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Is Christianity Losing to Islam?

The story of religious competition is not one of ideological struggle between Christianity and Islam. It is one of growing corporatization, with local and folk religions everywhere being gradually but inexorably replaced by churches and mosques that are affiliated with two of the world’s main religious brands.

TRENTO – Populists in Europe and North America like to claim that Christianity in the modern world is on the retreat against a resurgent and confident Islam. Even observers who do not subscribe to the idea that a “clash of civilizations” is occurring often conclude that Christianity is on the decline.

At first blush, the facts at the world level might seem to support this view. Between 1950 and 2015, according to census figures gathered by the World Religion Database, a large comparative project based at Boston University, the share of the world’s population that is Muslim rose from 13.6% to 24%. Over the same period, the share that is Christian fell from 35% to 33%.

But this is no open-and-shut case. The same trends look very different when broken down by region. Christianity has grown slowly since 1950 because in that year it was concentrated in two types of regions: those, like Europe, that were populous but growing slowly, and those, like Sub-Saharan Africa, that were fast-growing but still small. Islam has grown quickly since 1950 because it was concentrated in populous regions that were destined to grow fast over the next 65 years, particularly in Asia (contrary to a widespread stereotype, roughly 80% of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs). Christians made up less than 3% of Asia’s population in 1950. So, although this share had risen to 9% by 2015, too many of the world’s babies born in the intervening period were never going to be Christian anyway.

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