Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In which I geek out over a new study...

I've written here before about religion, and I will do so again, I'm sure. That shouldn't be surprising. I studied the anthropology of religion at university, and I'm very interested in what people believe and why they believe what they do. Today, I found a report on NBC News online about a new report from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life* that talks about how many people claim affiliation with which religions around the world.

I recently read about a report from the same group that showed a new high of 19.6 percent of individuals in the United States claimed to be unaffiliated with any religion as of this year. This new study shows that 16.3 percent of the world's population claims not to be affiliated with any religion. The study points out that religious non-affiliation does not necessarily mean that those claiming not to be a member of any religion do not believe in a higher power. While the category includes atheists and agnostics, it also includes people who do believe in a deity or higher power but do not report membership in or association with any religion.

The study also found that a majority of the population in six nations reported that they are not affiliated with any religion. The largest number came from the Czech Republic, where 76 percent of the population reported no religious affiliation, followed by North Korea, with 71 percent; Estonia, with 60 percent; Japan, with 57 percent; Hong Kong, with 56 percent, and China, with 52 percent of the population claiming no affiliation with any religion.

Parsing the numbers in another way, the Pew report also shows that 76 percent of the religiously unaffiliated live in Asia and the Pacific region, while 12 percent of those not claiming any religions affiliation live in Europe, 5 percent live in North America, 4 percent life in Latin American and the Caribbean, 2 percent live in Sub-saharan Africa, and less than 1 percent live in the Middle East and North Africa.

The numbers of the non-affiliated put them in third place for total adherents (or non-adherents) to religion. The Pew study shows that 32 percent, or 2.2 billion people around the world, claim Christianity as their religion. Of those, half say that they are Catholic, 37 percent claim to be Protestant, and 12 percent are Greek or Russian Orthodox. Islam is the only other religion to claim more members than the unaffiliated, with 23 percent of the world's population. After the 16.3 percent who claim no affiliation, the next largest group are Hindus, who make up 15 percent of the global population, while 7.1 percent are Buddhists, and 0.2 percent, or around 15 million, claim Judaism as their religious affiliation.

One statistic that interested me is that 405 million people, or about 5.9 percent of the world's population, claim to follow folk or traditional religions, with 70 percent of those 405 million people living in China.

Another interesting breakdown of the statistics in the Pew study showed that only 3 percent of Hindus live where they are in the minority, while 13 percent of Christians and 27 percent of Muslims live in areas where they are not in the majority. On the other hand, 72 percent of Buddhists live where they are in the minority, over 99 percent of those practicing folk or traditional religions are in the minority where they live, and virtually all of those claiming "other" as their religion, 0.8 percent of the world's population, live where they are in the minority.

The numbers in the Pew report were generated through study of national census numbers and surveys from around the world.

What does all this mean? I'm sure I don't know, aside from the fact that there are a lot of religious people in the world but that the numbers of those who don't claim to belong to any particular religion seem to be growing. It would be difficult to know why those who don't claim any religion take that stance without going out and talking to them. It would also be interesting, particularly, to talk to those who don't claim a religion but who nevertheless do believe in a god, many gods, or some other form of higher power. I would also be interested in knowing how many, out of those who do claim a religion, participate actively in exercises related to their religion, either alone or in community with others. Another interesting study would be how religious adherents' experience of their religions differ depending on whether they live where their religion is in the majority or is a minority of the local population.

I'm sure there are people working on many of these issues, or have already done studies and I just haven't stumbled on their reports yet. Sadly, my local libraries, both public and university, are either lacking in materials related to religion or are difficult for me to get to on a regular basis. The Internet is also a good resource, but it is sometimes more difficult to evaluate the authoritativeness of things published online. Other times, I imagine, I just don't come up with the correct search terms.

Anyway, if you've read this far, congratulations. I know that statistics can be dry, boring, and sometimes confusing. This is important information, though, I think, and I thought I would share.


* I could not get a link to the study itself to work, but there is a working link to it in the NBC story that I linked to.

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