April 3, 2015

Why people with no religion are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population

For years, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has been rising, a trend similar to what has been happening in much of Europe (including the United Kingdom). Despite this trend, in coming decades, the global share of religiously unaffiliated people is expected to fall, according to the Pew Research Center’s new study on the future of world religion.

FT_15.04.02_unaffiliatedTotal

To be clear, the total number of religiously unaffiliated people (which includes atheists, agnostics and those who say they have no particular religion on censuses and surveys) is expected to rise, from 1.1 billion in 2010 to 1.2 billion in 2050. But this growth is projected to occur at the same time that other religious groups – and the global population overall – are growing faster.

These projections, which take into account demographic factors such as fertility, age composition and life expectancy, forecast that people with no religion will make up about 13% of the world’s population in 2050, down from roughly 16% as of 2010.

This is largely attributable to the fact that religious “nones” are, on average, older and have fewer children than people who are affiliated with a religion. In 2010, for instance, 28% of people who belong to any of the world’s religions were younger than 15 years old, compared with just 19% of the unaffiliated. And adherents of religions are estimated to give birth to an average of 2.6 children per woman, compared with an average of 1.7 children among the unaffiliated.

FT_15.04.02_unaffiliatedCountriesOf the 10 countries with the largest unaffiliated populations in the world as of 2010, all are expected to decline as a share of the world’s population by 2050. This list includes the United States and nine countries in Asia or Europe, areas with lower fertility rates and older populations than other parts of the world (including Africa and the Middle East).

The projection model also considers religious switching, or conversion, for 70 countries with reliable switching data. Religious switching has been powering the rise of the “nones” in the United States and Europe, and a net gain globally of more than 60 million people are projected to join the ranks of the unaffiliated through religious switching between 2010 and 2050.

Some social theorists have suggested that as countries develop economically, more of their residents will move away from religious affiliation, as has been seen in Europe. But there is little evidence of such a phenomenon in Muslim-majority countries. Moreover, in Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation is still nearly universal despite rapid economic and social change.

China, with its large population and lack of reliable data on religious switching, is something of a wild card when it comes to the future of world religion. This is especially true for the religiously unaffiliated population; more than half of the world’s people who do not identify with any religion live in China (roughly 700 million).

Some experts believe the Christian population in China is rising while the religiously unaffiliated population is falling. If this is true – and the trend continues – religious “nones” could decline as a share of the world’s population even more than the Pew Research Center study projects.

Note: For more details on the religiously unaffiliated and their place in these projections, see “The future size of religiously affiliated and unaffiliated populations,” an article by researchers involved in this study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Demographic Research.

Topics: Population Projections, Religious Affiliation, Religiously Unaffiliated

  1. Photo of Michael Lipka

    is a senior editor focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.

24 Comments

  1. Tonan Bora4 months ago

    This article is bull honky.
    First, religion, especially in the US, is declining and is projected to continue to decline. Why the heck would this trend suddenly stop? If anything, it will exponentially increase due to social pressures.
    Second, religious individuals have a much more strict sexual code of conduct, so I fail to see how they will “outbreed” those that do not have such restrictive codes.
    The only reason they currently have more children, is because currently, religious individuals outnumber nonbelievers, and so naturally, they will have more children.

    The fact that nonbelievers are on the rise, even though religious individuals are having more kids, just proves that religion is on a serious decline. This shows that the children of religious families don’t believe in the religious values being taught to them, so saying “oh, well religious families have more kids and that is way nonbelievers will decline” is utterly stupid.

    1. battlefield214212 months ago

      “This article is bull honky.”
      Nope it’s your comment that’s pure BS. Allow me to show you why.
      “First, religion, especially in the US, is declining and is projected to continue to decline. Why the heck would this trend suddenly stop? If anything, it will exponentially increase due to social pressures.”
      Care to back up that assertion? No? Well here’s some evidence that might surprise you. Evangelicalism and religious fundamentalism were once a minority, now they are basically the dominant religious groups in the US. Every conservative religious denomination is experiencing growth while their more liberal counterparts are withering away. Traditionalist Catholics are slowly replacing their dissident counterparts who ruled the Catholic Church during the 1960s. Protestants are mostly Evangelicals with the once dominant mainstream Protestants no longer being mainstream. Liberal Jews are projected to become a minority as their more Orthodox counterparts recover from the destruction that the Holocaust wrought upon them. As for Muslims… well I don’t have to explain them now do I? And as for societal pressure, please… when did that ever stop us Christians? We’ve been persecuted since the day we were founded. Heck, the guy at the center of our religion was crucified.
      “Second, religious individuals have a much more strict sexual code of conduct, so I fail to see how they will “outbreed” those that do not have such restrictive codes.
      The only reason they currently have more children, is because currently, religious individuals outnumber nonbelievers, and so naturally, they will have more children.”
      A comment below should sum up my reply to this: “Because if you look at birth rates, religious people have on average more children. They are also more likely to get married. Sex isn’t restricted in religion, it’s sex outside marriage that is discouraged.” Still not convinced? Do you know how Christianity managed to become the dominant religion in the Pagan Roman Empire? One reason was conversion. The other was simple demography. I’ll talk about demographics for this article. The Pagans saw nothing wrong with abortion, contraception, euthanasia, infanticide, homosexuality, etc. Christians on the other hand prohibited them. Nature took its course and in 300 years Christianity was the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. Sounds familiar? It’s basically the situation right now in the US. It’s also one of the contributing factors to why more conservative forms of religion are beating the crap out of their liberal counterparts.
      “The fact that nonbelievers are on the rise, even though religious individuals are having more kids, just proves that religion is on a serious decline. This shows that the children of religious families don’t believe in the religious values being taught to them, so saying “oh, well religious families have more kids and that is way nonbelievers will decline” is utterly stupid.”
      That comment is that which is utterly stupid. Religious families having more kids actually does make the world more religious much like how having a large population makes a nation more prosperous. Seriously, sometimes you seculars are more narrow minded than religious extremists. When evidence is in front of you showing you how wrong you are you guys become that which you hate the most. You become as ignorant as the fanatics that you rail upon and bury your head in the sand. How irrational of you guys…

  2. battlefield214216 months ago

    This isn’t very surprising. Most of those who have fallen away are mostly liberal “believers” who probably never took their faith too seriously.
    Oh, and the people here who keep saying that access to information will lead to the decline of religion are only kidding themselves. Information is a double-edged sword. Not all information is anti-religious. Most of them are actually religious information. How do you think Christians like me spread the word of God? Through snail mail and the printing press? We’ve adapted to the times but we never conformed to it. We use the internet to spread our views just like anyone does. We make videos explaining our faith and post them on Youtube. Priests, imams, and rabbis interact with their congregations using social media. The pope, for example, has lots of followers (digital that is) on Twitter. You secularists are fools to think that science and technology only works for you guys.
    And let’s use that reason that you guys love to brag about, shall we? Tell me, which do you think is more likely to happen? A Christian, or any form of religious believer, accessing websites containing information that tells him how to be a better believer or that provides him with more religious information? Or him accessing secularist websites making fun of his beliefs? Common sense would tell me that the former is more likely to happen than the latter. A rational being would clearly not waste time on something that he does not like. For example, a person who likes football would not go to a website about basketball or a website that demeans football.
    Just something to enlighten you secularist nutjobs.

    1. Iztok Mravlja3 months ago

      You’re right in the sense that all valid information is simply not adherent to religion, not anti-religious per se. If you don’t care about truth, however, that won’t matter to you – obviously – but there’s little doubt what position factual information supports.

      1. battlefield214212 months ago

        I know what factual information supports. I see how there is order in this world and not some pile of random things that just somehow luckily fit into place. I see how, out of all religions, Christianity is the most global. Islam is concentrated mostly in the Middle East and in North Africa, Judaism is mostly concentrated in Israel. Hinduism is found mostly in India. No other religion aside from Christianity has made a profound impact on the world. And it’s because Christianity’s belief that the world has a rational order that influenced much of how modernity is today.

  3. Yash1 year ago

    ‘Moreover, in Hindu-majority India, religious affiliation is still nearly universal despite rapid economic and social change’. I can explain this because I am Indian. The word, Hindu, is not as much a religion, as a generalization term for people inhabiting the region what currently is the country of India. The word was created by the Mughal-Persian-Arab-Muslim invaders (from their word ‘Hind’ for India, itself derived from the ‘Sindh’ river that is now in Pakistan) and formalized as a religion by the British. Ever wonder why Delhi’s ‘Hindi’ language sounds so similar to the word ‘Hindu’? It’s basically a word like ‘Yank-us’ following ‘Yank-uism’ (no offense). Hence, anyone who identifies as culturally Indian (which includes favoring native dresses, languages, festivals, new years and places of worship) usually identifies himself as ‘Hindu’ because most government forms make you specify a religion. This does not mean the person is necessarily ‘religious’ as interpreted in the Abrahamic sense. I am an agnostic/irreligious Indian but I still mark ‘Hindu’ as my religion, and I can do so even in the religious aspect because there is no requirement as such to be a ‘believer’ in the so-called ‘Hindu-ism’. (Actually there is no particular doctrine for anything at all) So please know the word ‘Hindu/ism’ does not mean anything in terms of religion and you may see such statistics from India for a long time.

  4. Steve1 year ago

    While your addressing of birth rate is reasonable, it misses key factors.
    I believe religion will decline because of information more than family adherence.
    In America the most non-religious group is our younger groups. College and even high school aged Americans are far less religious than their parents. This trend is not just a phase trend. The most backed cause is access to information via the Internet. (Considering the trend increased as TV became more popular, and sharpened when the internet became popular).
    Currently most countries such as African countries that show large increases in religion have little access to information, and even food is often complicated, so the religious missionaries their to aid them are enticing. The middle east has a large subset of “Devout Followers” that are actually atheists, Christians, and agnostics. South America has several followers that go to avoid social pressure. China has many “atheists” who are actually Christians or other religions by belief, even after the government has eased up, society has not.
    The internet gives repressed people a relatively safe way to speak out, share ideas and recognize they are not alone, find others that share their concerns with “their religion” or people that don’t share the concern because they don’t belong. It gives them insight into the philosophies of others to compare their own against.

    Organized religion is trying to force strict adherence to outdated (at least in the eyes of their youth) philosophies and dogmatic views so rigid it is driving away the youth. In the past fear and not knowing alternatives exist stopped those on the edge from leaving.

    Like being poor, it is often not about what options you have that free you, it is more often knowing those options exist. Knowledge and information are a fundamental part of change and will likely fuel the decline of organized religion.

    1. battlefield214216 months ago

      Considering how those young groups you’ve mentioned will most likely have low fertility like other secularists, chances are, they’ll be outbred by their more religious young counterparts. As for the rest of your post, refer to my post above about how information is a double-edged sword.

      1. Tonan Bora4 months ago

        Do tell me how more sexually strict religious individuals are going to out breed those that have no sexual restrictions?

        1. Anonymous3 months ago

          Because if you look at birth rates, religious people have on average more children. They are also more likely to get married. Sex isn’t restricted in religion, it’s sex outside marriage that is discouraged.

  5. John Quiggin1 year ago

    Links in intro show unaffiliated increasing at 1 percentage point per year in both US and UK. Yet projected change 2010-2050 is 0.25 percentage points per year.

    Demography alone suggests this is wrong. Proportion of young unaffiliated (30 % plus) already exceeds projection for 2050.

    1. Michael Lipka1 year ago

      John:

      Thanks for your comment and your interest in our research.

      Indeed, it is possible that our projections for the unaffiliated in these two countries may turn out to be conservative – they are indeed conservative compared with the pace of recent growth. First of all, it is important to note that we used 2010 data as the baseline for these projections. The projections may look somewhat different if we were using 2015 data for the United States as the baseline. Also, we do not assume that there will be a linear continuation of current trends. For example, our models take into account the lower fertility of unaffiliated women compared with affiliated women.

      In addition, we model religious switching as a life course phenomenon that affects young adults, rather than as a period effect in which people disaffiliate at all ages. A key reason for this is that period effects are very difficult to anticipate. In the U.S., we have evidence that people have recently been disaffiliating at all ages, though this change is still particularly pronounced among young adults. It is unclear whether this period effect will continue or whether, in the future, disaffiliation will once again be concentrated more heavily in the young adult years.

      Meanwhile, in the U.S., while there is more religious switching into the unaffiliated group, there also is some switching OUT of the group (and into a religion), which has been seen in surveys and is factored into our model.

      More information on how we model religious switching is available in the methodology of the report here: pewforum.org/2015/04/02/appendix…

      Thanks again,
      Michael Lipka

  6. Alex M1 year ago

    I certainly hope the religiously non-affiliated number increases as a percentage of world population and I believe it will. While we atheists, agnostics and secular humanists maybe don’t reproduce as much, the rapid growth of the internet and economic devlepment hopefully will make fundamentalism and religion in general, much, much less common.

    1. battlefield214216 months ago

      Keep telling yourselves that. It might be put things into perspective when you consider that this century is actually more religious than the previous one. Think about it. Almost all the wars during the 20th century were secular. The century was marked by the emergence of anti-religious, very secular ideologies like communism. The world was dominated by several atheistic regimes that persecuted anyone who believed in God. Today, the world is more religious. Those nations that were once communist are now seeing religious revivals. Meanwhile, the Secular West (I’d include Japan here), is dying. Have you seen their demography? Western nations are aging rapidly. Heck, even the last of the “great” communist powers, China, is slowly becoming Christian. Sorry, but I suggest you take your head out of the sand. The world is becoming more religious, not less.

      1. Drew B5 months ago

        That is horrifying.

        1. battlefield214212 months ago

          Nope, it’s wonderful. A godly world is better than a godless world.

  7. cken1 year ago

    Not counting the atheists with their vitriolic bile as if they are at war with the vitriolic bile from the religious right, I think Pew got it wrong. The rest of the NONEs or SBNRs are the ones who are actually seeking the spirituality of the way the truth and the life. Much of organized religion is mired in antiquated rhetoric which has become stale and doesn’t provide realistic legitimate answers to the questions of the seekers. I will admit religions old trite cliches have an element of truth in them but they lack depth. Or at least it is a depth most organized religion is not willing to expound upon.
    Then again I could be wrong because we are half way through the second generation being taught not to think for themselves.

  8. selfadjoint1 year ago

    Hi

    is this research contradicts with that one?

    npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/01…

  9. Wayne Smith1 year ago

    Very depressing news. Religion is a mental disease.

    1. jay1 year ago

      Not really. This is not really accurate because a lot of people like myself do not became religious unaffiliated until we become wiser and older. A lot of us became atheist after we aware and think more critically, and be confident in ourselves away from faith.

    2. freethinker1 year ago

      Atheism & agnosticism are diseases. Religion is the cure.

    3. Mark Citadel11 months ago

      Isn’t it funny then how a ‘mental disease’ is actually more adaptive in evolutionary terms than your ‘reason’. He who breeds wins. And there will be retribution for the lives atheists took in the last century, trust me. We have not forgotten

      1. UmNo10 months ago

        Mark, atheists do not kill in the name of atheism. I think we can both agree that some percentage of humans, regardless of religious affiliation, will be murderers. However, there are people who kill in the name of a (take your pick) god. So the atheists who kill are irrelevant to this discussion, they would have killed anyways as their motivation for killing was not related to their lack of belief. Those who kill in the name of a god kill because they feel it’s what their god would have wanted. Surely some percentage use their religion as a front, but I’m skeptical they all do. It is highly likely that a decent percentage kill precisely because of their belief.

        There have been dictators who have been against religion, but shall we examine why that is? How are those living under a dictatorship made to view their leader? It’s almost god-like, isn’t it? Kim Jong-un and and his deceased father Kim Jong-il are a great example of this, their propaganda administrations spread rediculous rumors that make both sound like demi-gods.

        In which case, of course so many dictators have been against formal, modern religion. Dictators want to be on top, if the people see them as below a god, they cannot truly be seen as the most powerful. So get rid of the people’s gods, proclaim them as false, and the people, with time, begin to see in their propagandized world that there is no one more powerful and revered than their dictator. There is simply no room for the gods in a dictatorship. It’s not because they are truly atheists, it’s because they’ve adopted a newer, in-the-flesh god. In their submission to their dear leader, their great, protecting father, they mirror the religious.

        1. battlefield214216 months ago

          “Mark, atheists do not kill in the name of atheism.”
          Sorry, you lost me there. Stop it with this kind of nonsense. You’re no better than those religious fundamentalists who say that Bin Laden wasn’t a true Muslim. Yes, people have killed in the name of atheism. Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot are examples. I’d list Hitler as well since the man privately hated Christianity because of his Nietzschean beliefs but I don’t think I recall him ever describing himself as an atheist.