Christianity: The Statistics
With nearly 2.3 billion adherents, Christianity is the world's largest organized religion. Special emphasis is given by the religion on the life and teachings of Jesus, a first-century Jew standardly believed by Christians to have been the incarnation of god on Earth. Not only is Jesus's moral character thought to have been impeccable, his resurrection after death is believed to have made our redemption from sin in the eyes of god a possibility for all.
What do Christians around the world actually believe and value, though? After all, merely because the Bible says something does not mean that Christians widely believe it.
Our first look will be to the United States, which is the world's largest Christian nation by population. The figures below have been calculated from data in a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center and represent the beliefs and values of more than 251 million Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's witnesses, and Orthodox Christians.
The United States
- The idea that the Bible is the word of God and is something to be understood literally is highest among Protestants (46%) and Jehovah's witnesses (48%), and lowest among Catholics (23%).
- Mormons showing a particularly strong preference for the idea that the Bible is the word of god but is nonliteral in its meaning (50%).
- Slightly more than two-thirds of U.S. Christians (67%) are pluralists and hold that there is more than one true way of understanding the Bible. Catholics are the most likely to express this perspective, with 77% doing so.
- Just over a quarter (28%) hold the opposite viewpoint and believe that there is one and only one true way of understanding its religious teachings. The later is strongest among Jehovah's witnesses (77%) and Mormons (54%).
- 69% of Christians in the U.S. conceive of god as a "personal" being, meaning that he has the same kinds of properties that characterize personhood, including thoughts, intentions, beliefs, values, and so on.
- 22% hold a contrary view and see god as an "impersonal force." What space this leaves over for the worship of god is unclear (after all, we don't worship other impersonal forces like the electromagnetic force or the strong nuclear force, and it's hard to see the appeal of doing so).
- Orthodox Christians (34%) followed by Catholics (29%) were most likely to hold the impersonal force view, while Mormons (91%) were most likely to hold the personal god view.
- Perhaps surprisingly, only 83% of U.S. Christians believe in heaven, a place where people who lead good lives will be sent when they die. Jehovah's witnesses are the most likely to doubt its existence (which makes sense in light of what they are taught), but significant levels of lack of belief in heaven also exist for Orthodox Christians (who register 74% positive belief in heaven).
- Hell as a place of eternal punishment for people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry for it is doubted to an even greater extent than heaven is, with 68% of Christians overall accepting its existence as part of their worldview. Protestants (73%) believe in hell more than either Catholics (60%) or Mormons (59%).
- The lower rate of belief in hell as compared with heaven may be partly explained as a result of the struggle people have reconciling the idea of eternal punishment with goodness and justice (two key properties attributed to god).
- Pew research shows that 80% of American Christians believe in life after death while 13% do not. This means that, within the polling sample at least, fewer Christians in the U.S. report believing in life after death (80%) than they do in heaven (83%).
- Belief in life after death is highest among Mormons (98%) and lowest among Jehovah's witnesses (42%).
- U.S. Christians are not dogmatic about their own religion as the only way of getting into heaven for the most part, with 69% holding that religions other than Christianity can lead to eternal life. 25% do believe that Christianity is the only way, however. Jehovah's witnesses (80%) and Mormons (57%) are the most inclined to that point of view, while Catholics are the most likely to see multiple religions as capable of leading to heaven (79%).
- The most certain about the idea that angels and demons are active in the world are Jehovah's witnesses, with 78% having complete confidence in it. The most doubtful are Catholics, with 25% either mostly or completely disbelieving that angels and demons carry out worldly activities.
- U.S. Christians are roughly split on whether abortion should be legal or illegal. Pew's 2008 research indicates that 45% of Christians there believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, while 48% believe that it should be illegal in most or all cases. "Pro-choice" attitudes are highest among Orthodox Christians as a percentage (62%), while "pro-life" attitudes are most common among Jehovah's witnesses (77%).
- Attitudes towards homosexuality are even more finely split, with the same 2008 research showing that 44% of U.S. Christians believe it should be socially accepted and 45% believe that it should be socially discouraged. The most disapproving attitudes exist among Jehovah's witnesses (76%), while the most accepting attitudes are found among Catholics (58%).
- While "speaking in tongues" is most commonly associated with Pentecostals, Catholics, Orthodox, Mormon and Jehovah's Witnesses all have nonzero percentages of people who report speaking or praying in tongues on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis.
- All in all, some 47 million Christians (19%) talk or pray in tongues at least once a year, with 22.3 million (9%) doing it on a weekly basis (including almost 7 million Catholics).
Latin America is home to 520 million of the world's Christians. Of these, 406 million are Catholic and 114 million are Protestant. Let's see what they believe:
- A clear majority of Latin American Christians (64%) regard the Bible as both the word of god and as something intended to be understood literally, word for word. This percentage is significantly higher than what was seen for Christians in the United States (39%).
- Despite the Catholic Church's official position on avoiding contraception, 70% of Latin American Christians believe its use is moral.
- The moral views of Latin American Christians can be compared with Pew polling that looked at the moral beliefs of roughly a billion Muslims (here). While the Christians and Muslims represented in the polls have essentially the same percentages of moral disapproval on the question of abortion (80% Christian against, 78% Muslim against), fewer Christians than Muslims see immorality in alcohol consumption (54% Christian against vs. 84% Muslim against), unmarried sex (50% Christian against vs. 88% Muslim against), suicide (68% Christian against vs. 86% Muslim against), and homosexual behavior (65% Christian against vs. 89% Muslim against).
- 56% of Latin American Christians either mostly or completely agree that wives must always obey their husbands. This can be compared with research revealing that 86% of Muslims in a sample representing 956 million believe a wife must always obey her husband.
- The issue of communion is particularly interesting. According to the Catholic Church, the bread and the wine offered to Catholics during communion is transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. This means that the bread and wine are not simply symbols for Jesus's body and blood; rather, the bread and wine literally become Jesus's body and blood (in a way that cannot be seen). While this would technically make communion an act of vampirism and cannibalism—two behaviors that don't exactly exude cleanliness or holiness—receiving communion is an important aspect of worship and remembrance for hundreds of millions of Christians around the world.
- But do they really believe a transformation takes place? So far as the beliefs of Latin American Christians are concerned, 83% believe that the bread and wine really do transform into flesh and blood. Just 14%, or 73 million people, believe that no real transformation takes place. Protestants are slightly less inclined to believe in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine than Catholics are, with 75% of them believing it compared with 86% of Catholics.
- For comparison, note that a poll was carried out by the Irish Times in 2012 that found that only one-quarter of Irish Catholics polled believe that transubstantiation really occurs, while two-thirds believe that the bread and wine are just symbols.
- What about receiving revelation from god? The data show that three-quarters of Christians in the poll reported having never received any direct revelation from god. 24% say they have, however, which comes out to around 142 million people.
- When this is broken down between Catholics and Protestants to see if there is any difference, Protestants come out as more than two and a half times as likely as Catholics to believe that they have experienced direct revelation, with 53% of the 114 million Protestants in Latin America doing so.
- The country with the largest percentage of Christians who believe themselves recipients of direct revelation is the Dominican Republic, where 50% of Catholics and 65% of Protestants hold this to be true. The country with the percentage of Catholics least touched by revelation is Chile (7%), while for Protestants it is Paraguay (26%).
- Asked about the freedom of others to practice their own faiths, 75% of Christians in Latin America believe that they should be very free. More concerning from the point of view of secularism and democracy is the fact that 24% believe that others should either be somewhat free, not very free, or not free at all.
- There is no difference between Catholics and Protestants on this particular issue, with 24% of both Catholics and Protestants in favor of limited religious freedoms for others, and almost identical percentages (75% and 76% respectively) in favor of others being very free.
- While separation of Church and State is an entrenched value in the democracies of both the United States and France, a significant minority of Christians (35%) in Latin America favor direct state support of their religion with government policies that promote religious beliefs and values. The majority (60%) reject state involvement with religion at the level of government policy, however.
Sources and Notes
The statistics appearing on this page were based on data published in the following studies by the Pew Research Center:
- "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey." Pew Research Center. June 2008. Available here.
- "Religion in Latin America." Pew Research Center. November 13, 2014. Available here.
- "The Global Religious Landscape." Pew Research Center. December, 2012. Available here.
Information concerning the total population of the countries surveyed was taken from the CIA World Factbook (here).
Note that the percentages don't total to 100% in most of the graphs because it was possible for someone to say they didn't know, to offer a different answer than those that the surveys were prepared for, or to refuse to answer a question. More information about the sample sizes and the margins of error can be found in the Pew publications themselves, along with information concerning the methodology employed and difficulties encountered. However, for the Pew study that looked at Christians in Latin America, the sample sizes ranged from 1500 to 2000, and had margins of error between ± 2.8 (Nicaragua) and ± 4.0 (Peru and Paraguay). For the U.S. study, the sample sizes ranged from 18,900 for Protestants to 215 for Jehovah's witnesses, and had margins of error between ± 1.5 points for Catholics and Protestant subdivisions to ± 7.5 points for Jehovah's witnesses.
In interpreting the numbers found on this page, be aware that the fact that a belief or value x exists for a given subset of Christians does not by itself show that Christianity is wholly or even partly responsible for that being the case. By themselves, the statistics on this page say what is the case, not why.
Be also aware that someone might respond to a question with a particular answer not because they genuinely believe it, but because they think that is how they should answer it. For example, a Catholic might answer that they believe the bread and wine in communion literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ not because they actually believe it does, but because they believe they should believe it. Polls like those carried out by Pew find answers to what people believe based upon what people report believing, not what they actually believe, and the two needn't be the same.