It's not unusual when I give talks about religion in the world that I ask which religion people think is the largest, which is to say, has the most adherents.
And I will have to say that's the wrong answer. Christianity is the top religion in terms of number of followers.
New figures from a global study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, just being released today, show there are about 2.2 billion Christians in the world (just under one-third of the world's population) compared with 1.6 billion Muslims, or just under a quarter of that population.
Next in order: 1 billion Hindus (15 percent) and nearly 500 million Buddhists (7 percent). Jews, by the way, number just 14 million (0.2 percent), and are a majority population only in Israel. I've read estimates on what the world Jewish population might be today had the Holocaust and previous anti-Jewish pogroms never happened -- figures that reach beyond 30 million -- but I'm not sure such estimates can be trusted.
One of the things that struck me about these new Pew Forum figures -- which, by the way, represent the world as the researchers found it in 2010 -- is that 84 percent of people on the globe claim some kind of religious affiliation.
And, as the study notes, of the remaining 16 percent who say they are unaffiliated, "many of the unaffiliated hold some religious or spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they do not identify with a particular faith."
None of this is to deny that the number of people who identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, humanists and so forth is growing. But religion itself is so deeply rooted in the culture and history of most nations that it's hard to imagine a time when adherents of some faith or other won't still outnumber the unaffiliated. Predictions of the death of religion have always been wrong -- and, I suspect, will continue to be so.
Well, the Pew study breaks all of this down in much more detail, and you're welcome to dig through the figures at the study's link I've given you above. But for as far into the future as I can imagine myself living, the answer to the question of which is the most populous religion will remain Christianity.
(But note: The Vatican a few years ago declared Islam to be the world's largest religion because it had passed Catholicism. Such thinking cuts off Catholics from the rest of their Christian siblings around the world, and I thought then -- as I think now -- that approach to be isolationist and unhelpful.)
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THANK GOD FOR THE CLERGY
When I asked you here the other day to remember the clergy who inevitably would be asked to bring comfort to families whose children were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I had in mind people like Fr. Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Conn. This Washington Post piece about Father Bob, as he's known, gives you a good sense of what the clergy face in such situations.