The Future and the Church, Part VI: The Future of Religion Worldwide

“The Future of Religion” is one of those big picture questions that has been addressed by a wide variety of intellectuals such as Freud, Rorty, and basically every European intellectual in the 19th century. (The fact that the end of religion has been right around the corner for more than a century now doesn’t help one’s confidence in predictions of its demise). 

While grand narrative, direction-of-history discussions are fun, they should not take the place of more rigorous data-driven estimates when such are available. (Incidentally, this happened with the Democratic Party in the US when they strongly relied on a demographically naive “direction of history” narrative to assume they would effortless dominate US politics in the future without, you know, actually talking to a political demographer, but I digress.)

In the past two decades some demographers have started to project religious groups like they would project the population of a country. Projections rely on three forces: births, deaths, and migration, projections of religions just switch out migrations for conversion to or away from “religious switching.” 

Unfortunately, Latter-day Saints are too small to really do a demographic projection for without the Church’s in-house data, but there have been various insightful projections for major world religions by Pew as well as other researchers. While there are a lot of assumptions that are baked into these projections, they’re the most rigorous that we have. 

To summarize: while many people leave religion, the fact that secular people have hardly any children means the share of the non-religious will shrink worldwide over the next couple of decades, although the secular share will probably increase in some pockets like the US, but even there the best estimate is that the percent secular will peak and then start to decline. 

On the other hand, religiosity is connected to economic development, and if technology progresses to a degree that we see worldwide economic development (hopefully!), that may lead to a decline in religiosity globally, but that’s hard to predict.  

So what does this mean for the Church? As I’ve mentioned before, the Church is declining in places that are declining, and growing in places that are growing. In terms of fundamentals for growth it doesn’t get any more solid than that. However, the background society for the Church’s center in the US will continue to become more secular, so for us US members it will look like all those intellectuals were right about the future of religion as it becomes less and less relevant in society. However, that is a very short-term, localized view. 

According to these projections by 2050 Islam will be about the same size as Christianity, and in many Islamic contexts proselytizing a Christian faith is taboo, to put it gently, so the expansion of faith in some contexts may not help the Church’s growth. Once again, the big story here is Africa. By 2050 4 out of 10 Christians will be in Africa. As a potential missionary field Sub-Saharan Africa will probably continue to explode population-wise (although how long their population will continue to explode is a matter of fierce debate in the demography community).

Finally, taking a more big picture, long future approach, from twin studies we know that religiosity is at least somewhat genetic, as are one’s desires to have children. Consequently, inasmuch as religiosity is at least partially biologically engrained, in this world of widespread contraception it’s possible that we may actually evolve as a species towards religion (a paper I published looked at some of the speculative math behind evolving towards higher fertility), but of course this is very speculative. 

So to summarize, religion is not dying, even if it might look like it in certain cafes and cities. 

 

8 comments for “The Future and the Church, Part VI: The Future of Religion Worldwide

  1. Yes most of us are hardwired for religious organization, as efficient group formation was crucial to species’ survival some hundreds of thousands of years ago, it didn’t matter if the sponsoring diety was Yahweh or Cthulhu. As for “… religion is not dying, even if it might look like it in certain cafes and cities” – I think you’ll have to specify which cafe in which city. If, for instance, you’re talking about Salt Lake Coffee Break on 400 South, well, yes, all religion except the literary variety died there decades ago.

  2. Stephen C: Interesting thoughts about the future, as usual. It seems like you are saying a society will become less religious as it becomes more secular and vice versa. But how does this pattern compare to the relationship between educational levels and religiosity for American Christians in general and our church in particular? For at least the last few decades, I thought social scientists have found that attending college tends to keep an individual more active in our church than individuals who obtain a high school education or less. (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2017/04/26/in-america-does-more-education-equal-less-religion/) Or are you trying to make the case that the United States will soon reach a tipping point in terms of secularization (similar to what has happened in Europe) that will diminish the impact that advanced education has on religiosity?

  3. @ p: Yes, the ubiquity of religion across history suggests that it’s pretty engrained.

    @ Sterling: To be honest I haven’t kept up on the education/religiosity literature. I do know it’s complex. For example, religiosity within a religious category has different effects than religiosity differences among religious categories (specifically, non-belief and some affiliation). If the developing world becomes more developed it will also presumably become more educated, and it’s hard to parse out how much of the decline in religion from economic development is from education or because, according to some research, you get less well-being benefits from religion the wealthier you are. Hard to know.

  4. Thing I’ve been thinking about…online identity and community. There was a robust bloggernacle, then social media kicked in and the Church started to plateau in growth in the West thereafter. Not saying it was casual. Community affiliation has changed and in person social bonds seem like they may have weakened. Social media seems to add many voices but make all of them seem less authoritative. EQ and RS don’t seem the same when people aren’t as social in person as they used to be. I’m not sure I buy online/Facebook missionary efforts as effective as other prior efforts, moving from tracking and street displays. Conversion i. the US is slowing as is birth. I think the Church and it’s people will endure and hit eras of growth again at some point but I think there will be change on how we are organized in person and online. What is the future of the Church community and online use and identity?

  5. It’s interesting to consider how the world might be transformed just by projecting replacement rates. Of course, there are other forces at work–so it’s difficult to know how things might look (say) 100 years from now–especially if the majority of countries modernize at an accelerated pace. Even so, it would be interesting to see how simple attrition might affect change in the future–for better or worse.

  6. I recall a stretch in the 2000s when evangelicals and other religious conservatives were bragging about how they were going to “out-breed” the lefties in this country. Of course, what happened instead is that all those 2000s-era children grew up to leave their various churches in droves, including ours. The Democrats may have been too complacent, but the Republicans have been no smarter. Just one more data-point about how impossible it is to predict demographics.

    Also, I know that Nietzsche’s “God is dead” is just a header image, and not the main thrust of your post, but I nevertheless must note that when Nietzsche wrote those words in “The Gay Science”, he wasn’t celebrating, but mourning: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” He was arguing not that some atheist utopia was just around the corner, but rather that, post-Enlightenment, we have structured our society as though God no longer exists or is necessary. Although individually we may profess belief in the existence of the Almighty, nonetheless our entire economy, society, and system of government proceeds off the assumption that we will never be held accountable for our viciousness, selfishness, and cruelty. That’s not to agree with Nietzsche and say God is dead; only to note that, on a mass-level, we behave as though He were.

  7. @RL: Yes, I do think digital communities are starting to replace face-to-face communities. I’m actually not against digital communities as long as they complement, not substitute for, “real” communities. There are people I’ve only met once or twice in person, but with whom I’ve enjoyed a fun Facebook commenting relationship with over the years. This is somewhat true for Church-related groups as well, although I think we’re treading on dangerous grounds when we affiliate more with Early Morning Seminary Teacher’s Facebook group than our own ward.

    @Jack: Yes, projections usually don’t go much further than a few decades out, but it’s sometimes fun to straight-line project out really far just to see (https://www.un.org/development/desa/pd/sites/www.un.org.development.desa.pd/files/files/documents/2020/Jan/un_2002_world_population_to_2300.pdf).

    @JB: Good point re Nietzsche. I was indeed mostly looking for a fun introductory meme, but you’re right. It’s true that on the other hand some groups put too much weight into the “we have more kids than they do” element, but both the fertility differences and switchings can be estimated and plugged into growth formulas, we don’t have to conjecture as much as we might think.

Charitable Comments Welcome. Please follow our comment policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.