The Future of Christianity and Atheism

The Future of Christianity and Atheism June 7, 2019

A Pew Research study, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050,” makes interesting predictions about how religion will change.

Part 1 discussed some of the key conclusions:

  • Christianity will be largely African by 2050. By that time, Africa will have more than twice as many Christians as North America, the second-most-Christian continent.
  • Christianity’s days as the world’s most popular religion are numbered. By 2050, Islam will have almost caught up.
  • While “Unaffiliated,” the category that contains atheists, will drop slightly worldwide during this period because of the greater baby-making capability of Christians and Muslims, the story in the U.S. will be quite different. By 2050, Christianity will drop (78% of the population to 66%) and Unaffiliated will be the big winner, with an increase from 16% to 26%.

Could upcoming changes in America predict how the whole world will go?

Notice where these worldwide demographic changes are coming from: more babies. Islam will soon surpass Christianity not because Islam explains reality better or because Allah is the one true god, but for no more profound reason than that Muslims are making more babies. (Which is also largely how Christianity became #1.)

The fertility rate is now 3.1 children per woman for Muslims and 2.7 for Christians. One option for Christians nervous about these changes is to have more babies, which is what the Quiverfull Movement is all about.

But this baby arms race won’t last much longer. Worldwide fertility was 5.0 in 1950, it’s 2.5 now, and it will reach replacement level of 2.1 (the fertility rate of a stable population) by 2050 (source, p. 25).

Demographic changes in religion are now driven by fertility, but as that factor wanes, what will change? Religion will no longer win simply by cranking out a surplus of indoctrinated babies and will have to compete on an intellectual footing.

To see how this may play out, consider world population charts with a sharp upward bend beginning several centuries ago as clean water technology, sewers, vaccines, antibiotics, and modern medicine reduced infant mortality. Modernity slowly brought the birth rate down, but this happened unevenly through the world. The population in Europe and the United States is now shrinking, and about half of the world population lives in countries with negative population growth, but it is still growing dramatically in other parts of the world, most notably in central Africa. (Religion thrives where social conditions are poor, which is one reason why Christianity and Islam are spreading in central Africa and in Arab countries.)

The drop in fertility rates means that the developing world will follow the West. Might the same secularization now happening in the United States happen there as well? The developing world has adopted Western technologies, they are following Western drops in fertility, and perhaps the secular West—where “no religion” is a viable and growing option to Christianity—will also be their future.

Whether atheism (or simply None of the Above) will continue to make inroads in Christianity as it’s projected to do in America for the next few decades is unclear. What seems almost certain, though, is that the time of fertility-driven growth will be over.

(Instead of Christianity becoming merely irrelevant, I propose a soft landing for it.)

Limitations to predicting the future

Let me pause and note that the Pew Research study is careful to list caveats. The conclusions may be wrong if they’re based on flawed assumptions. For example, Pew doesn’t speculate on what social conditions might drive atheism, and Christianity’s future in China is hard to predict.

Father Longenecker (the author of the “Atheism is Dying Out” post to which I responded last time) adds his own speculations of events that would change the picture. Some make sense—a global war, natural disaster, or Christian revival in the West. And some are ridiculous—God uses magic to convert Muslims to Christianity or makes birth control pills stop working.

Let me add a few on the atheist side of the ledger. Suppose the Catholic Church figured out that preventing a conception isn’t the same thing as killing anything and lightened up on their antagonism against contraception. Or even allowed abortion. Christian denominations have been fine with abortion in decades past. If the rapid rise of the anti-abortion movement in the United States is possible, the reverse is conceivable as well.

Suppose Islam gets its Enlightenment. Christians can (and sometimes do) find support for regressive policies in the Bible that are out of touch with modern society. But if Christians can dismiss nutty stuff from their holy book, Muslims could, too.

Suppose the move to secularism increases. Maybe there’s a snowball effect waiting to happen, and once enough Unaffiliateds or atheists go public with their unbelief, others will follow their lead—first the doubters who attend church because they feel they must and then other believers who unexpectedly have a new option to consider.

What do we actually want to drive the world’s beliefs?

What’s glaringly missing from Longenecker’s analysis is the claim that Christianity will win out because it’s, y’know, true. He could argue that Christianity simply explains the world better.

Nope—he throws in the towel on the intellectual debate and doesn’t even acknowledge it. He’s simply rooting for Christians to have more babies. (I’m beginning to see the value in conservative Christians’ anti-same-sex-marriage redefinition of marriage to be all about making babies.)

Longenecker is like a General Mills executive fretting that Cheerios will lose its popularity in the breakfast cereal aisle. His claims that Catholicism explains life’s big questions are as well grounded as that Cheerios scenario does. Without an intellectual grounding, Catholicism falls in with Cheerios as a lifestyle feature.

Once this baby-driven phase of religious expansion ends in the next few decades so that the effects of intellectual migration are clearer, it will be interesting to see who wins. The early indication doesn’t support religion.

As soon as it is held that any belief, no matter what,
is important for some other reason than that it is true,
a whole host of evils is ready to spring up.
— Bertrand Russell

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/13/15.)

Image from gill_penney, CC license

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  • ThaneOfDrones

    “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra

  • ThaneOfDrones

    These projections only cover the period between the present and 2050. If you extend out to infinity, all the Christians will be sitting in heaven while everyone else is burning in Hell.
    /s

    • Michael Murray

      Surely only the “right” Christians will be in heaven. The heretics will be with us sharing the barbecue. I’m left wondering which Christians I hope get into heaven and which I can put up with in hell.

      • Greg G.

        Heaven and hell might be the same place. The “right” Christians will be able to say “I told you so!” for eternity and the rest of us will have to listen to that forever.

      • Chuck Johnson

        No need to worry.
        The whole thing was just a money-making scheme concocted by the Catholic church.

    • Pennybird

      According to some climate scientists, humanity will be me or less done around 2050, so I guess that’s infinity for all of us.

      • Michael Murray

        Yes it makes theses sorts of predictions seem rather weird.

  • Once this baby-driven phase of religious expansion ends in the next few
    decades so that the effects of intellectual migration are clearer, it
    will be interesting to see who wins.

    Unfortunately, in the meantime, we’re currently stuck with fundie “as many as you can make” breeders like Jim Bob and Michelle Dugger. Hopefully the children move away from the nonsense “quiver-full” movement.

  • RichardSRussell

    But if Christians can dismiss nutty stuff from their holy book, Muslims could, too.

    I’m actually rooting for both of them to dismiss holy stuff from their nutty books.

  • abb3w

    Religion will no longer win simply by cranking out a surplus of indoctrinated babies and will have to compete on an intellectual footing.

    They may also elect to compete on a military footing. Contrariwise, in so far as war is a continuation of politics by extraordinary means, and politics is considered intellectual, this would be a sub-case. Nohow, it would seem an extraordinary sub-case.

    Suppose the move to secularism increases. Maybe there’s a snowball effect waiting to happen, and once enough Unaffiliateds or atheists go public with their unbelief, others will follow their lead

    Again: the US GSS data suggests that there is a demographic transition to disaffiliation corresponding to a logistic curve on birth cohort, having a 28 year time constant and roughly 2007 midpoint. The snowball effect has been happening since at least the early 1970s; since the turn of the millennium, it’s grown to where the impact is readily noticed.

    Thus, I more expect that the impact will not so much be from “de-closeting”, but from increased numbers of the unaffiliated leading lives of ordinary contentment giving rise to youjnger cohorts deciding that they don’t find the benefits of their natal religion worth the associated hassle.

  • Jim Jones

    Richard Dawkins’ bestselling nonfiction book “The God Delusion” has not only been translated into Arabic by Iraqi translator Bassam Al-Baghdadi, but its pdf version has also been downloaded 10 million times, with at least 30 percent of all downloads being made in Saudi Arabia. According to Al-Baghdadi, a resident of Sweden, more than 1,000 downloads took place on the first day itself, immediately after he had uploaded the pdf version of the text, thus making it available for readers online. Apparently, the numbers kept climbing as the translation continued to be shared on websites, forums and blogs of prominent Arab atheists.

    • That’s a very exciting idea. This is another example where modern technology is the friend of freethought.

      • Chuck Johnson

        Modern communication technology also played a big part in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  • vinny152

    In India–where “baby-making” flourishes producing large populations of “Belief” systems–one of which”God-In-Human-Form–actually exists as cults-in which a person is worshipped as GOD–no kidding-it is called RADHASOAMI (look it up on Google-v152(vinny152@yahoo.com)

  • Brian Westley

    I think too many of the countries in the Pew survey simply can’t produce accurate results, due to official state religions and/or penalties for members of various religions, or that only recognize a few specific religions.

  • Clifford Ishii

    Biblical Christians of course will continue to proselytize in the US and everywhere else.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      Since your ‘bible’ is self-contradictory, that’s a self-refuting statement.

    • Chuck Johnson

      All Christians are biblical in the same way that all Democrats and all Republicans are Constitutional.

  • Another flawed assumption is that believers’ children are going to be believers themselves: but countless stories from non-believers coming from a religious (sometimes even fundamentalist) background seem to suggest otherwise.

    • That’s pretty much where new Christians come from–they’re products of their environments. The fraction of people not raised in a Christian environment who convert in as adults is small–roughly 1% of new Christians.

      • epeeist

        roughly 1% of new Christians

        About 6% at the last count here in the UK. Compare with 44% of those brought up CofE and 32% of those brought up Catholic who become non-religious.

        • Pofarmer

          I wonder if that 6% figure isn’t because you have a much larger pool of non religious in the first place?

        • epeeist

          I wonder if that 6% figure isn’t because you have a much larger pool of non religious in the first place?

          Possibly, but I think there is another factor. I have mentioned the “social desirability index” before. I suspect that in the US it is more socially desirable to claim adherence to a religion that here in the UK. Thus the people who say “none” in the US are likely to have a stronger commitment to the position than those in the UK.

          Remember also that the UK census and the British Social Attitudes Survey (from which the above figures come) ask about religious adherence, not whether you believe in a god of any kind. It may well be that some of those who have no religion but still have a belief in a god of some kind are the ones that convert.

      • epicurus

        Whether or not the culture or political system is tolerant of dissent probably factors in. Religious skepticism in many middle eastern countries will result in a lynch mob outside your house or the govt. throwing you in jail. So fewer resources available for someone to become disenchanted with his or her religious heritage or at least to say so. I don’t think there is a Bart Ehrman of the Isl****c world (I’m trying not to get moderated) for people to read. That means fewer leaving the religion of their parents, compared to here where outside of perhaps some family discomfort, pretty much anything goes as far as talking about xianity.

        • TheNuszAbides

          Re: I’ic equivalent of Ehrmann, the closest (and really not much analogous) might be Ibn Warraq; he’s at least published some historical & koranic study, not nearly as institutionally academic of course.

        • epicurus

          Yeah, he needs the academic credentials as well otherwise it’s too easy for his critics to brush him off, even if his points are good.

    • Pofarmer

      I honestly think that fundamentalists may be the most likely to leave. They are the most likely to experience serious Cognitive dissonance.

  • Ficino

    It’s been pointed out elsewhere that the 26% unaffiliated in US by 2050 projection seems off. Already the unaffiliated are, what, 23% or so? Why should one think the rate of collapse of organized religion will slow so much between now and 2050? Or are there different criteria for “unaffiliated” in different surveys?

    • NS Alito

      One of the paradoxes of the US right wing goal of heavily weighting
      immigration to well-spoken professionals rather than Central Americans
      or family chains is that is less likely to add more Christians to the
      population.

  • rationalobservations?

    The assumption that the offspring of religionists will become religionists is contradicted by the vast and massive majority of the millennial generation and their younger peers who are the most overwhelmingly non-religious generation in history.

    The third largest and fastest growing human demographic are the godless non-religious and those of us in the older generations of the educated cohort mostly shrugged off all childish superstition and fraudulent lies of religion in our childhood long ago.

    All across the educated, free, predominantly secular democracies of the developed world the evidence of the decline in religion can be observed in the rapidly growing number of empty, redundant churches that litter our villages towns and cities and the fact that small christian cults in America have already become bankrupt of cash (as well as integrity and truth) and have gone out of business.

    If religion poisons everything, the future looks brighter since humanity have discovered the antidote to that poison is education and free, secular democracy.

    • I like that optimistic view, but Christianity has been seemingly on the ropes before (early 1900s was such a time) and yet bounced back.

  • Phil Rimmer

    Religion doesn’t just happen. It has always been fomented by those with something to gain. Left to its own devices it would sublime away over the generations.

    That is why all bets are off and vigilance needs maintaining.

    It is, as ever, the perfect political and exploitative tool, a promise that never need be kept.

    • Pennybird

      Vigilance, yes. It’s bad enough that today’s Christians are so jumpy about demographic changes, but when their numbers become noticeably smaller, in America at least, I’m afraid they’ll go into full-on panic mode and really make things ugly for us.

      • Phil Rimmer

        They seem to want to threaten that.

      • Ignorant Amos

        The US might be the exception, but that’s not how it has been panning out elsewhere in the democratic west afaics.

  • Yes, my observation was an exclusively US one. Should’ve noted that.

  • Chris DeVries

    I’m always wary of “the Mooslems are having more babeees, and therefore, we’re looking at Sharia law in 20 years” arguments (and for clarity’s sake, I’m not saying this argument was made to this EXTENT in this article). This is because people born into a religion don’t have to STAY in that religion. Sure, the Quiverfull ideologues might be having 5+ kids in their families, but some of those kids will “stray” and become either liberal Christians or nones. And of the ones who stay in the sheepfold, not all will end up replicating the fecundity of their parents, and thus the extremist group maintains itself over the generations, maybe even grows a bit, but its growth does not necessarily exceed the rate of population growth in wider society. We also have to remember that these trends are complicated by the fact that some of the most zealous of the children will end up seeking the “right” sort of Christianity (the mythical ORIGINAL Christianity), and in doing so will be exposed to information that leads them AWAY from the faith (a common path amongst the fundamentalist set). So having a lot of kids is not a surefire way to achieve cultural dominance.

    And while I’ve made the argument for Christians here, I think the same holds true for Muslims. Wider cultural forces are just as important as familial beliefs, and while I am worried that the Saudis have managed to get their insane form of Sunni Islam (the Wahhabi monstrosity) spread around the world, becoming a dominant form of the virus that is religion, modernity and economic stability are enemies of fundamentalism (and the places in which extremist Islam has flourished are modernizing at an incredible rate). Thus while Islam will likely grow on the world stage, it will also likely reach a peak at some time, and depending on how the future unfolds, will either maintain that level of prominence, or start to decline.