Christianity is currently the world’s largest religion, but the global Muslim population is growing rapidly. Within the lifetimes of most children now living, there will be more Muslims than Christians in the world.
This prediction comes from a new report prepared by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. Six years in the making, the work is based on thousands of data sets and sophisticated demographic analysis techniques. The figures in the report are fully consistent with the authoritative projections prepared by the United Nations, and show how the population totals will be distributed by religion in every country around the world.
Could the future surprise us? Some things are difficult to predict: If the political climate changed in China, for example, Christianity might receive a large boost. For the most part, though, these projections simply describe the natural unfolding of what we already know to be true. A large proportion of the Muslim populations in Africa and southern Asia are in or near the reproductive ages, and birth rates are high. Even if fertility falls as expected, there will still be much higher population growth in these countries than in largely non-Muslim regions such as Europe, the Americas, and East Asia.
So what will it mean for the world if Islam becomes the largest religion? Not a great deal. There is no global government and no global electorate. Numbers matter, but power requires more. Ultimately, what is important is productivity, both economic and cultural. The non-Muslim world continues to enjoy large advantages in prosperity and influence. Rapid population growth can make it difficult for societies to develop, and growing numbers may be a handicap rather than a help in trying to achieve parity.
In any event, “Islam” and “Christianity” are simply labels that we apply to extraordinarily diverse forms of identity, belief, and practice. Calling yourself Christian can refer to anything from a vague sense of having a particular heritage, to belonging to a membership organization like Greenpeace, to participating in a very active voluntary association, to feeling committed to a social movement that defines who you are. You may feel a sense of fraternity with other Christians, or you may regard a good many of them as superstitious and misguided.
The same is true among Muslims. A great deal of the religious violence in recent years has been between Sunni and Shia. We should be wary of thinking of world religions as monolithic blocks.
We have a natural tendency to become alarmed when another group seems to be gaining ground on our own. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell joked about the bias associated with social distance. He offered conjugations like “I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.” Likewise, we tend to think, “My religion is a force for the good; your religion doesn’t harm anyone; his religion is positively dangerous.”
The world today has billions of Christians and Muslims, the vast majority of whom have no desire but to live in peace and happiness. Having a billion more Muslims and somewhat fewer Christians will not change that reality.
It is certainly true, of course, that many conflicts are based on identity, and ethno-religious identities are very powerful. It is reasonable to be worried about young people whose enthusiasm for change and justice is expressed through the vehicle of religion. Rather than religious affiliation, however, our primary concern should be the political, social, and economic problems that undermine human security and well-being.
We can imagine alternative scenarios for the decades ahead. One is that the very large, predominantly Muslim countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Egypt develop successfully. Another is that they fail to do so and thus fail to provide enough employment and prosperity to avoid unrest – in which case there may be significant negative consequences for other countries, near and far. What matters is successful modernization, not which religion happens to be dominant.