What is the ‘Fastest Growing Religion’?
May 28, 2011
It is very common to hear that Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. Here is an article on cnn stating this. This case is made by studies (such as one by U.S. Center for World Mission) that show that as a percentage of the whole Islam is growing at a rate of 2.9% and Christianity is growing at a rate of 2.3%. From there it is easy to throw a projection out into the future and show that if the rates of growth remain the same that Islam will surpass Christianity at some point. But this is really not a helpful way to look at things.
In terms of numbers, Christians add more to their numbers every year than Islam. Multiply 2.9% times the total number of Muslims (1.3Billion) and multiply 2.3% times the total number of Christians (2.1 Billion) and you will see that every year Christians add about 11 million more people to our ranks than Islam does.
But what about the rate? Islam is much smaller than Christianity. The smaller you are the less people you need to add every year to grow at a faster rate. If you want to use growth rate as the judge of the fastest growing religion (not adjusted for size) than Islam is nowhere near the fastest growing. Some cult you and I have never heard of is growing at a rate of 100% because Jimmy Joe Cult leader from a suburb of Saginaw just convinced another couple to join him and his wife at their compound in the woods. At that rate, the cult of Jimmy Joe will be the world’s largest religion by far in 100 years!
So what do I expect to happen over the next century? It is very difficult to predict what will happen to birth rates and conversion rates in the future. Islam has higher birth rates in many areas right now but certainly not everywhere. For example, the highest birth rates in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa where Christianity is much more prevalent than Islam. Further more, Christianity tends to win converts at a much higher rate. So, what is with the lower growth rate in the world today? I would point to Europe. For the last 1000 years Europe was Christendom. That is where the stronghold of the Christian numbers were. But today, many countries in Europe have lost large numbers of adherents. Western Europe is now only 60% self proclaimed Christians. Further more, Europe has incredibly low fertility rates. As a continent, they are well below the replacement rate (2.1) at 1.5 babies per adult female.
And while this situation in Europe may be discouraging, I think this should be a huge encouragement when reflecting on the overall growth of Christianity. Think about it: Christendom collapsed in terms of adherents and birth rate and yet Christianity grew dramatically in the 20th century. It is unlikely that another cultural shakeup like we saw in the 20th century will happen in the 21st. Further more, there are indications that Europe’s slide into secularization may be slowing. From the Wall Street Journal:
After decades of secularization, religion in Europe has slowed its slide toward what had seemed inevitable oblivion. There are even nascent signs of a modest comeback. Most church pews are still empty. But belief in heaven, hell and concepts such as the soul has risen in parts of Europe, especially among the young, according to surveys. Religion, once a dead issue, now figures prominently in public discourse.
And the fertility rates are tied directly to religious fervor. From the European Journal of Population:
By every available measure, American women are more religious than European women. Catholic and Protestant women have notably higher fertility than those not belonging to any denomination in the US and across Europe. In all European regions and in the United States as well as among all denominations the more devout have more children.
So, in places like Europe, you are seeing a slowing of secularization and higher birth rates among the devout Christians. This doesn’t indicate to me that the 20th century slide will continue in the 21st. Further, the rest of the world helped maintain Christian growth in the 20th century and this growth is giving every indication of continuing. The church continues to make unbelievable gains Southeast Asia, Africa and South America.
Amazingly, despite the heavy persecution, Christianity is even making gains in some Islamic nations. Time Magazine reports:
More surprising, though, is the boom in Christianity[in the Islamic nation of Indonesia]…..the number of Asian Christian faithful exploded to 351 million adherents in 2005, up from 101 million in 1970, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, based in Washington, D.C.
All of this indicates to me that Christianity is going to continue to be the largest religion and that far from losing this position, it will expand greatly in the 21st century.