By Mario Rustan
April 17 2015
Will Islam be the world’s most popular religion by 2050? Not quite, but if, for example, there are 2.9 billion Christians in 49 years, then there will be 2.8 billion Muslims. At least that’s according to the projection of the Pew Research Center, an American think tank.
Naturally this is a hot item for readers of this newspaper, just as anything relating to Islam and Australia-Indonesia relations are. The comment sections of Indonesian news websites are full of free thinkers seeking Muslim conservatives to spar with, with Westerners proud of their atheism who believe that Islam holds Indonesia back and religious people who defend their faith and national identity.
In the West, many people who don’t see themselves as religious question the conclusion that the non-religious lag behind. Throughout the Western world, abandoning Christianity or simply not caring about religion at all is considered normal, and since the People’s Republic of China is officially atheist, there must be something wrong with Pew’s conclusion.
Depending on who you ask, the US is becoming more Christian (with all Republican presidential hopefuls denying climate change on religious grounds) or more agnostic (with a huge backlash against Indiana’s discrimination against gays). Easter means chocolate and house cleaning in Australia and Europe.
So Pew explains that while the number of people with no religion will increase by 100 million, they will lag behind Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews and even folk religionists. At least they are not Buddhists, who are expected to decrease by 2050. If one major religion is endangered, it is Buddhism.
The hubs of people with no religion are shared between Asia and the West. The majority of Chinese and Japanese have no attachment to any religion in their daily lives. More than communism, Confucian values shared by both people might be a more powerful driver of secularism than Western humanism
Other Asian nations that will host the largest number of atheists and agnostics also hold Confucian and/or Communist doctrines, like Vietnam and the two Koreas. The large Western secular countries are the usual suspects, such as the US, France, Germany, Russia and the UK.
The atheism (the firm belief that there is no God) and agnostic (indifference on religious matters) view, however, is a tough sell in Asia, compared to Christianity and Islam. According to Pew’s projection, the percentage of non-religious people in the Middle East will stay the same (0.6 percent) and will decrease in Asia Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa. If societies become more secular as they develop (like in Latin America and the Caribbean), why it won’t that be the case in Asia?
Certainly Christianity is wildly popular in China, South Korea and Southeast Asia. Official data will always push the number down, but it would not be surprising if there were almost 100 million Christians in China today, and the number could double or triple in 40 years.
Chinese youth and young adults believe that Christianity is cooler, more fun and, importantly, more effective in their quest for wealth and success compared to other faiths or ideologies. South Korea hosts the largest Evangelical Christian churches in the world, which send the largest number of missionaries across the world after America. Western economists are still investigating why Southeast Asian tycoons embrace Christianity.
Perhaps the rice growing history of Asia Pacific hardwired the spirit of communality and uniformity among Asians, and essentially to be a humanist is to be a lonely wolf at worst, or to be an individualistic thinker at best. A salon is not an ideal social venue for Asians, compared to a prayer meeting.
My encounters with Indonesian atheists have been less than pleasant. Those I’ve met are Chinese males from the upper-middle class who studied overseas. They are cynical, argumentative and difficult. On the other hand, affiliation with feminism has made me more religious. Most Indonesian feminists I know also have an attachment to their religions, be it Islam or Christianity. Religions’ misogynistic values don’t make us abandon them, but make us try to reform them from within or without.
So why will the number of Buddhists decrease? The hubs of Buddhists like Japan, South Korea and China have worried about population crises for more than a decade. Pensioners live longer while adults are marrying later in life, with a very low birth rate. Developing states like Thailand and Sri Lanka might help, but not much.
Consider this scenario. You are a supervisor at a multinational bank in Singapore with a CPA certificate and a postgraduate degree. You happen to be a female Buddhist. Single men in your life are too lewd, or too shy, or too shady to be potential dates. You love your nephew and niece, but your sister keeps complaining about pressure at school, school fees, the nanny, doctor’s bills, her husband and her mother-in-law.
You wonder why your Muslim and Hindu co-workers seldom complain about these problems. At least one of them has retired after giving birth, as your Christian convert sister did.
I have Indonesian friends, Chinese and Javanese alike, who have opted to marry but remain childless. Javanese Muslims are more open about their reasons than Chinese Christians. Being an Asia-Pacific nation, Indonesia’s population growth will hold steady, meaning we will no longer be the most populous Muslim nation by 2050, compared to Middle Eastern and African countries, Pakistan and even India, often thought as a Hindu nation.
A world of 9 billion souls is a daunting scenario. A world where Islam has no democratic and developed model is also an intimidating possibility. It is bizarre that Indonesia could be Islam’s greatest hope, seeing how more developed Malaysia and Turkey are preoccupied with hunting dissidents and silencing opposition than in catching up with Singapore and Germany, respectively. Are we up to the task?
Mario Rustan is a columnist for feminist website Magdalene and a founding member of the Ideapod mini-blog.