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Religion in the World and Its Implications

December 20, 2012

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has just released an interesting report on religious groups around the world.  It is a compilation that is  “… based on analysis of more than 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers…” covering more than 230 countries and territories.  (It is seemingly more comprehensive and up to date, through 2010, than any similar study).  You can see the well-done and colorfully graphed and mapped report on their website here:  It’s worth at least a quick look!

English: Religious symbols from the top nine o...

English: Religious symbols from the top nine organised faiths of the world according to Major world religions From left to right: 1st Row: Christian Cross, Jewish Star of David, Hindu Aumkar 2nd Row: Islamic Star and crescent, Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, Shinto Torii 3rd Row: Sikh Khanda, Bahá’í star, Jain Ahimsa Symbol (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will not attempt to really summarize it — merely note a couple points and possible implications, with a mini-preachment of my own.

First, Religion is not Going Away anytime Soon.

This conclusion is based not only on the fact that 84% of the world’s adults and children are religiously affiliated.  In addition, a good percentage of the 16% self-described as unaffiliated do hold some kind of religious or spiritual views, such as belief in God or a universal Spirit.  The other reason, demographically, that religion is not on the way out is that so much of the world’s population (and correspondingly of the religiously affiliated) are children or youth.

In the U.S. and Europe, we tend to get the impression that Christians (our clear majority) are aging fast, with many youth becoming skeptics, agnostics or atheists.  This may be technically true but misleading, especially as to world figures and trends.

For example, the median (midpoint among all) age of Muslims worldwide is just 23.  Significantly higher but still young are Christians at 30.  Well older is the Jewish median of 36.  (Apparently children are counted as affiliated if their parents belong to a given religion, and in most countries this will probably be accurately predictive for adult life, though probably less so in the U.S.)

Second, the more Youth-filled a Religion is, the less Mature and Restrained it will Tend to Be

This is a maxim of my own, not taken from the report.  I think it represents mere common sense on one level.  But I also base it on conclusions arrived at by scientific surveys and research on the developmental process of youth and adults, including some on “faith development” specifically, or what might be termed stages of spiritual development.

Indeed, the identification of relatively discreet stages is an important, fairly recent addition to the study of religion/spirituality and its psychological and social forces.  This is largely the work of James Fowler and responders to his research of the late ’70s to the ’80s and beyond.  (There is more on this, and the relationship of this “theory” to secular developmentalists of broader popular knowledge such as Piaget, Kohlberg and Erikson, in my ebook, “Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey”, excerpted and linked above, right).   

If a high proportion of a religion’s members are in the roughly 16 (or post-puberty) to 30 age range, most of them will not have had the time and range of life experiences and exposure to those outside their “in-group” to move into one of the higher stages of development.  It is the lower stages in which one’s own personal interests and perhaps those of one’s immediate social and religious group dominate thinking and actions (potentially violent ones with the passion, hormones and energies of youth).

A bit more advanced is a stage in which one can have at least tolerance and perhaps empathy for a broader circle.  Eventually, some people can and do broaden that circle nationally or even globally…. compassion for everyone. While they may have definite beliefs and value priorities, they feel no need to compel others to believe or practice religion (or politics, etc.) like they do.  This rarely happens in youth, despite many youth’s keen sense of justice and desire to right wrongs.  And the more insular a culture or religion, the less chance for developmental growth. 

In other words, it takes a number of years, often into one’s forties or beyond, to  mature in perspective and emotions to reach the stages through which religion can become “part of the solution” to personal, national or international tensions rather than “part of the problem.”

Perhaps America’s most thorough and insightful thinker/writer about culture and religion (and a “developmentalist” who deals with the few mentioned above and many more) is Ken Wilber.  He makes a repeated point in his works, especially in “Integral Spirituality” (2007), that religion itself is NOT to be opposed or ignored by those who seek to make the world a better place.  Rather, while recognizing all their tendencies toward abuses and problems, Wilber contends that religious institutions can and must become KEY to helping individuals move up, at least slightly, on the developmental scale.  (Yes, “up” as in “more advanced” or even the term “better”, and he explains why a good “postmodern” person, even a scientist, can and should embrace this concept and process…. Not an egocentric nor ethnocentric “better than”, but a recognition of positive “hierarchies” or steps-up of development.)

His points certainly make a lot of sense to me.  They are important!  Hand-wringing (or vociferous writing and speaking) by either religious or anti-religious people about the counter-productive or even “evil” nature of much of religion accomplishes no more than chapped hands.  After side-lining myself from my former traditional Evangelical Christian faith for many years, I finally, a couple years ago, decided that a Pew, Barna or Gallup pollster could count me in as a Christian, albeit a very progressive one who embraces universalist views and interfaith cooperation out of a culturally and theologically Jesus-oriented perspective.

Have you seen yourself move through one or more transitions in your faith (or lack of it) that might relate to your broader social or psychological development? At what age did it take place? 


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