God had a good convention: The Almighty’s name was mentioned (albeit at the last minute) in the platform at the Democratic National Convention. And He was invoked no less than 12 times in the Republican platform, in case He is keeping score.
But the real news is that God is having a strong millennium, according to some fascinating poll results from the Pew Research Center. The data show that even as the developing world is getting more modern, it is also getting more religious, with especially sharp gains for both Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Pew studies are reassuring in that they indicate that the rise in Muslim and Christian belief in Africa is accompanied by a surprising degree of tolerance for others and support for democracy. They also show a deep fundamentalism, with Christian support for biblical law about equal to Muslim support for sharia.
The big change in this picture of a devout world is the role of Europe. According to a December Pew study of “Global Christianity,” faith in Jesus is no longer a Euro-centric phenomenon. In 1910, 66.3 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe; by 2010, that had fallen to only 25.9 percent.
“Europe no longer dominates global Christianity the way it did 100 years ago,” Pew noted. The Americas now have the largest number and highest proportion of Christians. But it’s in sub-Saharan Africa where the Christian awakening has been most dramatic, with the Christian population growing from 9 percent in 1910 to 63 percent in 2010.
The 1.6 billion Muslims around the globe were the subject of a Pew study published last month called “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity.” It involved 38,000 interviews in 39 countries. The study found that Muslim devotion was strong throughout the world, with a median of 93 percent saying they fasted during Ramadan, 77 percent saying they paid alms, and 63 percent claiming to pray five times a day.
The world’s Muslims have very traditional ideas: 89 percent said they believe in fate; 88 percent said they believe in angels; 94 percent said they believe in heaven, but, interestingly, only 87 percent believe in hell.
Younger Muslims are less committed to their faith than those older than 35, but only slightly. In Egypt, for example, 74 percent of younger Muslims say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with 76 percent of their elders. And Muslim women in most regions appear more committed to religion than men, more likely to pray and more likely to read or listen to the Koran daily.
There’s much talk in the Muslim world about the Sunni-Shiite split, but the Pew study found greater tolerance in countries where the two branches of Islam are mixed. In multi-ethnic Iraq and Lebanon, for example, only 14 percent and 21 percent of Sunnis, respectively, said that Shiites aren’t Muslims. This compares with 53 percent among Sunnis in Egypt and 50 percent in Morocco, countries with tiny Shiite minorities.
Sub-Saharan Africa is seeing one of the great religious booms in history, according to data in an April 2010 Pew study that drew on more than 25,000 interviews in 19 countries. The study found that, since 1900, the Muslim population has increased 20-fold, to 234 million. The growth of Christianity there has been even more spectacular, growing 70-fold to 470 million. People are passionate about their religion, either way, with nine in 10 saying it is very important in their lives.
Happily, this growing religiosity in Africa doesn’t seem to be accompanied by widespread intolerance for others. Big majorities in every country said that it’s a “good thing” that others are “very free” to practice their religion. African Christians and Muslims also have a strong chiliastic belief, with a median of 61 percent of Christians saying that Jesus will return to Earth in their lifetime, and 52 percent of Muslims believing the caliphate will be re-established while they are alive.
Many African believers seem to have a love-hate relationship with American culture: Majorities in most countries say that they think Western movies, music and television have hurt morality; majorities also say that they like Western movies, music and television.
And what about religion in America? Various Pew studies have generated reams of interesting data, but here’s my favorite item, from a September 2010 nationwide survey: It found that, when asked 32 questions testing religious knowledge, those who had the highest percentage of correct answers described themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic.”