A Globalized God

Scott M. Thomas
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
Nov/Dec 2010
Council on Foreign Relations
Religion is on the rise around the world. If the United States fails to confront the implications of this growth properly the potential for religiously motivated violence across the globe may increase dramatically over the next century.
Political Geography
United States, Europe, Middle East
Around the world -- from the southern United States to the Middle East -- religion is on the rise. It is growing in countries with a wide variety of religious traditions and levels of economic development, suggesting that neither poverty nor social exclusion is solely responsible. The religious resurgence is not simply defined by the growth of fundamentalism -- rigid adherence to a particular set of rituals and doctrines -- but is occurring through a variety of renewed rituals and practices, both public and private. Demographics are reinforcing this trend. The global religious landscape in the coming years will be affected by the massive shift in population growth from the developed countries of the North -- predominantly in western Europe and the former Soviet republics -- to the developing countries of the so-called global South. The North accounted for 32 percent of the world's population in 1900, 25 percent in 1970, and about 18 percent in 2000. By 2050, it will likely account for just 10 percent. Religion has emerged as a driving factor in this redistribution. Religiosity is now one of the most accurate indicators of fertility, far more telling than denominational or ethnic identity, since religious people tend to have more children than their secular counterparts. Religion will also increasingly be an urban phenomenon. The growing population in the developing nations will mostly settle in vast, burgeoning, and largely impoverished metropolises -- areas where religion is spreading. According to conventional wisdom, secularization became an inevitable part of modernization with the spread of education, science, technology, and prosperity. But these new megacities are havens for religious revivals. Historically, religions have been adept at gaining adherents in urban environments; Christianity formed as an urban religious movement in the cities of the Roman Empire, and the Franciscans began as an urban reform movement in medieval Europe in response to the poverty and inequality accompanying the rise of the market economy. Islam may follow the same path by expanding in urban environments. Although urbanization can lead to civil unrest and cities can provide cover for criminal and terrorist networks, urbanization also offers well-meaning religious institutions opportunities for urban ministry that could help prevent such threats in the first place.