By Jesse Wheeler
“The cool thing about Pew numbers is how versatile they are; bloggers can wear them with triumph, grief, & multiple shades of schadenfreude!” – Derek Rishmawy
Early April, the Pew Research Center released an in-depth demographic study titled, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050: Why Muslims are Rising Fastest and Unaffiliated are Shrinking as a Share of Global population.”
According to the report, “while many people have offered predictions about the future of religion, these are the first formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Key highlights from the report include the projections that:
“If current demographic trends continue, however, Islam will nearly catch up by the middle of the 21st century. Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s total population is expected to rise to 9.3 billion, a 35% increase.1 Over that same period, Muslims – a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates – are projected to increase by 73%. The number of Christians also is projected to rise, but more slowly, at about the same rate (35%) as the global population overall. As a result, according to the Pew Research projections, by 2050 there will be near parity between Muslims (2.8 billion, or 30% of the population) and Christians (2.9 billion, or 31%), possibly for the first time in history.”
The obvious conclusion from such an important study is that Christians and Muslims, as well as theists and non-theists for that matter, must learn to get along for the sake of global concord, hence my belief in the importance of our work at IMES. (Of course, this reality is already here: I used to pass two mosques, a Sikh temple, a synagogue, and a Buddhist shrine as I drove between my home and the church at which I served in Southern California.) These are the basic realities of our post/late-modern world.
However, my second immediate observation is that tiny, yet religiously complex Lebanon has the potential to serve as an excellent case-study for what such a future world might entail. Not to sound too self-important, but the actions taken, the hospitality shown, and the interfaith relationships formed now in the regional microcosm that is Lebanon can serve as a model, for good or ill, as to the future of our planet. (The irony, however, is the fact that in Lebanon many can drive to and from church without passing a single mosque. Or vice versa… so, we meet at the mall instead.)
Identity Politics and Imperial Compromises
The silliness of such demographic studies, however, derives from the manner by which we use them to buttress our identity politics. There seems to exist a bizarre sense of self-satisfaction in knowing that we Christians remain “Number 1!” and that our top position, for the time being, is secure. Somehow, we are still winning the religion race. On the other hand, the sense of moral panic derived from the notion that Islam is catching up, and might one day surpass us, is likewise silly.
In this, I am reminded of the ongoing feud in Lebanon regarding which buildings have the tallest minarets or bell towers. Apparently when it comes to the mission of God, the bigger the better.
Yet, there is a darker story to this competition for numerical, architectural, and often geographical predominance between the world’s most numerous religions. Historian Richard Bulliet poses an important demographic question in The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization:
“Suppose… one were to ask what percentage of the world Muslim community is composed of descendants of people who converted to Islam between 1500 and 1900. The answer would surely exceed 50 percent. [B]y contrast, if one were to ask what percentage of today’s [Christian] populations descend from ancestors who converted to Christianity between 1500 and 1900, the answer would be well under 20 percent.”
What accounts for the difference? In Bulliet’s account “European monarchs trumpeted their intent to Christianize the world, but settled for economics and military might. Muslim rulers… strove mightily to create rich and powerful land empires, but only sporadically thought of converting their subject peoples to Islam.” So counterintuitively, Islam ‘won’ the conversion game. For ultimately:
“Parts of Africa and Asia saw ‘unofficial Islam’ succeed precisely because it was a potent alternative to the Christianity being propounded by the imperialists. If imperialism was a form of foreign tyranny, Islam, unwavering in its vision of a universal and legal moral order, increasingly became the bastion of resistance to tyranny.”
In the face of western colonialism, often undertaken with the tacit approval of Christian religious authorities, a form of ‘unofficial Islam’ took up the banner of the Resistance, and grew exponentially as a result!
This innate drive towards numeric, architectural and geographic security often results in the tendency to ally ourselves with empire. The fact, however, is that such alliances have often resulted in the exact opposite of their stated intent. The historic inability of the visible Church to divest itself from imperial power has too often resulted in guilt by association, scapegoating, and flat out rejection, such that the very drive causing us to gloat/panic over demographics is the very cause for our having “lost the race.”
The Crucified Messiah
Even more so, such alliances represent a betrayal of our crucified messiah, who models for us the narrow path of self-sacrificial love in his rejection of imperial compromise. In the words of Joseph Cummings:
“It used to be commonly said that Islam was Satan’s greatest masterpiece. I believe that is not true. I believe that Satan’s greatest masterpiece was the crusades. Why? Is it because the Crusades were the worst atrocity that ever happened in history? I think Hitler was worse. Pol Pot was worse.
What is horrible about the crusades is that it was done under the symbol of the cross, that Satan succeeded in distorting the very heart of the Christian faith.
With the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, an instrument of imperial domination becomes in biblical imagination the ultimate symbol of Divine Love and the power-reversing means by which God reigns. To follow Jesus, to take the narrow path, is to therefore surrender our claim to numeric, geographic, (and even architectural) domination, as we trust in the resurrection and the ultimate Lordship of Christ Jesus.
 Richard Bulliet, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004) 40 – 41
 Ibid., 43
 It’s important to note that this isn’t ancient history, but rather provides the historical context for Pew’s demographic projections.
 Joseph Cumming, “Toward Respectful Witness,” in From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices and Emerging Issues among Muslims, J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2008) 323