Different groups argue that the numbers of religious people are either shrinking or growing, often depending on which group they are from.

One example of the shrinking religious viewpoint is the intro to this video talk by Dan Dennett http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5tGpMcFF7U

One example of the growing religious viewpoint is this article from the Vatican:

Catholic Church growing, especially in Asia, Africa

Interesting enough the numbers on the wikipedia page for "Claims to be the fastest-growing religion" show positive growth rates for various religions.

So, some claim:

  • There are less people participating in organised religious activities and thus religion is slowly dying

Others claim :

  • Our religion is experiencing healthy growth and will continue forever because we have God on our side

Is there solid data to support arguments that suggests less people are participating in religious activity (either donating to religious organisations or regularly attending religious activities)?

  • 1
    I just started a new religion. Yesterday it was just me, but today it is me, my wife and two kids. No one can match that growth rate!
    – Craig
    Jul 1, 2011 at 4:02
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    ChrisW - The people that make the claims, claim it as worldwide. They make claims like "religion is dying off".
    – going
    Jul 1, 2011 at 4:30
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    Ok, so what's the claim here? That atheism is growing? That religion as a whole is shrinking? That a specific religion is growing, and others are shrinking?
    – Shog9
    Jul 1, 2011 at 4:48
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    On a personal note, I hope no answer ignores the potential that population growth plus a numerical dominance of one category over others, can mean ALL groups are growing numerically, even if some are shrinking percentage-wise.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 1, 2011 at 5:08
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    @xiaohouzi79, I edited to remove the categorisation of the belief systems of who made the claims. That's not relevant to the facts, and was painting the picture that at least one of all of the religious or all of the atheists had no scientific integrity. Also, you have provided no evidence of a notable claim by anyone that their religion is growing "because we have God on our side". Please add.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 1, 2011 at 7:38

1 Answer 1


For some reason, when reading about, or listening to claims about things people argue over, and disagree with, I am reminded of a quote:

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." - Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review

And this is ESPECIALLY true, when the speaker is supporting a viewpoint or idea that they have any investment in. Such as Dan Dennett supporting the idea that religious adherence is declining, or the Catholic Church supporting the idea that Catholicism is increasing.

A site that I am fond of for researching the things people do and don't believe in concerning deities, is adherents.com. Another site is religioustolerance.org. What these sites do is basically collect the info from population sites and surveys and collate it. Keep in mind, the gathering of religious data is notoriously difficult because the identification system used varies throughout the world, and within many different cultures and countries.

So, about the specific claim? Well, they are both right in a way. It all depends on how you look at the numbers. There are declines in attendance over all as a percentage (and in some cases by sheer numbers). If you look at this page (and I recommend you look at the whole page, not just this bit I am quoting), some interesting bits of data to support Dennett are:

There are some interesting signs that religion is in a state of rapid flux, both in the U.S. and around the world:

  • The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Christians dropped from 86% in 1990 to 77% in 2001. This is an unprecedented drop of almost 1 percentage point per year.
  • The percentage of American adults who identify themselves as Protestants dropped below 50% about the year 2005.
  • Confidence in religious institutions has hit an all-time low.
  • There appears to be a major increase in interest in spirituality among North Americans. However, this has not translated into greater church involvement.
  • Mainline denominations have been losing membership for decades in the U.S.; conservative denominations have been growing.
  • At the present rates of change, Islam will become the dominant religion in the world before 2050 CE.
  • At the present rate of change, most Americans would identify themselves as non-religious or non-Christian by the year 2035 CE.
  • The numbers of "unchurched" people has increased rapidly in the U.S. These are individuals who have not attended church in recent months.
  • Agnostics, Atheists, secularists. and NOTAs (none of the above) are growing rapidly.
  • Interest in new religious movements (e.g. New Age, Neopaganism) is growing rapidly. In particular, Wiccans are doubling in numbers about every 30 months.
  • The influence of the central, program-based congregation is diminishing as more cell churches are being created.
  • Many Christians have left congregations and formed house churches - small groups meeting in each other's homes.

In addition, there is "A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation (PDF link)" Daniel M. Abrams and Haley A. Yaple Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois which also supports Dennett's position, although I would caution that it's not definitive, since it is just a projection.

What about the claim by the Vatican? Well, they are very actively recruiting on the African continent, and have reported that consistently. Another factor could also be the catholic teaching (vice dogma) of large families and no contraception has aided in keeping their population growth marginally higher than other populations in the same area (although this has probably changed as many adherents pick and choose specific teachings which to follow).

This page has a table that shows major religions at a top level. And it notes that as a percentage, some are declining, others are growing. And here it lists Christianity as declining. So perhaps the growth of the Catholics is a consolidation of other Christians as well? Thank you to Randolph for pointing me to the religion in Canada page. As you can see from the Wikipedia page on the Canadian Census results, there is a growth in Catholicism AND Christianity. Although, neither growth rates match the population growth rate. On the affiliations that have a very low total number of adherents, a relatively small numerical growth will skew for a very significant percentage growth. In looking at Canada, we do see somewhat similar trends in other countries that track religious affiliation, like the United Kingdom (although they don't have a nice table like the Canadian page, but the graph is telling). Wikitable

So, in answer to your question, they are both right in their own way. The only way to really know whose vision will bear out in the end though is to wait until the future arrives. And my prediction will be that everyone will be consistently incorrect in some way or another. Although, in the developed world, Dennett is more correct, and in the undeveloped world, the church is more correct.

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    I'd suggest a look at "A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation" Daniel M. Abrams and Haley A. Yaple Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA I found it curiously interesting, but I can't seem to find a link to the complete study. Jul 1, 2011 at 23:50
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    @Monkey don't you hate having read something, and then not being able to find it online... Jul 2, 2011 at 0:11
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    it's here, FWIW: arxiv.org/abs/1012.1375
    – david w
    Jul 2, 2011 at 10:02
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    @Jonas, got it. One of the dangers of my answers getting too long and stuff. :) Jul 2, 2011 at 18:11
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    @Larian LeQuella: No problem. I like reading your answers :)
    – Jonas
    Jul 2, 2011 at 18:58

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