A new study says the world is more religious now than it was four decades ago, and this trend will continue to 2020 and perhaps beyond even as the global share of the nonreligious is likely to witness a sustained decrease.
The percentage of the world that is religious continues to increase, according to the study titled "Christianity In Its Global Context, 1970-2010," conducted by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.
In 1970, nearly 80 percent of the world's population was religious, and by 2010 this had grown to around 88 percent, with a projected increase to almost 90 percent by 2020, the report states. The growth of religious adherence can largely be attributed to the continuing resurgence of religion in China, it notes.
In 1970, agnostic and atheist populations together claimed 19.2 percent of the world's total population, largely due to communism in Eastern Europe and China. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of the nonreligious returned to religion.
According to the report, projections to 2020 indicate a sustained decrease of the global share of the nonreligious, mostly because China is witnessing a resurgence of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions, and Christianity is also growing in Eastern Europe.
"If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a smaller portion of the world's population in 2020 than they were in 2010," says the report. "Although the number of atheists and agnostics continues to rise in the Western world, the current growth of a variety of religions in China in particular (where the vast majority of the nonreligious live today) suggests continued future demographic growth of religion."
Christianity and Islam dominate religious demographics and are expected to continue that dominance in the future, according to the report, which notes that the two religions represented 48.8 percent of the global population in 1970, and by 2020 they will likely represent 57.2 percent. The study also predicts that there will be 2.6 billion Christians by 2020.
However, the fastest-growing religions over the next decade are likely to be the Baha'i faith which is growing by 1.7 percent yearly, Islam at 1.6 percent, Sikhism at 1.4 percent, Jainism at 1.3 percent, Christianity at 1.2 percent, and Hinduism at 1.2 percent. Each of these is growing faster than the world's population at 1.1 percent.
The study also found that the global North is becoming more religiously diverse, with more countries becoming home to a greater number of the world's religions, while religious diversity is decreasing in many countries in the global South with the growth of mostly one religion, either Christianity or Islam.
The report also takes note of the great shift of Christianity to the global South in the twentieth century, a trend that is expected to continue into the future. While 41.3 percent of all Christians were from Africa, Asia, or Latin America in 1970, the figure is expected to increase to 64.7 percent in 2020.
Between 1970 and 2020, all major Christian traditions are likely to grow more rapidly than the general population in the global South, according to the report. However, at the same time, Christianity is declining as a percentage of the population in the global North "at a dramatic rate." This can be attributed to birth rates in many European countries in particular being below replacement level, and aging populations. The global shift was reflected in the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Pope Francis, the first Latin American head of the Roman Catholic Church, the study points out.