Religious diversity is a hallmark of the American experience

Said Ahmed-Zaid
Said Ahmed-Zaid

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article in which I classified people into roughly two camps: those who believe in a deity or supernatural force and those who do not. In this week’s column, I will examine some statistics and trends collected by nonpartisan fact tanks about the future of religion in general, and of Islam in particular.

Before we discuss these statistics, it is worth mentioning that the number of Americans who do not identify with a particular religion has been rising, just as it has been in much of Europe. However, according to a new study on the future of world religions conducted by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated people is actually expected to decrease from 16 percent in 2015 to roughly 13 percent of the world population in 2060. This decline among the unaffiliated may help explain why the percentage of “nones” (people who identify as atheist or agnostic, or those with no particular religion) is projected to decline as a share of the world’s population in the coming decades.

By contrast, more babies were born to Christian mothers than to members of any other religion in recent years, which is only natural since Christianity is currently the world’s largest religious group. The Pew Research Center has also determined that, between 2030 and 2035, there will be slightly more babies born to Muslims (225 million) than to Christians (224 million), even though the total Christian population will still be larger. This prediction is based on the relatively young population and high birth rates of Muslims. By the 2055 to 2060 period, the birth gap will be about 6 million (232 million births among Muslims versus 226 million births among Christians).

Another factor affecting these percentages is the impact of religious switching. The best available data indicate a relatively small increase in the number of Muslims, a substantial increase in the number of unaffiliated people, and a substantial decrease in the number of Christians in the coming decades. However, the effects of religious switching are largely overshadowed by the differences in birth rate and mortality. Consequently, the unaffiliated are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population despite the boost they are expected to receive from people leaving Christianity and other religious groups in Europe, North America and other parts of the world.

Although it is futile to predict the future, the simple mathematics cited above seem to indicate that religion will prevail as the choice of the majority of the world population, with Christianity and Islam being the two largest groups, at least in the coming decades. Another contributing factor is that people who are more religious tend to have more children than people who are not. Even among religious people, the more conservative or fundamentalist ones have higher birth rates than more liberal ones.

Islam has had more interaction with Catholicism than with other brands of Christianity since the Byzantine era in the 6th century. In Islam, Christians and Jews are considered “People of the Book” — that is, people with a scripture from God, such as the Torah for Jews and the Evangel or New Testament for Christians. It is for this reason that Muslims do not proselytize to these two groups of believers. And neither do Catholics to Muslims, I might add. What is ironic is that some groups of Christians seem intent on proselytizing to Muslims in the Middle East and other places around the world.

The members of these groups seem to think that “stealing” adherents of other religions is all right because their religion is the “true” religion. Muslims believe otherwise. They believe that God created diverse religions with the same message: Love God and your neighbor. Muslims also believe that diversity in religion is a good thing because each religion has been endowed with certain dominant qualities over others. For example, Muslims believe that Judaism is generally concerned with the pursuit of social justice, through law if necessary, and healing the world (Tikkun olam). They also believe that Christianity has been honored with the quality of forgiveness, whereas the dominant quality in Islam is justifiably modesty and humility.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, let us remember that diversity is also one of the characteristics of the American experience which is summarized in the phrase “E Pluribus Unum,” the concept that this nation is composed of diverse groups of people who have immigrated from various parts of the world. All of them have greatly enriched the American mosaic. Instead of trying to build a wall to imprison Americans, we should be building bridges of understanding and mutual respect with all countries around the world, and sharing the ideals and values upon which this shining city on the hill was built.

Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.