Will atheists soon die out?

Shannon Roberts
May 29, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Demography is Destiny

Living in Quebec province in Canada as I am for a short time, it is apparent that a very religious people once inhabited this land dubbed "New France" in 1608. Almost every tourist attraction celebrates a beautiful church or a daring early religious order. It seems that providing the early French settlers with religious instruction and beautiful places in which to lift their minds to God was deemed as much a necessity as providing them with bread.

The early religious orders that worked quietly towards things like the education of girls and day-in-day-out in the city's early hospitals are still greatly admired by the people of Quebec who proudly tell their stories. However, at least judging by church attendance and vocations, it seems that the majority of people no longer share the faith that came so naturally to the early settlers. Only two weeks ago it was sadly announced that the Ursuline Sisters , the first Catholic nuns to land in the 'New World' in 1639, will soon be relocated to a smaller building from the one they have inhabited for centuries adjacent to the hospital they established.

The story secularization tells is that religion is outdated and society is moving forward by cultivating a more educated, economically focused, less religious 'modern' society. Judging by Western provinces such as Quebec, religion indeed seems to be dying out. The number of Americans identifying as atheists doubled between 2007 and 2014 according Pew Research, and a new British study concluded that "the rise of the non-religious is arguably the story of British religious history over the past half-century or so".

However, many see a link between the dramatically falling births rates in the West and religious decline. Atheist birth rates are extremely low, with Austrian secularists having just 0.7 children per woman for instance. American agnostics have just 1.3 children per woman. If the non-religious have no babies, will the religious inherit the earth after all? As overall fertility decreases the gap between the religious and secular grows, so that the next generation comes disproportionately from religious families and, as such, are more likely to be religious themselves.

A newly published study The Future of Secularism backs up this idea. It compares the fertility rates of atheists and religious people in the United States and Malaysia and concludes that the number of atheists will "slowly diminish", while religious believers will increase. The study suggests that secularism will decline "throughout the remainder of the 21st century, including [in] Europe and other industrial societies", and projects that by 2030 atheists will start to die out in Asia-Pacific and in Europe five years later. The British study also suggests that religious denominations may have reached a point where they are now down to a dedicated core of people who are much less likely to leave their faith.

Recent Pew Research projections , which take into account demographic factors such as fertility, age composition and life expectancy, forecast that people with no religion will make up about 13% of the world's population in 2060, a decrease from roughly 16% as of 2015. This relative decline is largely attributable to the fact that religious "nones" are, on average, older and have fewer children than people who are affiliated with a religion. In 2015 the median age of people who belong to any of the world's religions was 29, compared with 36 among the unaffiliated. And between 2010 and 2015, adherents of religions are estimated to have given birth to an average of 2.45 children per woman, compared with an average of 1.65 children among the unaffiliated.

According to Pew Research the average American Mormon has 3.4 children and Catholics and Protestants have between 2 and 2.5. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have among the highest fertility in the world, averaging 4.1 children in the US. However, rather than returning to a Christian West, the biggest demographic winner may be Islam. Currently Muslims make up roughly 24% of the global population. However, if current demographic trends continue , the number of Muslims is expected to exceed the number of Christians by the end of this century due to their higher birth and retention rates (attributed in part to harsh sanctions for renouncing Islam in some countries). Pew Research projects that 10% of all Europeans will be Muslims by 2050.

Christianity is also growing in non-Western countries such as sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and China. Some experts believe the Christian population in China is rising while the religiously unaffiliated population is falling. If this is true - and the trend continues - religious "nones" could decline as a share of the world's population even more than the Pew Research Center study projects. The table on the right shows Pew Research's estimated projections for global religious growth out to 2060:

The future of the world is in the hands of our children; what will their beliefs be?