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World: Analysis From Washington -- A Tectonic Shift

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 20 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Muslims have dramatically increased their percentage of the world's population over the last century, while Christians have only maintained their share. And that shift is already affecting how each group views not only itself but the other as well.

According to statistics gathered in the newly-published "World Christian Encyclopedia," of the world's 1.6 billion people in 1900, 32.2 percent were Christians and 12.3 percent were Muslims. Now, a century later, the encyclopedia reports, Christians form 31.2 percent of the world's six billion people, but Muslims have increased their share to 19.6 percent.

Other groups changed their share of the total population far less significantly, with the exception of nonbelievers who increased from less than one percent in 1900 to some 15.2 percent of the total now and the followers of folk religions whose percentage dropped from 30.2 percent in 1990 to 10.2 percent now.

The changed relationship between the number of Christians and the number of Muslims is likely to have the most immediate and serious consequences. A century ago, there were more than 550 million Christians but only 200 million Muslims, a ratio of almost three to one. Now, there are almost two billion Christians but 1.2 billion followers of Islam, a ratio of approximately three to two.

A large part of the total increases in both communities reflects demographic trends. Countries where Christianity traditionally has been practiced generally have had lower birthrates than those where Islam is the predominant faith. But an important part of the difference in the increases reflects the results of prosyletization, of missionary work to spread the faith.

Christianity has become the first nearly universal faith, the World Christian Encyclopedia's editor David Barrett says, with adherents in virtually every country on earth. But over the last 100 years, Islam too has successfully conducted missionary work and expanded its reach across large portions of Africa and Asia where it had no presence or only a small one a century ago.

The growth of the number of Muslims relative to the number of Christians is already affecting both communities. Among some in the Christian community, this dramatic increase in the number of Muslims has sparked such theories as Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington's ideas on the coming clash of civilizations. And it has also led the leaders of some historically Christian countries to view Muslims as a threat.

At the same time, both the absolute increase in the number of Muslims and their increase relative to the number of Christians has given the leaders of some Muslim countries and communities a new self-confidence, a sense that history is on their side and that they should now demand a more favorable position for themselves than the one they have had up to now.

Such attitudes almost inevitably lead to confrontation, but as is often the case in public life, they reflect less the core values of either of the faiths than the shifting demographic realities of the two communities. Indeed, were the demographic situations reversed, it is entirely possible that the attitudes manifested now would be reversed as well.

Following such slow-moving, even tectonic shifts is not something either journalists or other analysts regularly do, and even demographers warn that demography is destiny only in the very long run. But these new statistics about the shifting balance between Christians and Muslims serve as a useful reminder of the importance of such changes.

And perhaps even more important, these shifts also suggest that the numbers of believers may play a bigger role on occasion in relations among religious groups than do their formal beliefs. To the extent members of both sides appreciate that fact, it may serve as the basis for not only greater understanding between them but also for some forms of cooperation as well.