Pew study predicts the decline of the Nones, but more likely just doesn’t understand them

by | April 12, 2015

Another major public opinion research group released another major report last week (the first being the Angus Reid Institute’s report on Faith in Canada). This time it was the Pew Research Center, but their report is not another survey. They collected demographic data from 2,500 censuses and large-scale surveys from 175 countries over 6 years, and used that data to model religious demographics over the next 40 years. The result that has atheists, secularists, and freethinkers most interested is the projection that the proportion of nonreligious people will drop from 16% to 13% by 2050.

Before I dig into the data itself, I want to dispel a concern that’s been raised about the source. The study was funded by the Pew group and by the Templeton Foundation. It’s true the Pew Group often leans fairly right-wing, and in particular has favoured some very anti-atheist groups. And of course the Templeton Foundation has also had its right-wing dalliances, and has earned the ire of many prominent scientists for its efforts at sneaking Christianity into science. But both groups have done plenty of solid, non-partisan science – for example, the famous STEP study on the efficacy of prayer that showed it was worse than useless was a Templeton study. And this study’s methodology seems to be quite sound. There seems no reason to be suspicious of the study’s conclusions.

The study is called The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. The goal is to estimate the populations of various major religious groups (including “unaffiliated”) over the next 40 years.

What they did was collect demographic and religious identification data from 175 countries, over 6 years. In 90 countries – covering 45% of the world’s population – they used census data, but in 43 other countries (covering 12% of the world’s population) they used large-scale demographic surveys, and in 42 (with 37% of the world’s population) they used general surveys. In total, that covers 95% of the world’s population. Then they used the data on birth and death rates, immigration and emigration, and religious identification, and projected what those things would make the population look like in 40 years.

They project that the world population in 2050 will be 9.3 billion – which is pretty much in line with United Nations Population Division estimates – and that Christians will remain the largest religious group at about 31% of the global over that period (growing from 2.2 gigapeople to 2.9). However, the “shocking” finding – at least to the Pew and Templeton folk – is that while the proportion of Christians will stay relatively level, the proportion of Muslims will shoot up from 23% to 30% over that period. In fact, Muslims will outnumber Christians after 2070. Oh, the horror!

Or, ya know, not really. I mean, other than Christians and Muslims, who really cares, right?

Well, they also tracked the “unaffiliated” – the Nones, basically. What they found is that while the number of Nones will rise from 1.2 to 1.3 gigapeople, the proportion of Nones will drop from 16% to 13%. In other words, “unaffiliated” is a “religion in decline”.

A chart showing the comparative values of religious population sizes and percentages between 2010 and 2050, based on data from the Pew study.

Religious population projections

The first question to ask is: Is that projection sound?

The short answer is: Yes. The long answer is, well, long, so I’ll get to it shortly. But to expand on the short answer just a bit: The methodology of the study is quite sound. If religious affiliation were solely a matter of birth/death, migration, and statistically-consistent apostasy… which it is… for religions (not so for the unaffiliated, as I will explain in a bit)… then – barring unforeseeable circumstances – the study’s estimates should be fairly accurate.

That may sound surprising, not least because the study predicts a decline in the number of unaffiliated when we just saw a survey showing that the Nones are growing. But there is some rationality to the prediction. Nones are really mostly only increasing proportionately in rich, Western countries. In fact, the study predicts that the proportion of Nones will grow quite a bit in North America (17.1% in 2010 to 25.6% in 2050) and Europe (18.8% to 23.3%), and less dramatically in Latin America and the Caribbean (7.7% to 8.7%). Nones are fairly concentrated in just a relatively small number of countries, and while they are growing in terms of those countries, those countries are usually not growing much in terms of the global population. For example, 52% of Japanese are Nones, but Japan has had an increasingly negative population growth rate since 2007. Canada’s population growth rate is still positive, but nothing to be impressed about – we rank around ~130th in the world, well below the total world rate.

Meanwhile, the countries with the highest population growth rates are all predominantly Muslim countries. These are the countries with the top 5 growth rates according to the UN – for comparison the global growth rate is 1.1%:

  • Oman (7.9%)
  • Qatar (5.9%)
  • South Sudan (4.0%)
  • Niger (3.9%)
  • Kuwait (3.6%)

Of those, only South Sudan doesn’t have a majority Muslim population – it’s ~60% Christian, most of the rest is folk religion. But of the other four only Qatar isn’t essentially 100% Muslim (Qatar is “only” ⅔ Muslim). The pattern extends to the entire top 50 growth rates.

And that should make the study results much easier to grasp. Those mind-blowing growth rates in countries that have essentially no nonreligious population – and in most cases, an essentially 100% Muslim population – are why Islam’s percentage share shoots up, while the Nones slip down.

That leads to the second question: Wait… shouldn’t we be worried about that?

Well, this is where we get back to the long answer from the previous question. Obviously I haven’t done a counter-study to prove anything, but I suspect that the study massively underestimates the number of nonreligious people. I have this suspicion for the following reasons:

The numbers are already underestimated

The methodology of the study is basically to take current religious population estimates, and extrapolate them into the future. But that whole venture is made worthless if the current estimates are off.

And for nonreligious populations, they are. We know they are. In fact, we just saw they are – for Canada, at least – a week ago. That study showed that 56% of people who reject religion still identify with one. That means that the current number of nonreligious people in Canada is at least twice the number estimated. Or in other words, the “unaffiliated” are only a small subset of the nonreligious, because so many nonbelievers still pretend to be religious.

That’s just the Canadian result, obviously, but we can expect that the number of nonreligious people is underestimated everywhere. Because there is really no country on Earth where identifying with a religion is socially unacceptable, but there are several where identifying as nonreligious is not only unacceptable, it’s even illegal, or extremely dangerous. So we can reasonably expect the proportion of nonreligious people to be underestimated, but not the proportion of religious people.

The study doesn’t really consider the ways nonbelievers are created

The study is based – in essence – almost entirely on birth rates and migration. But here’s the thing: neither of those mechanisms are really major contributors to nonbeliever populations.

Nones generally don’t breed as much or as quickly as religious people in general, for various reasons (some of which I’ll touch on obliquely). But that’s never been a real problem for their growth. In fact, the vast majority of Nones in Canada (and this almost certainly applies to most other countries) were not born Nones – they were born into religious families.

Similarly, there aren’t any countries exporting large numbers of nonbelievers. Nonbelievers currently tend to be concentrated in countries with fairly high standards of living (which generally also correlates to low birth rates, incidentally)… and they ain’t leavin’ them. Just by simple math, focusing only on migration effects, any country that accepts significant numbers of immigrants will become more religious. (In fact, just about the only thing keeping the Christian population in Canada relatively stable is immigration.) No country will get more atheist through immigration.

Both of these things are true in Canada, the US, and pretty much every other country with a significant and growing nonreligious population. Atheists just don’t grow much by birth or immigration. Yet, clearly our numbers do grow… and they grow extremely quickly – nonbelievers are among the fastest growing demographics in several countries. So clearly relying on birth and migration statistics won’t help you much in estimating the growth of nonbelief.

Apostasy rates are almost certainly going to rise

The study does consider apostasy – or as they put it, “religious switching” – which is currently the number one way nonbelievers are created. It shouldn’t be surprising that they thought of that – it is a very well-designed and conducted study, after all – but if they did consider apostasy, wouldn’t that make the estimates more reasonable?

It would… if the rates of apostasy were correct. But there are strong reasons to believe that apostasy rates will only go up in the short to medium term.

First of all, apostasy feeds apostasy in a snowball effect. The more people who turn their backs on religion, the more other people are inspired and emboldened to do it, too. And that trend works across borders, too. The growing number of bloggers standing up and declaring their atheism in the Middle East, often at great personal risk, is due to the fact that irreligion has grown in Western countries.

There is another thing to consider, too. Not only is apostasy socially unacceptable in many places, it is actually illegal in some. In many others, it’s not necessary illegal, but downright dangerous. But we can expect that such repression isn’t going to last forever. In fact, there are reasons to be hopeful that it won’t last another decade. The international reaction to the story of Raif Badawi is a good sign – Saudi Arabia is putting on a good show of sticking to their guns, but I think it’s pretty obvious that even if they don’t relent and free Badawi (which I suspect they will), they will never try to pull the same shit again.

As respect for human rights and freedom of expression spreads, widespread apostasy will almost certainly follow – not necessarily immediately, but in time. And we can expect that human rights protections will become more widespread, rather than shrinking. And there is nowhere in the world where the laws prevent one from going from atheist to religious, so the net effect of spreading human rights will be a growth of nonbelief.

There’s one other thing about apostasy: It’s pretty much a one-way street. There are atheists who became religious… but they are rare. Far, far, far more common is the religious person who became atheist. Once you’ve realized that one religion is bunkum, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll suddenly discover that some other religion is “sensible” later on down the road.

Now, I’ve been saying that the study underestimates the rates of apostasy, which I believe is true… and yet, look at this:

A chart showing the relative numbers of people switching into and out of religions, from the Pew study.

Number of people “switching” into and out of various religions

That pretty graphically illustrates several of my points:

  1. Apostasy is the primary means of creating nonbelievers;
  2. Apostasy is much easier in more progressive countries (which are predominantly Christian); and
  3. Apostasy is a one-way street.

And let me stress again that I think the study underestimates future rates of apostasy. So as powerful as the effect illustrated above is… it’s going to get stronger. (And we’ll probably start leeching off of other religions – especially Islam – much more, giving the poor Christians a bit of a break.)

There seem to be no effects that might lead to a decrease in apostasy… you know, except for having a religious population so small that apostasy can’t really happen regularly. So we can presume that apostasy rates will only go up in the future – they won’t stay constant at today’s rate.

Virtually all other unconsidered trends favour increasing nonbelief

The authors of the study freely admit the limits of its predictive power: religious populations are not determined merely by birth/death rates, migration rates, and “switching” rates. There are all kinds of other factors that affect religiosity, and the growth/demise of various religious groups in particular.

Some of those factors are obviously impossible to predict. You can’t really predict natural disasters or wars or things like that, and they can have tremendous impacts on population numbers. But other facts are predictable.

For example, generally the quality of living has increased worldwide. Granted, it has increased more in some places than in others, and there are places where it has temporarily regressed (such as in times of war), but in general, quality of life has increased worldwide. And it seems almost certain that trend will continue.

The global population is also becoming more educated, and their access to information – and to each other – is growing all the time. Peace is also increasing – in fact, recent years have seen serious discussions about the decline of war, and the possibilities of perpetual peace.

But here’s a really intriguing observation: The upshot of all of those effects is decreased religiosity.

It’s true. As living standards increase, religiosity drops. Same for education, and cosmopolitanism. Poverty and war create faith; peace and well-being erode it.

In fact, just about every major, long-term trend in the world today leads to less religious belief. And an easy way to get empirical validation of that claim is to just look around: the more advanced a nation is, the less religious it is; the more comfortable, educated, healthy, and happy a population, the less use they have for religion. (Generally. Obviously there are exceptions. The US in particular is a glaring exception.)

Indeed, the countries with the extremely high birth rates – and extremely low rates of apostasy – are all countries that are either war-torn or generally socially and practically backward: poor, uneducated, and under the thumb of repressive dictatorships. If conditions in those countries improve – and we are ethically obligated to improve them, regardless – we should expect to see their birth rates become more reasonable… and we should also expect to see irreligion grow.


The study isn’t “wrong”. It’s methodology is quite logical, and quite sound, given the stated objective of estimating the growth/decline of religious populations.

The problem starts when they assume “unaffiliated” is just another religious population.

Nonreligious populations are totally unlike religious populations. The ways nonreligious people are “created” are entirely different from the ways religious people are – nonreligious people generally aren’t born into nonreligious families (that may be true in a few generations, but it isn’t true now). If the study were just about religious populations – and that’s certainly what the focus was – the predictions would probably be quite accurate. But the methodology just doesn’t work well for the Nones.

Unlike religious populations – whose size and growth is almost entirely dependent on birth/death rates and migration – the size and growth of nonreligious populations is heavily dependent on how developed a society is. Nonbelief cannot thrive in a society that is uneducated, unconnected, wallowing in poverty, and/or under constant threat of war or violence. But once a society has crossed a certain threshold of development, nonbelief starts growing explosively. That means that as the world as a whole becomes more developed, nonbelief should grow worldwide… even without the existence of a nonbeliever population to grow from (ie, birth rates don’t really matter). Part of that growth will be because access to information will make it harder for people to hold on to nonsensical or offensively stupid religious beliefs, but part of it will simply be because people who already don’t believe will be able to say so openly without repercussions.

So while the study isn’t “wrong”, and its predictions about religious populations are probably pretty accurate, I believe its methodology is poorly tuned for handling nonreligious populations. It’s simply measuring the wrong variables – they may be the right variables for modelling trends in religious populations, but they are not the right variables for nonreligious populations.

Further, it seems that all the trends that do influence the growth of nonreligious populations (increasing global education, quality of life, etc.) all point in the same direction: toward growing nonbelief. There don’t seem to be any global, long-term trends that favour religious belief. All the places that are extremely religious and/or prodigious today are the same places where development will have the most powerful impact – and hence, will have the greatest rates of growth of nonbelief – in the future. But on the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be any plausible way a currently developed country – with a strong nonreligious population – will suddenly regress into religiosity.

Bottom line: the study doesn’t consider the factors that really influence the growth of nonreligious populations, and the factors it ignores all seem to point to nonreligious populations growing, and growing at faster rates over time.

Granted, this is just my opinion, albeit backed up with some general facts about nonreligious demographics. I’d be curious to hear dissenting opinions.

Regardless, I think we have nothing to worry about. I think the study probably does a good job of estimating religious groups, but for various reasons it grossly underestimates the Nones, and future rates of growth of the Nones. I think we have a lot of growth to look forward to, and bright future in general.

One thought on “Pew study predicts the decline of the Nones, but more likely just doesn’t understand them

  1. billybob

    Interesting post.

    This study reminds me of global warming deniers who simply pick some criteria such as a warm year followed by a cooler year then extrapolate and say the world is cooling.

    The study is flawed in concept as taking a few numbers and predicting the the state of the world in 35 years is

    I am suspicious that they thought the numbers might show an increase in religion and proceeded with this study so it could be used as a marketing tool. Look people religion is on the upswing, Jesus saves!


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