Peter Berger, one of the premier sociologists of our time and perhaps the keenest commenter on religion around, maintains a blog at Religion and Other Curiosities. I’ve found his posts to be, without fail, sharp, witty and excessively interesting. He does all this as a 82-year-old, which further astounds me. The fact that such an esteemed scholar keeps a blog doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should, so I commend it to you all.
Berger is a big thinker, by which I mean he considers big questions and isn’t afraid at actually venturing some answers. The easiest way to make your way in academia, from my vantage point, is to consistently zero in on the minutae of your sub-field, asking questions that interest you (and probably no one else) and turning them into publishable papers. Asking the big questions about your specialty, say “What’s the future of religion?” is intimidating, and the effort necessary to even hazard an informed opinion reliably outweighs the potential rewards. Even so there are voices that address these questions, and sometimes they’re worth listening to; such is the case with Peter Berger’s work.
One of his latest posts examines the changing face of Christianity around the globe, drawing from the recently released study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life titled A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population. One of my many failings as an aspiring sociologist is a lack of interest in demographic research, but in his post Counting Christian Noses Peter Berger engagingly draws out some of the most interesting bits of the report, commenting on trends and implications for the future of Christianity worldwide in the 21st century.
The real point of this post is to point you towards Berger’s post, but I’ll briefly list some of the trends that are mentioned:
- Christians have increased in absolute population over the past century, from about 600 million to 2.8 billion people; however, as a share of the worldwide population it has remained stable at approximately 33%.
- Geographically Christianity has shifted from a predominantly European population to one whose majority live in the Global South (South America and Africa- the latter continent is now majority Christian). There are 549 million Christians in Latin America vs. 283 million in North America.
- The dramatic growth of Christianity in South America and Africa is owed almost entirely to Evangelical Pentecostalism. These trends, along with the rise in Islamic Fundamentalism, represent the most important religious shifts in modern times*.
- This brand of Pentecostalism that is sweeping across the Global South is supernaturalist in outlook in contrast to the more naturalist philosophies of their Northern counterparts, making for some interesting possible collisions of Christian worldviews in the future.
But do go read the post for yourself, it is fascinating stuff. It certainly challenges asumptions of what Christianity (or the average Christian) “looks” like, and you may find yourself speculating with wild abandon about the future of the Church as it undergoes dramatic demographic shifts for the next 100 years.
*Several years ago TIME magazine wrote about ideas that were changing the world, and included the New Calvinist movement among them. Needless to say with the startling speed at which Pentecostalism was growing in the Global South this focus on the New Calvinists was silly at best. A brief uptick in a pocket of Evangelicalism hardly warranted such attention, particularly since New Calvinism is essentially Old Calvinism in a graphic t-shirt. Canny observers might comment that the activity of a handful of wealthy white people will always steal the spotlight from the activity of millions of poor brown people, to which the sociologist will nod her head sadly and go about her business.