As businesses assess opportunities in the growing economies of China, Indonesia, India and even Africa, a new report makes a case for executives to seriously consider a factor that is often ignored: religion.
In a unique analysis of economic and demographic data, researchers Brian Grim and Philip Connor demonstrate the impact religious diversity will have on economic growth around the world by 2050. They conclude that existing religious populations in Asia and Africa will not only grow but become more diverse.
"The growth of religious populations has implications for how the world’s wealth will be spread about," Grim said in a statement announcing the report that is to be presented this weekend at the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Titled "Changing religion, changing economies: Future Global Religious and Economic Growth," the study was done by Grim's Religious Freedom & Business Foundation for the Global Agenda Council. Grim described it as part of a "toolkit" to increase the religious literacy of government and business leaders around the world.
Often that literacy is limited to risk assessments on where sectarian violence is occurring and how to avoid it, said Paul Godfrey, a business strategy professor at Brigham Young University. But, he said, a thorough look at how a company's employment or marketing policies jibe with the religious culture of a foreign country can reveal problems and opportunities that would otherwise go overlooked.
"It’s simply a factor that cannot be ignored," added Paul Lambert, a business professor at Georgetown University with a background in international policy and business affairs. "That will play role in everything they do. It’s going to penetrate every piece of a business."
Looking at an economy through the lens of religion can also show government leaders the value of religious freedom, the underlying philosophy of Grim's foundation. "All these places we see economic strength we see high degrees of religious diversity including the United States," Grim said. "Growing diversity can be an economic strength if leaders promote interfaith understanding and protect minority religious groups' rights."
Growth, not decline
Unlike surveys showing religion's decline in North America and Europe, faith is on the rise elsewhere in the world, said Grim, a former demographer with the Pew Research Center who founded the RFBF in 2014.
Between 2010 and 2050, growth of religious populations worldwide is projected to be 23 times larger than the growth of religiously unaffiliated populations, according to the report.
"During this period, the number of people affiliated with a religion is expected to grow by 2.3 billion, from 5.8 billion in 2010 to 8.1 billion in 2050. By contrast, the number of people unaffiliated with any religion is projected to increase ... from 1.13 billion in 2010 to 1.23 billion in 2050," the report stated.
That's below the 1970s peak when nearly one-in-five people worldwide were religiously unaffiliated largely due to communism, according to the World Religion Database.
But, most people still associate China with the draconian religious restrictions of the country's cultural revolution during the 1960s-70s, Grim said, when, in fact, religious restrictions have loosened resulting in a diverse population of adherents to Buddhism, Islam, Christianity as well as countless minority and folk faiths most westerners know little about.
Another assumption business and government leaders may make about the global religious landscape is the dominance of Christianity in today's top five economies — United States, China, Japan, Germany and France. According to Grim and Connor, only the United States will be predominantly Christian in 2050, as Germany and France are displaced among the world's economic powers.
"The other mega economies in 2050 are projected to include a country with a Hindu majority (India), a Muslim majority (Indonesia), and two with exceptionally high levels of religious diversity (China and Japan)," the report stated.
The report projects that by 2050 the primary population of Muslims will shift from Indonesia to India, while the center of Christianity will shift to Africa.
Expanding regional economies will impact the lives of religious adherents who live there. According to the report, India's economic growth will be the largest contributor to the projected wealth of Hindus, who are expected to have the sharpest increase in wealth among religious groups in the current decade and beyond.
"Globally, economic growth among the world’s Muslim population will also significantly outpace global economic growth," Grim wrote in Forbes. "And the Muslim market size, so to speak, is expected to nearly double between 2010 and 2050, according to Pew Research, with Muslims being expected to lead the world in population growth among all religious groups."
Risks and opportunities
Lambert said corporate executives typically don't think first of the religious inclinations of a prospective labor pool or clientele when they're considering a foreign market.
It's not that they don't care, he explained, it's just not brought to their attention.
"As that becomes more understood or known, then the question they ask is, 'What do I do?" Lambert said.
For Godfrey, the takeaways from the latest report include identifying regions in the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where violence may result when religious diversity increases. For security reasons, business leaders would want to investigate what countries have laws and policies protecting religious freedom.
He and Lambert also said companies with secular oriented internal policies about clothing or other aspects of religious observance in the workplace would want to adjust those policies to avoid personnel and legal conflicts in a prospective foreign location.
A third takeaway for Godfrey is the potential business opportunities that could come from understanding the role religion plays in a foreign market. "Companies that can match their goods and services toward values and priorities that religiously affiliated people care about will also find increasing opportunity in this changing world," he said.
Grim often uses the little-known religious diversity of China to illustrate how businesses can avoid costly missteps and find a competitive advantage. A large segment of western China's population is Muslim. "To understand their values and cultural and religious concerns as an employer is important because you don’t want to come in and expect people in that part of China to behave just the same as those living in the southeast, where there is a large concentration of Christians."