Washington-based Pew Research Center has released results of a poll which suggests that there are increasingly more religious people than free thinkers in the Asia-Pacific region, whereas North America and Europe are experiencing a decline in religious belief and a projected spike in the proportion of people unaffiliated with any religion.

According to the report, The Future Of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050 published on Thursday, in Singapore, Islam and Hinduism are projected to make the highest gains, with Muslims replacing Christians as the second-largest faith group by 2050.

The report projected that in the Asia Pacific region, the proportion of freethinkers is estimated to decline from 21% in 2010 to 17% in 2050. In the same time period, the proportion of free thinkers in Europe and North America is expected to increase from 19% to 23%, and from 17% to almost 26%, respectively.

“Atheists, agnostics and other people who do not affiliate with any religion — though increasing in countries such as the United States and France — will make up a declining share of the world’s total population.”

The number of Muslims, a comparatively youthful population with high fertility rates, will nearly equal the number of Christians by 2050 if current demographic trends continue. As of 2010, Christians made up nearly a third of all 6.9 billion people on Earth. Muslims were the next largest group, comprising about 23%.

Singapore’s total population was also estimated to reach 7.9 million in 2050. The proportion of Muslims is projected to increase from 14.3% in 2010 to 21.4% in 2050, overtaking Christians as the second-largest group behind Buddhists. Over the same period, Singapore’s proportion of Hindus is expected to rise from 5.2 to 10%. The report said the increases were “mostly because of migration from India and Malaysia”.

By 2050, freethinkers will make up 16% of the total population, down slightly from 16.4% in 2010. Over the same period, the proportion of Christians and Buddhists in Singapore will decrease from 18.2 to 17%, and 33.9 to 27% respectively.

A senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Dr Mathew Mathews cautioned that the Government has said that it wants to preserve the current racial balance. “Muslims and Hindus in Singapore usually are Malays and Indians, and if their racial composition is supposed to stay the same as currently, it will be unlikely that Islam and Hinduism in Singapore will grow substantially considering the current population plans,” he said.

In Singapore’s case, IPS senior research fellow Leong Chan-Hoong and Choa Chu Kang GRC Member of Parliament Zaqy Mohamad said it cannot be assumed that people migrating from Malaysia are probably Muslims. Stressing the challenges of migration projections, Dr Leong said migrants could come from different countries or involve different races or religions within a particular country.

Mr Zaqy said any increase in the Muslim and Hindu populations could also be because of a higher number of interracial marriages.

Should the projections come to pass, Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said Singapore may also have to look into building more places of worship for Muslims and Hindus. Likewise, there would also be an impact on the relative influence each religious group has on changes, where bigger groups could feel their views should carry more weight, for instance, he added.

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