The Pew Research Center released a new report this week that sheds some light on ongoing trends in religious demographics. The report, The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 is one of the most detailed global studies of the world’s religious future to ever conducted. You can check out findings from the report using their interactive data explorer. Below, I highlight some of the more interesting points the report made about the future of religion in Asia, in particular.
According to the report, the global Muslim population is expected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world’s population by 2050, mostly due to high fertility rates and a youthful population. By around 2070, Islam, whose numbers are projected to increase by 73 percent, will become the world’s largest religion, surpassing Christianity. Much of this growth will occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, but Islam will grow everywhere. The Middle East and North Africa region will remain the only region of the world where Muslims will be in the solid majority, but the proportion of the world’s Muslims in the Middle East will remain at around 20 percent.
However, the largest demographic of Muslims will continue to live in the Asia-Pacific region, which is defined as including South, Southeast, East, and Central Asia. By 2050, there may be almost 1.5 billion Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region. This would make Muslims the single largest group in that region by 2050, ahead of Hindus (about 1.4 billion), unaffiliated (838 million), Buddhists (476 million), and Christians (381 million). Four out of five of the countries with the world’s largest Muslim populations will be in the Asia-Pacific region: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.
By 2050, India will have the world’s largest Muslim population, of around 310 million. Nonetheless, Hindus will remain the solid majority in India, though their proportion could decrease. This could potentially inflame tensions in India, though India’s Muslims are moderate and well-integrated. This being said, the heavy demographic concentration of Muslim populations in countries like India and Indonesia should be used to promote a global brand of Islam based on moderation and practices found in those countries to counter the brands of Islam emanating from certain states in the Middle East.
Indeed, the population of Hindus will also grow and increase in proportion to the demographics of most other religions groups in the Asia-Pacific region. The Hindu growth rate of 33.7 percent will lead to an increase of around 350 million Hindus between 2010 and 2050. Nepal will also remain a Hindu majority state, while Pakistan will become the second most populous Muslim nation in the world, with a population of around 270 million, surpassing Indonesia. Other South Asian religions, like Sikhism and Jainism are expected to remain relatively stable in demographics and remain concentrated in India.
Throughout most of the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, Buddhism or some form of syncretism including Buddhism, folk religions, and native philosophies have been the traditional religions. However, due to this fact, and because in many East Asian countries, religious practices are so deeply embedded in culture that they are seen as a part of daily life rather than as religion, I am skeptical about how much we can take away from religious demographics in much of East Asia. Reporting from China poses additional methodological issues.
In 2050, China is expected to have the world’s largest population of folk religions, slightly less than 300 million, followed by Vietnam. China will also continue to have about half of the world’s Buddhist population, the largest in the world, of around 240 million. China also has the most unaffiliated people.
Buddhism will be the only major world religion that will see a decline in numbers by 2050, due to aging and low fertility in countries where it is concentrated. The proportion of the world’s Buddhists will also shrink from 7 percent to 5 percent. Buddhism will remain strong in Southeast Asia, where it will continue to form the majority of the population of several countries. The second and third highest populations of Buddhists will be in Thailand and Myanmar, both of which will remain solidly Buddhist.
Japan will decline in religiosity, a trend that has been in motion for a while now. The percentage of Japanese who identify as Buddhist will slip to 25 percent. Only three million Japanese claim to be Shinto, the traditional native religion of Japan though many more will probably identify with it in a cultural sense. Christianity and Buddhism will remain the largest religions in South Korea.
By far the largest potential game changer in East Asia could be the growth of Christianity in China, of which estimates vary wildly. China currently has one of the world’s largest Christian populations, of around seventy million, though this is only 5 percent of its entire population. Among countries of the Asia-Pacific, only the Philippines has a higher Christian population. Some experts believe that Christianity is growing rapidly in China, which is on track to become a Christian country. The report says:
Most notably, one of the world’s leading specialists on religion in China, Purdue University sociologist Fenggang Yang, estimates that the Christian population in China grew at an average annual rate of 7% between 1950 and 2010. At this rate, Yang calculates the proportion of China’s population that is Christian could grow from 5% in 2010 to 67% in 2050.
This, however, I think is unlikely. Many missionaries hope to repeat the Korean experience in China, and convert a large portion of a previously non-Christian population. However, in Korea, Christianity became associated with prosperity and Korean nationalism in a way that is unlikely to be replicated in China. Other countries in the region with similar historical religious profiles, like Vietnam, Japan and Taiwan have remained largely non-Christian, with Christianity only making minor inroads in those places. However, the report is right in noting that “with a population currently estimated at more than 1.3 billion, China could make a big difference in the global religious landscape during the coming decades” depending on what course it takes.