Religion: Trends, Demographics, Non-Believers

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Polytheism — Mt Olympus gods

In an effort to provide a rational account for the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, ,Edward Gibbon wrote: “As truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose, we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes?”

The religious scholar Huston Smith, who was born to missionary parents in China and taught at MIT and Syracuse and other universities in his long career and life, is regarded as one the great thinkers of the 20th century on religion. Among his experiences has been defending the Dalai Lama, dropping acid with Timothy Leary, praying regularly to Mecca and doing yoga everyday for 50 years. His great contribution to religious study has been his book “The World’s Religions” (1958) in which he summarizes eight great religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and folk religions) with nice, lucid well-written chapters about 40 to 50 pages in length.

When asked if he thought all religions led to salvation he told Newsweek, “The shell is exoteric, its outside, visible. The kernel, its esotericism, invisible. Both are important. Esoterically, religions are identical. Exoterically they are different.” Some scholars sniff at this belief and even find it dangerous. Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, told Newsweek, “Smith and others have led us down a rabbit hole of nonreality that we are now trying to climb back out of. Is Islam the same as Christianity” To con ourselves into thinking they’re the same is to believe in something that is false.” Pothero said this while recognizing “The World’s Religions” as “the most important book in religious studies ever.”

Websites and Resources: Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Judaism Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook Christianity: BBC on Christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; Islam IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article

Monotheism and Polytheism

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel
Some believe monotheism was a unifying force. Polytheism as it exited in Biblical times was very divisive. Not only were there separate gods for different places. There were separate gods for specific things such as natural objects and crafts. Over time the Jewish God began take on the different characteristics ascribed to different pagan gods such as fertility and justice. The idea that there is one god also raises the idea that there is one set of beliefs and a moral code that all humanity is expected to ascribe by.

Polytheists have traditionally been looked down upon by practitioners of the great monotheistic religion which worship only a single god — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — as primitive and barbaric pagans. But some believe maybe they had the right idea. Mary Leftowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley College, argues that a lot of world’s troubles today can be blamed in monotheism. In the Los Angeles Times she wrote, “The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped a different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided all the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view. ..It suggests that collective decisions often lead to better outcomes. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system the Athenians called democracy.”

“Unlike the monotheistic traditions Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural...The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of nature called the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation they gave their foreign gods names of their own gods: The Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter; Horus was Apollo and so on.”

Religion of Prehistoric Modern Humans

All that we know about the religion of prehistoric man is surmised from: 1) cave paintings, engravings and sculptures; 2) archaeological excavations of graves and sacred sites; 3) analysis of the way the dead were handled; and 4) studies of traditional hunter-gatherer societies.

Traditional hunter-gatherer societies have a mystical attachment to the land and animals. Cooperation is an important virtue because it is vital foraging and hunting. Jean Clottes, a French art historian and archaeologist, who is regarded as the grand old man of cave art, told National Geographic, "Ice Age people probably believed that animal spirits lived in the rocks." The belief is similar to that of Aborigines.

Seventy-thousand- year-old skulls found in Placard cave near Charente and Dordogne Cave near the village of Les Eyzies in France and Castillo cave near Puente Viesgo Spain were made into drinking cups possibly for sacred rituals. Twenty-seven skulls from around the same period were found each in two caves in Nödlingen, Bavaria where from heads that had been cut off with a flint knife, dried, ceremoniously preserved in nest so that all the heads faced west. A 14,000 year-old half lion and half human head found in a French cave seems to suggest the worship of a supernatural being. [ World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Science and Religion: God Didn't Make Man; Man Made Gods

J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In recent years scientists specializing in the mind have begun to unravel religion's "DNA." They have produced robust theories, backed by empirical evidence (including "imaging" studies of the brain at work), that support the conclusion that it was humans who created God, not the other way around. And the better we understand the science, the closer we can come to "no heaven … no hell … and no religion too." Like our physiological DNA, the psychological mechanisms behind faith evolved over the eons through natural selection. They helped our ancestors work effectively in small groups and survive and reproduce, traits developed long before recorded history, from foundations deep in our mammalian, primate and African hunter-gatherer past. [Source: J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer, Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2011]

“For example, we are born with a powerful need for attachment, identified as long ago as the 1940s by psychiatrist John Bowlby and expanded on by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Individual survival was enhanced by protectors, beginning with our mothers. Attachment is reinforced physiologically through brain chemistry, and we evolved and retain neural networks completely dedicated to it. We easily expand that inborn need for protectors to authority figures of any sort, including religious leaders and, more saliently, gods. God becomes a super parent, able to protect us and care for us even when our more corporeal support systems disappear, through death or distance.

“Scientists have so far identified about 20 hard-wired, evolved "adaptations" as the building blocks of religion. Like attachment, they are mechanisms that underlie human interactions: Brain-imaging studies at the National Institutes of Health showed that when test subjects were read statements about religion and asked to agree or disagree, the same brain networks that process human social behavior — our ability to negotiate relationships with others — were engaged.

“Among the psychological adaptations related to religion are our need for reciprocity, our tendency to attribute unknown events to human agency, our capacity for romantic love, our fierce "out-group" hatreds and just as fierce loyalties to the in groups of kin and allies. Religion hijacks these traits. The rivalry between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, for example, or the doctrinal battles between Protestant and Catholic reflect our "groupish" tendencies. In addition to these adaptations, humans have developed the remarkable ability to think about what goes on in other people's minds and create and rehearse complex interactions with an unseen other. In our minds we can de-couple cognition from time, place and circumstance. We consider what someone else might do in our place; we project future scenarios; we replay past events. It's an easy jump to say, conversing with the dead or to conjuring gods and praying to them.

“Morality, which some see as imposed by gods or religion on savage humans, science sees as yet another adaptive strategy handed down to us by natural selection. Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom notes that "it is often beneficial for humans to work together … which means it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals." In groundbreaking research, he and his team found that infants in their first year of life demonstrate aspects of an innate sense of right and wrong, good and bad, even fair and unfair. When shown a puppet climbing a mountain, either helped or hindered by a second puppet, the babies oriented toward the helpful puppet. They were able to make an evaluative social judgment, in a sense a moral response. Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist who co-directs the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has also done work related to morality and very young children. He and his colleagues have produced a wealth of research that demonstrates children's capacities for altruism. He argues that we are born altruists who then have to learn strategic self-interest.”

Global Religious Demography

Exact numbers for religious populations are impossible to obtain and estimates for the size of the larger faiths can vary by hundreds of millions. In 2012, Washington-based Pew Forum used 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers to determine one of the most extensive surveys ever on religion Pew Forum demographer Conrad Hackett told Reuters:“It’s not the kind of data that’s available for every country. A census will typically ask what your religion is and you can identify a number of particular affiliations or no religion.” [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012 |*|]

The study estimated Christianity was the largest faith at 2.2 billion adherents or 31.5 percent of the world’s population. The Roman Catholic Church makes up 50 percent of that total, with Protestants — including Anglicans and non-denominational churches — at 37 percent and Orthodox at 12 percent. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, or 23 percent of the global population. “The overwhelming majority (87-90 percent) are Sunnis, about 10-13 percent are Shia Muslims,” the study said. |*|

Tom Heneghan of Reuters wrote: “An age breakdown showed Muslims had the lowest median age at 23 years, compared to 28 for the whole world population. The median age highlights the population bulge at the point where half the population is above and half below that number. Muslims are going to grow as a share of the world’s population and an important part of that is this young age structure,” Hackett said. By contrast,Judaism, which has 14 million adherents or 0.2 percent of the world population, has the highest median age at 36, meaning its growth prospects are weakest. Global Christianity’s median age is 30 and Hinduism’s 26. |*|

“The study said that 97 percent of the world’s Hindus, 87 percent of its Christians and 73 percent of its Muslims lived in countries where they were a large to overwhelming majority. Christians make up the majority in 157 countries and Muslims in 49, including 19 of the 20 states in the Middle East and North Africa, with the exception of Israel. By contrast,Hindus are in the majority only in India, Nepal and Mauritius. |*|

“The world’s Hindu population is concentrated mostly in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Half of the world’s Buddhists live in China, followed far behind by Thailand at 13.2 percent of the world Buddhist population and Japan with 9.4 percent. |*|

“The study found that about 405 million people, or about 6 percent of the world population, followed folk religions such as those found in Africa and China or among Native American and Australian aboriginal peoples. Another 58 million, or nearly 1 percent of the world population, belonged to “other religions” including Baha’i, Taoism, Jainism, Shintoism, Sikhism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism. Most were in the Asia-Pacific region.” |*|

Will Muslims Outnumber Christians By 2070

Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group in the world. The high growth rates is mainly attributable to high fertility rates and the high incidence of conversion. The growth and regional migration of Muslims have brought Muslims and the Islamic faith to the forefront of the political debate in many countries.[Source: Michael Lipka, Pew Research Center, August 9, 2017]

If current Muslim growth rates continue Islam could be the world’s largest by 2070. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Between now and 2050 the number of Muslims is projected to rise to 2.8 billion, a 35 percent increase. While India will continue to be predominantly Hindu, it will also be home to the world’s largest Muslim population. And, by 2050, Muslims are slated to make up 10 percent of Europe’s population and be the largest non-Christian religion in the U.S. There is good news for Hindu and Jewish populations, too, which will continue to grow, and the global population of Buddhists should hold steady. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 12, 2015]

We should take the findings with a pinch of salt. As a study, it is grounded in the assumption that people will continue to act in the future as they have in the recent past. In other words, the study assumes that economics, education levels, migration patterns, technological and health-care advances, military conflicts, and politics will not impact fertility and conversion rates in the decades to come. That seems unlikely to be the case.

The findings of the study have right-wing pundits in a tizzy. But it’s not the fear of imperiled souls that seems to have commentators worried. It’s not the idea that Christianity is losing the battle for hearts and minds that is the problem. Rather, it’s the sense that Muslims will outnumber Christians in the future.

Growing populations of Muslim immigrants in Europe and the U.S. have already been labeled causes of terrorism. And if many U.S. pundits claim Christians are a persecuted group while maintaining a majority of 78 percent, it’s difficult to imagine how shrill the militarized language of attack will be when Christians are holding on by a two-thirds-of-the-population thread. The feeling that Christians are already under attack and shortly will be outnumbered in a hypothetical Holy War is what is at issue here.

World's Newest Major Religion: No Religion

More and more people are identifying themselves as atheist, agnostic, or otherwise nonreligious. Gabe Bullard wrote in National Geographic, “The religiously unaffiliated, called "nones," are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline Protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths. A lack of religious affiliation has profound effects on how people think about death, how they teach their kids, and even how they vote. [Source: Gabe Bullard, National Geographic, April 22, 2016 ++]

“There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture. ++

“But nones aren’t inheriting the Earth just yet. In many parts of the world—sub-Saharan Africa in particular—religion is growing so fast that nones’ share of the global population will actually shrink in 25 years as the world turns into what one researcher has described as “the secularizing West and the rapidly growing rest.” (The other highly secular part of the world is China, where the Cultural Revolution tamped down religion for decades, while in some former Communist countries, religion is on the increase.)” ++

Tom Heneghan of Reuters wrote: “People with no religious affiliation make up the third-largest global group in a new study of the size of the world’s faiths, placing after Christians and Muslims and just before Hindus. Overall, 84 percent of the world’s inhabitants, which it estimated at 6.9 billion, identify with a religion, according to the study entitled “The Global Religious Landscape” issued by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on Tuesday. [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012 |*|]

“The “unaffiliated” category covers all those who profess no religion, from atheists and agnostics to people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith. “Many of the religiously unaffiliated do hold religious or spiritual beliefs,” the study stressed. “Belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7 percent of unaffiliated Chinese adults, 30 percent of unaffiliated French adults and 68 percent of unaffiliated U.S. adults,” it said. |*|

Demographics of Non-Believers

Among the people who regard themselves as non-religious or non-believers, Gabe Bullard wrote in National Geographic, divisions run deep. Some are avowed atheists. Others are agnostic. And many more simply don’t care to state a preference. Organized around skepticism toward organizations and united by a common belief that they do not believe, nones as a group are just as internally complex as many religions. And as with religions, these internal contradictions could keep new followers away.In Europe and North America, the unaffiliated tend to be several years younger than the population average. And 11 percent of Americans born after 1970 were raised in secular homes. [Source: Gabe Bullard, National Geographic, April 22, 2016]

There are a few theories about why people become atheists in large numbers. Some demographers attribute it to financial security, which would explain why European countries with a stronger social safety net are more secular than the United States, where poverty is more common and a medical emergency can bankrupt even the insured.

“Atheism is also tied to education, measured by academic achievement (atheists in many places tend to have college degrees) or general knowledge of the panoply of beliefs around the world (hence theories that Internet access spurs atheism). There’s some evidence that official state religions drive people away from faith entirely, which could help explain why the U.S. is more religious than most Western nations that technically have a state religion, even if it is rarely observed.

Around the world, the Pew Research Center finds that women tend to be more likely to affiliate with a religion and more likely to pray and find religion important in their lives. That changes when women have more opportunities. “Women who are in the labor force are more like men in religiosity. Women out of the labor force tend to be more religious,” says Conrad Hackett with Pew. “Part of that might be because they’re part of a religious group that enforces the power of women being at home."

In a Washington Post op-ed about the racial divides among atheists, Black Skeptics Group founder Sikivu Hutchinson points out that “the number of black and Latino youth with access to quality science and math education is still abysmally low.” That means they have fewer economic opportunities and less exposure to a worldview that does not require the presence of God.

According to Reuters: “With a median age of 34, the growth prospects for religiously unaffiliated people are weak, the study showed. Among the 1.1 billion unaffiliated people around the world, over 700 million, or 62 percent of them, live in China alone, where they make up 52.2 percent of the Chinese population. Japan comes next with the second largest unaffiliated population in the world with 72 million, or 57 percent of the national population. After that comes the United States, 51 million people — 16.4 percent of all Americans — said they have no link to an established faith.” [Source: Tom Heneghan, Reuters, December 18, 2012]

Religious Freedom Restrictions Increasing Globally

A Pew Research Center’s annual study released in 2017 found that though religious freedom restrictions were in a downward trend globally, 2015 showed an increase in religiously motivated violence especially in the Middle East and Europe. Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion News Service wrote: “A total of 40 percent of surveyed countries registered “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions, according to Pew Research Center’s annual study on global restrictions on religion, released Tuesday (April 10). That’s up from 34 percent in 2014, according to the data. The percentage had declined during the previous two years. [Source: Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service, April 12, 2017 \^]

“Of the 198 countries Pew surveyed, 25 percent reported “high” or “very high” levels of government restriction, up just slightly from 24 percent in 2014. And 27 percent reported “high” or “very high” numbers of acts of religious hostility by individuals, organizations or groups, a jump from 23 percent in 2014, according to the data. That happened in a year when European countries welcomed an increasing number of refugees, religion-related terror attacks rocked France, and people with albinism were targeted for rituals by witch doctors in sub-Saharan Africa, the report said. \^\

“Of the five regions surveyed by Pew, the Middle East-North Africa region had the highest percentage of countries registering government harassment or use of force against religious groups: 95 percent. But Europe saw the largest increase, with 53 percent of the countries in the region experiencing an uptick in government harassment or force between 2014 and 2015. It came in second to Middle East-North Africa with 89 countries experiencing harassment and force, according to Pew. \^\

“Some of those instances in Europe could be linked to the influx of refugees to the region, according to Pew. The number of people seeking asylum in Europe nearly doubled in 2015, reaching 1.3 million migrants. Of those, more than half were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq - where the majority of the populations are Muslim. Those instances included derogatory statements and discrimination, such as statements made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who wrote in September 2015 that Europe should close its borders to Muslim immigrants in order to “keep Europe Christian.” They also included force, like the German police raid of the Islamic Cultural Center in Bremen, later ruled unlawful.” \^\

Increased Hostility Towards Religious Groups

In a report released in December 2013, Pew Research Centre said violence and discrimination against religious groups by governments and rival faiths have reached new highs in all regions of the world except the Americas. According to Reuters: Social hostility such as attacks on minority faiths or pressure to conform to certain norms was strong in one-third of the 198 countries and territories surveyed in 2012, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, it said. Religious-related terrorism and sectarian violence occurred in one-fifth of those countries in that year, while states imposed legal limits on worship, preaching or religious wear in almost 30 percent of them, Pew said. [Source: Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor, Reuters, December 22, 2013]

Pew gave no reason for the rises noted in hostility against Christians, Muslims, Jews and an “other” category including Sikhs, Bah’ais and atheists. Hindus, Buddhists and folk religions saw lower levels of hostility and little change in the past six years, according to the report’s extensive data. As some restrictive countries such as China, Indonesia, Russia and Egypt also have large populations, Pew estimated that 76 percent of the total global population faces some sort of official or informal restriction on their faith.

A report last week by the Christian group Open Doors said documented cases of Christians killed for their faith last year had doubled to 2,123 around the world, with Syria accounting for more than the entire global total in 2012. Results for strong social hostility such as anti-Semitic attacks, Islamist assaults on churches and Buddhist agitation against Muslims were the highest seen since the series began, reaching 33 percent of surveyed countries in 2012 after 29 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in mid-2007.

Official bans, harassment or other government interference in religion rose to 29 percent of countries surveyed in 2012 after 28 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in mid-2007. Europe showed the largest median increase in hostility due to a rise in harassment of women because of religious dress and violent attacks on minorities such as the murder of a rabbi and three Jewish children by an Islamist radical in France. The report found the highest social hostility concerning religion in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Somalia and Israel. It gave no reasons but radical Islamists often target mainstream Muslims and Christians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia, while India has recurring tensions between its majority Hindus and minority Muslims and Christians. Tensions in Israel arise from the Palestinian issue, disagreements between secular and religious Jews and the growth of ultra-Orthodox sects that live apart from the majority. The five countries with the most government restrictions on religion are Egypt, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

Technology and Religion

Technology presents challenges for religion. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The Catholic Church, in particular, has reason to be concerned. Technological discoveries have rarely been its friend. The Reformation—a financial, human resources, and public relations disaster for the Catholic Church—was propelled forward by the invention of the printing press. In fact it was the printing press that made the Church’s corruption and disorder so very public.[Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, June 14, 2015]

In the same way, the controversies over contraception in the Supreme Court and broader society that we have experienced for the past 60 years would be largely academic without the introduction of “the Pill.” People had used ineffective or, frankly, uncomfortable contraception since the ancient world, but it was this medical development that changed the conversation. And Galileo knows that the telescope put paid to the whole the “sun around the earth” thing. And all of this is before we even start to talk about fossils (not technically technology, I know, but isn’t there always time for Darwin?).

It would be easy to cast religious resistance to technology as evidence that the constant progress of science and technology renders religion increasingly irrelevant and obsolete. The argument goes that as human beings know more, as science rounds out its knowledge of the natural order, and as technology endows us with seemingly God-like powers, we no longer need a supernatural crutch to navigate the world around us. But this somewhat self-satisfied account misunderstands why it is that technology and religion sometimes find themselves at odds with one another.

Some technological developments have a deleterious effect because they erode the church’s power and social position. The printing press, for example, allowed for the dissemination of anti-papal tracts denouncing the powers of the church and publicizing the ill-treatment of Protestants by Catholics (and, later, vice versa). The rise of the newspaper in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries allowed for the formal dissemination of news in places other than town squares and church meetings and created communities whose knowledge came not from the pulpit but the printed page. Communities were bonded not by congregations but by mass media, a situation that only intensified with the advent of radio, television, and the Internet.

But the seemingly antagonistic relationship of scientific advancement and religious authority is much more about innovation ethics than it is about direct challenges to power. Religious communities are among the few places in the public realm where medical advances receive ethical cross-examination. Whether you agree with the religious arguments or not, you’re more likely to hear discussions about the ethics of end-of-life care, stem cell research, contraception, abortion, surrogacy, and organ donation among religious groups than among others (although this isn’t cut and dried—secular feminist pro-life groups are a thing, to say nothing of humanist philosophers, ethicists, and policy makers. Atheists are ethical subjects too)...Pope Francis’s objections to computers seem largely to be about the ways in which the Internet promotes easy access to pornography and erodes human relationships and engagement. As he himself knows, however, the Internet can bring people together as well as wedge binary code between them.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except maps and surveys, Pew Research Center

Text Sources: Pew Research Center,“World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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