A Partnership Grounded in Faith

  • October 07, 2015
  • by Daniel LeDuc

If current trends continue, the world’s religious landscape will undergo significant changes by the year 2050: The number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians; Christians will decline from the current three-fourths of the U.S. population to two-thirds; and the number of atheists, agnostics, and people who don’t affiliate with any religion will decline as a share of the global population, even though their numbers will increase in the United States. Those are the latest results of an ambitious series of demographic projections developed by the Pew Research Center that were made possible through an ongoing partnership with the John Templeton Foundation.

For the past 10 years, the research center, a Washington-based subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the foundation have collaborated on studies unmatched in scope and breadth, fulfilling each organization’s goals of learning more about how people live their faith and how that faith plays out in world affairs. The reports of the Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project have received coverage around the world in the news media and are used to frame briefings not only for religious leaders but for government leaders in the United States and other nations.

The Templeton Foundation, based in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, was founded in 1987 by Sir John Templeton. A visionary investor who created the family of Templeton Funds, he went on to become a distinguished philanthropist who devoted the later years of his life to promoting the discovery of what he called “new spiritual information.” For Templeton, those who knew him recall, that meant seeking progress in understanding not only religious matters but also human nature and the physical world using the tools of modern science.

For the past two decades, Sir John’s son, John M. Templeton Jr., known affectionately as “Jack,” served as the foundation’s president, building on his father’s legacy of making the Templeton Foundation a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries on what scientists and philosophers call the big questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. A respected pediatric surgeon, he passed away in May, and in July, his daughter, Heather Templeton Dill, succeeded him.

In its work with the Pew Research Center begun under Jack Templeton’s leadership, the foundation seeks to learn which religious groups are growing—and shrinking—around the world, whether people are becoming more or less secular, and how competition for adherents among faith groups affects religious commitment. The foundation also wants to know more about religious freedom and whether greater religious diversity leads to greater tolerance.

The partnership’s first collaboration, released in 2006, was a 10-country survey of Pentecostals, who represent one of the fastest-growing segments of Christianity. The report examined the intensity of respondents’ religious beliefs and their views of the role of religion in government affairs. The attention it received from audiences ranging from religious leaders to policymakers suggested there was potential for further exploration of the role of religion in public life around the world.

So Templeton agreed to join the Trusts in supporting what is now the ongoing global religious futures project. Its second report, released in 2010, was based on interviews with 25,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population of Christians and Muslims has grown dramatically over the past century. Other project reports have surveyed Muslims around the world—some 38,000 interviews—for a groundbreaking view of a religion that is often misunderstood, particularly in the West. Another documented the decline in the number of Catholics in Latin America over the past four decades.

“The most exciting discoveries often come from applying methods developed in one field to an entirely different one,” says Alan Cooperman, director of the Pew Research Center’s project on religion and public life. “Our partnership with Templeton has allowed us to do innovative, cross-disciplinary research—such as applying state-of-the-art population projection techniques to forecast future growth trajectories of the world’s major religions. No one had previously been able to do it, because no one had collected the necessary data on fertility, mortality, age structures, migration, and religious switching. It took our team five years to gather all those input data, combing through more than 2,500 censuses and surveys.”

The Pew-Templeton project has now polled in more than 80 countries. “The quality of Pew’s surveys is first rate,” says Kimon Sargeant, vice president of Templeton’s human sciences programs. Along with the polling analysis at the Pew Research Center—which is admired as a gold standard of opinion research by most journalists and government officials—he appreciates the way Pew develops strategic plans to ensure that key audiences are exposed to the polls through special briefings and targeted outreach.

For example, U.S. diplomats headed to new postings overseas are frequently briefed on results of the Pew-Templeton surveys. “Pew’s materials on religion are more informative and detailed than anything else available,” says Sargeant.

The surveys also have looked at government and societal restrictions on religious practices around the world. Sargeant says that although other organizations look at those practices, many of them have advocacy goals, and Pew’s emphasis on objective scientific survey research elevates its findings.

The quality of the information, its wide dissemination in the news media, and the eagerness with which it is received by influential audiences make for a strong return on investment for Templeton, Sargeant says.

For its part, Pew has welcomed a partner with a similar perspective on the importance of objective information-gathering. “The leadership team at Templeton shares our commitment to obtaining high-quality data about the role of religion and is interested in public attitudes about science, about democracy, about the economic system,” says Cooperman. “Thanks to this partnership, we’re beginning to be able to see the big picture of religious change worldwide, because we know the size of the groups and their geographic distribution. We know more and more about their beliefs and experiences, and how much they are growing and where.”

For more information about philanthropic partnerships at Pew, please contact Senior Vice President Sally O’Brien at 202-540-6226 or sobrien@pewtrusts.org.

Daniel LeDuc is the editor of Trust.