The changing map of world religions

The proportion of Muslims in the world’s population will increase from around one in four at present to nearly one in three in 2050, very near to the proportion of Christians worldwide. 

The Pew Research Centre is a respected research institute which describes itself as ‘a non-partisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.’ One of its most recent reports early in April 2015 set out the future evolution of world religions based on population projections over the period 2010-2050. It is the largest such project ever attempted and deserves our attention.

The most striking element of the report is the projection that Muslims are the only major religious group set to increase faster than the world’s population as a whole, owing to a considerably higher fertility rate. As a consequence, the proportion of Muslims in the world’s population will increase from around one in four at present to nearly one in three in 2050, very near to the proportion of Christians worldwide. In addition, the report concludes that if current trends continue, the number of Muslims in the world will outnumber the number of Christians by 2070.

It is fairly common knowledge that Europe’s demographic weight in the world is declining rapidly but this is not just happening in relative terms. Europe will in fact be the only region in the world to experience a substantial absolute drop in population. In addition, Europe will experience important changes in the composition of its population; while the number of Christians will drop by nearly 100 million, the number of Muslims in the region is set to increase from 43 million (5.9%) to over 70 million (10%).

Where is Malta in all this? If we are to accept the Pew figures, it would seem that Malta will continue to be a fairly homogeneous country as regards religious affiliation with apparently the same proportion of Christians projected for 2050 as there were in 2010, namely 97% of the total population.

This contrasts considerably with what is set to happen in other European countries. The most striking are the cases of the Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina which will cease being countries with a Christian majority as they are at present and will by 2050 have a Muslim majority. Within core European nations Christianity seems to be in full retreat. The extreme example is Sweden where Christians will drop from 67% of the population in 2010 to 52% in 2050. Muslims, on the other hand, will increase from 4.6% to 12.4% of the population.

One additional interesting aspect about Pew’s figures on Malta is the number of Muslims and Hindus who, we are told, are to be found in the population. According to the report, Muslims and Hindus each constituted 0.2% of the population in 2010 and will continue representing the same proportion in 2050. Given that the Maltese population in 2010 is given as 420,000 this would mean that in that year there were 840 Muslims and 840 Hindus in Malta. For 2050, the Pew Report projects that the number of Muslims and Hindus would be 720 of each category out of an overall population of 360,000.

In the short run Malta has often gone against the grain. The most recent example was the continued absence of divorce long after it had been introduced elsewhere, but ultimately its fate seems tied to Europe, albeit retaining its own idiosyncrasies, typically the product of its diminutive face-to-face population.

But I am not entirely sure that the Pew Report’s projections have hit the nail on the head as regards the religious composition of the islands’ inhabitants, both as regards the recent past in 2010 and its projections for 2050.  Press reports about a recent parliamentary question give us the opportunity to cross-check the Pew Report’s figures using nationality as a proxy for religious affiliation.  

Indians can clearly be affiliated to a wide range of religions. Indeed that country will shortly have more Muslims, for example, than Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation, but it is still mostly Hindu so I propose to use Indian nationality as a proxy for Hindus. 

There is no reference to Indians in the recent report, which gave information about selected nationalities, but a 2010 report in a local newspaper made reference to 900 Indians resident in Malta in 2009. This would seem to be fairly close to the figure of 840 Hindus who were supposedly resident here a year later according to Pew.

More difficult to reconcile is Pew’s figure of 840 Muslims resident in Malta in 2010. One report talks of 6,000 Muslim residents in Malta in 2010, double the figure of 3,000 seven years earlier, but this was before the exodus during which, according to one report last week, “the flow of Libyan nationals and the numbers relocating to Malta increased substantially”.

In this one regard at least, the Pew Report on ‘The Future of World Religions’ seems to have got its figures for Malta wrong, very wrong.  

The contributor to last week’s MaltaToday article claims that the “Libyan exodus has served Malta well”. I have no doubt that it has served the interests of certain private individuals very well indeed, but I wonder how well Malta’s longer term interests are being served.