5 takeaways from new Pew survey on global religion
December 18th, 2012
02:31 PM ET

5 takeaways from new Pew survey on global religion

By Dan Merica, CNN
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Washington (CNN) – The world is religiously diverse and overwhelmingly faithful, according to a study released Tuesday by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The study, which is a snapshot of world religions in 2010 and does not show trends, brings to light a unique religious landscape that's defined by a burgeoning Islam, a shifting Christianity and a large group of religiously unaffiliated. It took Pew three years to compile.

Five big takeaways from the study:

1.) Muslims and Hindus are noticeably young

The median age of Muslims (23) and Hindus (26) is significantly lower than the global median age of 28 years old.

“Those with a large share of adherents in fast-growing, developing countries tend to have younger populations,” the Pew report says. “Those concentrated in China and in advanced industrial countries, where population growth is slower, tend to be older.”

Other than Muslims and Hindus, all other religious groups have a median age that is older than the global median.

“Christians have a median age of 30, followed by members of other religions (32), adherents of folk or traditional religions (33), the religiously unaffiliated (34) and Buddhists (34),” reads the study. “Jews have the highest median age (36), more than a dozen years older than the youngest group, Muslims.”

According to Hackett, these young median ages for Muslims and Hindus are largely because of high fertility rates and “indicates that they have a significant growth potential.”

2.) The world is faithful and diverse

According to numbers compiled by Pew, more than 80% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group.

While Christians are the largest group, with 31.5% of the global population, Muslims (23.2%), the unaffiliated (16.3%) and Hindus (15%) together make up more than half of the global population.

Jews, a religious group that makes up 2% of the United States, have a tiny share of the global pie. Only .2% of the global population practices Judaism, a number that puts the religion behind Buddhists (7.1%), folk religionists (5.9%) and a combination of religions like the Baha’i faith, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca and Zoroastrianism (1%).

3.) The unaffiliated are third largest global group, equal with Catholics

The religiously unaffiliated, a group that has experienced marked growth in the United States, make up 16% of people worldwide, according to the Pew survey. With 1.1 billion people worldwide, the number of religious unaffiliated people is equal to the number of Catholics.

The Asia-Pacific region dominates that number, where almost 900 million, or 76% of the worldwide population of ‘nones’ – a term used to describe people with no religious affiliation – reside.

China, with 700 million, boasts the largest population of religious nones. The Chinese government mandates state atheism, a practice that promotes the practices of disbelief and, in some cases, suppresses religious freedom.

The Pew study acknowledges that getting accurate numbers that reflect religious populations in China is extremely difficult, largely because the country does not conduct a census to understand the faithful. In their methodology, the study states that “the unaffiliated are all who do not identify with one of the other religions.”

“For China, we had to look at a number of different sources to come up with estimates for all the groups we looked at,” said Brian J. Grim, a senior researcher at Pew.

Previous studies of nonbelievers in China have found numbers much smaller than the one published by Pew. According to Grim, this stems from how you define belief.

“This study does not look particularly at whether people believe in god or believe in a higher power,” Grim said. “If you look at just belief, you would find a much larger number of Chinese people that believe in some supernatural force.”

Grim went on to say that if the definition of belief was broadened, the number of Chinese folk religions, which currently makes up 21.9% of the country, would increase and the number of nonbelievers in China would go down.

Japan, with 72 million, boasts the second largest population of religious nones, followed by the United States, with around 50 million religiously unaffiliated – or 16.4% of the countries population.

“The unaffiliated population in China is almost twice the entire population of the United States,” Hackett points out.

These nonbelievers are also younger than their religious brethren. In Africa, North America, South America and Europe, the unaffiliated median age is lower than the age of the faithful. The overall average age of the unaffiliated – 34 years old – is pulled up, however, by the mass of followers in Asia.

In previous studies – like a study released by Pew in October – this lower average age has some demographers assuming that this group will be growing in the next few decades.

4.) Less than 1% of global Christian population resides in the religion's birthplace

Though Christianity emerged in the Middle East and North Africa, it's practiced by less than 1% of the population there.

A combined three-fourths of Christians now reside in  Europe (26%), Latin America and the Caribbean (24%) and sub-Saharan Africa (24%). North America is home to over 12% of the global Christian population.

In the Middle East and North Africa, which includes Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, Christians are experiencing little growth, according to Conrad Hackett, a demographers with Pew.

“In Egypt, for example, it seems that the Christian population just hasn’t kept pace with the Muslim population,” Hackett said. “The data we have says they have lower fertility than the Muslim population.”

But the Pew report shows that Christianity has become dominant in other parts of the world. One-in-three people worldwide identify as Christian, and 87% of them live in a country that is majority Christian.

Of the 232 countries studied, 68% have Christian majorities, according to Pew.

5.) To Pew, this is the definitive study of world religions

Branding it as the “largest project of its kind to date,” Hackett says that the Pew study used censuses, large-scale demographic surveys and country specific general population surveys.

“In order to present data that are comparable across countries, this study focuses on groups and individuals who identify themselves in censuses, large-scale surveys and other sources as being members of five widely recognized world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism,” the survey says.

In total, Pew worked through data through 232 countries and territories that the United Nations Population Division provides 2010 estimates in.

About 45% of all the people in the world were counted by government-sponsored censuses, the study says.

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • China • Christianity • Hinduism • Islam

soundoff (531 Responses)
  1. 10%er

    No comment.

    December 23, 2012 at 8:08 am |
  2. orillarocluth


    I'm using firefox to view this website and the last few days it seems like the Java script is not working..
    I just wanted to know if everyone is getting this error.
    If not I will have to reinstall firefox.


    December 20, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
  3. Reality


    Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

    "Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As does BO and his family)(As do Biden and Ryan)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

    Some added references to "tink-erbells".


    "The belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Euseb., "Praep. Evang.", xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It was also the belief of the Babylonians and As-syrians, as their monuments testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once decorated an As-syrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation; while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: "He (Marduk) sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I did, he made my work to succeed."
    Catholic monks and Dark Age theologians also did their share of hallu-cinating:

    "TUBUAS-A member of the group of angels who were removed from the ranks of officially recognized celestial hierarchy in 745 by a council in Rome under Pope Zachary. He was joined by Uriel, Adimus, Sabaoth, Simiel, and Raguel."

    And tin-ker- bells go way, way back:

    "In Zoroastrianism there are different angel like creatures. For example each person has a guardian angel called Fravashi. They patronize human being and other creatures and also manifest god’s energy. Also, the Amesha Spentas have often been regarded as angels, but they don't convey messages, but are rather emanations of Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord", God); they appear in an abstract fashion in the religious thought of Zarathustra and then later (during the Achaemenid period of Zoroastrianism) became personalized, associated with an aspect of the divine creation (fire, plants, water...)."

    "The beginnings of the biblical belief in angels must be sought in very early folklore. The gods of the Hitti-tes and Canaanites had their supernatural messengers, and parallels to the Old Testament stories of angels are found in Near Eastern literature. "

    "The 'Magic Papyri' contain many spells to secure just such help and protection of angels. From magic traditions arose the concept of the guardian angel. "

    For added information see the review at:


    December 19, 2012 at 11:35 pm |
  4. Apple Bush

    Did all of the millions of people who lived for 200,000 years before there was a "Jesus" go to Hell? What about all the people in the world that have never heard of the "Jesus"? Are they doomed?

    December 19, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • Jeff

      I asked a Christian that same question. They said, "Jesus descended into hell to rescue those who went" they also said that those who did not hear of Jesus would not go to hell. I can't tell you that much about religion though, I don't "get it" really. But that's what she said when I asked her.

      December 19, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
    • Apple Bush


      LOL, that is hilarious. Wonder how she found that out.

      December 19, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • What IF

      Love that old joke:

      Eskimo: "If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?"
      Priest: "No, not if you did not know."
      Eskimo: "Then why did you tell me?"

      December 19, 2012 at 11:28 pm |
    • Apple Bush

      It is a funny question to pose to Christians because they have to make up something in order to answer it.

      December 19, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian


      I'd watch that if it was turned into a film.

      December 20, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • Saraswati

      There was a classic story about a leader in Ja.pan who refused to allow the Christians to pre.ach to his people on the gro.unds that, according to their own theory, introduc.ing someone to Christianity only does them the disservice of exposing them to the risk of hell. Spreading such a religion is, therefore, quite cruel.

      Does anyone know why the word Ja.pan is restricted?

      December 20, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Akira

      Because of the derogatory use of J a p.

      December 20, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Know What

      Yep, Sara & Akira... the same reason that we can't say spi-ce, cra-cker, or racc-oon, and a few others... goofy, but that's the deal here.

      December 20, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • manaen

      An excellent question and Christ's restored Church has an excellent answer: not if they they accept him when they learn of him after they die.

      The apostle Peter explained that the gospel is taught betwen death adn the resurrection to those who didn't have it in this life:

      1 Peter 3:
      18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
      19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
      20 Which sometime were disobedient, when once the congsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.


      1 Peter 4:
      6 For for this cause was the gospel cpreached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

      The New Testament Church also performed baptisms for the dead to accept or reject after they had learned in this interim spirit world of Jesus and his gospel:

      1 Cor 15:
      29 Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?

      Jesus has restored to the earth his original Church in these latter days, known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His restored Church again teaches this biblical doctrine that was lost and again performs baptisms for the dead in his holy temples around the world.

      For more information, please see:
      * mormon.org
      * lds.org

      December 22, 2012 at 2:38 am |
    • manaen

      "congsuffering" s/b "longsuffering"
      "cpreached" s/b "preached"

      December 22, 2012 at 2:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      @Akira, thanks, I wondered if that might be it, but I thought that was such an old term no one still used it. It's a crazy filter...you could code in the basic exceptions in no time. The problem with common cu'm and ti't words is pretty major.

      December 22, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  5. Rational Humanist

    "God doesn't need smart people. He is smart enough. He uses the foolish to shame the wise."

    You apparently have no idea just how insane and foolish it is to believe what you just said.

    December 19, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Rational Humanist

      Opps! That was to December just below. lol

      December 19, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
  6. December

    I have to leave work, but thanks for chatting.

    It has been helpful for me. I've learned.

    I got defensive at times and was a little verbally abusive to some. I apologize. I get excited and want to "defend" God. We are not supposed to do that. I'm new at this. I get carried away easy.

    I used to be a total jerk. I hated Christianity. HATED IT. I can still be a jerk, but I'm getting better.

    The Gospel of Jesus Christ has turned my life upside down.

    If Jesus Christ truly is the perfect reflection of our Heavenly Father, I look forward to the day when I can meet my Maker face to face.

    God's people are the poor, the abused, the imprisoned and the hurting. He has poured Himself into His creation. When we take care of those people, we are taking care of God.

    The Gospel of Jesus Christ is supposed to sound foolish to this world. God doesn't need smart people. He is smart enough. He uses the foolish to shame the wise.

    In the Gospels Jesus chooses lowly people to be with. The outcasts. The smart and religious and powerful people in his day hated him. They still do.

    God wants our hearts. Not our minds.

    I'm getting out of here before Akira and Hawaii crucify me or feed me to the lions... yikes.

    December 19, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I'm also a jerk and I hate Christianity but the two aren't connected. Actually, my hatred of Christianity detracts from my overall jerkiness.

      December 20, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • Chick-a-dee

      Hey December... The very best here are also jerks. Then there are those, like myself, who are real A$$whol3s. 😉

      December 20, 2012 at 12:31 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.