01: There is a small but potentially significant increase in the strengthening of Catholic affiliation and a stabilization of the retention rate in the church, according to an analysis of the 2014 General Social Survey. In a post on the blog of Center for Research on the Apostolate (CARA), Mark Gray finds that when asked to characterize the strength of their affiliation, 34 percent of Catholics said it was “strong,” which is up from 27 percent in 2012. The seven points increase was a “significant bounce,” Gray said. The Catholic retention rate has also been on the decline since the 1970s, but the new GSS showed that the retention rate has remained steady for the first time. This stands in contrast to the continuing decline of Protestant retention rates, which dropped below 50 percent for the first time. In a Religion News Service article (March 25), David Gibson notes that the survey results could be an outlier and that it will take another survey wave or two with clear results to discern a “real course ‘correction’ in the data,” according to Gray.
02: The religiously unaffiliated are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population in the decades ahead because their net growth through religious switching will be more than offset by higher childbearing among the younger affiliated population. Those are the conclusions of an article by Conrad Hackett, Pew Research Center, and four other American and European scholars, published in Demographic Research (April). Media have widely mentioned the recent Pew Research Center report on The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050, prepared by Hackett and several other researchers. As part of Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project, its demographic projections foresee that the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians by 2050, that Christians in the United States will decline from three-quarters to two-thirds, and that four out of every 10 Christians will live then in sub-Saharan Africa, among other observations.
Atheists, agnostics and other unaffiliated people will make up a declining share of the world population despite an increase in absolute numbers, and their percentage will increase in some countries such as the United States or France. Indeed, in many countries of the West, where the unaffiliated have been growing, the growth is concentrated among young adults, while unaffiliated in China—for instance— tend to be older on average than affiliated people. “The unaffiliated are considerably older, at the global level, than the affiliated.” In contrast, in North America, “the unaffiliated are projected to increase from 59 million in 2010 to 111 million in 2050.” Still, there are questions on this matter as current patterns of religion switching are only available for less than half of the world population, and projections presume that current demographic trends and patterns of religious switching will continue. And there is one that the authors do not raise, although it is true that such changes do not take place overnight, we do not know if in two or three decades the move toward disaffiliation might not suddenly increase in some parts of the world where the level of belonging has remained high until now.
(The article is accessible online: http://www.demographic-research.org/Volumes/Vol32/27/, as well as the Global Religious Futures report: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/)
03: Those living in areas that have experienced earthquakes are more religious than those in less disaster-prone regions—and the effect is more than temporary and even extends beyond the generation that went through the quakes, according to economist Jeanet Bentzen of the University of Copenhagan. Bentzen, who presented a paper at the recent Boston meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture (ASREC), which RW attended, compared rates of religious belief from the World Value Study with data on regional disaster risks from the United Nations Environmental Program. Individuals in high earthquake risk areas were 9 percent more religious than the median rate of religiosity measured in 900 districts across the world. She finds that the rate of internal religious beliefs rather than religious participation is more likely to increase in these cases. This high rate holds for all religions and denominations, which affects both the educated and non-educated, though more so among the latter.
The economist finds that this is far from a short-term effect and can even be passed from parents to children. In looking at areas of immigration in Europe, Bentzen finds that those immigrants from areas with high earthquake risk were more religious than others, even if they had not personally experienced the disasters. Other similar disasters that occur unexpectedly, such as tsunamis and volcanoes, had similar effects, but not more expected kinds of problems, such as storms and work-related issues. She finds that this effect is not due to “social insurance” provided by religious organizations or atheists leaving areas where these disasters are prone to occur.
04: The increasing number of saints declared by the Catholic Church in recent years has been driven by competition with Protestants, with the last two papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI outpacing all the other popes in “saint-making,” according to Harvard University economists Robert J. Barro and Rachel M. McCleary. Barro delivered the paper on saint-making at the meeting of the Association for the Study of Economics, Religion and Culture in March, drawing on statistics and historical records of popes from 1590 to 2012. Barro and McCleary note that the “home bias” of the Catholic Church’s saint-making is “remarkable,” with a substantial preference toward Italy and secondly Western Europe. The effect of Protestant-Catholic competition and conflict on saint-making can be seen as early as the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which negotiated truces between warring Protestants and Catholics; the numbers of saints canonized in the period before the truce was almost three times more than those canonized after the agreement.
But since 1922, increased Protestant-Catholic competition has been an especially “important force on choices of blessed persons [beatifications],” the economists note. They add that these results “suggest that choices of numbers and locations of blessed persons since the early 20th century reflect the Catholic Church’s desire to invigorate the Catholic faithful and avoid conversions to Protestantism.” No similar effect was found for Catholic-Eastern Orthodox competition, possibly because these churches have often agreed not to proselytize in each other’s territories. While John Paul II and Benedict XVI were similar in the high numbers of saints they canonized, far exceeding other popes, the former was the actual outlier. This is because Benedict inherited a high number of beatifications that John Paul II had made during his tenure that eventually would require canonization. In the absence of this expansion by his predecessor, the number of saints canonized by Benedict would have been more in the range of 15 rather than the observed number of 42, according to Barro and McCleary.
05: Religiously diverse societies also tend to have more restrictions against proselytism, according to political scientist Ani Sarkissian of Michigan State University. Sarkissian, who was speaking at a special session on religious liberty at the meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture, said that the finding was a surprise because other researchers have found that societies with state religions tend to regulate other religious organizations and activities. She based her analysis on the 2012 Pew Survey of religious restrictions, with special focus on activities considered proselytizing, such as religious broadcasting, public preaching and literature distribution. Although she found a negative relationship between democracy and religious restrictions, 23 percent of democracies do limit some forms of proselytism, while other autocratic non-democracies may allow this activity. Sarkissian concludes that the presence of religious laws in a society was not a predictor of restrictions against proselytism.
06: Believers from nations with a strong secular rule of law tend to be more politically tolerant of atheists than those from countries with weaker forms of authority, according to a study in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior (February). Psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Will M. Gervais note that distrust of atheists has been prevalent among more religious nations, such as the U.S. Through cognitive psychological experiments, the authors hypothesize that exposure to strong forms of rule of law—for example, the presence of police, judges and courts increases religious believers tolerance of atheists, because such authority would ensure that such nonbelievers are more likely to be trustworthy. Narenzayan and Gervais then analyzed World Values Survey findings that related belief in God to distrust of atheists worldwide. Comparing these rates to societies ranked according to the degree by which secular authorities create and enforce laws, the researchers found that countries with a strong rule of law tended to show less distrust of atheists among its share of religious believers. They add that this effect was attributable to different levels of human development, higher individualism, or reduced religious belief in various nations. Norensayan and Gervais argue that believers view atheists as untrustworthy because they do not believe God is watching their actions, so the presence of a strong rule of law might substitute for this “surveillance,” creating more trust for non-believers.
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07: A study of Islamic jihadists finds that U.S. strikes against these leaders tends to increase the popularity of their writings among followers over the long term, according to MIT political science professor Richard Nielson. In a presentation at the March meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture, Nielson looked at 34 jihadist leaders who were targeted by the U.S. and the page views of their writings on their websites, and found a marked increase of views that persisted long after the attacks. In the case of Osama Bin Laden, who was killed in 2011, Nielson finds that the popularity of his writings have persistently increased by 20 percent even up until 2014. Similar rates of long-term popularity are true for other leading targeted jihadists, such as Libyan Abu Yahya al-Libi, killed in 2012, and American-born Anwar al- Awlaki, killed in 2011.
A related paper presented by sociologist Sean Everton of the Naval Postgraduate School finds that networks of jihadists associated with the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) took to Twitter last summer, revealing a change of focus from engaging enemies at home in the Islamic orbit to targeting “far enemies” in the West. Everton and colleagues analyzed close to one million tweets coming from dense networks of activists and ISIS supporters. The researchers looked at the top 50 themes of these ISIS tweets and found that they changed from Islamic issues of their “near enemy” to other concerns of their far enemy, often relating to President Obama and other Western leaders. Everton said that since this change was registered from early to late August last summer they could be related to the air strikes made against ISIS during that period.
That ISIS is adept on Twitter is shown by the fact that the social media company has recently moved more aggressively to suspend accounts linked to ISIS, shutting down 2,000 ISIS accounts in a single week, according to the New York Times (March 5). A related study by the Brookings Institution and Google Ideas finds that a minimum of 46,000 Twitter accounts operate on behalf of the Islamic State. While these accounts have on average about 1,000 followers each, higher than among ordinary Twitter users, many followers are also account holders, creating an echo chamber in the messaging.
08: The percentage of baptized Catholics in the French population will continue to decline—less than half of the French will have received Catholic baptism by 2045, according to a recent research conducted by Paradox Opinion and published by the French Catholic magazine La Vie (April 1). France is a country both with strong secularism and with a long Catholic legacy: both sides of the coin are illustrated by the results, showing that between 67.6 percent (42.8 million) and 71.7 percent (45.4 million) of the French have been baptized in the Catholic Church. A clear decline has started since the 1970s, evidenced by the increasing share of older people among baptized Catholics in France: in 1990 the median age of baptized Catholics was 38; currently, it is around 45; by 2045, it is expected to be 54. In 2045, nearly 40 percent of French baptized Catholics will be 65 and above. Currently, French population counts 64.2 million inhabitants; in 2045, it should reach 70.7 million. This means that the population growth will be around 7 million, but during the same 20-year period the Catholic Church will lose between 8-10 million members. The research considers several scenarios with the midpoint being around 35 million baptized by 2045.
As La Vie’s editor Jean-Pierre Denis notes, the Roman Catholic Church in France is far from dead and is not about to disappear. One might have expected worse prospects, but there is a radical turn, that will lead Catholics to become a minority in the country. Most baptized Catholics in France are not practicing; estimates for people who practice regularly are around 4 percent, and those who practice occasionally around 13 percent. Moreover, older age groups are overrepresented among practicing Catholics. The head of Paradox Opinion, sociologist Philippe Chriqui, observes that the percentage of Muslims will grow in France, but that Islam won’t replace Catholicism, contrary to statements by anti-Muslim authors and groups; the percentage of Muslims in France by 2045 should barely be above 10 percent. Both authors plead that those trends might still be reversed if the Catholic Church would become better able to reach and motivate the still large share of baptized, but non-practicing Catholics. For the time being, the focus is too strongly on those who are practicing, Denis writes.