Friday, April 1, 2011

Religion or Atheism: Is One Dying Out?

According to a BBC News report, a study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers. The countries were Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. (See the report at )

These are also countries where demographic trends (total fertility far below replacement rates) pose the same question about the native-born population as a whole and not only the place of religious affiliation within it. This may help to explain why, while organized religion is growing very rapidly worldwide, atheism is in decline absolutely and relative to world population. From a global perspective, the numbers could not look more different.

According to the latest annual report from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, which has been tracking these numbers for the past 27 years, there are 2.3 billion Christians, there are 1.6 billion Muslims, 951 million Hindus, 468 million Buddhists, 458 million Chinese folk-religionists, and 137 million atheists, whose numbers have actually dropped over the past decade. One third of the world's population are Christians, a slight rise compared with 2000 but a slight drop from 1900. Of the 2.3 billion Christians (of whom 1.2 billion are Catholics), some 1.5 billion are regular church attendees.

In terms of growth rates, by mid-2011 there will be an average of 80,000 new Christians per day (of whom 31,000 will be Catholics) and 79,000 new Muslims per day, but 300 fewer atheists every 24 hours.

On the other hand, there have been 270 new Christian martyrs (defined as "believers in Christ who have lost their lives, prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility") every 24 hours over the past decade. Although you would never guess it from the mainstream media in the West, Christians are by far the most persecuted religious group. From 2000 to 2010, there were approximately one million Christian martyrs, according to the report, compared with 34,000 in 1900. Still, for the 20th century as a whole the number of Catholic martyrs alone, according to Robert Royal, was 20 million, an average of 200,000 per yer or twice the rate for all Christians in 2000-2010.

As George Weigel sums it up (
Christianity may be waning in western Europe, but it's on an impressive growth curve in other parts of the world, including that toughest of regions for Christian evangelism, Asia. Indeed, the continuing growth of Christianity as compared to the decline of atheism (in absolute numbers, and considering atheists as a percentage of total world population) suggests the possibility that the vitriolic character of the New Atheism -- displayed in all its crudity prior to Pope Benedict's September 2010 visit to Great Britain -- may have something to do with the shrewder atheists' fear that they're losing, and the clock is running.

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