Notebook > Religion
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Fertility or fidelity?

Religion | Alarmist video highlights Muslim growth, but 'Christians' may be their own worst enemies

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

Are you among the millions who watched the "Muslim Demographics" video? It launched a thousand online and church discussions, but a new report from the Pew Forum gives a more measured take on the growth of the world's Muslim population.

The controversial video, first posted on YouTube in March 2009 and viewed over 12 million times since, sounded an alarm over declining Christian fertility rates: It predicted that Islam would become the world's dominant religion in five to seven years. Some denounced the video as racist. Others, even if they saw the video as a well-intentioned attempt to spur evangelism, merely found it alarmist and exaggerated, delivered as it was with an ominous soundtrack and a stream of dubious research.

The Pew Forum's report is also being used politically: The New York Times trumpeted it as a direct repudiation of the "hysteria" propagated by "far-right political parties" in the United States and abroad. The Pew scholars, though, used state-of-the-art data and demographics to show that the number of Muslims is likely to rise from the current 23.4 percent of the world's population in 2010 to 26.4 percent in 2030.

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That puts the number still well behind the number of those who identify with Christianity (strongly or loosely). Pew expects to release data on the world's "Christian" population later this year, but other studies estimate it at 30 percent to 33 percent of the world. In the United States, the number of Muslims is likely to grow in the same period from 2.6 million to 6.2 million, or from 0.7 percent to 1.6 percent of the population.

The most questionable part of the Pew report is its assumption that forces of modernity will slow fertility rates among Muslims in the same way they have for non-Muslims. Pew projects the number of Muslims worldwide to grow in the next 20 years at twice the rate of non-Muslims, but then to level off due to improvement of living standards, migration to cities, and the education and professionalization of women. Maybe-but in any event, the Pew study strongly suggests that the "Muslim Demographics" video was exaggerated.

If Europe becomes "Eurabia" anytime soon, declining faithfulness rather than fertility rates will probably be the major cause. According to Britain's Office of National Statistics, just 32 percent of self-identified Christians in England and Wales "actively practice" their faith, compared to 80 percent of Muslims.

Web connections

Christians have set aside times for prayer and fasting ever since the early church, and even Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). But it never looked quite like this before, with online collaborations of large numbers of churches growing increasingly common.

Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Fla., has made a habit of praying and fasting each January for the year to come. Last year, the church invited other congregations to join it through the internet for a 21-day "Awakening Initiative." This year the initiative linked over 1,000 churches representing over 1 million people around the world, with speakers such as Rick Warren and Craig Groeschel streamed every day. The Initiative's goal is to help pastors and leaders develop a culture of prayer in their congregations and ministries-but it's also one example of the way that church leaders are using the internet to share material and resources, and to mobilize large numbers of congregations simultaneously.

Timothy Dalrymple
Timothy Dalrymple

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