Sunday, June 14, 2015

Did Pew Project The Future Of Religion Accurately?

A few months ago Pew released a report about the population growth projections of religion from 2010 until 2050 and many atheists and secularists were a little dismayed, to put it mildly. The world's religiously "unaffiliated" were projected to only grow from 1.13 billion to 1.23 billion, and would actually drop as a percentage of the world's population from 16.4% to 13.2%. By contrast, Islam would be the fastest growing religion, going from 1.6 billion to 2.76 billion, and from 23.2% of the world's population, to 29.7%.

Holy shit.

The numbers are projected, it seems, largely from fertility rates, which Muslims have the highest of, with a rate of 3.1, compared to the unaffiliated at 1.7. But I think using fertility rates as the primary factor in projecting future growth rates of religious affiliation is faulty, if indeed that's what Pew is doing.

Total Fertility Rate by Religion, 2010-2015

It seems that they're not taking into account conversions and deconversions. Many theists are leaving their religions and becoming unaffiliated (which includes all deists, agnostics, and atheists) and this is especially true in the West, where the number of Christians is dropping precipitously. Their future projection of the percentage of the unaffiliated in the US by 2050 seems deeply suspect, and indeed, out of whack with their other data.

Religious Composition of the United States, 2010-2050Take a look at the graph to the left from the report. They projected that the percentage of unaffiliated Americans by 2050 to be only 25.6%. I say "only" because their own latest study on religion in America that came out just a month after this report shows the unaffiliated population to be at 22.8%, up almost 7 percentage points from just 2007.

Pew doesn't seriously think that the number of unaffiliated Americans will rise just 3 percentage points from now until 2050 after they just grew nearly 7 percentage points in 7 years do they? No. Rather, there is a flaw in their methodology in projecting future religious growth, which, I suspect, relies almost entirely on fertility rates. As such, they're dramatically underestimating the projected growth of the world's unaffiliated population.

I have my hopes that a large part of the Islamic world will secularize in the social sense, if not in the political sense, and religion will continue to dramatically decline as it has in the West. There was a report recently that 5% of Saudi Arabia's population is atheist. 5 percent! That's technically higher than the population of Americans who identify as atheist (3.1%), according to Pew.

If we project the future of the unaffiliated in US based on the growth rates from Pew's latest survey, then by 2050, at a growth rate of 6.7 percentage points every 7 years, the number of unaffiliated by 2050 could be 56.3%, a majority. At a growth rate of 6.7% every 7 years, by 2050 the unaffiliated will be 31.5%. In terms of raw numbers, from 2007 to 2014, the numbers of unaffiliated in the US went from 36.6 million, to 55.8 million, an increase of about 19 million, and of 65%. At the rate of growing by 19 million every 7 years, by 2050 the number of unaffiliated Americans will be 150 million. And at the rate of 65% growth every 7 years, by 2050 they'll be 218 million.

Will any of these be the case? Will the growth rate slow down? Will it speed up? Who knows. It's really hard to project these kinds of things, and I'm not an expert on it. But I can say with reasonable confidence that the Pew report is flawed and that the growth of the world's unaffiliated will likely be much higher than they've projected.

Pew's projections of religious affiliation from 2010 to 2050.

Projected Change in Global Population

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