Demography and irreligion

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?

11 thoughts on “Demography and irreligion

  1. Two related responses/solutions/explanations here:

    1. Read again Darrel Huff’s “How to lie with statistics” I find its cynicism useful when trying to deconstruct ‘truth’ based on statistics.

    Nicely illustrated by AUSTRALIAN GOVERMENT 2014. Reducing Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions— Targets and Progress Review final Report February.

    This is a great report and resource which suggests Australia’s emissions have stabilised at least according to the Conversation – until you drill into the details (Appendix D) and find 30-50% increases where it really counts since – (transport, electricity etc.) since 1990.

    This illustrates how every statistics based claims has associated caveats but the rule is that these are buried in the detail which most people dont have time to find.

    In school they taught us this was fudging but now it passes as good communication.

    So solution 1 is author fudging in subtle ways.

    2. I’m still currently immersed in and hence obsessed with great battle of the Bayesians v. Frequentist statisticians.

    At heart this is an argument about how we infer conclusions interpretations decision making data etc.

    ELLISON, A. M. 1996. An introduction to Bayesian inference for ecological research and environmental decision-making. Ecological Applications, 6, 1036-1046.

    What is clear for this an other sources is we are still really lousy at using statistics and honest inference – separate even from fudging. Ever heard of Simpson’s Paradox – a great reminder of how our two dimensional minds up not quite up to view the multi-dimensional universe (Bagwans aside).

    So solution 2 is authors not being terribly smart or sufficiently self critical.

  2. I think one major difference between secular (or unaffiliated) families and religious families is their number of children. I do not have any specific statistics on this, but my general feeling is that religious families normally have multiple kids (god will feed them!) while secular families tend to have fewer kids because they don’t think god will feed them. Over time, this difference could push the demography in favour of the religious families.

  3. One obvious question that arises here is whether India, soon to be the world’s most populous nation, will continue its progress to modernity in such respects as industrialisation, post-industrialisation and urbanisation while remaining what might be termed pre-modern in terms of the religious affiliations and dispositions of much of its population.

  4. First observation, without having read these reports I’d be asking about factors in the US population like increasing proportion of Latinos (more likely to be Catholic?). Cannot assume what “Christian” means; could be anything from right-wing fundamentalism to mystical Catholicism, etc.
    Second, predictions/projections (they are different) of increasing religious affiliation are an antidote to the notion inherent in much European social science, going back to Max Weber in particular, that “secularisation” (in some form) necessarily accompanies “modernisation” and “development” (including “capitalist development”).
    Third, these reports are partly geared to “market analysis”, to identify likely future consumption patterns, needs, trends and preferences. What do changing religious affiliations mean for consumer behaviour, and also political behaviour? Strikes me that many commentaries on Iran, to take just one pertinent example, raise fears based on assumptions about the dominant national religion, and ignore interests and preferences based on socioeconomic factors, specifically the interests of a middle class that has its aspirations both for capitalist development and enhanced mass consumption thwarted by the religious domination of the state. This creates a powerful tension and potential for change, that cannot forever be masked by nominal religious affiliation, as shown in statistics.

  5. Different fertility rates are one possible explanation for the apparent contradiction. Immigration is the other.

    It’s important to remember that these are projections rather than predictions. They are based on recent changes in religious affiliation and much hinges on whether developing countries eventually follow the patterns in developed countries.

  6. @Paul Norton
    Aren’t you making the dubious assumassumption that the children of these large religious families will necessarily grow up to be religious? Most “nones” come frofrom religious families – and the children of big teligious families will be exposed to the same culture, and the same educational system, as the current nones…

  7. Higher education rates might be a factor as well. Those who benefit from a degree tend to have weaker religious beliefs if any—so I’ve read.

  8. @Sam B
    If it’s so that the religious have more children, why haven’t they taken over? IIRC, in Judaism the proportion of devout Orthodox Jews has stayed about the same in the USA, in spite of their higher birth rate. The reason must be that a good number of these children abandon Orthodoxy and migrate into the larger, but less procreative, Reform or secular Jewish communities and identities.

    There is an attractive theory (I’m too lazy to chase up the reference) that the rapid growth of the early Christian Church was due in part to its very progressive (for the time) policies on widows and orphans. Joining a Christian community made it much likelier for an orphan or fatherless child to survive, and they would have been pretty damn grateful.

  9. Maybe we need to have a differnt take on the religion/ secularism spectrum.

    I can imagine something more akin to Kinsey’s approach to sexuality rather than ask belief (analagous to sexual identity), we could examine in what ways people are tied to communities of faith.

    Attending church/temple mosque, invovlvement in church/temple/ mosque events, donating/ volunteering fr faith based charities, getting kids educated or themselves being educated at faith based schools or universities, marriage in church/ civil offices. Even employment with faith based organisations could be a part of that measure.

    It would be more complex to evaluate but might provide us with a measure that means something.

  10. Based on nothing more than my qualitative assessment of the state of the world, I expect a higher proportion of the global population to adopt religious affiliations as the impacts of overpopulation and global warming make life increasingly difficult.

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