World Religions by the Numbers

Published March 6, 2002

The Catholic Difference

Every January, the International Bulletin of Missionary Research publishes a “Statistical Table on Global Mission” – a detailed look at the world religious situation prepared by the mathematically indefatigable David Barrett. Absolute precision in these matters is impossible, but over the years, Barrett (an Anglican who teaches “missiometrics” at Regent University) has proven himself a judicious, reliable guide. Browsing his numbers reveals more than a few interesting things.

Christian mission, for example, was essentially flat in the twentieth century. There were only 558 million Christians in the world in 1900 and there will be approximately 2 billion Christians by the middle of this year, a huge increase. But as a percentage of world population, Christianity has been treading water for a century: Christians were 34.5 percent of world population in 1900, and will be 33.1 percent in 2002.

Half of the world’s 2 billion Christians are Catholics. The next largest “megablock” of Christians is found in the denominationally-unaffiliated “Independent Churches,” which have some 400 million members – almost twice as many as the 217 million Orthodox believers in the world. Barrett counts 350 million denominationally-affiliated Protestants and another 80 million in the Anglican “megablock.” The relative positions of these “megablocks” within world Christianity will likely remain constant for the next quarter-century.

Even as Christian population remained steady as a percentage of world population, other dimensions of Christian life changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Christians worshiped in 400,000 congregations in 1900; they can be found in 3.5 million parishes worldwide today. There were 300,000 books on Christianity published in 1900; 5.1 million such books will be published this year. The 3,500 Christian periodicals published in 1900 are a small fraction of the 35,000 Christian periodicals circulating today. Ten times as many Bibles will be distributed worldwide in 2002 as in 1900: 59 million versus 5.5 million. Christian organizations used some 1,000 computers in 1970; they use 332 million computers today. Charitable giving to Christian causes rose from $8 billion to $300 billion over the last century. Perhaps most strikingly, the number of Christian denominations skyrocketed, from some 1,900 a century ago to 35,500 today – one measure of the immensity of the ecumenical task in the twenty-first century.

Christianity became much more an urban phenomenon in the twentieth century. In 1900, only 28 percent of the world’s Christians lived in cities. This year, 58 percent of the global Christian population will be urban dwellers.

The communications revolution also made a dramatic impact on Christian life: today, 2.5 billion people watch and listen to Christian broadcasts every month, a number Barrett expects will increase to 3.8 billion by 2025. Only 750 million were tuning-in thirty years ago, and of course no one was in 1900.

The total of what Barrett calls “distinct religions” has shot up from 1,000 in 1900 to 10,500 today, and will likely increase to 15,000 in a quarter-century. While this extravagant growth in new religions refutes the notion that the modern world is inevitably becoming secular, new religious movements are also a serious challenge to interreligious dialogue. The existing difficulties of Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Hindu, and Christian-Muslim dialogue will be magnified in dialogues with such rapidly growing “new religions” as the Vietnam-based Cao Dai (which blends Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism with themes from the Bible and the Qu’ran, while styling its leader the “Pope” and its headquarters the “Holy See”), and the Ahmadi Muslims, who claim that Jesus escaped the cross and died in India at age 120.

Islam is the fastest growing major religion in the world today. From a population base of 200 million in 1900, Islam grew more than fivefold during the twentieth century. The change in Muslim/Catholic demographics over the past thirty years is striking. In 1970 there were 554 million Muslims in the world, and 666 millions Catholics; by the Great Jubilee of 2000, Islam could count 1.2 billion adherents, and Catholicism almost 1.1 billion. 1.3 billion Catholics in 2025 will find themselves in a world with 1.8 billion Muslims.

Would those ratios look different in 2100, however, if China opens up and becomes the greatest field of Christian mission since the Americas? Something else to think about, amidst David Barrett’s remarkable numbers.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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