Pew Report: The Future of World Religions and the Future of the World


"The religious profile of the world is rapidly changing..." according to the recently released Pew Research Center report on world religions.

I sometimes think there is so much information coming at us these days, we miss many important things. I can think of few things more important, however, than this report and what it means for the future of humanity.

A few of the highlights from the report:

  • If present population trends continue, within the next generation, the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians around the world.
  • The number of atheists, agnostics, and those with no religious affiliation, while presently increasing in the United States, will decline.
  • The number of Buddhists will remain about the same around the world, while Hindu and Jewish populations will increase. India will remain largely Hindu but will have the largest Muslim population of any country in the world.
  • In Europe, Muslims will make up one-tenth of the population. And, here in the United States? Christians will decline, Muslims will increase and, as a consequence, Muslims will be more numerous in the U.S. than people who identify as Jewish.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.

For many, this may be the most startling reality in this report. If it is accurate, and why would it not be, within the next three to four decades, "there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history."

Nearly as many Muslims as Christians in forty years?
Unimaginable to some.
Frightening to others.
Clearly, the world is changing.
The question is, "How should we respond?"

With fear?
An escapist-mentality?

That is actually a very popular response with many Christians. It fuels a belief in the Second Coming of Jesus and a belief in the near end of the world.

I was raised to believe this way and I did for many years.

In fact, when I was a Southern Baptist minister, I preached a popular sermon about the Rapture and the Second Coming of Jesus. What I did not tell people, however, because I was too dishonest to admit this even to myself, my beliefs about the end came, not from my own careful study of scripture, but largely from Hal Lindsey's popular book Late Great Planet Earth.

The same would be true of many Christians today, only their unexamined beliefs would come less from Late Great Planet Earth and more from an equally fictional but popular series of novels made recently into a motion picture entitled Left Behind.

Why would so many Christians believe in things they've never really examined? Like the Rapture, the Second Coming of Jesus, or the imminent end to humanity?

My suspicion is that Christians believe in these things because they feel powerless in changing human history. Furthermore, they fear the changes they do see and, to a very large degree, they feel humanity is hopelessly getting worse. And, what's worse than this, is their belief that it's supposed to get worse. In fact, their theology of "original sin" feeds this narcissistic and self-defeating view of humanity. So much so, they actually believe things are supposed to get worse so their Savior, when he does appear, is all the more spectacular as the world's redeemer. Which is why such beliefs make for spectacular motion pictures. The only problem is, there is no reality or truth to them at all.

It is instead a pathetic view of history, humanity, and is a self-fulfilling prophecy all its own.

Belief in the imminent end of the world may be more widely believed today than at any other time in history. Radical Muslims have their own version of the imminent end just as radical believers do in Christianity. And, while I do not know this for sure, it seems to me as if almost all of the GOP candidates hold to this extremist view of the future of humanity.

That alone disqualifies any such candidate as a potential leader of this nation. Which is why I believe this Pew report is a call for an entirely different narrative, a commitment to the future of the human family, and it serves as a call for a political candidate with a more optimistic belief in the future of the human race.

Here's what I am suggesting as a narrative and a belief or value system that makes the world a safer, more enduring and hopeful place for all of humanity.

1. Instead of fearing and resisting change, why not welcome it? I am not suggesting all change is good. But I am suggesting that most change is good.

When I hear people talk about "the good ole days," for example, I am lost as to what they mean. I, for one, do not wish to return to some former existence as if the past were somehow better than the present or that tomorrow could never be better than today.

Behind, for example, much of the disbelief in climate change and global warming is this belief that the world must get worse just before the end comes. Any candidate, therefore, Republican, Democrat or Independent, who believes that it is the destiny of humanity to deplete natural resources...who believes humans are predetermined to damage the ecological system beyond repair...or who denies that global warming is actually occurring has surrendered his or her right to be regarded as a serious candidate.

2. Instead of resenting the decline of Christianity and the rise of Islam, as many Christians honestly do, why not seek to understand why this is happening?

Islam is expanding but mostly in cultures and contexts where people feel powerless...where opportunities are limited...where governments are repressive...and, where freedoms are limited and limiting.

For those with even a cursory understanding of history know that Christianity was birthed in a similar context. For the first three hundred years, for example, at least until Constantine wedded the Church and State, most early followers of Christ lived in contexts and conditions not entirely different from those of people who live in countries where Islam is the dominant faith.

Shouldn't we seek to understand these things and make informed, transformative responses instead of simply reacting, resisting, or, worse, fighting?

3. We are living in a period of human history where respect for diversity is a must, no longer a convenience or a choice.

I think it is time, for example, we follow the example of Mother Teresa who purportedly said and said often, "I love all religions; I'm IN LOVE with my own."

Instead of the petty insistence, for example, that our religion is "more-right-than-your-religion," people must be expected to be mature enough to find value in and respect for truth wherever it is whatever religion or cultural context it evolves.

I am a Christian. I will always be a Christian. But I am an avid student of all religions, too. There is value in each of them. The more I know about them, too, the more I realize that what Jesus taught is not so different from what Buddha taught or Lao-Tzu or Confucius.

There is no need to fear other religions or even to believe that knowing more about them somehow diminishes the uniqueness of your own. It does not. To think it might is simply poppycock. If you'd like to know more about other religions, I can think of no better place to do that than at this year's world wide convocation of world religions in Salt Lake City -- sponsored by the Council on the Parliament for the World's Religions. Check it out and join me and an expected 10,000 others from every imaginable faith tradition the world over.

Here's what I have learned: It was only after I let go of a neurotic attachment to my faith -- a faith I mistakenly thought I had to defend it in order to preserve -- I discovered a freedom from faith than anchored me more deeply to my faith than ever before.

What you defend will die; what you let die will live again. If that's not the story of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, what is?

This world is a diverse place and its destiny is to become more so. That's not something to fear, fight, or flee but value instead, even embrace and nurture.

If we do not, then believing the end is near like some fundamentalist Christians do and extremist Muslims believe is the only alternative.

The end is near indeed.