Muslims have done it! Islam has finally overtaken Catholicism as the world's single largest religious denomination. Mohammedians around the world rejoice, thine hour of victory is at hand!
So says a report published by the BBC in which a Vatican bishop claims UN census data shows that Muslims outnumber Catholics by a small margin. About 17% of the world population is Catholic, while 19% is Muslim. That means there are about 120 million more Muslims living today than Catholics - a first we are told since the Middle Ages.
Now this is an interesting story, not in the least because Islam has a great deal of self-worth wrapped up in its image as an unstoppable force (one Muslim student in my political philosophy class today spoke of how impressed she was by the sheer 'power' of Islam, before admitting that she was in fact a Muslim herself). What's even more interesting is that the claim is robbed entirely of its value once it's realised that it relies upon flawed methodology. If there is going to be a comparison of Islam to other religions, it has to be against the entire religion, not just one entity within it. Catholicism is but one of several massive Christian denominations falling under the umbrella of Christianity. Islam is an entire religion. Comparing Islam with Catholicism is only useful if you want to point out the sheer numbers of Catholics vis a vis the world's second largest religion.
A better and more accurate comparison would between Christianity as a whole and Islam. There are around 2 billion Christians, and anywhere from 1.1 to 1.3 Muslims. Of course if this comparison is made, the story loses all of its appeal, since Muslims don't want to remember that there are substantially more Christians and Christians don't want to remember there are another 4 billion people that need to be converted. An even better and illuminating comparison would have been to compare the number of Sunnis or Shi'as to Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
Christiantiy makes up 33% of world's population, but that's not important to Christians. We are of course commanded to spread the Gospel to all the corners of the world, but we are first required to love God with all our hearts and love our neighbours. If we don't do that, it doesn't matter if there are 2 billion Christians or 200, since it's always been quality (or better yet, charity and fidelity) over quantity. Jesus Himself was aware of this during His life, asking his disciples whether he would find any faith on earth when he returns. It's never been a numbers game for us, even if we actually are winning.
::postscript:: I can't help but notice this story comes straight from a mid-level, previously unknown Vatican bureaucrat just after the baptism of Cristiano Allam at Easter. That baptism made many Muslims of shallow and disordered religiosity upset, which in turn tends to make wooly-kneed Westerners uneasy. It's as if someone out there was trying to lessen the shock to the Islamic world that Muslims do, and quite often when they are freely allowed, become Christians.