A.M.Ahad, AP
Rohynga Muslim refugeess wait to meet with Pope Francis in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Pope Francis greeted and blessed Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled to Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar, grasping their hands and listening to their stories at an interfaith peace prayer in Dhaka.

Americans can rightly assume religiosity is on the decline in the U.S., but supposing the same trend holds for the rest of the world is a fallacy. Answering the challenges of civic engagement, social cohesion and governance in the 21st century will require a clear perspective on the reality of growing religious affiliation around the world both today and in the years ahead.

Most Americans could point to plenty of people they personally know who have left the faith traditions of their families, and they aren’t wrong — religious observance is, to an extent, waning in the U.S. The portion of the population that identifies as “unaffiliated” with religion is growing slowly but steadily, projected to rise from 16 percent in 2010 to 26 percent in 2050, according to the Pew Research Center. The choice to leave the faith is mirrored in other developed countries. A mere 2 percent of young adults in the United Kingdom now identify with the Church of England, reports The Guardian.

But to believe this trend applies to the global population takes a particularly myopic view of the world. It also overstates the demographic significance of Americans around the globe. Countries with the largest “unaffiliated” population also face low fertility rates and an aging population — meaning that in total, the religiously unaffiliated will become a smaller percentage of the global population in a few decades.

What are the implications? Within 40 years, the share of the global population that is Muslim will grow dramatically, based on high fertility rates for Muslim women. Christianity will grow significantly as well, particularly in the global south. The majority of these people, however, will live in places that place constraints on religious freedom.

More than three-quarters of the world’s population, or roughly 5.5 billion people, live in countries with high or very high restrictions on their freedom of religion or belief, according to Pew. Most of these populations live under illiberal governments, without freedom of religion enshrined in any form of a constitution or primary governing document.

Recently, more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Burma after facing acute religious discrimination by the Buddhist majority; Russia and Nepal have made evangelism illegal within their borders; Hindu nationalism is on the rise, resulting in social discrimination against minority groups in India, and members of the Bahai faith in Iran are barred from access to higher education.

51 comments on this story

This is fundamentally counter to basic human rights, and it illuminates the danger in assuming the world is becoming less religious. In reality, the world is becoming both more religious and less free — two things that, when combined, can result in disastrous discrimination and violence.

Liberal democracy makes freedom of religion possible in the first place, making it incumbent on those nations that do enjoy such governance, even if their own religiosity is falling, to engage thoughtfully with these statistics and allow them to shape how they advocate for religious liberty around the world. The world is stronger, richer and safer when religious plurality thrives.