America Is Becoming Exceptional Religiously, Not Exceptionally Religious

It’s always good for Americans to be reminded that the rest of the world is a great big place that isn’t always congruent with our own assumptions about the way things should be. So a new Pew survey on global religious affiliations, projected to 2050, is interesting in no small part because the United States is a bit of an outlier–or if you prefer, “exceptional.”

Here are the big toplines about what the world is expected to look like in 2050:

* The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.

* Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.

* The global Buddhist population will be about the same size it was in 2010, while the Hindu and Jewish populations will be larger than they are today.

* In Europe, Muslims will make up 10% of the overall population.

* India will retain a Hindu majority but also will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, surpassing Indonesia.

* In the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050, and Judaism will no longer be the largest non-Christian religion. Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish on the basis of religion.

* Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Those who have been excited about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America–particularly among young people–may be pleased at the projections about the gradual de-Christianization of this country. But it’s not a global trend. And the unaffiliated are projected to have the smallest percentage growth of children in their ranks between now and 2050 of any religious category, so the growth vectors will depend entirely on rising net “conversions” from conventional religions. One reason that’s not a lively prospect is that the Asian heartland of non-belief–especially China and Japan–has very low population growth projections, and the latter country is a big future target for the religious groups denied access to the Chinese under communism.

The Pew study most definitely represents bad news for Islamophobes, given the continued growth of that faith community via high fertility rates and a strong base in developing countries where large families remain the norm (that’s partially true of Christianity, at least in its new sub-Saharan hot spots).

In any event, while the United States is likely to remain the most religiously observant of advanced western democracies, its “exceptional” nature will also reflect a growing gap with a more religiously observant planet. Go figure.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.