A few months ago, I was a bit surprised to read a report put out by the Pew Research Center predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. The main points are presented in a peer-reviewed article in the journal Demographic Research, which suggests the analysis should be solid.
Still, I thought I would dig a bit, and found a longer version of the report here, including the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050. That seemed like a very slow rate of change, so I did some amateur demography of my own. I found another Pew report, released almost at the same time, which focused on the beliefs of Millennials (those born from 1981 onwards). This report showed that less than 60 per cent of Millennials currently report a Christian religious affiliation, compared to around 70 per cent of X-ers (born 1965 onwards) and much higher levels for older cohorts.
That seems to me to cast some serious doubt on the projections of the first report. American adults likely to be alive in 2050 already show lower levels of affiliation than Pew is forecasting for that year. So, contrary to the claims of the report, the projections appear to assume that, on balance, Americans are more likely to change from unaffiliated to Christian than vice versa, or else that future cohorts will be more Christian than current young cohorts. A very brief look suggests that the same issue arises in the projections for other developed countries.
But as the Pew Millennial report says
It is possible that more Millennials who were raised unaffiliated will begin to identify with a religion as they get older, get married and have children, but previous Pew Research Center studies suggest that generational cohorts typically do not become more religiously affiliated as they get older. And the new survey finds that most generational cohorts actually are becoming less religiously affiliated as they age
This isn’t an area of professional expertise for me, or an issue in which I have a high enough stake to do more work than is needed for a blog post. Still, it seems to me to be a problem if the apparent contradiction I’ve pointed out is real. Apparently, neither Pew nor the peer reviewers at Demographic Research see such a problem. Am I missing something?