Religious Will Rise as Secular Birth Rates Fall
Eric Kaufmann September 20, 2010
Pope Benedict's recent visit to Britain has been just as controversial as John Paul II's tour of 1982. But the 180-degree shift in the axis of conflict reveals how British society has changed over the past 28 years.
John Paul, the first pontiff to set foot on British soil, raised Protestant hackles. Today, Benedict riles Britain's rising secularists, who decry Catholic paedophilia, conservatism and superstition. Among the few Protestants who still practise, many now see Catholics as their religious allies and support the papal visit. The faithful fear, and seculars cheer, the idea that the end of Christianity is nigh. But is it?
On the face of it, the trends seem unassailable: the Eurobarometer finds that across 10 west European countries between 1975 and 1998, the proportion of weekly attenders plummeted from 38 per cent to 16 per cent. In Britain, where just 7 per cent of Christians attend church each week, half of those between the age of 18 and 34 say they have no religion compared to just 20 per cent of over-55s.
Even in the United States, where 85 per cent report a religious faith, Robert Putnam recently discovered the share of young white Americans claiming ''no religion'' has reached 35-40 per cent.
A victory for secularism? Not so fast. Young white Americans may be more secular than their parents, but while whites made up nearly 90 per cent of the US population in 1965, this will drop to 50 per cent by the 2040s. Immigrants and their children - largely Catholic - will bulk ever larger.
Just 2 per cent of Americans were Catholic at independence and former Catholics are the third largest denomination in the country. Nonetheless, projections show that Catholics will sharply increase their share of the US population. Catholicism, not secularism, will be the largest religion among young Americans in 2050.
Most people around the world get religion the old-fashioned way: by birth. This means demographic shifts greatly affect the fate of religion, and by extension secularism. And the deck is heavily stacked against the Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins of this world: 97 per cent of the world's population growth takes place in the poor religious tropics.
In 1950 Europe (including the USSR), North America and Australasia made up a sizeable 30 per cent chunk of world population. Today they account for just 11 per cent of those under the age of 15. In 1950 there were 2½ Europeans for every African. By 2050 the United Nations projects four Africans for every European.
Therefore, according to the World Religious Database, the proportion of the world that is religious increased from 81 per cent to 85 per cent between 1970 and 2000, and is projected to rise to 87 per cent by 2025. Applying UN population estimates to Gallup World Poll data predicts a rise in global church attendance from 54 per cent to 58 per cent over the next four decades.
Even the much maligned Catholic Church has increased its membership in recent years - by 12 per cent since 2000, most of it in Africa and Asia.
We live in an interconnected world, so Third World population growth is also reshaping the West. We see this in the increasingly non-European cast of cities such as London, Los Angeles, Toronto and Sydney. Along with ethnic change comes religious change as the faithful replace ageing secular white majorities. Christian attendance in London is about where it was in 1989 while numbers have dropped 40 per cent in the rest of the country. Overall, the capital is more religious because Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus add to its religious growth. These patterns have nothing to do with religious awakening and everything to do with the fact that 60 per cent of London's Christians are non-white and many of the rest come from eastern Europe.
Will the newcomers adopt secularism? The children of Caribbean Christian immigrants in Britain have secularised and intermarried in large numbers but African Pentecostalists are determined to avoid their fate. Second-generation Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus are also as religious as their parents, in part because their religion is relevant as a marker of identity.
In the long run, things may be different. Family sizes are rapidly falling across Africa and Asia and the world as a whole will experience voluntary population decline for the first time in the second half of our century. Surely the end of the global demographic transition will check religious demography?
Well, not quite. Global migration is irrelevant in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox Jews, availing themselves of modern medicine while rejecting its mores, have increased from several per cent of Jewish school pupils in 1960 to a third today. With three or four times the birth rate of secular Jews and impeccable retention of children in the fold, they will form the majority of Jews in Israel and the diaspora in the second half of this century.
In the US, Mormons and conservative evangelicals have nearly twice the birth rate of non-religious Americans and have grown rapidly. In the cities of the Muslim world, women who strongly support the sharia have twice the family size of Muslim women who oppose it. Even in Europe, white women who are regular church attenders - even at the same education level - will bear up to a half-child more than their non-religious sisters.
It's not that religious fundamentalists are having more kids. It's that secular women are having fewer. Over generations this becomes a profound force for social change, and its repercussions for our certainties of secularism, enlightenment and liberal progress cannot be ignored.Eric Kaufmann is author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century, and will speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at Sydney Opera House on October 3.
"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck