Harriet Sherwood has recently published a summary of facts and figures about global religious affiliation in the Guardian. As she points out, ‘faith is on the rise’ and ‘84% of the global population identifies with a religious group’.
These figures are not new, but they will be a surprise to some people. The explanation for it is that Western Europe is the exception. What is happening to religion here is completely different from what is happening in the rest of the world, though North America is now following what has been happening for some time in Western Europe.
In many things, Europe seems to follow the USA, but in decline in religion it goes the other way. In Western Europe, and now in North America too, religion is in decline. Everywhere else it is growing.
This has big implications for how we conduct global affairs. North America and Western Europe have long taken the lead in global affairs, and have tended to assume that their own trend to secularisation would be followed everywhere. But the facts simply don’t fit this assumption. Most of the world is religious, and it is getting more religious.
I think the implicit assumption was that secularism would provide a neutral common language that could be spoken by people of all religions and none. But that is not working. Secularism is distrusted by most of the world’s population; it is not proving an acceptable common language. Many religious people are more at ease with people who have a different religious commitment than with people who have none.
The conclusion I draw from this is that we are going to have to learn to conduct global affairs on a multi-faith basis, not on a secular basis. That will be a big change of tack.
The people who will be most upset by this are people who have no religious affiliation. But they are only 16% of the world’s population and they can’t expect their position to be the dominant one that is accepted by everyone else.
Most secularists imagine that their position is more common around the world than it actually is, but they need to face facts. Globally, they are a small minority. Moreover, it is arguable that, historically, atheism is an off-shoot of Christianity; it uses arguments that they have taken over from particular schools of theology.
Much the biggest religions in the world are Christianity (31%) and Islam (24%). Both are growing, but Islam is growing faster. Because these two religions are so dominant, it is especially important for the world that there should be good relations between them. That is the most pressing inter-faith challenge.
There is an interesting difference between them. Islam has a much more specific and concentrated geographical location. Muslims are concentrated in particular parts of the world. Christianity is much more international; there are Christians everywhere. This gives Christians the opportunity to contribute to global peace and harmony. If Christians everywhere had good and close relations, they could really improve global relations.
I regret that Christians are not really stepping up to the plate here, and are not making the contribution to good international relations that they could make. In each country they tend to get sucked into their own nationalism rather than maintaining a perspective that transcends nationalism. The world is waiting for an effective demonstration of Christian internationalism.