By 2364, according to Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, humanity will have achieved the unthinkable: the complete eradication of poverty, inequality, and war. Earth itself will be a paradise with climate control facilities stifling hurricanes before they form and medical science easily treating most of the diseases that ravage us here in the 21st century.
However, something uniquely human is largely absent from this fictional utopia: religion.
Despite Gene Roddenberry’s own disdain for religion, Star Trek is not overtly hostile toward it. Not only are some prominent characters deeply religious, but many episodes across its five series also explore both religious and ethical themes. Nevertheless, as a whole, the major religions that we know on Earth in the 21st century simply do not factor into the lives of the human characters of Star Trek. Tolerant though they may be, humans constitute a primarily secular society in which “abandoning belief in the supernatural” is a goal all advanced civilizations will eventually achieve.
Although this vision of the future is 350 years away, the American blogosphere is already anticipating the persistent and inevitable decline of religion in the coming decades. Conservative Christian groups long ago sounded the red alert, with Answers in Genesis predicting a mass exodus of Millennials from their ranks due to the insidious creep of secularism. Even Sojourners Magazine, a popular outlet for progressive Christianity, has heard the death knell, publishing a blog series titled “Letters to the Dying Church.” Recent research showing the rising population of the religiously non-affiliated (the so-called “nones”) only seemed to confirm these suspicions.
But are these predictions accurate? Religions, like languages, certainly go extinct. Renewal movements notwithstanding, no one worships Artemis of Ephesus anymore. Even though her cult flourished in Asia Minor for over 900 years, it simply died out through mass conversions and invasions from the Visigoths. But in terms of absolute growth, what will the religious landscape of the future look like?
Simple population studies show that these prophecies of religion’s downfall smack of alarmism and, as is the case of Sojourners Magazine, no small amount of melodrama.
In 2013, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, a subsidiary department at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, published a sweeping study on religious populations around the globe. The researchers analyzed population and demographics data from 1970-2010 in order to extrapolate the likely trajectory of religious populations through to 2020.
The study found that in 1970, 82% of the world population self-identified as “religious.” By 2010, this number had grown to 88% with a likely projected 90% by 2020. During the same time period, Christianity in particular grew more rapidly than population rates. By 2020, it is expected to comprise 33.3% of the world population, up from 33.2% in 1970.
So if Christianity (and religion in general) is actually increasing worldwide, why the predictions of a secular world-to-be?
This discourse of Christianity’s downswing stems from two factors: our Western bias and a failure to recognize large-scale historical changes in favor of immediate causal factors.
Christianity’s greatest gains in population have occurred in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In east Asia alone, the Christian population skyrocketed from 11.4 million people in 1970 to 127.8 million in 2010 (a jump from 1.2% to 8.1% of the region’s population). During this same time, the Christian population in Europe and North American markedly decreased. Western Europe has experienced the steepest decline from 89% in 1970 to 69% in 2010. The US followed suit with a drop from 90% to 80%. However, the gains in the global south outstripped these losses in the global north, yielding a net increase in the Christian population worldwide.
So, from Star Trek producers to Christian bloggers, it seems that we all suffer from an inherently Western bias, fixating on our neighbors at the expense of the vast majority of the world’s population. Christianity is not on a downswing any more than it is on the verge of a cataclysmic collapse. Rather, we are witnessing a population shift away from its historical centers.
This leads to the second motivator behind our alarmist rhetoric: the generational snobbery that we are the first to experience titanic cultural shifts. Even a cursory glance at the longue durée of church history shows this to be false. Christianity’s geographical center has shifted before when Jerusalem’s influence waned in favor of Rome and Constantinople. Since then, Christianity has experienced schisms, reformations, and revitalizations that no one could have expected at the time. Ironically, the “end-is-nigh” attitude has remained constant from St. Paul to now despite Christianity’s continued growth through these upheavals.
We see a similar Western and generational bias when pundits gripe about China’s economic resurgence in the past half-century, forgetting that China was the dynamo for global trade and technological innovation for 2000 years. This same myopia tells us that Christianity has always been the most populous and powerful religion, when, in fact, this wasn’t the case even 500 years ago. Short-term memory loss, it seems, thrives when our status quo is at risk.
So, what will Christianity and the religious landscape look like in 2364? Painful as it is to contradict my favorite science fiction series, the ancient historian in me must disagree with Star Trek. I fully anticipate religion to continue playing a critical role in human culture, economics, and politics for centuries to come. However, whatever form it may take over the next 350 years, it will markedly differ from 2014. Globalization will demand from us to think broadly in a rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world. Rather than a secular utopia, the Earth-to-come will be a religiously pluralistic society in which we, as global citizens, will find it increasingly difficult to shelter in our own religious bubbles.
However, we don’t need to wait 350 years for this…it is already happening now.