This week, the Pew Research Center released a report detailing the trends shaping the world’s religious makeup. According to the paper, titled The Changing Global Religious Landscape, children born to Muslim mothers will outnumber those born to Christians by the year 2035. The study tracked the distribution of all major religions and found that the two dominant world faiths, Christianity and Islam, are seeing the fastest growth, with Islam expected to overtake Christianity as population growth in the Muslim world spikes. The New York Times interpreted this as, “Muslim Babies Likely to Outnumber Others by 2035, Report Says.”
Given that religion is a voluntary identity, is it possible for a baby to be Muslim? Many seem to think so; in addition to the Times, the phrase is used by other news organizations and in books and journal articles. It's common enough that Pew anticipated the misnomer in a note on terminology: “This report generally avoids the terms ‘Christian babies’ or ‘Muslim babies’ because that wording could suggest children take on a religion at birth.”
In a phone call, Conrad Hackett, the study’s lead researcher, said that his team didn’t want people who saw the report to be confused about the context of the study. He explained why they made it a point to use such precise language in their results.
“We realized that if we use language talking about Buddhist babies or Muslim babies or Christian babies it could cause people to pause and to think ‘you know, wait a minute, when someone is born in the world they can't even talk, let alone think about religion or choose a religious identity for themselves,’” Hackett said.
Calling children born to Muslims “Muslim babies” treats religion as an inherent quality more akin to ethnicity rather than a choice.
The study is part of Pew’s broader effort of gathering a complete understanding of the distribution and growth of religions around the world. Demographers track religion to understand its influence on societal trends like childbearing, migration, and practices that affect mortality. Researchers found that between 2010 and 2015, 223 million children were born to mothers who identified as Christian — roughly 10 million more than were born to Muslim women. The trend appears to be shifting. According to the report, an aging Christian population and slightly higher birthrates among Muslim populations portend a reversal of the pattern by 2060, when it is projected that Muslim mothers will give birth to 232 million babies, close to 6 million more than the projection for Christians.
“We know that, generally speaking, people tend to take on the religious identity of their parents to varying degrees,” Hackett said. “Of course many people, particularly in the West, switch identities during their young adult years and we model that in our in our population projections.”
The nuance of language used in the study is important. Calling children born to Muslims “Muslim babies” treats religion as an inherent quality more akin to ethnicity rather than a choice. It’s an example of the many misunderstandings that persist about religion, especially Islam. Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King is one of many on the far right who believe demographic data about birth rates presents an apocalyptic scenario for the West, in which whites are no longer culturally dominant. In 2011, while on his baseless birther conspiracy theory tear, Donald Trump told Laura Ingraham that Barack Obama “doesn't have a birth certificate, or if he does, there's something on that certificate that is very bad for him. Now, somebody told me — and I have no idea if this is bad for him or not, but perhaps it would be — that where it says ‘religion,’ it might have ‘Muslim.’ And if you're a Muslim, you don't change your religion, by the way.”
Of course, people will always use data to peddle their own ideologies. The only thing researchers can really do is be as clear as they can, Hackett said, and hope for the best.
“Generally we don't really try to shape the way people interpret our studies," he said. “But we do hope that the data is useful information that people will see is trustworthy and that they can use as a basis for making sense of the world.”