Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The World's Fastest Growing Religions

My friend Baquia, has mentioned on Baha'i Rants that
Foreign Policy has named the Baha'i Faith as the second-fastest growing religion. What I found interesting was *why* it was so listed -- that is, because about a quarter of Baha'is live in India, and there are high birthrates there. In fact, four of the religions on the list -- the Baha'i Faith, Sikhism, Jainism and Hindusim -- have high growth rates attributable to the fact that a large percentage are in India.

A few years back, there was a lot of discussion about how solid the numbers of Baha'is in India actually are. There's over a million on the rolls, but in India there tends to be a more inclusive Baha'i identity, so that many Baha'is still bring Hindu practices and identity with them. My guess would be that you have a range of commitment, just like you do in the U.S. No doubt there are some on the rolls that have reverted to Hinduism, some who are wholly Baha'i, and a portion in the middle with a mixture. I've heard reports of Indian Baha'is having pictures of 'Abdu'l-Baha' right next to Hindu gods on the family altar, or of them performing puja, which is Hindu worship. I recall one book speaking of "distinctive Hindu-Baha'i forms of worship". In such a case, a person looking in from the outside might have a hard time figuring out what religion these folks belong to.

As Baquia mentioned, the Indian census put the Baha'i numbers very low, but I think it likely that some were missed -- it depends on how the census was done. If assumptions were made about certain areas being Hindu, so that the whole population was attributed to that religion, rather than census workers going door-to-door, then certainly a lot of Baha'is were missed. If every household was carefully accounted for, like they do in the U.S.(although, of course, our census forms don't ask about religion), then that low number would have to be accurate and the Baha'i rolls are way off base. But I think the former case more likely.

Another thing that struck me about this article is the key factor of population growth. I always think of "growth" in a religion as being conversion -- people decide to join. But that comes from my experience, I guess. The only religion named on FP's list where conversion was a major factor was Christianity.

The notion of growing up in a religion is foreign to me. It's not that I didn't have some religious training -- I was sent to church at various times during my childhood, although it was not a regular thing. My interest in religion was very personal, even as a child. And, as time went on, the Protestant Christianity I grew up with became less dominant within the family. I used to joke with friends that I'm a heretic in my family, not because I'm a Baha'i, but because I don't believe in reincarnation! Actually, the notion that family pressure could influence my spiritual decisions makes me very uncomfortable; I've always charted my own path. I can't imagine just parroting my family's ideas about anything -- religion, politics, the role of women, child-rearing, or whatever. In fact, I was raised to be independent and wary of authority.

But I guess my experience -- and my family -- is unusual. According to the stats, most people do identify with the religion of their parents, even if they don't stay active practitioners. I expect the rates would be even higher in traditional societies in the global South.


Robert Todd said...

After an extensive search, all evidence suggests that the notion that the Indian Census massively contradicts Baha'i figures is largely fictional.

As far as I know, the claim rests on four pages of scanned tables of numbers that whose meaning are not explained anywhere in the document. The claim is that the ~5500 number is supposed to indicate the total population of Baha'is in India. Having been to India and visited the New Era school and the Lotus Temple, I assure you a community of 5000 could never support the activities in India. Further, if we take these numbers at face value, they say there are only 20 Baha'is in Delhi. Considering that there is an NSA and a Mashriqu'l-Adhk√°r in Dehli it's hard to imagine how this would be possible short of a bizarre conspiracy of commuting (never mind that I've personally met more than 20 Baha'is in Delhi).

I searched high and low for anything published by the Indian Census on this matter. It does not appear they have ever included "Baha'i" as a reported category. The "other" category on the Census is 6+ million, and Baha'is would still make a category smaller than any reported category if they were reported, so I see no evidence for or against the claims of 2+ million.

Karen said...

Hello Nick -- I wrote you a long answer, but Blogger didn't put it through. So, I'll just say thanks for stopping by, and sharing your research.