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Alive & kicking - the facts


Faith in numbers

Christianity is the religion with the largest following in the world. Islam is the fastest growing.

Sven Torfinn / http://www.panos.co.uk

Christianity: 2 billion
Islam: 1.3 billion
Hinduism: 900 million
Buddhism: 360 million
Chinese traditional religion: 225 million
Primal-indigenous: 150 million
African traditional and diasporic: 95 million
Sikhism: 23 million
Juche (N Korea state religion): 19 million
Spiritism: 14 million
Judaism: 14 million
Others include: Baha’i 6 million; Jainism 4 million; Shinto: 4 million; Cao Dai (synthesis of religions): 3 million; Tenrikyo 2.4 million; Neo-Paganism 1 million; Unitarian-Universalism 800,000; Rastafarianism 700,000; Scientology 600,000; Zoroastrianism 150,000. Some 850 million people define themselves as secular, non-religious, agnostic or atheist.1

Rise and fall

Sven Torfinn / http://www.panos.co.uk

Some religions are rapidly increasing their world share of adherents, while others are stable or dropping as a percentage of the population.

ISLAM is growing at a rate of 2.9% a year. The fastest growing world religion, it has doubled its adherents since 1970. Of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, 85% are Sunni and 8.6 per cent are Shi’a.2,3

CHRISTIANITY is growing at about 2.3% annually. Born-again Christians number 680 million – 11 per cent of the global population and 33% of all Christians.2 Pentecostal churches are growing at a rate of 8.1%, evangelicals by 5.4%.2 In Latin America US sponsored Pentecostal and charismatic churches now claim 10% of the population.4 Roman Catholicism is growing by only 1.3 % worldwide, less than the global population growth of 1.4 %.2

JUDAISM has grown slowly since 1945, when the world Jewish population was estimated at 11 million to the current 14 million.5

BUDDHISM and Hinduism have kept stable at around 6% and 15% of world population respectively.2

INDIGENOUS AFRICAN religions have declined from 60% in 1900 to just 11 per cent today. Most of the gains went primarily to Christian churches, then Islam.2

With God on our side

Religion’s role in major wars7
On a scale of 1-5

Note: Five aspects are taken into account in calculating the role of religion in major wars: religion as a mobilizer; religious motivation and discourse by political leaders; attacks on symbolic religious targets; conversion goals; strong support from religious leaders.

Arab Conquests 632-732 The Crusades 1097-1291

al-Qaeda Terror War 1992-

Reformation Wars 1562-98 US and Allied Invasion of Iraq 2003- Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet War 1979-89 Thirty Years War 1618-48

Moghul Conquest of India 1503-29, Spanish Conquests in North and South America 1492-1541, War of the American Revolution 1775-83, Sudan Civil War 1983- , American Indian Wars 1860-90, European Colonial Wars, Africa, Asia, Pacific 1870-1945, Spanish Civil War 1936-39, Arab-Israeli Wars 1947-82, US-Soviet Cold War 1948-91

Fall of Constantinople 1453; Seven Years War 1756-63; Second World War 1939-45; Northern Ireland 1968-98; Iran-Iraq War 1980-88; Bosnia 1994-95; Chechen Wars 1994 and 1999; US and Allied invasion of Afghanistan 2001- • Many smaller scale conflicts, such as Hindu-Muslim clashes in India (claiming some 2,000 lives in 2002) and Christian-Muslim clashes in Indonesia and in Nigeria are closely tied to religious identity.

Bloodiest hands7

• Predominantly Christian states have killed more Jews and Muslims than predominantly Muslim states have killed Christians or Jews.

• In the past 1,000 years there have been more devastating wars among Christian states fighting each other than between Christian and Muslim states.

• Two atheistic totalitarian states – Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China – have perpetrated more mass murder than any state dominated by a religious faith. Stalinism cost the Soviet Union between 9 and 60 million lives; Maoism cost China between 30 and 40 million.

• In killing six million Jewish people, Hitler’s Germany was responsible for the single most devastating genocide in history of a group identified by their religion and race.


Religious motivation has provided a basis for or has been a key player in numerous movements to save lives and promote social justice.

• The Anti-Slavery Movement. • Black Civil Rights. • The Jubilee 2000 ‘Drop the Debt’ campaign. • Anti-apartheid movement and Peace and Reconciliation in South Africa. • Ghandhist non-violence, drawing on various sources, including Hinduism. • The Islamic practice of zakat (or alms tax) whereby 2.5% of income is donated for those in need. • Humanitarian agencies and charities of various denominations.

Some religious beliefs – such as Buddhism, Jainism and Quakerism – have non-violence as a central tenet.

Social violence

Religion is used to do social violence within communities

• Women’s rights have been eroded in 25 countries, mainly where religious fundamentalism has increased. These countries include Algeria, Nigeria and the US.8

• ‘Honour’ killings of women are often religiously motivated or backed.

• Women reporting rape have been prosecuted for adultery under Islamic sharia law in Pakistan and Dubai. The charge may carry a death sentence.

• Homosexuality is punishable by death in nine states where Islamic sharia law is applied. Executions have taken place in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan in recent years.9

• In the US, Baptist preacher Fred Phelps, who runs a website named God Hates Fags, has called for the death sentence for homosexuals.

• Religious codes are used to justify human-rights abuses of children including forced marriages and genital mutilation.

Levels of belief

Holy Lucre

• The finances of the Roman Catholic Church are legendarily opaque, but in 2000 the US Church alone recorded parish level donations of $7.5 billion (a sum that would earn it a place in Fortune’s 500 richest corporations). Since 1985, however, it has had to pay out a billion dollars as settlement in sex abuse cases in the US.10

• The Secretary of Federal Tax Collections of Brazil has accused the Moonies (The Church of the Holy Spirit for the Unification of World Christianity) of $10.7 million tax evasion annually, sponsorship of illegal immigration and money laundering of $165 million.11

• The Mormon Church in the US is now a corporate empire worth between $12 and $30 billion.12

WARNING: Figures of religious affiliation are often inflated, especially when it comes to large, established religions. People may identify with a religion culturally or habitually rather than out of belief.

  1. http://www.adherents.com last modified 6 September 2002.
  2. http://www.religioustolerance.org/worldrel.htm
  3. http://www.islam.about.com
  4. Mike Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, New Left Review, No 26, Mar/Apr 2004.
  5. American Jewish Committee, 28 October 1998 http://www.charitywire.com/charity11/00433.html
  6. BBC, ‘What the World thinks of God, survey of 10,000 people in 8 selected countries conducted by ICM, February 2004 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/3518375.stm
  7. Greg Austin, Todd Kranock and Thom Oommen, God and War: An Audit and an Exploration, Bradford Peace Studies Group, 2004.
  8. Nikki van der Gaag, No Nonsense Guide to Women’s Rights, Verso/New Internationalist, 2004.
  9. Sodomy Laws, Laws Around the World, http://www.sodomylaws.org/world/world.htm
  10. Business World Online: ‘The economic strain on the Church’, 15 April 2002, http://www.businessweek.com
  11. ARGENPRESS (Peru), April 1, 2004 http://www.latinamericapress.org
  12. Richard Abanes, One Nation Under God: The History of the Mormon Church, Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003.

New Internationalist issue 370 magazine cover This article is from the August 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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