A few thoughts on the Pew Research “religion will be big in 2050” poll

PF_15.04.02_Projections_promo640x320As might be expected, the pew research poll that claims a huge growth in religious belief has turned into a bit of a wet dream for many religious folks. For example, here is Fr. Dwight Longenecker (a Catholic priest) claiming “The Facts: Atheism is Dying Out” …

It is religion which continues to grow around the world while the statistics indicate that agnosticism and atheism are dying out.

.. and that is a bizarre claim to make, because putting this poll aside the actual statical facts we have today tell us a completely different story, so let’s look into this claim.

Where can I find the actual poll details?

Here …

Should I treat this as a reliable poll?

The short answer is … no.

The slightly longer answer is that instead of reading the headlines, you should instead be asking yourself how they arrived at the projections that they have come up with. Specifically …

  • what methodology have they deployed?
  • what assumptions have they made?
  • what disclaimers have they added?

.. and to find such details you need to leap directly into an appendix at page 166 of the report (good luck to anybody reading all 166 pages and still remaining awake enough by the time they reach that section).

What specific disclaimers do they add?

These quotes were all lifted directly from page 187 …

  • The projections are what will occur if the current data are accurate and the trends play out as expected.
  • Many events – scientific discoveries, armed conflicts, social movements, political upheavals, natural disasters and changing economic conditions, to name just a few – can shift demographic trends in unforeseen ways
  • current patterns of religious switching are available for only 70 countries, which constitute 43% of the world’s population. The most populous omissions are China and India
  • This study does not attempt to model how religious switching patterns may change in the future as countries experience changes in education, urbanization, political governance and economic development. It is uncertain how economic growth might impact levels of religious affiliation.

So apart from the fact that they have huge gaps in their data, have made assumptions about things remaining exactly the same (which they don’t), and have not considered the negative impact that increasing prosperity and education has upon belief … it is all just fine … or to be brutally frank, it is actually not really telling us anything of any value at all.

What else do we also know?

Something dramatic has happened to humanity in this last decade – the Internet. This has greatly increased the flow of information and as a result beliefs are facing an unprecedented challenge. What we can do is look back in human history and observe that when the flow of information increases like this, everything changes. With the advent of the printing press, the grip that belief held was greatly weakened and it led to the birth of a reformation and the enlightenment. Once again a similar change is upon us, and what we now observe is an unprecedented rise in the number of non-religious people.

So while Fr. Longenecker and many other religious people might indeed grasp at polls such as this to assert a claim that … “The facts indicate … that agnosticism and atheism are dying out” … back in our reality, the statistical facts are that agnosticism and atheism are rapidly rising, and so a poll founded upon unrealistic assumptions is not a valid factual rebuttal for that statistical fact.

Leave a Reply