Christians are numerous. What’s their problem?

Christians are numerous. What’s their problem? December 19, 2012

Yesterday, Pew came out with a new “Global Religious Landscape” report. Much of the media coverage has been focused on the relatively high percentage of people who are religiously unaffiliated. We’ll probably need to look at how some media continue to confuse everything between atheism and multiple religious traditions into one grouping.

The Washington Post had a blog item that had a markedly different focus, headlined “Our Christian Earth: The astounding reach of the world’s largest religion, in charts and maps.” It was a bit of a disappointment, beginning:

Christmas is an official government holiday in the United States, one that coincides with a smaller and informal but well-known tradition: debating whether or not there is a “war on Christmas.” In this thinking, American Christians are obligated to ”stand up and fight against this secular progressivism that wants to diminish the Christmas holiday,” as prominent Fox News host Bill O’Reilly recently argued. “We have to start to fight back against these people.” This is often portrayed as a global fight; O’Reilly, in one of his books, suggested that the “war on Christmas” is part of an effort to “mold [the U.S.] in the image of Western Europe.”

This movement to defend one of Christianity’s most important holiday can sometimes seem to begin from the assumption that Christianity itself is on the defensive in the world, a besieged minority or at least under threat of being made one.

A very different picture emerges from a just-out Pew report, “The Global Religious Landscape.” There are a number of fascinating trends and details in the study, but it’s worth examining what it indicates about the place of Christianity in the world. And, based on this data, the world’s largest religion seems to be doing just fine.

Hunh? That second paragraph is just a mess. If you’re a reporter and you use the phrase “can sometimes seem to begin from the assumption,” your editor should probably explain to you why that’s not good journalism. Seem to whom? And about this assumption — was it made up by the reporter or is there something substantive that a journalist can point to?

The article “seems to” falsely concludes that because there are many Christians in the world, perceived attacks on Christians in the American public square are of no concern for Christians. Of course, there could be many Christians in the world, and many Christians in North America, and many Christians in the United States and there could still be attacks on Christians in the American public square.

And since the global report shows that there are growing numbers of “unaffiliated” — not just around the world but in the United States, too, the data trends there might be as important as the raw numbers, or more so. I’ve long stated my dislike for theological giant Bill O’Reilly (who once said my church didn’t follow Jesus because we oppose syncretism), but his arguments have nothing to do with the data supplied by the Pew report. Further, folks worried about the expression of Christianity in the public square include those at the Vatican, who perceive a threat from secular humanism and its effects on the church and culture. Their concerns aren’t specifically addressed by the Pew report but they’re definitely not renounced by it.

Anyway, another item is that the article was half-edited to correct an early error that asserted that Christmas is Christians’ most important holiday. It now says “one of Christianity’s most important holiday [sic].” And speaking of editing, there were some problems (on review these have been corrected since I first read the story) confusing North Africa and North America and whether 68 million Christians represent 5 percent or one-fifth of the Chinese population. The article ends:

Two of the 10 countries with the world’s largest Christian populations are not actually Christian-majority: Nigeria, which is about half Muslim, and China. Those 68 million Chinese Christians only make up about five percent of their country’s population, but it’s a remarkable toehold for the world’s largest religion in the world’s largest country. And the number of Chinese Christians appears to be growing rapidly, particularly as the government loosens long-held restrictions on free religious expression.

This data is likely to provide little comfort to the handful of Christian communities, particularly in countries such as Iraq, that are facing real persecution. But, overall, the story of Christianity in today’s world is still one of vast majorities, enormous populations, and historically unique reach. If there truly is a war on Christmas or any other facet of Christianity, then, in global terms, it doesn’t seem to be doing very well.

Again, this study is not the one to use to determine whether attacks on Christians or tenets of Christianity are doing well. This study does not even begin to broach those topics. Pew actually has looked at which religions are most persecuted in the world and found that Christians are persecuted in more countries than other religions are. As for basic tenets of Christianity, those are always in conflict throughout the world, including in the United States of America, where major battles dealing with religious liberty are being obscured by the media.

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  • Dave

    Mollie, I think the point of the numbers is that, by sheer bulk, the Christian population is immune to some kinds of marginalization. Except, of course, where it isn’t.

    I was surprised to see no particular attention paid to the 16.3% unaffiliated. In others surveys these are the “nones” or “no religions.” What’s striking is that their numbers globally are at more than half the Christian total, and comparable to their share in the UK and England/Wales, where they’ve been the topic of some discussion. Instead we get “coverage” excluding them to get a handle on the Christian percentage of religious people, which is terrible journalism; “unaffiliated” is not the same as “irreligious.”

  • Julia

    It depends on how they got these numbers. Were they self-identified Christians? Reported from the churches?

    It also depends on who is running these countries. Even if the country is supposedly majority Christian, are the ruling classes making it tough for the Christians?

    “And the number of Chinese Christians appears to be growing rapidly, particularly as the government loosens long-held restrictions on free religious expression.” Does this writer not read about the Catholic bishops in prison for not cooperating with the Chinese govt’s intent to control who is allowed to be priests and bishops?

    In the hugely Christian Philippines, there are Protestant missionaries killed in the jungles by tribal non-Christians every year. Being in the majority does not guarantee that Christians are all doing well.

  • Darren Blair

    Don’t forget the fact that, back on the 9th, The Daily Beast reported about a radical movement from within Russia that wanted to ban all but four particular sects from the country; if you aren’t Orthodox, Jewish, Islamic, or Buddhist, then they want you gone.

    We Mormons – that is, those of us who are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – are at the top of their hit list. (Note that this may or may not briefly cause your browser to stall; it did for me when I first went to pull it up.)

  • sari

    “Being in the majority does not guarantee that Christians are all doing well.”

    A riff on your statement, Julia. Minority Christians are treated the same way as other minorities. Iraq and Egypt are good examples. Majority Christians, those who collectively form a given area’s majority, are far less persecuted. The conceit of this article is that Christians receive uniform treatment regardless of where they live. If current trends continue and historically Christian countries become less Christian and more something else, one would expect Christians’ power to wane and incidents of overt persecution to rise. That seems to be exactly what’s happening in Europe and, to a lesser degree, the United States.

  • Julia

    Sari: I’m not doing any special pleading for Christians, but this whole article slant is silly. In addition to Christians as a group being treated well or badly, there is also the issue of particularly rough treatment by some Christian-linked governments of other Christian groups. There’s the example of the Mormons in Russia, but there is also the Catholic Church in Russia and the Ukraine where Catholic properties that were confiscated by the Communists are being held by the Russian Orthodox who have government support in not returning them. Putin has been forging links with the Russian Orthodox which is one reason Putin is supporting the current Syrian government.

    Then there are complaints that the majority Catholic countries in South America sometimes make it difficult for Protestant Evangelicals trying to make converts because they don’t think Catholics are Christians.

    Mooshing all Christians together is obfuscating what is really going on.

  • MJBubba

    The “tribal non-Christians” who have been killing Christians in the Phillipines are Muslims.

  • MJBubba

    Not so fast on those 16% unaffiliated. I heard a radio news broadcast that briefly mentioned this story and, though I don’t recall their actual words, it sounded like the 16 % were all atheists and agnostics. The Pew report says that 62 % of the 16 % are Chinese, and then goes on to say that 44 % of these 700 million Chinese “say they have worshiped at a graveside or tomb in the past year.” It sounds like many of these unaffiliated are either too suspicious to give their affiliation (Falun Gong perhaps, or un-registered Christians or Muslims?), or maybe they practice the “Chinese indigenous spirit religions.” Either way, some media coverage of the 16 % seems to run far further than the Pew report supports.

  • JoFro

    I actually cringed reading the story yesterday and I’m glad to see Get Religion tackle this terrible example of journalism. Even worse, when Pew has even reported that Christians are the most persecuted among the different faith groups around the world, it not only makes this article pathetic, it is down right insulting.

  • Jay

    Very interesting… Yes, the 2nd paragraph was a mess…

    Also, adherence to a religion is something else too that this study doesn’t address. Not that I’m saying it should…

    Degrees of orthodox and unorthodox can be found in all religious sects… Could members of the same religious sect persecute each other? Can Sunnis persecute Sunnis? Can Catholics persecute Catholics? Can Hasidic Jews persecute Hasidic Jews? The premise that simply because there are lots of Christians means things are fine and dandy just doesn’t add up… I think there’s a logical fallacy somewhere in that logic, but I can’t think of it 😛

    • Jerry

      Good point. It was not so long ago in historical terms when Christians kept Christian slaves.

  • FW Ken

    Its an easy google to find that 100,000 to 150,000 Christians are killed annually, the latest number of any faith group. In that light, I’m not overly interested in the American “Christmas Wars”.

    More generally, the data on which this story runs is too limited. What does it mean that some number of people are “Christians”, or any other group? There is level of participation in corporate worship (30% to 40% of membership in the U.S.), financial support of the faith community, and general support for the faith and morals of the community. Numbers are fine but only go so far.

    • Jerry

      Care to document that claim of 100,000? I can’t find it by a search.

  • Arnold

    I too have heard a number of times that claim of 100,000 Christian martyrs a year but have never seen a breakdown of the number. It sounds implausible to me.

  • FW Ken
    • Alan

      Thanks, that search was able to quickly establish where that inflated number comes from:

      “For the ten-year period 2000-2010, southern Sudan and Rwanda no longer count. The mammoth share of the amount of 10 x 100,000 comes under the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Admittedly there were many Christians who died there, but that they died because they were Christians is not something that is defended by anyone in the literature. Let us suppose that there were 900,000 martyrs estimated for the DRC. The remaining 100,000 over 10 years would then move one far closer to an exceedingly lower number.”

  • Ellen

    I think it’s trying to address two different issues here, and it doesn’t really work for either. In countries where there is outright persecution of Christians, that is one issue. I think we’d all agree here that persecuting someone for their religious beliefs is bad, regardless of what they are. The other issue is the marginalization of more traditional, perhaps orthodox, beliefs and practices by all forms of the media, and it seems particularly troublesome when Christianity is the topic (at least in the US and western Europe). My 14-year-old daughter, who attends a Catholic high school, is very aware of the challenges of defending her faith and sees it under assault in much of the popular media. If all teens were as devout and articulate as she, I’d be less concerned, but I think it’s very challenging for our young people to stay faithful when the news and entertainment media constantly tell them they’re silly and superstitious.

    • sari

      Three issues, Ellen. Christians persecuted by non-Christians, Christians persecuted by other Christians, and the purported marginalization of religious people in general by the media. The middle is often ignored, though it is often a huge source of conflict.

  • Christians are persecuted in more countries than other religions are

    Of course, Christianity is the most evenly spread religion, present in all regions of the world, too. There may be some correlation in that causation.

  • Steve

    From Voices of the Martyrs:
    According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing in their 2009 report in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (Vol. 33, No. 1: 32) estimate that approximately 176,000 Christians will have been martyred from mid-2008 to mid-2009. This, according to the authors, compares to 160,000 martyrs in mid-2000 and 34,400 at the beginning of the 20th century. If current trends continue, Barrett, Johnson and Crossing estimate that by 2025, an average of 210,000 Christians will be martyred annually.

    It is worth noting, however, that many have asked whether the figures cited by the annual Barrett/Johnson/Crossing reports are reliable. Indeed, many persecution experts have concluded that they are untenable. Queries to the researchers have shown that these figures are, in fact, projected averages or statistical guesses rather than based on hard figures or actual documentation. Hence, it should be understood that The Voice of the Martyrs does not stand behind this report’s findings as being indisputable facts.

  • FW Ken

    A slightly broader view on persecution of Christians:–christianity-arguably-the-most-persecuted-religion-in-the-world

    Of course, these numbers are challenging for Americans, who have trouble seeing beyond our borders; for some, it’s hard to see past the preferred news provider (CNN, Fox, or the alphabet broadcast channels). In fact, the 2011 hate crime statistics are available (another easy google), and suggest that religious persecution in the U.S. is not, in fact, a grave problem. There were 1233 hate crimes based on religious factors. The most were against Jews (771), and the rest are fairly evenly distributed among various types of Christians, Muslims, and atheists (4 crimes). Considering that “hate crime” includes intimidation, it’s easy to see that the raw numbers that inform the post are easily misunderstood by Americans, who simply don’t face significant persecution.

  • Julia

    John Allen reported on a recent conference on Christian martyrs, including discussion about the danger of inflated numbers. As always, he reported on all different viewpoints.

  • JoeMerl

    This report’s argument is just sort of bizarre. It’s like countering African-American complaints about racism by pointing to the high birth rate in Africa. “See? If some people in America were racist, how does the number of black people in the world keep going up, huh?”

  • Julia

    The Telegraph has a piece on a study by an Oxford professor regarding the following is from the article:

    It cites estimates that 200 million Christians, or 10 per cent of Christians worldwide, are “socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs.”
    He adds: “The blind spot displayed by governments and other influential players is causing them to squander a broader opportunity. Religious freedom is the canary in the mine for human rights generally.”
    The report, entitled Christianophobia, highlights a fear among oppressive regimes that Christianity is a “Western creed” which can be used to undermine them.