The Future of Religion: Evolutionary Trends

Celtic cemetary

The other day I was talking with my dear friend and colleague in the Great Work, Jon Cleland Host, about recent polls on religion in America and around the world.  I greatly appreciated his perspective and asked him to contribute this GUEST BLOG POST.  It's lengthy but well worth the reading!


One of the many empowering realizations that an evolutionary worldview gives us is that we can make some reasonable guesses about the future based on long term trends of the past.  We can enter the future with trust and with our eyes open, poised for some likely scenarios, instead of being blindly buffeted by inscrutable Fates.  In chapters 16 and 17 of Thank God for Evolution, Michael Dowd shows that if the 14 billion year history of the universe were compressed into a single century, then the next minute on the cosmic century timeline would represent 250 years. Surely, we should be able to make a few accurate assumptions about the next minute if we know the past 100 years of history!

Some events can't be predicted very well, such as distant supernovae or the direction of next week's stock market movement.   Others, however, are the result of long-term trends, and can at least be estimated based on those trends.  For instance, world population has been increasing rapidly for centuries, and it appears likely to continue to do so for several decades into the future.  When our day-to-day experience is affected by long-term trends, those trends can predict part of what our future (and our kids' future) will be like.  Out of all the aspects of society that affect our lives, let's look at religion.

If you are an American Gen X'er like me, you probably grew up in a world where the dominant religion was an unquestioned, moderate, mainline (Protestant or Roman Catholic) Christianity.  I remember some religious conflict in society (such as the fight over female ministers), but also remember times without conflict.  How much should I trust those memories of mine?

Anecdotal evidence (the memories and experiences of one or several people) is naturally a powerful force in our evolved minds.  After all, it's the only kind of evidence that our Ancestors had available for well over 99.9% of our existence.  It makes sense that we have evolved to pay a lot of attention to it.  However, our experiences are terribly limited, our recall quite selective, and our memories malleable by desire and expectation.  This is why anecdotal evidence is often not worth the paper it is (sometimes) printed on, and why it takes a conscious effort for us to go beyond it.

Luckily, the modern world often gives us powerful and effective supplements to anecdotal evidence.  The 20th century, unlike any century before it, generated a wealth of detailed data on an astounding array of subjects.  To ignore this evidence when looking into any subject is like driving with your eyes closed.  It's stupid, pointless, and often harmful.  So let's look at some recent religious trends...

The First Measured Century, by T. Caplow shows us some of these data, while many other studies provide additional data.  Since 1900, moderate Christian denominations, like the Episcopal Church, have been shrinking, while more fundamentalist groups, like the Pentecostals, have been growing.  Even though this growth has been going on for a long time, in comparison to moderate-to-liberal Christianity, mainline Christians were still the overwhelming majority until recently.  Now, even evangelicalism is in serious decline in America.  For more about this, read the provocative and much discussed recent article in the Christian Science Moniter: "The Coming Evangelical Collapse", written by Michael Spencer, a well-respected evangelical blogger.)  The last two decades have also seen an increase of the "non-religious": Agnostics, Atheists, and a resurgence of Deists.

The recent data from the ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) just published on March 9th confirms that these trends are continuing today.  For instance, this survey found that the non-religious continue to increase, now reaching 15%, up from just 8% in 1990.  Similarly, the proportion of Christians in the U. S. continues to decrease, down to 76% from 86% in 1990 and 93% in 1965 (Rasmussen data).  Minority religions experienced growth of over 10% per decade, from 3.3% in 1990 to 3.9% in 2008.  However, the biggest shock was the drop in the mainline, moderate, Protestant Christian faiths that defined much of American culture for so long.   Nearly 20% of Americans were mainline Protestants in 1990, 17% in 2001, and just 12.9% in 2008.  Perhaps most importantly, the young are the least likely to identify with mainline Protestant Christianity.  We've also seen an explosive growth of "ex-Catholics"

So what does this tell us about our future?  Because these trends have been going on for decades or centuries (depending on the trend), it seems likely that they will continue.  It seems hard for many of us to imagine a United States where Christianity is a minority religion, yet that appears likely within the lifetimes of many of us.  The remaining Christians will be mostly fundamentalists.  Religious diversity will be the norm, with large proportions of the non-religious and increased Muslim, Hindu, and other populations.  Can you imagine a future world where many people haven't even heard of tiny sects like Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists?  How can we imagine such a radically different religious landscape?

One easy way is to simply look across the pond to Europe, where these same trends are farther along.  Like the probable future United States, Europe currently has growing minority religions, a shrinking Christianity, and a large Non-Christian (or Post-Christian) population.  This can be seen in the 2005 Eurobarometer poll, which found that only 52% of Europeans believed in God, with even lower rates among the young.  Because the countries in Europe vary greatly in regard to religion, some countries show this much more than others.

Do we need more confirmation of these trends?  What is going in Australia, a third large chunk of western culture?   In 1901, Australians were over 95% Christian.  This dropped to 76% by 1981, and to 64% by 2006.  Minority religions are rapidly growing (and were at 5.6% in 2006), and the Non-Religious have grown from near zero in 1966 to between 20 and 30% in 2006, and are even higher among the young.

In all of these Western cultures, the highest numbers for both the non-religious and the minority religions are among the young, who will become the culture of the future in all these areas.  As a result, as the young grow up these trends will likely continue, in addition to any acceleration due to the cultural changes that are driving them from the start.  Confirmation of this comes from recent data on Canadian teens.  Compared to mid 80's, 30% fewer teens identify as Catholics, over 60% fewer teens identify as Protestants, and today there are more teens in Canada who identify as Muslims than as Protestant.  Over the same period, the number of professed Atheists among Canadian teens tripled.

These data certainly came as a shock to me.  They may come as a shock to you.  They no doubt would come as a major shock to the millions of Americans who wrap Christianity and America together in their minds.  In fact, a 2006 study found that in America, Atheists are more widely hated than any other studied group, including homosexuals, Muslims, and African Americans.  Unlike being homosexual, Muslim, or African American, simply being an Atheist disqualifies a person from being president of the United States in the minds of most Americans.  With the non-religious being second only to Christianity in numbers in the United States, it's no surprise that we've all seen the growing animosity on both sides of the God debates, as well as the escalation following the appearance of the New Atheists.  (See Connie Barlow's blog post: "A Place at the Podium")

Are these trends and the attitudes of millions of Christians (especially in the United States) on a collision course?  Is our near future and that of our kids going to be marred by hatred and conflict between Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and others?  As we've seen throughout history, few human differences can result in as much violence as differences over religion, such as when the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation killed literally millions of Europeans over the course of two centuries.  It is chilling to realize that most of the religious carnage that has occurred in recent centuries did so without the aid of nuclear and chemical weapons, which have since become a common addition to arsenals around the world.  What will religious conflict be like with them?

A tragic future is not, of course, inevitable.  An evolutionary worldview provides us with a way to call into being new interpretations of every religious (and non-religious) path, interpretations that are vibrant, healthy, living, and perhaps most important of all, harmonious.  As someone on the Evolutionary Paganism (Earth-honoring) path, I'm happy to see the growth of Evolutionary Christianity, Evolutionary Islam, and so on.  I happily promote Evolutionary Christianity among those whom it will fit.  I'm a Pagan promoting a form of Christianity?  Yes!  The evolutionary forms of religion really do fit together harmoniously, and they really do expand our circles of care and concern to embrace the whole planet.  This harmony is but one of the many gifts of the evolutionary expressions of each religious tradition.

What are these new, evolutionary forms of the venerable religious traditions?  They are simply the core religious concepts of each tradition, practiced in the light of the current discoveries of science and our evolutionary past and future in ways that inspire and empower.  They are discovered when those within each tradition translate their own religious metaphors and symbols to make them relevant, real, inspiring, and universally true.   This is nothing new.  All religious paths grew and changed as their adherents revitalized their religions again and again over time.  To see this happening today is evidence of a living faith that has not stagnated.  Michael Dowd goes through this process for Christianity in Section III of his book, Thank God For Evolution (and in the recent blog posts "Christian Naturalism" and "How and Why I'm a Pentecostal Evangelical").  Others have begun this process for other faith traditions.

Evolutionary forms of all religious paths also evaporate the conflict between believers in God and Atheists.  An evolutionary understanding of God is not something can be disbelieved in - the evolutionary God is as obviously and undeniably real as our own bodies.  This is discussed in detail in many previous blog posts here, such as "Metaphorical Gods vs. Reality: Part 1 and Part 2".  When evolutionary forms of religion and non-religion are adopted, the whole Atheist/Theist question becomes irrelevant, and we are all freed to celebrate our lives together, and freed to concentrate on the real problems of building a bright and sustainable future for our great great grandchildren.  (See Michael Dowd's blog posts: "Creatheism: Evolutionary Emergence Ends the Theism-Atheism Debate" and "The Silly Debate Over God's Existence."

The trends we are seeing today are moving faster than many of us realize.  As the past four billion years of life on our Earth has shown us, Evolutionary Emergence generally speeds up over time.  To keep our species from being caught unprepared for these changes, pioneers across the globe are helping to usher in the religious revival needed to prevent much of the future religious conflict before it happens.  The fact that traditional, flat-Earth religions are withering even without a clear competitor shows how needed all of these real, fulfilling evolutionary forms of spirituality are today.  In the West, perhaps the second most important evolutionary spirituality that must be built is that of a meaningful, purposeful, Evolutionary Humanism.  It is a path so poorly developed that the majority of Americans have never even heard of it, or its sister paths of Religious Naturalism and Neo-Pantheism.  Few attempts have been made at this important part of the Great Work of building our future culture - though some great beginnings do exist, such as the ongoing work by Connie Barlow and Ursula Goodenough.  In discussions with other people with a naturalistic worldview, I rarely hear more meaning and purpose than the banal nihilism of "we all just decompose eventually anyway".  The Great Story—the Epic of Evolution—can be a tremendous source of meaning and value for evolutionary forms of all religions, traditional and non-traditional, and for freethinkers as well.

We each make decisions every day that speed or slow the emergence of a just and thriving future for planet Earth and it's diverse species.  For the sake of your kids, and mine, I hope we are making decisions that will help us build this inclusive, evolutionary, science affirming culture sooner rather than later.

~ Jon Cleland Host


All of the estimates of the religious landscape in any area are likely to change depending on the wording of the questions asked as well as methodological differences (such as whether or not children are included).  For this reason, sources are provided for all the numbers used in this blog post, and the reader is encouraged to check the data from various sources.  Some of the main sources used include:

The Cosmic Century (the 14 billion year history of the Universe condensed down to 100 years) is explained in greater detail starting on Page 277 in Thank God for Evolution, by Michael Dowd. A similar condensation (Earth's history condensed to a single year) can be seen in Carl Sagan's Cosmos, Episode 2.

The First Measured Century by Theodore Caplow is available in many bookstores, including online bookstores.

The entire ARIS 2008 Survey is available as a free download, which also contains a summary.

Pre-1990 data on the proportion of Christians in the US can be found here.

Detailed statistics on the explosive growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity can be found in "Spirit and Power—a 10 Country Survey of Pentecostals" by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, October 2006.

The Entire 2005 Eurobarometer poll can be downloaded here.  Note that the poll allows for the selection of "some universal spirit or life force" instead of "God", however, being the question being address was the prevalence of Christianity, only belief in "God" was considered so as to separate Christians from those with a more Deistic or New Age view of divinity.

Data on the religious landscape in Australia give slightly different numbers depending on the source. The approximately 30% non-religious estimate is from Flinders Social monitor (Gladigau K., West, Dr B., Flinders Social Monitor, No. 8, April 2007 (ISSN 1834-3783), while the 20% non-religious estimate is from the Australian Census Bureau, and can be accessed here.

Data on the beliefs of Canadian teens is available HERE.

Poll data on hatred in the United States toward Atheists can be found in Penny Edgell; Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann (April 2006). "Atheists As 'Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society". American Sociological Review 71 (2): 218.