Q: Gina, you’ve had a central role in pulling together the just-released Brill Yearbook of International Religious Demography.** What do you see as the most important trend in religion that policy makers should be aware of?
A: I think the most important trend in global religion is the massive exodus of Christians from the Middle East. This is an issue that needs more attention from policy makers all over the world. In 1910 Christians were 13.6% of the region’s population, but by 2010 were only 4.2%. By 2025 the authors expect them to be only 3.6% - nearly a fourfold decline. Their diminishing presence is especially troubling when viewed in light of centuries of relative demographic stability; from 1500 to 1900, Christianity held steady at 15% of the Middle East’s population. The urgent question is one asked even by the New York Times: Is this the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
A: The Yearbook actually has two articles on global religious diversity, which highlights how important it is. The world’s most religiously diverse country in Singapore, home to Buddhists, Christians, the unaffiliated, Muslims, other religions, Hindus, folk religionists, and Jews. Overall, the entire Asia-Pacific region is by far the most diverse.
People often say that the United States is the “most religiously diverse” country, but it simply isn’t so. True religious diversity means a country has high percentages of lots of different religions, but that isn’t quite the situation in the USA. Nearly 80% of the USA is still Christian, with much smaller populations of agnostics, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims. Many countries in Asia are far more diverse than the United States.
Q: Are there any religious demographic trends that people might find surprising?
A: People in the West might find it surprising that religion is actually on the rise around the world, not on the decline. Americans, Canadians, and Europeans often think that the rest of the world is like their countries, where relatively few people attend weekly religious services and religion is mostly relegated to one’s private practice. In reality, most people in the world are highly religious, of all kinds—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and so on—and many local and national leaders around the world do not separate their faith from their work or business.
Q: Are there any religious demographic trends that people might find worrying?
A: Some people might be worried about what they perceive to be a rise of atheism and agnosticism, as this is certainly something that’s been in the news a lot recently. Around 13% of the world is non-religious, but this has been a declining percentage since 1970. Yet, it is growing in Europe and North America. Most of the world’s non-religious live in Asia, however, particularly China and North Korea.
Q: Reflecting on all that’s in this year’s volume, how would you rate the importance of interfaith understanding and freedom of religion or belief?
A: Interfaith understanding and freedom of belief are simply critical in today’s world, and their importance cannot be understated. With Christians from the Middle East in diaspora all over the world; Muslim immigration to traditionally-Christian countries; and a continued rise of interreligious marriages, the world can’t afford to ignore religious realities.
Q: Religion extremism is often in the news. Does the yearbook have any information that might be useful to policy makers or researchers working on countering violent extremism?
A: One area that has seen a lot of religious extremism recently is Nigeria, which is nearly evenly split between Christians in the South and Muslims in the North (and is home to the world’s third largest tribal religionist population). This reality coupled with a close connection between religion and politics makes for a terrible risk of religious violence. In addition, the Yearbook shows that four of the ten countries with the largest Muslim populations in 2014 were in Africa, signifying a shift of the religion toward that continent. Researchers working on countering violent extremism would do well to focus on interreligious dialogue efforts particularly in sub-Saharan Africa as the religion continues to grow there and clash with Christianity.
Q: What is your personal favorite among the various reports and articles in this year’s volume?
A: I find the article on historical Hasidism absolutely fascinating. There is a debate among historians how large Hasidism was in the 19th century, and I think Marcin Wodzinski does a fabulous job outlining his argument, which utilizes creative low-scale local data. It’s an exciting area of research with significant implications for the Jewish community even today, and its an area where there is still a lot more research to be done.
The 2015 issue highlights both global and local realities in religious adherence, from the demographics of the world's atheists to the emigration of Christians from the Middle East. Other case studies include inter-religious marriage patterns in Austria, Muslim immigration to Australia, and methodological challenges in counting Hasidic Jews.
Edited by Brian J. Grim (Georgetown and Boston University), Todd M. Johnson (Boston University & Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Vegard Skirbekk (Columbia University), Gina A. Zurlo, (Boston University).