Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Future Size of Religiously Affiliated and Unaffiliated Populations

Academic journal article Demographic Research

The Future Size of Religiously Affiliated and Unaffiliated Populations

Article excerpt

Abstract

BACKGROUND

People who are religiously unaffiliated (including self-identifying atheists and agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is "nothing in particular") made up 16.4% of the world's population in 2010. Unaffiliated populations have been growing in North America and Europe, leading some to expect that this group will grow as a share of the world's population. However, such forecasts overlook the impact of demographic factors, such as fertility and the large, aging unaffiliated population in Asia.

OBJECTIVE

We project the future size of religiously affiliated and unaffiliated populations around the world.

METHODS

We use multistate cohort-component methods to project the size of religiously affiliated and unaffiliated populations. Projection inputs such as religious composition, differential fertility, and age structure data, as well as religious switching patterns, are based on the best available census and survey data for each country. This research is based on an analysis of more than 2,500 data sources.

RESULTS

Taking demographic factors into account, we project that the unaffiliated will make up 13.2% of the world's population in 2050. The median age of religiously affiliated women is six years younger than unaffiliated women. The 2010-15 Total Fertility Rate for those with a religious affiliation is 2.59 children per woman, nearly a full child higher than the rate for the unaffiliated (1.65 children per woman).

CONCLUSION

The religiously unaffiliated are projected to decline as a share of the world's population in the decades ahead because their net growth through religious switching will be more than offset by higher childbearing among the younger affiliated population.

1. Introduction

Social scientists have a long history of predicting the demise of religion. Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx envisioned the decline of organized religion and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated. More recently the idea that the unaffiliated population will increase has been promoted using mathematical models of social group competition (Abrams, Yaple et al. 2011) and assumptions that growing economic development will lead to evolution away from religion (Barber 2012). But these predictions did not take demography into account - specifically, that patterns in global population growth favor those who have religious affiliation (Norris and Inglehart 2004; Kaufmann 2010). Our new demographic analysis finds that affiliated women have more children than unaffiliated women - nearly a full child more per woman, on average, worldwide. In addition, the global median age of affiliated women is six years younger than unaffiliated women, so they have more potential years of childbearing and living ahead. We project these demographic characteristics will result in a more religiously affiliated global population in coming decades. Although current patterns of religious switching favor the unaffiliated, they are insufficient at the global level to offset the demographic advantages of the affiliated.

Demographic projections of affiliated and unaffiliated populations were not possible in the past because scholars had not collected the worldwide data necessary to make them. We assembled a database of religious composition and demographic characteristics, based on more than 2,500 censuses, surveys, and population registers for 198 countries and territories that make up 99.98% of the world's population. Using this database, we made demographic projections of religiously affiliated and unaffiliated populations for the period from 2010 to 2050. Our global projections assume the continuation of recent switching patterns that strongly favor the unaffiliated, particularly in North America, Europe, and Latin America, where we project the unaffiliated will grow as a share of those regions' populations. But if current trends continue, the religiously unaffiliated will decline as a percentage of the world's overall population, from 16. …

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