One of the things that has become obvious as I study the marvelous Atlas of Global Christianity (which I highly recommend to all libraries scholars of Christianity, and practitioners of evangelization), is that trends that western Catholics lament and tend to regard as a crisis of the west, are truly global rather than western. They cross all kinds of religious, cultural, and national boundaries in ways that would surprise us.
For one thing, the whole world experienced massive religious change during the past century, not just the west and certainly not just Christians. The fact that so many of our intra-ecclesial discussions presume that the religious world of 1910 still exists should make us stop and re-think our assumptions. We are still prone to assume that religious identity is fundamentally stable and not easily changed. But the religious world of 1910 has been swept away and not just in the west!
Here are the top ten global religious traditions by number of adherents in 1910 and 2010:
2. Chinese folk religionists
9. New Religionists
2010 (Faiths that have changed position are italicized, new “faiths” are bolded)
6. Chinese folk religionists
9. New Religionists
For instance, the largest faith in Asia in 1910 was not Buddhism. Only 13% of Asians were Buddhist in 1910. Far larger was what the AGC calls "Chinese folk-religion" which was practiced by 38% of Asians and 22.3% of the world's people a hundred years ago.
Chinese folk religion is an amalgamation of Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist traditions, includes ancestor worship, and was practiced almost entirely by Chinese peoples. Today only 6.6% of the world’s people still practice Chinese folk religion. It declined sharply under Communism when many Chinese folk religionists “converted” to agnosticism or atheism.
Agnosticism, one of the emerging “religious traditions” in the 20th century is defined fairly broadly by the AGC. It includes 1) “classical’ agnostics who hold that it is impossible to know for certain whether God or any deity exists; 2) those who are uncertain about the existence of God; 3) other non-religious such as secularists and materialists.
A hundred years ago, 83% of agnostics did live in Europe and North America. (Most of the remainder lived in Uruguay, which was the most agnostic country in the world in 1910. 37% of its population was agnostic.)
The mass conversion of Chinese folk religionists to agnosticism over the past century means that there are almost 4 times as many agnostics in Asia today as in Europe, North America, and Oceania combined. Asia, not the west, is the new center of world agnosticism because the Chinese people experienced massive religious change in the 20th century.
And that change, like all change, had unintended consequences. The grand-children and great grand-children of those whose traditional folk religion was stripped away under Communist pressure are now becoming Christians in staggering numbers. Chinese Christians have grown from 1.7 million to 115 million in one century. In 2010, Chinese Christianity is growing nearly 6 times faster than the population. The 21st century already looks very different from the world Mao envisioned when he led the Long March.
In many ways, China is the supreme poster child for global religious change. A bastion of ancient folk religion turned epicenter of agnosticism and Christian powerhouse. All in one century.
In visual form, the global rise of agnosticism looks like this:
% of world that was religious in 1910
% of world that is religious in 2010
More on Religious Change: The New World of Unbelief