Religion in South Africa and around the world

New research points to a decline in global atheism and agnosticism, when expressed as a percentage of the total global population.

The data, which was compiled by Pew Research Center, shows that even though the number of people in the world who are “unaffiliated” with religion are set to increase by almost 10% in the next four decades, mainstream religious numbers are set to outpace this growth.

According to Pew, by 2050, Christians will remain the most dominant religion in the world, maintaining its population share of 31.4%.

However, Muslims will show massive growth – over 73% – in numbers to reach near parity with Christianity.

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion – though increasing in countries such as the United States and France – will make up a declining share of the world’s total population,” Pew said.

Over the next four decades, however, the “unaffiliated” designation is set to see the biggest conversion rate, largely from those leaving Christianity.

Change due to relgious switching
Change due to religious switching

Religious growth

Notably, due largely to high fertility in the region, Pew projects that 40% of all Christians will be found in Sub-Saharan Africa, while the Christian population in the United States will decline from over 75% of the population to around 65%.

By 2050, Judaism will be overtaken by Islam as the second biggest religion in the US, Pew said.

Pew’s projections take into account the current size and geographic distribution of the world’s major religions; age differences; fertility and mortality rates; international migration; and patterns in conversion.

With the exception of Buddhists, all of the world’s major religious groups are poised for at least some growth in absolute numbers in the coming decades.

The global Buddhist population is expected to be fairly stable because of low fertility rates and aging populations in countries such as China, Thailand and Japan.

Projected changes
Projected changes
Group 2010 Population % of world population in 2010 Projected 2050 Population % of world population in 2050 Population Growth 2010 – 2050
Christians 2,168,330,000 31.4% 2,918,070,000 31.4% 35%
Muslims 1,599,700,000 23.2% 2,761,480,000 29.7% 73%
Unaffiliated 1,131,150,000 16.4% 1,230,340,000 13.2% 9%
Hindus 1,032,210,000 15.0% 1,384,360,000 14.9% 34%
Buddhists 487,760,000 7.1% 486,270,000 5.2% -0.3%
Folk Religions 404,690,000 5.9% 449,140,000 4.8% 11%
Other religions 58,150,000 0.8% 61,450,000 0.7% 6%
Jews 13,860,000 0.2% 16,090,000 0.2% 16%
World Total 6,895,850,000 100.0% 9,307,190,000 100.0% 35%

Looking beyond 2050, assuming that the trends outlined by Pew continue unabated, the global Muslim population would hit an equal share with Christians in 2070, with a 32% share each.

The Muslim population would only exceed the Christian population in the year 2100, where the former would account for 35% of the population, versus the latter’s 34%.

“This report describes how the global religious landscape would change if current demographic trends continue,” the group noted.

“With each passing year, however, there is a chance that unforeseen events – war, famine, disease, technological innovation, political upheaval, etc. – will alter the size of one religious group or another.”

“Owing to the difficulty of peering more than a few decades into the future, the projections stop at 2050,” Pew said.

Sub-Saharan Africa

The following maps show the regional break-down of major religions across the globe as of 2010. It includes a break-down of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Regional Jews 2010 Regional Buddhists 2010 Regional Other Hindus 2010 Regional Other Religions 2010 Regional Folk Religions 2010 Regional Unaffiliated 2010 Regional Muslims 2010 Regional Christians 2010South Africa

The 2001 census for South Africa found that 79.8% of the population (35,7 million people), were Christian, up from 75.5% in 1996.

As many as 6.76 million people, or 15.1% of the population had no religion, while 1.4% were uncertain or had no religion.

Islam accounted for 1.5% of South Africans, or 654,000 people in 2001, while Hinduism accounted for 1.2% (552,000), African traditional belief 0.3%, Judaism 0.2% and other non-Christian religions 0.6%.

The Census 2011 form did not include any questions about religion.

Pew’s research for 2010 shows that while Muslim religion still accounts for 1.5% of the population, it has increased to more than 700,000 people. Christianity accounted for more than 80% of the SA population in 2010.

The following maps show the number of Christians and Muslims in South Africa in 2010.

Muslims in South Africa 2010
Muslims in South Africa 2010
Christians in South Africa 2010
Christians in South Africa 2010

A full methodology on the study can be found on Pew’s website.

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Religion in South Africa and around the world