How do people get to be christians? Do many convert by their own choice, or do most just get born into christian families or christian countries
Critics of christianity sometimes point to the “fact” that most people in the world follow the religion of the country they were born into. Therefore, they argue, most people’s faith is based on geography rather than good reasons, and few people convert because they are convinced of the truth of christianity.
I couldn’t find good answers to these questions, so I did some research.
Testing the argument
The argument raises a challenging point, but it seems to fall short as an argument:
- Believing in the religion one was brought up in doesn’t make that religion wrong – or right.
- If a religion grows, as christianity has grown, it must, as a matter of sheer mathematics, start out by making converts. But as it becomes larger, the number of people born into the faith must inevitably increase. People born into christian families is a sign of the success of christianity.
- Christianity is in decline in most of the traditionally christian countries of the west (mainly Europe and North America), but is growing fast in generally non-christian countries in Asia and Africa. This suggests christianity finds it easier to make converts than to retain those born into a christian heritage.
But what are the numbers?
If you can’t find it, do it yourself
I couldn’t find the information I needed online so I decided to gather the best information and develop a population model in a spreadsheet. A more detailed description of what I did is at How many christians are converts?
How many christian converts?
I modelled two different sets of data: (1) those who self-identify as christian (cultural christians), and (2) the smaller number who attend church (committed christians). These distinctions can only be approximate, but they are understandable. I combined figures for the west (Europe and North America) and for the rest of the world to get the final global answer.
Using data on the number of those who self-identified as christians, the model suggested about 30% of christians living today were converts and about 70% were born into nominally christian families or culture. (The actual numbers were just over 700 million out of a christian population of 2.4 billion.)
Using data on levels of church attendance (which are typically well below the number of cultural christians in western countries, but much closer in the rest of the world), about half of church-going christians living today were converts and half were born into christian families.
Christian growth in the 20th century
By 1900, christianity had become entrenched in christian culture in Europe, but it was beginning to lose numbers. But the twentieth century was also the beginning of massive growth in christianity in Africa and Asia, which continues to this day. In 1900, the west was home to more than three quarters of the world’s christians, but now it is less than a third.
This growth in Asia and Africa has been as a result of both conversions and births.
Clearly many christians (about 30-50%, depending on how “christians” are defined) living today are converts from a “non-christian” background. They presumably had some reason to change faiths.
- Check out the details of the data and the model at How many christians are converts?.
- Read about why many non-believers are converting at Visions of Jesus? and More healing miracles.