The medieval Church established its monopoly over the spiritual life of Europeans in the Early Middle Ages (c. 476-1000 CE) and consolidated that power throughout the High Middle Ages (1000-1300 CE) and Late Middle Ages (1300-1500 CE). Along the way, the Church became increasingly corrupt as clergy ignored the most basic tenets of Christianity to live lavishly on the tithes of the people. Parish priests became so synonymous with hypocrisy and sin that anti-clericalism was common throughout Europe well before the High Middle Ages and contributed to the development of alternative belief systems that the Church condemned as heresies.
There was little else the common people – or even the nobility – could do about clerical corruption because the Church held the keys to one’s eternal destination. One could only attain salvation and eternal life by following the precepts of the Church, and one’s alternative was an eternity in the torments of hell or a limited, but almost equally unpleasant, stay in the fires of purgatory where one’s sins were burnt away. Heaven, hell, and purgatory were regarded as absolute certainties after death and, since the Church made all the rules regarding where a soul would wind up, people were forced to accept the clergy’s atrocious behavior.
Faith is on the rise and 84% of the global population identifies with a religious group. What does it mean for the future?
How many believers are there around the world?
If you think religion belongs to the past and we live in a new age of reason, you need to check out the facts: 84% of the world’s population identifies with a religious group. Members of this demographic are generally younger and produce more children than those who have no religious affiliation, so the world is getting more religious, not less – although there are significant geographical variations.
According to 2015 figures, Christians form the biggest religious group by some margin, with 2.3 billion adherents or 31.2% of the total world population of 7.3 billion. Next come Muslims (1.8 billion, or 24.1%), Hindus (1.1 billion, or 15.1%) and Buddhists (500 million, or 6.9%).
The next category is people who practise folk or traditional religions; there are 400m of them, or 6% of the global total. Adherents of lesser-practised religions, including Sikhism, Baha’i and Jainism, add up to 58m, or well below 1%. There are 14m Jews in the world, about 0.2% of the global population, concentrated in the US and Israel.
Imagine for a moment that a big, admired multinational corporation, one selling a beloved product, was employing large numbers of male pedophiles and rapists, operating in rings all over the world, and that their crimes had been uncovered in Australia, Ireland, Canada, the Philippines, Belgium, France, Austria, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Britain, Germany and the United States, and, further, that senior executives had systematically covered up and suppressed evidence, transferring and enabling hundreds of predators, betraying thousands of victims.