The World's Religions in 2050
Projected Trends and Ecological Hopes
Religion is here to stay and it's evolving, too.
Here is some bad news for those who are allergic to religion and think science has all the answers. For good or ill, religion will not wither away and be replaced by science. The numbers of people around the world who are religiously-affiliated is increasing not decreasing, as compared to the numbers who are unaffiliated or anti-religious. At least this is what the PEW Research Council proposes, based on careful study of demographic trends. You'll find some excerpts below.
Moreover, some religiously-minded people -- Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, for example -- believe that there can be harmony between religion and science, seeing truth in both perspectives and believing that each can inform the other. If you are pretty sure science has all the answers and that religion is superstitious, escapist, and divisive; this attempt at synthesis can be irritating. It's trying to pollute science with a dose of religion.
Process theology offers a good example of the synthesis of science and religion, as illustrated in Bradley Artson's The God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology. He is one of the leading process theologians today. Steeped in Judaism while deeply influenced by science, he presents a way of understanding God that is consonant with evolutionary biology, contemporary cosmology, and quantum theory. If you ask him which is true, religion or science, he will say both...and add that neither of them is true in a fixed way. Life is a process, a journey, in which we must always be open to new insights, new truths, from both religion and science.
In any case, religious affiliation is on the rise globally. According to projections of the PEW Research Center, atheists and agnostics comprise a declining share of the world's total population by 2050, and half the world will be Muslim or Christian. If rates of conversion to Christianity in China increase, there may be more Christians in China than in any nation on earth.
To be affiliated with a religion does not mean you practice it. It just means that, if asked, you will claim it as part of your identity. You can be affiliated with Christianity, for example, but still practice the religion of consumerism even as preoccupations with appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement contradict the core teachings of Jesus. The matter is further complicated by the fact that there are many different ways to practice the various religions; and some are helpful while others are harmful given the needs of the Earth and the human poor. Religion is not always a good thing.
Moreover, the very word "religion" is a problematic word, with no single meaning. For example, many people equate "religion" with believing in God and hoping for an afterlife, but more than a few religious people are non-theistic and many (theistic and non-theistic) are more centered on how to live in this life than on what comes in the next. It's enough to make you abandon the word altogether and join the scholars who speak instead of ways of living or life-ways shaped by rituals, beliefs, communities, practices, and ethical guidelines. I myself am in this camp. I think it is more helpful to speak of life-ways than religions.
Still the word "religion" is with us into the foreseeable future, and it is now used by many people around the world. Questions emerge. Given the realities of global climate change, systemic injustice, environmental collapse, and the threat of nuclear war, can religiously-affiliated people play a constructive role in the world's future? Can they channel their energies and resources in ways that help build communities that are humane, sustainable, socially just, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind? Can they do so in cooperation with one another and in cooperation with the best of modern science?
My skeptical friends might quickly answer "No, because religions are inherently superstitious, imperialistic, escapist, violent, or all-of-the- above." But so often this answer comes from someone who has not taken the time to study the religions in depth, understand their diversity and complexity, and learn about their positive sides. The answer reflects a modern, Western prejudice against religion, originating in Europe, and has something of an imperialism to it. See Challenging the Bias Against Religion. Atheists can be as fundamentalist in their orientation as monotheists.
So back to the question. Can religiously-affiliated people play a positive role in helping heal a broken world? The answer is a tentative but powerful Yes, according to the work of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, who take the work of Pope Francis as one, but only one, illustration thereof. Watch the video by Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim below, study the Forum website; and judge for yourself.
What is the hope that guides their work? The hope is what Martin Luther King. Jr. calls beloved community with ecology added. It is that the world can evolve into a community of communities of communities, each of which is creative, compassionate, participatory, multi-religious, scientifically informed, humane to animals, and environmentally healthy, with no one left behind. At least this is how scholars, artists, students, and citizens associated with Ecological Civilization International see things.
Of course there is nothing inevitable about this. The future is open and adherents of the world's religions may emphasize escape from the world, or sheer manipulation of the natural world for human ends, rather than the cultivation of humane, sustainable communities. Despite their worthy values, the world's religions may be further co-opted by the culture of corporate capitalism, which sees everything as an object to be bought and sold in the marketplace; or by the culture of consumerism, which measures the whole of life in terms of appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement. Still, the participants in Ecological Civilization International see "ecological civilizations" as the best hope, and maybe the only hope, for our planet. And if Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim are right, the world's religions can play a critical role in helping realize it.
The Emergence of a New Religious Consciousness
The Future of World Religions:
What about the other religions?
What about atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated?
What about North America?
The turn to Christianity in China
Ecological Civilization International
The world is clearly on an unsustainable course, as the Pope recently reminds us so convincingly. He also emphasized that the changes required of us must follow from changes in our attitudes toward life, our ways of interacting with each other, and our worldviews. He repeatedly points to the need to recognize how everything deserves to be treated with respect and care, and how all things are interrelated: the elements of the environment with one another; human persons and groups with one another; the environment and human beings with one another. If we view reality and our situation through these different lenses, we will discern new ways of ordering our lives and our communities. The overall result will be what the Pope calls integral ecology.