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Changing religion, changing economies

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Dramatic religious and economic shifts will impact our planet in the decades ahead, according to this new study by the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, Changing religion, changing economies. The study provides insights into the global marketplace’s growing religious diversity by linking the best available demographic and economic data.*

This growing religious diversity can be an economic strength if national and business leaders promote interfaith understanding, protect minority groups’ human rights, and advance freedom of religion or belief, thereby ensuring sustainable and peaceful development for all.

According to a 2015 global study published in Demographic Research, social scientists were wrong to predict the demise of religion. The study and its connected Pew Research Center report show that between 2010 and 2050, the growth of religious populations worldwide is projected to be 23 times larger than the growth of religiously unaffiliated populations. During this period, the number of people affiliated with a religion is expected to grow by 2.3 billion, from 5.8 billion in 2010 to 8.1 billion in 2050. By contrast, the number of people unaffiliated with any religion (including those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” as well as self-identifying agnostics and atheists) is projected to increase by only 0.1 billion, from 1.13 billion in 2010 to 1.23 billion in 2050. Also, in terms of population shares, this is significantly lower than the peak in the 1970s under communism when nearly one-in-five people worldwide were religiously unaffiliated, according to the World Religion Database (Brill).

The growth of religious populations has implications for how the world’s wealth will be spread about. The economic transformations of China and India are common knowledge. But, what is less well known is that the five leading economies of 2050 are projected to represent one of the most religiously diverse groupings in recent memory. For instance, today, seven of the G8 nations have Christian-majority populations. But by 2050 only one of the five leading economies is projected to have a majority Christian population – the United States. The other mega economies in 2050 are projected to include a country with a Hindu majority (India), a Muslim majority (Indonesia), and two with exceptionally high levels of religious diversity (China and Japan).

As religious diversity and religious populations grow, so does their potential impact, creating new challenges and opportunities for societies, governments and economies. Changing religion, changing economies is a “first-cut” type of research providing pioneering insights into the future religion and economic change based on best available data. While it does not offer recommendations, business, government and civil society leaders will find useful information to inform discussion for years to come.

This report is part of a “toolkit” being developed by members of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith, and we thank the members for their input. The Role of Faith Global Agenda Council seeks to increase “religious literacy” – including awareness and understanding of the positive impact of the role of faith in various sectors – in our complex world. This report is one such tool.

Of course, all projections of future trends must be taken with a note of caution. Indeed, unforeseen events will yield unpredictable consequences. With this caution in mind, we believe that demographic projections are of particular value because, as Voltaire observed, “the present is [literally] pregnant with the future.”

  • Brian J. Grim, Ph.D.
  • President, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
  • Member, Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith, part of The World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils
  • Research Associate, International Religious Demography Project, CURA, Boston University
  • Research Scholar, Religious Freedom Project, Georgetown University

* The study provides insights into the global marketplace’s growing religious diversity by linking the best available demographic and economic data from sources including the Pew Research Center, the World Religion Database, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the United Nations, and various country-specific census and survey datasets. It is important to note that the study does not aim to provide a direct causal link between religious behavior and economic practices. Instead, it seeks to connect selfidentified religious affiliation with economic environments around the world. In this way, religion and religious change is neither analyzed as a causal force leading to economic change nor is economic change analyzed as a causal force in religious change. Instead, the analysis provides a global perspective of how the relative size and economic power of religious groups occur today and how these dynamics are expected to change in the near- and long-term future.