Global Religious Landscape: Will the Unaffiliated Change Everything?

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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.