from different types of fertility.
Briefly, those high fertility/high faith societies tend to be much younger than their low fertility counterparts. One number that social scientists pay attention to is the proportion of the population who are teenagers or young adults, aged between 15 and 24—a stage of life often associated with unrest and, sometimes, violence. When that figure for any given society is much over 15 percent or so, demographers speak of a youth bulge and expect that fact to be manifested in various forms of conflict, instability, or economic strains. The Ugandan figure is 21 percent, compared to below 10 percent in aging Germany.
The reasons for this correlation are not hard to understand. How states cope with a youth bulge depends on the strength of state institutions and mechanisms, and their economic resources. Although some countries can provide adequate employment for teeming legions of teenagers and young adults, that is rarely true of societies in early stages of modernization and industrialization. Young people thus find themselves angry and frustrated, in search of scapegoats, and open to messages of radicalism, secular or religious. Countries with pronounced youth bulges are often marked by internal wars and conflicts, commonly but not necessarily expressed in religious terms.
The lower a country’s median age, the greater the prospects for instability. With all allowances for local conditions, we can even offer likely figures that correlate closely with instability. This would include a society where the proportion of people aged between 15 and 24 is around 20 percent and where the median age of the population is 22 or less. Of course, multiple factors are at work here, and a higher median age is in part a product of longer lifespans and better health care. But in practice, the relative median age corresponds very well indeed to higher or lower fertility rates.
That “youth bulge” is the normal pattern in virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa, and it contrasts utterly with aging Europe. Normally, when a country’s median age reaches 30, it is has moved towards a “European” demographic transition, and it is likely to be far more stable socially and politically. The age profile also has critical religious implications. Such egregiously young populations are also singularly open to the appeal of passionate or enthusiastic religion, and fervent revivalism, in a way that middle-aged and elderly societies are conspicuously not. Age is a key variable in religious behavior and practice.
Let me focus on that median age number, however crude a gauge it may be. Tell me a society’s median age, and I will be able to make some excellent deductions about its social realities, its social stability, and the likelihood that radical movements can readily call on mobs and enthusiastic recruits for militias. I will also suggest how receptive that society is to enthusiastic and devout religion.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Global South regions were all characterized by youth bulges, to a greater or lesser extent. In 1965, the median age for all the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean combined was 18.6, while for the whole of Africa it was 18.2, virtually the same. It made excellent sense to make comments about the shared social and demographic realities of the two continents, and their extremely young populations, with all the implications. This was the great age of the “Population Explosion” nightmare.
But then roll the film forward. If we rank the world’s 230 countries by their median age, then today, of course, virtually all the top sixty or so countries are European, together with Canada and some other similar WEIRD nations (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic). Germany’s median age is 47.1. The median for the whole European Union is a venerable and thoroughly WEIRD 42.9.
At the other end of the scale in every sense, virtually all the fifty lowest median ages in the table are African, with a few South Asian and Middle Eastern outliers. The median age for the whole African continent has remained fairly steady, actually dropping to 17.5 in the mid-1980s, and even today has risen only to 19.7. Among particular countries, Niger is at rock bottom with 15.4, Uganda at 15.8. There are a couple of exceptions – South Africa at 27.1 – but generally, very few African countries rise above that critically perilous median age of 22 or so. Look at the median ages of the individual countries bordering Niger, and you will immediately understand why the vast Sahel region is such an enduring source of continental chaos, terrorism, state failure, and Islamist extremism. Burkina Faso stands at 17.3, Chad is 17.8, Mali is 15.8. Mighty Nigeria is 18.4. Some observers warn of the emergence of “Africanistan.”
The youth bulge remains a fundamental fact of demographic life, and seems to indicate a screaming distinction between Global South and Global North.
Now contrast Latin America and the Caribbean. As I suggested, in the mid- and late twentieth century, Latin American nations definitely fitted that “African” youth bulge model, and their median ages were startlingly young. But the figure then rose, from 18.6 in 1965 to 21 by 1985. But that figure then climbed at a striking clip, to top 25 by 2005, and today it stands at 31.0.
Most Latin American nations are aging rapidly, as their fertility rates plummet. If we turn back to that table of the world’s 230 nations, then the Latin American nation with the youngest age profile is Guatemala, with a median age of 22.1, a figure close to African conditions. Even so, this places the country at number 180 in the list, still ahead of almost all African nations. Besides Guatemala, only three Latin American nations have medians at or below 25 years: Belize, Honduras, and Bolivia. Meanwhile, several nations have medians above that symbolic landmark of thirty. These include Uruguay (35), Chile (34.4), Brazil (32.6), Argentina (31.7), and Colombia (30.0), with Mexico at 28.3 and Peru at 28.0.
All those medians have risen steadily in recent years, and will assuredly continue to do so, moving in what we might call “European” directions. Latin America is a fast-aging society, and its religious patterns will increasingly reflect that reality. Shall we say, it is moving inexorably towards WEIRDness, if it is not there yet.
Also, by so many measures, those aging Latin American nations are showing multiple secularizing trends. These include widespread acceptance of same sex marriage, in the teeth of opposition from all leading churches. Latin nations also record steadily growing numbers of Nones, people who reject any affiliation with religious tradition or institutions. Proportions of Nones, those sin religión, correlate closely both with falling fertility and rising median age, with Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil at the most secular end of the scale. In Chile, the Nones outnumber the evangélicos whose growth has been so widely noted in recent years. In each country, familiar US-style culture war divisions are stark.
Africa, in other words, still hews closely to that old “Third World” stereotype of social structure, while Latin America demonstrably does not. Asian realities are similar to the European-trending WEIRD model, but that is too large a topic to address here in any detail. For what it is worth, overall, the median age for the whole Asian continent rose from 19.8 in 1965 to 32.0 presently – very much indeed like Latin America, and radically unlike Africa.
Whenever we talk about Global South conditions, or Global South Christianity, those differences have to be borne in mind. We might even ask whether the whole “Global South” idea is still valid in the way it certainly was fifty or even twenty years ago. I believe it is useful. I will continue to use the phrase for those versions of non-Western Christianity that are new or recent in foundation, and which are still generally associated with poverty and state instability. But we do need to choose our language carefully.