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World religions by the numbers

  • GEORGE WEIGEL

Every January, the International Bulletin of Missionary Research publishes a Statistical Table on Global Mission a detailed look at the world religious situation prepared by the mathematically indefatigable David Barrett. Browsing his numbers reveals more than a few interesting things.

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Every January, the International Bulletin of Missionary Research publishes a Statistical Table on Global Mission a detailed look at the world religious situation prepared by the mathematically indefatigable David Barrett. Absolute precision in these matters is impossible, but over the years, Barrett (an Anglican who teaches missiometrics at Regent University) has proven himself a judicious, reliable guide. Browsing his numbers reveals more than a few interesting things.

Christian mission, for example, was essentially flat in the twentieth century. There were only 558 million Christians in the world in 1900 and there will be approximately 2 billion Christians by the middle of this year, a huge increase. But as a percentage of world population, Christianity has been treading water for a century: Christians were 34.5 percent of world population in 1900, and will be 33.1 percent in 2002.

Half of the worlds 2 billion Christians are Catholics. The next largest megablock of Christians is found in the denominationally-unaffiliated Independent Churches, which have some 400 million members almost twice as many as the 217 million Orthodox believers in the world. Barrett counts 350 million denominationally-affiliated Protestants and another 80 million in the Anglican megablock. The relative positions of these megablocks within world Christianity will likely remain constant for the next quarter-century.

Even as Christian population remained steady as a percentage of world population, other dimensions of Christian life changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Christians worshiped in 400,000 congregations in 1900; they can be found in 3.5 million parishes worldwide today. There were 300,000 books on Christianity published in 1900; 5.1 million such books will be published this year. The 3,500 Christian periodicals published in 1900 are a small fraction of the 35,000 Christian periodicals circulating today. Ten times as many Bibles will be distributed worldwide in 2002 as in 1900: 59 million versus 5.5 million. Christian organizations used some 1,000 computers in 1970; they use 332 million computers today. Charitable giving to Christian causes rose from $8 billion to $300 billion over the last century. Perhaps most strikingly, the number of Christian denominations skyrocketed, from some 1,900 a century ago to 35,500 today one measure of the immensity of the ecumenical task in the twenty-first century.

Christianity became much more an urban phenomenon in the twentieth century. In 1900, only 28 percent of the worlds Christians lived in cities. This year, 58 percent of the global Christian population will be urban dwellers.

The communications revolution also made a dramatic impact on Christian life: today, 2.5 billion people watch and listen to Christian broadcasts every month, a number Barrett expects will increase to 3.8 billion by 2025. Only 750 million were tuning-in thirty years ago, and of course no one was in 1900.

The total of what Barrett calls distinct religions has shot up from 1,000 in 1900 to 10,500 today, and will likely increase to 15,000 in a quarter-century. While this extravagant growth in new religions refutes the notion that the modern world is inevitably becoming secular, new religious movements are also a serious challenge to interreligious dialogue. The existing difficulties of Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Hindu, and Christian-Muslim dialogue will be magnified in dialogues with such rapidly growing new religions as the Vietnam-based Cao Dai (which blends Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism with themes from the Bible and the Quran, while styling its leader the Pope and its headquarters the Holy See), and the Ahmadi Muslims, who claim that Jesus escaped the cross and died in India at age 120.

Islam is the fastest growing major religion in the world today. From a population base of 200 million in 1900, Islam grew more than fivefold during the twentieth century. The change in Muslim/Catholic demographics over the past thirty years is striking. In 1970 there were 554 million Muslims in the world, and 666 millions Catholics; by the Great Jubilee of 2000, Islam could count 1.2 billion adherents, and Catholicism almost 1.1 billion. 1.3 billion Catholics in 2025 will find themselves in a world with 1.8 billion Muslims.

Would those ratios look different in 2100, however, if China opens up and becomes the greatest field of Christian mission since the Americas? Something else to think about, amidst David Barretts remarkable numbers.

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Acknowledgement

George Weigel "World religions by the numbers." The Catholic Difference. 2002

Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.

The Author

weigel777smweigel5smGeorge Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Among his books are Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Catholic Church, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches, Evangelical Catholicism, The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.

Copyright © 2002 George Weigel
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