Global Religious Landscape: Will the Unaffiliated Change Everything?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  December 22, 2012 — 15 Comments

The Pew Forum has released a report on the size and distribution of the world’s religions, based on data collected in 2010, and according to their findings the religiously unaffiliated are the third largest group behind Christians and Muslims.

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“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. […] 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.”

This analysis comes in the wake of another Pew study that showed the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, “nones,” on the rise in America,  and making a definite impact on 2012 presidential elections here. Likewise, recently released 2011 census data from the UK shows nones making up 25% of that nation. Meanwhile, Hindus make up 15% of the global population, indigenous and folk religions are at around 6% with 405 million people, and “other” religions (our favorite category here at The Wild Hunt), which includes modern Pagan faiths, and makes up around 58 million (0.8%) of the world’s religious adherents.

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The largest religious category in the world, Christianity, while still dominant at over 2 billion, has seen a shift towards becoming a truly global faith where “no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.” In addition, Pew noted in a separate look at global Christianity that Europe was rapidly becoming post-Christian in character.

“In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26%). A plurality – more than a third – now are in the Americas (37%). About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24%), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13%).”

So what’s the take-home of all this data? Well, for one, it’s obvious that news and policy centered on a Christian frame of reference is a distorted lens when you account for the fact that they only account for 31.5% of our planet’s religious adherents. More than 45% of this world view things outside of those confines, yet “religion news” in the West essentially acts as a play-by-play of internal Christian squabbles and their influence on politics. Hinduism, Buddhism, indigenous traditions, “other” religions and the unaffiliated have been treated as a side-note at best, and almost completely shut out of moral conversations that affect non-Christians. This situation, particularly in news dealing with Europe, Asia, and increasingly, the United States, is becoming untenable.

Secondly, it’s important to keep in mind the essential “pagan-ness” of our world today, despite the best efforts of Christianity and Islam to replace all beliefs with their forms of exclusive monotheism. Polytheism, pantheism, henotheism, post-theism, and other theological variants outside the Abrahamic conceptions of divinity continue to thrive and make an impact on our world. The growth of the “nones” provides the Hindus, Buddhists, folk-religionists, and “other” faiths a chance to change the narrative of belief in this world, that Christian and Muslim one-size-fits-all salvation are not guaranteed eternal dominance, and that we can find pluralistic alternatives to the status quo.

The religiously unaffiliated, the “nones,” aren’t exclusively atheistic or agnostic, many of them hold to religious and spiritual conceptions, often quite Christian in conception, but their collective reluctance to be put into a box, and their unprecedented growth, could change everything. Most importantly it could change the perception that we live in a Christian, or Muslim, world. It could give journalists covering religion a new remit to start covering stories outside the Abrahamic paradigm, and it could give increased impetus for politicians across the political spectrum to embrace a real pluralism in their policy and rhetoric.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • H.P. Vincent J Beall

    I go with Spiritual but not Religious. Non Denominational.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    As someone on GetReligion commented, the large Chinese “unaffiliated” cohort is suspect, because the regime is fiercely hostile to religion. There are likely a lot more covert followers of traditional Chinese religions, and of Christianity, than checked those respective boxes.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Maybe we will soon see the day when even talking about Christianity as a political factor will become irrelevant.

    I wonder what that would mean for other paths, such as the pagan paths. When Christianity (or Abrahamism) ceases to be the dominant spiritual path, people will need to move beyond something as vague as ‘not Christian’ as a descriptor.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I’m not as optimistic; I suspect Christianity and Islam will be around for quite some time, parlaying institutional strength to overcome an ever-declining energy from within. Other paths will need to operate as religious minorities. What we Pagans need to do is force our country to act toward us as the First Amendment says it should, and establish a model for the rest of the world.
      “Not Christian” is indeed a sloppy descriptor. You remind me of my pet peeve in Unitarian Universalist circles: UUs whose religious identity remains negative, NOT being what the person’s childhood Sunday School tried to turn them into.

  • embreis

    I’ve know a few people who say that they’re “not religious” because they don’t go to church, but who, if you question them, turn out to be perfectly conventional, or in some case extremely conservative, Christians. They just don’t like churchgoing or churchgoers.

  • Deborah Bender

    According to this survey, 54.9 percent of the world’s people belong to a monotheistic religion. The percentage of Jews has dropped to the point where it barely makes sense to have Jews as a separate category.

    Unlike Baruch, I don’t see signs that Islam is suffering an internal decline of energy yet. It needs to go through some equivalent to the Enlightenment, but that didn’t do in Christianity. As the Islamic world modernizes, there will probably be a falling off of the rate of adult affiliation, but I expect this to be offset by the size of Muslim families and by conversions in sub-Saharan Africa. In twenty or thirty years, Christians and Muslims will probably be at parity and the world will still have roughly equal numbers of monotheists and others.

    • Deborah Bender

      If the Bahai’s were broken out of the Other category, that would probably bring the monotheist percentage up to 55 percent.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      My reason for saying that is rooted in current events. During the Arab Spring, large populations in Moslem countries have had the chance to express just what kind of post-dictatorship governance they want. A huge plurality rejects Islamism. Alas, the Islamists are far better organized and will likely prevail for the nonce. But the presence of so much internal dissatisfaction — also found in Iran btw — is going to be a drain.

      • Deborah Bender

        Rejecting Islam as a state church is not the same as rejecting Islam as a religion. It’s normal in the early stages of modernity for people to frame political programs in religious terms. All the more so when they have lived for a long time under authoritarian regimes that suppressed rival secularist political parties and any civil organizations other than churches or mosques.

        Large parts of the Islamic world have not yet undergone the separating out of religion, state and community that Western Europe underwent during the Early Modern period and the Enlightenment. The hijacking of the Iranian revolution by theocrats set this process back, but not forever. The USA’s desire for Saudi oil set this process back, but not forever.

        When given a chance, I expect that most Muslims figure out that Sunni-Shia power struggles are just as detrimental to their peace and prosperity as wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants, and most of them will reject Islamism, just as most Christians today do not favor theocracy. The minority who have had access to Western education already understand that there is no necessary conflict between a secular government and thriving religion or religions.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Right now we’re concerned that, when the dictators and dynasties we supported for forty years because they weren’t Communist are toppled, Islamists move in. Think how much more baleful this scenario would have been had they been welcomed by all the populace with open arms. Militant Islamism has much less steam in the real world. And I see that as an important step in the evolution you describe.

  • In this report, Pew claims that there are only 27M adherents of African Traditional Religions in Africa. But in another report Pew stated that there are actually 145M Africans who have a “high level of belief and practice” African Traditional Religion. That report was also based on 2010 data – but it only included 19 countries – which left out tens of millions of other Africans who also follow traditional religious beliefs and practices.

    Anyone interested in the real story should check out: 200 Million African Pagans

    According to Pew’s methodology, if someone checks the Christian box they are a Christian. Period. Never mind the fact that the person in question also regularly participates in traditional rituals, has and uses traditional religious objects, visits traditional healers, etc.

    • guest

      Good point I wonder what would happen to the stats if people were allowed to list more than one faith.

      • You have hit the nail squarely on the head. Only the monotheistic religions demand exclusive loyalty. Polytheistic religions, by their very nature, are very fuzzy and porous around the edges. They overlap and mix together effortlessly.

        This is also an important factor when interpreting Pew’s bogus category of “Folk Religions”. The vast majority of the people who belong to this category are Chinese, and those familiar with Chinese religions know that what Pew is really talking about are precisely those tens of millions of ethnically Chinese people who freely mix and match ancient shamanistic/polytheistic traditions with Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and anything else that strikes their fancy (including the latest new age fads and fancies).

  • I am unconvinced.

    Communities experiencing the inevitable pressures due to runaway climate change will be fertile ground for conservative religious movements. And, to a lesser extent, earth-based religions, as people mourn that which is being destroyed.

  • as stated good questions nee asking and this post asks some good questions and suggests threads worth pursuing. as someone who professionally researches religion – and if you are interested a UK Christian with a high regard for contemporary Pagans in case you nee to known that ;o) – there are a number of things here which make a lot of sense – the Chinese nones – actually these go with the Koreans and the Japanese and reflect not i think Communist bias but the way traditional religion is expressed in eastern Asia – sociologists call this system client based and it combines low levels of religious affiliation with high levels of pluralist religious practice. many nones in the west are increasingly like this to as oppose to atheists. which also rightly points up the question in the comments about people with more than one religion – the reality is that many who put none are actually multi-religionists to some extent. but it would indeed be helpful for surveys to allow people to express that in other ways – surveys are i think still too wedded to a Christendom world view.
    comments about Africa are interesting here – Christianity predominates in Africa an has grown rapidly in recent years but a lot of African Christians also maintain some level of traditional religious practice. these people would be adamant they were Christian and probably wouldn’t tick an extra box given the option, but what they actually do is not what their church leaders would wish and shows a persistence of African traditional religion hidden by the figures – but to claim these people as really following traditional religion would also be a mistake.
    and Europe and the US ? as far as this data goes Christianity is still the religion of the majority – but for many this does not mean religious practice. interesting here particularly is i think the Baylor material on ‘alternative’ beleifs which show these are common among US church goers – it might be argued that many of these people are also plural religionists.