New projections from a leading American research group suggest that the number of Christians in various denominations and sects is steadily rising in Africa and could dominate the faith numerically worldwide for decades to come.
In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, only three African countries were included in the top 10 in numbers of Christians in the population: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. Together, these nations accounted then for just over 216 million Christians.
By 2060, the Pew Center reported recently, there will be 727 million Christians in Africa, with six nations in the top 10, numerically. They are likely to be (in order of magnitude) Nigeria, Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.
The newly published research draws comparisons between global Muslim numbers and Christian populations in two “top 10” lists. It foresees Islam catching up with Christianity later in this century.
“Overall, there are about 2.3 billion Christians in the world and 1.8 billion Muslims,” the report says. “That gap is expected to narrow by 2060, when . . . there will be 3 billion Christians and nearly 3 billion Muslims. That’s because Muslims, on average, are younger and have more children than do Christians.”
The geography of these two dominant world religions, Christianity and Islam, are shifting, the researchers found, noting that “the lists illustrate the extent to which the population centers for these religions have moved away from their historical and traditional hubs.
“The countries with the five highest Muslim populations are all in South and Southeast Asia or in sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the Middle East; and the countries with the three highest Christian populations are in the Americas rather than in the Middle East or Europe,” the Pew data show.
The United States, with a Christian population well over 250 million, is expected to stay in first place on the Christian list in the next 40 years. But Indonesia, whose Muslim population put it in first place on the 2015 list measuring Islam, is projected to fall behind India by 2060, although Muslims are a religious minority among Indians. This factor illustrates the complexity of sorting countries by religion.
Indians often claim that Hinduism, which is variously thought to include 850,000 to 1.1 billion of its 1.3 billion people, should be ranked as a world religion. But 95 percent of them live in India or neighboring Nepal and elsewhere in the region, so Hinduism it is not generally thought of as universal.
Buddhism, however, does have global reach. The Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University says that Buddhism has about 470 million followers globally. “It represents a major component of the spiritual heritage of East and Southeast Asia,” the center says in its online demographics of Buddhism.
Buddhism’s three major branches — Mahayana, Theravada and Tibetan — combined draw adherents from China, Japan and Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka, Tibet, parts of India and Russia along with a considerable following in the West.
While Buddhism has migrated westward, the influences of African interpretations of Christianity, traditional and evangelical, have moved northward into Europe and recently the US.
This trend is being followed closely by Quartz Africa, which has published such articles as one about “reverse missionaries” taking Christianity back to England.
“Southwark, a borough in South London, stands as a testament to this growth as it is now home “to the biggest concentration of African Christians outside the continent,” Lily Kuo wrote in Quartz Africa in October 2017. “As indigenous church populations have dwindled in the United Kingdom, numbers at churches founded by African immigrants have swelled.”
Quartz Africa quoted a survey in 2016 showing “an unrelenting decline in Church of England and Church of Scotland numbers. . . . In total, 52% of people said they had no religion.”
A few church leaders from Africa have taken strong conservative stands on social issues in Europe and the US, creating tensions in more liberal churches on issues such as the ordination of women and same-sex marriage. In the US, however, these conservatives may find support among some African-Americans, whose strong presence in Protestant churches in particular has been part of American religious history for two centuries.
As Yomi Kazeem wrote in Quartz Africa on the release of the Pew report on April 4, Christianity is also part of African history. “There are already more Christians in Africa than any other continent — that’s not going to change soon.”
According to Pew, Judaism is a small global minority. In 2015, there were nearly 14 million Jews worldwide. In 2050, the Jewish population is expected to number about 16 million. The share of the world’s population that is Jewish — 0.2 percent — is expected to remain about the same in 2050 as it was in 2010.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.