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Religion in the Future

DAVID A. HANNAN

RESEARCH ASSISTANT, CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY


How many people will identify as Christian in China 50 years from now? You might be surprised to discover that, if you were to ask different types of researchers this question, they might provide very different answers.

One way to answer this is to figure out the net annual change in the Christian population in China this year, based on what we called the “six-dynamics of religious change.” Then, using simple mathematics, one might calculate how many more (or less) Christians there will be after 50 years of this same annual change, which is called a projection.

Another approach to this question incorporates the study of “religiosity,” which, simply stated, involves measuring how religious a particular group of people are. Cast in terms of Christianity in America, religiosity might attempt to answer the question, “What is the difference between the number of people ‘in a pew’ every Sunday and the extent to which those people believe in and practice their faith?” Answering these sorts of religiosity questions, might be a qualitative basis for or against the kind of quantitative projection described above.

However, just as most of us know that things rarely stay the same, we also know that the way things change, is also, well, changing. The process described above—a straightforward projection—necessarily assumes a consistent rate of change in the Christian population over decades. Researchers in this area are aware of this and agree that this is an assumption but for many years it was necessary in order to make any meaningful descriptive and quantitative projections about religious populations.

But what if one could make predictions with an entirely different set of assumptions about what factors might impact how and how fast populations change religiously?

This question forms the basis of a cutting-edge, innovative research initiative: the Modeling Religious Change project housed at the Center for Mind and Culture (CMAC) in Boston. Funded by the John Templeton Foundation, this project involves an interdisciplinary group of over twenty-three researchers working together over the next two years.

Given the scope of the questions above, the project depends on experts not only in religious demography, philosophy, and theology but also innovators in computer science, artificial intelligence, database engineering, and statistical modeling. Together, the result of these researchers’ collaboration will produce a predictive tool that can produce projections far more complex than the one described above. The project focuses on modeling religious change first in the United States, Norway, and India, and the CSGC is leading the effort on gathering data for India. For many years, the CSGC has been at the cutting edge of religious demographic methods, ever since David Barrett started counting new Christian denominations in Kenya in the 1960’s, which led to the first edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia. The Modeling Religious Change project presents a unique opportunity to expand his legacy in new directions that will allow us to study the change in Christian populations in the world with more complexity and sensitivity than ever before; and we hope it will insightful and valuable to the study of Christianity around the world for years to come.