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Phil Zuckerman
Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns


Assessing rates of belief or disbelief among large populations is extremely difficult. Determining what percentage of a given society believes in God or doesnt -- is fraught with methodological difficulties, most importantly: 1) low response rates, 2) non-random samples, 3) adverse political or cultural climates, and 4) problematic cross-cultural terminology. A brief discussion of each is warranted before presenting an accumulation of statistics concerning rates and patterns of atheism worldwide.

The first methodological concern is low response rates; most people in most societies do not respond to polls or surveys (Brehm, 1993). A response rate of around 50% is considered satisfactory/adequate, and anything over 70% is considered excellent (Babbie, 1989). Surveys with response rates of lower than 50% may provide accurate information concerning the minority of self-selecting people responding, but they cannot be generalized to the wider society.

           A second major methodological concern involves non-random samples. Even with a high response rate, if the sample is not randomly selected wherein every member of the given population has an equal chance of being chosen -- it is non-generalizable.

A third methodological problem involves the political or cultural climate of a given country. In a totalitarian country where atheism is promulgated by the government and serious risks are present for citizens viewed as disloyal (e.g., China or North Korea), individuals will be reluctant to admit that they actually do believe in God. Conversely, in a society where religion is heavily enforced by the government and serious risks are present for citizens viewed as non-believers (e.g., Saudi Arabia or Iran), individuals will be reluctant to admit that they actually dont believe in Allah, regardless if anonymity is guaranteed. Even in open, democratic societies without pervasive governmental coercion, individuals often feel that in order to make themselves appear as decent, upstanding citizens, it is necessary to say that are religious( i ) -- or deny being an atheist -- simply because such a response is deemed socially desirable or culturally appropriate. For example, the designation atheist is highly stigmatized in many societies; even when people directly claim to not believe in God, they still eschew the specific self-designation of atheist. Greeley (2003) found that 29% of Latvians, 41% of Norwegians, 48% of the French, and 54% of Czechs claimed to not believe in God, but only 9%, 10%, 19%, and 20% of those respondents self-identified as atheist, respectively.

 Finally, there are methodological problems relating to terminology. Meanings and definitions of specific words or categories seldom translate cross-culturally. Signifiers such as religious, secular, or even God have dramatically different meanings and connotations in different cultures (Beyer, 2003). They are laden with historical, political, social, and theological implications that are unique to every given country and the subcultures there within. Thus, making cross-national comparisons of beliefs between markedly different societies is tenuous, at best.( ii )

 Any assessment of the rates and patterns of atheism worldwide must keep the above methodological limitations in mind. That said, the enterprise isnt completely futile. We can make reliable estimates( iii ). Though methodological flaws hamper all sociological inquiries, in the words of Robert Putnam (2000:23): we must make do with the imperfect evidence that we can find, not merely lament its deficiencies.

Below is a presentation of the findings of the most recently available surveys concerning rates of atheism, agnosticism, and non-belief in God in various countries worldwide( iv ).

 

Australia , Canada, New Zealand, and the United States

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 25% of those in Australia do not believe in God. According to Paul (2002), 24% Australians are atheist or agnostic.

Guth and Fraser (2001) found that 28% of Canadians show no evidence of religious salience or activity. According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 22% of those in Canada do not believe in God. According to Bibby (2002), when asked Do you believe that God exists? 6% of Canadians answered No, I definitely do not and another 13% answered, No, I dont think so, for a total of 19% being classified as either atheist or agnostic. According to Gallup and Lindsay (1999:121), 30% of Canadians do not believe in God or a Higher Power.

 

Inglehart et al (2004) found that 22% of those in New Zealand do not believe in God, and Paul (2002) found that 20% of New Zealanders are atheist or agnostic.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 6% of those in the United States do not believe in God. According to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC( v ), 9% of Americans do not believe in God. Rice (2003) found that 3.8% of Americans dont believe in God or a spirit or life force. According to Hout and Fischer (2002), between 3-4.5% of Americans are either atheist or agnostic; Marwell and Demerath (2003) suggest that a more accurate estimate is 7%. According to Paul (2002) and Froese (2001), 8% of Americans are atheist or agnostic. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 16% of Americans claim no religious affiliation (Kang, 2004). According to Gallup and Lindsay (1999:99), 5% of Americans do not believe in God or a Higher Power.

Latin America

A 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC found that 7% of those in Mexico do not believe in God. Inglehart et al (2004) found that only 2% of Mexicans do not believe in God.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 12% of those in Uruguay do not believe in God. OBrien and Palmer (1993) claim that between 30-50% of Uruguayans have no religious allegiance. According to Inglehart et al (2004), 3% of those in Chile do not believe in God, down from 5% in 1990.

 

The 1999 Gallup International Poll( vi ) found that nearly 7% of Argentineans chose none as their religion According to Inglehart et al (2004), 4% of those in Argentina do not believe in God, down from 8% in 1990.

 

According to Hiorth (2003), Barret et al (2001), the 1999 Gallup International Poll, and Inglehart et al (2004, 1998), less that 1-2% of those in El Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Paraguay, and Venezuela are atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious.

Europe

Norris and Inglehart (2004) found that 39% of those in Britain do not believe in God. According to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC, 44% of the British do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 31% of the British do not believe in God, although only 10% self-identify as atheist. According to Bruce (2002), 10% of the British self-identify as an agnostic person and 8% as a convinced atheist, with an additional 21% choosing not a religious person. According to Froese (2001), 32% of the British are atheist or agnostic. According to Gallup and Lindsay (1999:121), 39% of the British do not believe in God or a Higher Power.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 44% of those in France do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 48% of the French do not believe in God, although only 19% self-identify as atheist. According to Froese (2001), 54% of the French are atheist or agnostic. According to Davie (1999), 43% of the French do not believe in God.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 64% of those in Sweden do not believe in God. According to Bondeson (2003), 74% of Swedes said that they did not believe in a personal God. According to Greeley (2003), 46% of Swedes do not believe in God, although only 17% self-identify as atheist. According to Froese (2001), 69% of Swedes are either atheist or agnostic. According to Gustafsoon and Pettersson (2000), 82% of Swedes do not believe in a personal God. According to Davie (1999), 85% of Swedes do not believe in God.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004) 48% of those in Denmark do not believe in God. According to Bondeson (2003), 49% of Danes do not believe in a personal God. According to Greeley (2003), 43% of Danes do not believe in God, although only 15% self-identify as atheist. According to Froese (2001), 45% of Danes are either atheist or agnostic. According to Gustafsson and Pettersson (2000), 80% of Danes do not believe in a personal God.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 31% of those in Norway do not believe in God. According to Bondeson (2003), 54% of Norwegians said that they did not believe in a personal God. According to Greeley (2003), 41% of Norwegians do not believe in God, although only 10% self-identify as atheist. According to Gustafsson and Pettersson (2002), 72% of Norwegians do not believe in a personal God. According to Froese (2001), 45% of Norwegians are either atheist or agnostic.

 

Norris and Inglehart (2004) found that 28% of those in Finland do not believe in God. According to Bondeson (2003), 33% of Finns do not believe in a personal God. According to Gustafsson and Pettersson (2002), 60% of Finns do not believe in a personal God. According to Froese (2001), 41% of Finns are either atheist or agnostic.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 42% of those in the Netherlands do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 43% of the Dutch do not believe in God, although only 17% self-identify as atheist. Houtman and Mascini (2002) found that 39% of the Dutch are either agnostic or atheist. According to Froese (2001), 44% of the Dutch are either atheist or agnostic.

 

Norris and Inglehart (2004) found that 31% of West Germans do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 35% of West Germans do not believe in God, but only 11% self-identify as atheist. According to Froese (2001), 35% of West Germans are either atheist or agnostic. According to Greeley (2003), 75% of East Germans do not believe in God, with 51% self-identifying as atheist. According to Pollack (2002), 74% of East Germans and 38% of West Germans do not believe in God. According to Shand (1998), 42% of West Germans and 72% of East Germans are either atheist or agnostic.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 17% of those in Switzerland do not believe in God, and Greeley (2003) found that 27% of the Swiss do not believe in God, but only 4% self-identify as atheist.

 

Inglehart et al (2004) found that 15% of those in Spain do not believe in God, and according to Greeley (2003), 18% of Spaniards do not believe in God, but only 9% self-identify as atheist. According to Froese (2001), 24% of Spaniards are either atheist or agnostic.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 18% of those in Austria do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 20% of Austrians do not believe in God, but only 6% self-identify as atheist. According to Froese (2001), 26% of Austrians are either atheist or agnostic.

 

Ingelhart et al (2004) found that 6% of those in Italy do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 14% of Italians do not believe in God, but only 4% self-identify as atheist. According to Froese (2001), 15% of Italians are either atheist or agnostic. According to Davis and Robinson (1999), 23% of Italians disagreed (some strongly) that a God exists who concerns himself with every human being personally.

 

According to Greeley (2003), 5% of those in Ireland do not believe in God, but only 2% accept the self-identification of atheist. According to Ingelhart et al (2004) and Davie (1999), 4% of the Irish do not believe in God.

 

Inglehart et al (2004) found that 4% of those in Portugal do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 9% of those in Portugal do not believe in God, with only 2% self-identifying as atheist.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 43% of those in Belgium do not believe in God. According to Froese (2001), 42% of Belgians are either atheist or agnostic.

 

According Inglehart et al (2004), 8% of those in Albania do not believe in God. According to OBrien and Palmer (1993), over 50% of Albanians claim no religious alliance.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 34% of those in Bulgaria do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 40% of those in Bulgaria do not believe in God, but only 17% self-identify as atheist.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 61% of those in the Czech republic do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 54% of those in the Czech Republic do not believe in God, although only 20% self-identify as atheist. According to a 1999 Gallup International Poll, over 55% of Czechs chose none as their religion.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 17% of those in Slovakia do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 28% of those in Slovakia do not believe in God, but only 11% self-identify as atheist. According to Gall (1998), 10% of Slovaks are atheist.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 7% of those in Croatia do not believe in God. According to a 1999 Gallup International Poll, 5.5% of those in Croatia and 6.4% of those in Bosnia chose none as their religion.

 

According to Ingelhart et al (2004), 35% of those in Slovenia do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 38% of those in Slovenia do not believe in God, but only 17% self-identify as atheist.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 32% of those in Hungary do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 35% of Hungarians do not believe in God, a decrease in non-belief from 1981, when 45% reported that they didnt believe in God. According to Froese (2001), 46% of Hungarians are either atheist or agnostic.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 3% of those in Poland do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 6% of Poles do not believe in God, but only 2% self-identifies as an atheist.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 16% of those in Iceland do not believe in God. According to Froese (2001), 23% of those in Iceland are either atheist or agnostic.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 16% of those in Greece do not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 4% of those in Cyprus do not believe in God, although only 1% choose to identify as atheist. According to Inglehart et al (2004) and the 1999 Gallup International Poll, less than 1-2% of those in Turkey are nonreligious.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 4% of Romanians do not believe in God.

Russia and Former Soviet States

A 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC found that 24% of those in Russia do not believe in God. According to Inglehart et al (2004), 30% of those in Russia do not believe in God, but only 5% self-identify as atheist (Froese, 2004). According to Greeley (2003), 48% of Russians do not believe in God, although only 19% self-identify as atheist.

 

Froese (2004) reports that 5% of those in the Ukraine are self-described atheists. According to Inglehart et al (2004), 20% of those in the Ukraine do not believe in God. According to Yelensky (2002), 44% of Ukrainians claim none in terms of religious identification.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 17% of those in Belarus do not believe in God, far fewer than in 1990, when 57% claimed to not believe in God.

 

Froese (2004) found that 6% of those in Latvia are self-described atheists, but according to Inglehart et al (2004), 20% of those in Latvia do not believe in God, far fewer than in 1990, when 42% did not believe in God. According to Greeley (2003), 29% of those in Latvia do not believe in God, but only 9% self-identify as atheist.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 13% of those in Lithuania do not believe in God, although only 1% describe themselves as atheists (Froese, 2004).

 

Inglehart et al (2004) found that 49% of those in Estonia do not believe in God, although only 11% are self-described atheists (Froese, 2004).

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 14% of those in Armenia do not believe in God, although only 7% are self-described atheists (Froese, 2004). According to a 1999 Gallup International Poll, over 11% of Armenians chose none as their religion.

 

According to Froese (2004), less than 1% of those in Azerbaijan and 4% of those in Georgia are atheist.

 

According to Froese (2004), 12% of those in Kazakhstan are atheist. According to Barrett (2001), 29% of those in Kazakhstan are nonreligious, with 11% claiming to be atheist. According to the 1999 Gallup International Poll, almost 19% of Kazakhs chose none as their religion.

 

According to Froese (2004), 7% of those in Kyrgyzstan, 6% of those on Moldova, 4% of those in Uzbekistan, 2% of those in Tajikstan, and 2% of those in Turkmenistan, are atheist.

 

According to Barret et al (2001), 3.5% of Uzbeks are atheist. According to Johnstone (1993), 28% of those in Kyrgystan, 27% of those in Moldova, 26% of Uzbeks, 18% of those in Turkmenistan, and 13% of Tajikstan, are nonreligious.

 Asia

As a result of periodic repression of religion by various dictators (Guest, 2003), survey data of religious belief in the most populated country in the world China -is extremely unreliable (Demerath, 2001:154). Only very recently has sound scholarship begun to emerge, and even that is of limited scope (Yang, 2004). Estimates of high degrees of atheism in China are most likely gross over-exaggerations (Overmyer, 2003). That said, according to Barrett et al (2001), 8% of the Chinese are atheist. According to Marshall (2000), 10% of those in China identify as atheist. According to Johnstone (1993), 59% of those in China are nonreligious. According to OBrien and Palmer (1993), between 10-14% of those in China are avowed atheists.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004, 1998), 6% of those in India do not believe in God. According to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC, less than 3% of Indians do not believe in God.

 

According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 65% of those in Japan do not believe in God. According to Demerath (2001:138), 64% do not believe in God and 55% do not believe in Buddha, however a very strong majority have engaged in some form or Shinto, Buddhist, or Japanese folk/cultural ritual, such visiting a shrine or temple on the previous New Years Day. According to the 1999 Gallup International Poll, nearly 29% of the Japanese chose none as their religion. According to Johnstone (1993:323), 84% of the Japanese claim no personal religion, but most follow the customs of Japanese traditional religion.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 81% of those in Vietnam and 24% of those in Taiwan do not believe in God.

 

Barret et al (2001) report that 15% of North Koreans are atheist. According to Johnstone (1993), 68% of North Koreans are nonreligious, however, for similar reasons discussed above concerning China, this high estimate should be met with skepticism.

 

A 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC found that 30% of those in South Korea do not believe in God. According to Eungi (2003), 52% of South Koreans do not believe in God.

According to Barret et al (2001), 9% of those in Mongolia are atheist. According to Johnstone (1993), 20% of those in Mongolia, 7% of Cambodians and 5% of Laotians are nonreligious.

 

Inglehart et al (2004) found that 13% of those in Singapore do not believe in God. According to the 1999 Gallup International Poll, over 12% of those in Singapore chose none as their religion.

 

According to Moaddel and Azadarmaki (2003), less than 5% of Iranians do not believe in God, and according to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC, less than 2% of those in Indonesia do not believe in God.

 

According to Inglehart et al (2004), Barrett et al (2001), the 1999 Gallup International Poll, and Johnstone (1993), less than 1% of those in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iran, Malaysia, Nepal, Laos, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Philippines, are atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious.

Africa

According to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC, Hiorth (2001) Inglehart et al (2004, 1998), Barrett et al (2001), the 1999 Gallup International Poll, and Johnstone (1993), less than 1% of those in Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Cote DIvoire, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, are atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious.

 

According to Johnstone (1993), 2.7% of those in Congo, 4% of those in Zimbabwe, 4% of those in Namibia, 1.5% of those in Angola and the Central African Republic, and 5% of those in Mozambique are nonreligious.

 

According to a 1999 Gallup International Poll, nearly 11% of South Africans chose none as their religion. According to Inglehart et al (2004), 1% of South Africans do not believe in God.

Middle East

According to a 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC, 15% of those in Israel do not believe in God. According to Yuchtman-Yaar (2003), 54% of Israelis identify themselves as secular. According to Dashefsky et al (2003), 41% of Israelis identify themselves as not religious. According to Kedem (1995), 31% of Israelis do not believe in God, with an additional 6% choosing dont know, for a total of 37% being atheist or agnostic.

 

A 2004 survey commissioned by the BBC found that less than 3% of those in Lebanon do not believe in God.

 

According to Moaddel and Azadarmaki (2003), less than 5% of those in Jordan and Egypt do not believe in God. According to Inglehart et al (2004), less than 1% of those in Jordan and Egypt do not believe in God.

 

According to Barret et al (2001) less than 1% of those in Syria, Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen are secular. According to Johnstone (1993), less than 2% of Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen, and Kuwait is nonreligious. According to Johnstone (1993), less than 1% of those in Iraq are nonreligious.

West Indies

According to Hiorth (2003), 40% of those in Cuba claim none as their religion. According to Barrett et al (2001), 30% of Cubans are nonreligious, with 7% claiming to be atheist. According to Johnstone (1993), 9% of those in Trinidad and Tobago, and 3% of Jamaicans are nonreligious. According to Hiorth (2003) and Johnstone (1993) less than 1% of those in Haiti are non-religious.

According to Inglehart et al (2004), 7% of those in the Dominican Republic do not believe in God, and the 1999 Gallup International Poll found that almost 10% of those in the Dominican Republic chose none as their religion.

The Top 50

Below is a list of the top fifty countries containing the largest percentage of people who identify as atheist, agnostic, or non-believer in God.

  Country Total Pop.(2004) % Atheist/actual # Agnostic/Nonbeliever in God (minimum - maximum)
1 Sweden 8,986,000 46-85% 4,133,560-7,638,100
2 Vietnam 82,690,000 81% 66,978,900
3 Denmark 5,413,000 43-80% 2,327,590-4,330,400
4 Norway 4,575,000 31-72% 1,418,250-3,294,000
5 Japan 127,333,000 64-65% 81,493,120-82,766,450
6 Czech Republic 10,246,100 54-61% 5,328,940-6,250,121
7 Finland 5,215,000 28-60% 1,460,200-3,129,000
8 France 60,424,000 43-54% 25,982,320-32,628,960
9 South Korea 48,598,000 30%-52% 14,579,400-25,270,960
10 Estonia 1,342,000 49% 657,580
11 Germany 82,425,000 41-49% 33,794,250-40,388,250
12 Russia 143,782,000 24-48% 34,507,680-69,015,360
13 Hungary 10,032,000 32-46% 3,210,240-4,614,720
14 Netherlands 16,318,000 39-44% 6,364,020-7,179,920
15 Britain 60,271,000 31-44% 18,684,010-26,519,240
16 Belgium 10,348,000 42-43% 4,346,160-4,449,640
17 Bulgaria 7,518,000 34-40% 2,556,120-3,007,200
18 Slovenia 2,011,000 35-38% 703,850-764,180
19 Israel 6,199,000 15-37% 929,850-2,293,630
20 Canada 32,508,000 19-30% 6,176,520-9,752,400
21 Latvia 2,306,000 20-29% 461,200-668,740
22 Slovakia 5,424,000 10-28% 542,400-1,518,720
23 Switzerland 7,451,000 17-27% 1,266,670-2,011,770
24 Austria 8,175,000 18-26% 1,471,500-2,125,500
25 Australia 19,913,000 24-25% 4,779,120-4,978,250
26 Taiwan 22,750,000 24% 5,460,000
27 Spain 40,281,000 15-24% 6,042,150-9,667,440
28 Iceland 294,000 16-23% 47,040-67,620
29 New Zealand 3,994,000 20-22% 798,800-878,680
30 Ukraine 47,732,000 20% 9,546,400
31 Belarus 10,311,000 17% 1,752,870
32 Greece 10,648,000 16% 1,703,680
33 North Korea 22,698,000 15% ( ? ) 3,404,700
34 Italy 58,057,000 6-15% 3,483,420-8,708,550
35 Armenia 2,991,000 14% 418,740
36 China 1,298,848,000 8-14% ( ? ) 103,907,840-181,838,720
37 Lithuania 3,608,000 13% 469,040
38 Singapore 4,354,000 13% 566,020
39 Uruguay 3,399,000 12% 407,880
40 Kazakhstan 15,144,000 11-12% 1,665,840-1,817,280
41 Estonia 1,342,000 11% 147,620
42 Mongolia 2,751,000 9% 247,590
43 Portugal 10,524,000 4-9% 420,960-947,160
44 United States 293,028,000 3-9% 8,790,840-26,822,520
45 Albania 3,545,000 8% 283,600
46 Argentina 39,145,000 4-8% 1,565,800-3,131,600
47 Kyrgyzstan 5,081,000 7% 355,670
48 Dominican Rep. 8,834,000 7% 618,380
49 Cuba 11,309,000 7% ( ? ) 791,630
50 Croatia 4,497,000 7% 314,790

(?): certainty/validity on these figures is relatively low

We can also include Mexico (2-7% do not believe in God), Poland (3-6% dont believe in God), Moldova (6% dont believe in God) Romania, Georgia, and Uzbekistan (4% dont believe in God), India (2-6% dont believe in God), Ireland (4-5% do not believe in God), and Chile (3% do not believe in God).

 

From the top 50 countries, along with those additionally mentioned above countries, the grand total worldwide number of atheists, agnostics, and non-believers in God is somewhere between 504,962,830 and 749,247,571. These minimum/maximum numbers are conservative estimates; had I factored in a mere .25% of such highly populated countries as Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Burma, Tanzania, and Iran, as non-believers in God, estimates would be significantly larger. Also, these numbers are only for non-believers of God, specifically. Had I included all non-religious people in general, the numbers would nearly double.

 

Given the above estimates, we can deduce that there are approximately 58 times as many atheists as there are Mormons, 41 times as many atheists as there are Jews, 35 times as many atheists as there are Sikhs, and twice as many atheists as there are Buddhists. Finally, nonbelievers in God as a group come in fourth place after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million) in terms of global ranking of commonly-held belief systems.

Explaining High Rates of Non-Belief

What accounts for the staggering differences between nations in terms of rates of non-belief? Why do most nations in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia contain almost no atheists, but within many European nations atheists are in abundance? There are numerous explanations (Zuckerman, 2004; Paul, 2002; Stark and Finke, 2000; Bruce, 1999). One leading theory comes from Norris and Inglehart (2004), who argue that in societies characterized by plentiful food distribution, excellent public healthcare, and widely accessible housing, religiosity wanes. Conversely, in societies where food and shelter are scarce and life is generally less secure, religious belief is strong. This is not a new theory (Thrower, 1999). For example, Karl Marx (1843) argued that people who suffer in oppressive social conditions are apt to turn to religion for comfort. Sigmund Freuds (1927) central thesis was that belief in God served to comfort humans in the face of earthly pain, suffering, and death. However, Marx and Freud provided no data. Norris and Inglehart (2004) do.

 

Through an examination of current global statistics on religiosity in relation to income distribution, economic inequality, welfare expenditures, and basic measurements of lifetime security (such as vulnerability to famines, natural disasters, etc.), Inglehart and Norris (2004) convincingly argue that despite numerous factors possibly relevant for explaining different rates of religiosity world-wide, the levels of societal and individual security in any society seem to provide the most persuasive and parsimonious explanation (p.109).( vii ) Of course, as with any grand sociological theory, there are holes. The glaring cases of Vietnam (81% non-believers in God) and Ireland (4-5% non-believers in God) prove to be exceptions to Inglehart and Norriss analysis; Vietnam is a relatively poor/insecure country and yet quite irreligious, while Ireland is one of the wealthiest/most secure countries in the world, and yet very religious. But aside from these two glaring exceptions, the correlation between high rates of individual and societal security/well-being and high rates of non-belief in God remains strong.

Atheism and Societal Health

Indeed, countries containing high percentages of non-believers are among the most healthy and wealthy nations on earth (Paul, 2004). Of course, we must always distinguish between those nations where non-belief has been forced upon the society by dictators (coercive atheism) from those societies wherein non-belief has emerged on its own without governmental coercion (organic atheism). Nations marked by coercive atheism -- such as China, North Korea, Vietnam, and former Soviet states -- are societies marked by all that comes with totalitarianism: poor economic development, intellectual censorship, widespread corruption, ubiquitous depression, etc.. However, nations marked by high levels of organic atheism such as Sweden, the Netherlands, and France -- are among the healthiest, wealthiest, most educated, and most free societies on earth.

 

Consider the Human Development Report (2004), commissioned by The United Nations Development Program. This report ranks 177 nations on a Human Development Index, which measures societal health through a weighing of such indicators as life expectancy at birth, adult literacy rate, per capita income, and educational attainment. According to the 2004 Report, the five highest ranked nations in terms of total human development were Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. All five of these countries are characterized by notably high degrees of organic atheism. Furthermore, of the top 25 nations ranked on the Human Development Index, all but one country ( Ireland) are top-ranking non-belief nations, containing some of the highest percentages of organic atheism on earth. Conversely, of those countries ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index -- the bottom 50 -- all are countries lacking any statistically significant percentages of atheism.

 

Concerning the infant mortality rate specifically (number of deaths per 1,000 live births), irreligious countries have the lowest rates, and religious countries have the highest rates. According to the CIA World Factbook (2004), out of 225 nations, the top 25 nations with the lowest infant mortality rates were all nations containing significantly high percentages of organic atheism. Conversely, the 75 bottom nations with the highest infant mortality rates were all very religious nations without any statistically significant levels of organic atheism.

 

Concerning international poverty rates, the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation (2003) found that of the 40 poorest nations on earth (measured by the percentage of each nations population that lives on less than $1.00 a day), all but one (Vietnam) are highly religious nations with statistically minimal or insignificant levels of atheism.

 

Concerning homicide rates, Fajnzylber et al (2002), looked at 38 nations (excluding those in Africa) and found that of the top ten nations with the highest homicide rates, all but one (United States) were highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism. Conversely, of the bottom ten nations with the lowest homicide rates, all but one ( Ireland) are highly secular nations with high levels of atheism. Fox and Levin (2000) looked at 37 nations (again excluding Africa), and found that of the top ten nations with the highest homicide rates, all but two (Estonia and Taiwan) were highly religious nations containing statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism. Conversely, of the bottom ten nations with the lowest homicide rates, all but two ( Ireland and Kuwait) were relatively secular nations with high levels of organic atheism.

 

Concerning suicide rates, this is the one indicator of societal health in which religious nations fare much better than secular nations. According to the 2003 World Health Organizations report on international male suicides rates (which compared 100 countries), of the top ten nations with the highest male suicide rates, all but one (Sri Lanka) are strongly irreligious nations with high levels of atheism. It is interesting to note, however, that of the top remaining nine nations leading the world in male suicide rates, all are former Soviet/Communist nations, such as Belarus, Ukraine, and Latvia( viii ). Of the bottom ten nations with the lowest male suicide rates, all are highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.

 

Concerning literacy rates, according to the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation (2003), of the 35 nations with the highest levels of youth illiteracy rates (percentage of population ages 15-24 who cannot read or write)( ix ), all are highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.

 

Concerning gender equality, nations marked by high degrees of organic atheism are among the most egalitarian in the world, while highly religious nations are among the most oppressive. According to the 2004 Human Development Reports Gender Empowerment Measure, the top ten nations with the highest degrees of gender equality are all strongly organic atheistic nations with significantly high percentages of non-belief. Conversely, the bottom ten are all highly religious nations without any statistically significant percentages of atheists. According to Inglehart and Norriss (2003) Gender Equality Scale, of the top ten nations most accepting of gender equality, all but two (United States and Colombia) are nations marked by high levels of organic atheism; of the bottom ten (those least accepting of gender equality), all are highly religious nations marked by statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism( x ). According to Inglehart (2003), countries with the most female members of parliament tend to be countries characterized by high degrees of organic atheism (such as Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands) and countries with the fewest female members in parliament tend to be highly religious countries (such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Iran).

 

In sum, countries marked by high rates of organic atheism are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies characterized by non-existent rates of organic atheism are among the most destitute. Nations marked by high degrees of organic atheism tend to have among the lowest homicide rates, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, and illiteracy rates, and among the highest levels of wealth, life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality in the world. The only indicator of societal health mentioned above in which religious countries fared better than irreligious countries was suicide.

 

Of course, it is essential to clearly state that I am in no way arguing that high levels of organic atheism cause societal health or that low levels of organic atheism cause societal ills such as poverty or illiteracy. If anything, the opposite argument should be made: societal health causes widespread atheism, and societal insecurity causes widespread belief in God, as discussed by Norris and Inglehart (2004) above.

 

The causes of the glaring differences in societal well being among the worlds rich and poor nations are numerous (Diamond, 1999; Landes, 1999). Certainly among them include the birth and development of the industrial revolution, the lingering residue of colonialism and international conquests, and international trade policies that heavily favor the interests of wealthy/first world nations and their multi-national corporations over the interests of developing/third world nations. Again, to suggest that widespread belief or non-belief in God is the cause of societal health or societal pathology is not my intention. Rather, I am simply seeking to clearly establish that high degrees of non-belief in God in a given society clearly do not result in societal ruin, and high levels of belief in God do not ensure societal well-being. This is an important fact to stress because politically-active theists often equate atheism with crime, immorality, and societal disintegration. From Muslim fundamentalists in Iran to Christian fundamentalists in Indiana, the argument is loudly trumpeted that belief in God is good for society an ultimate panacea -- while rejection of the belief in God is bad for society. The above discussion reveals that this thesis is baldly incorrect.

Secularization?

Is worldwide atheism growing or in decline? This is difficult to answer. On the one hand, there are more atheists in the world today than ever before. Additionally, the nations with some of the highest degrees of organic atheism (such as Great Britain, France, and Scandinavia) have been experiencing a steady increase of atheism over the past century, an increase which shows no indication of abating (Bruce, 2001). On the other hand, worldwide atheism overall may be in decline. This is due to the simple demographic fact that highly religious nations have the highest birthrates in the world and highly irreligious nations have the lowest birthrates in the world. As Norris and Inglehart (2004:25) observe, due to basic demographic trends, the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before and they constitute a growing proportion of the worlds population.

Thus, the picture is complicated, making predictions of the growth or overall decline of atheism difficult to make. What is clear as stated above -- is that in certain selected societies, non-belief in God is definitely growing. While most humans on this earth continue to maintain a firm belief in deities (especially in the most populated countries of Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and possibly China), there is clear evidence of secularization in selected, advanced industrial nations (Norris and Ingelhart, 2004; Bruce, 2002). Secularization is specifically evident in the empirically observable decline of belief in God within many western nations.( xi )

 

According to Gallup and Lindsay (1999:121), 30% of Canadians do not believe in God or a Higher Power, up from 23% in 1985. According to Beyer (1997), 12.5% of Canadians chose none when presented with a plethora of religious identity options in 1991, up from 7% in 1981 a 90% increase of nones in one decade. According to Gallup and Lindsay (1999:121), 39% of the British do not believe in God or a Higher Power, up from 24% in 1979. According to Bruce (2002) and Gill et al (1998), survey data from the 1960s found that 79% of the British held a belief in God, but this dropped down to 68% in surveys taken in the 1990s; whereas only 10% answered that they dont believe in God in the 1960s, this percentage had almost tripled to 27% in the 1990s. According to Bruce (2001), surveys in the 1950s found that only 2% of the British replied they did not believe in God; that percentage was up to 27% in the 1990s. According to Palm and Trost (2000), when Swedes were asked in 1947 Do you believe in God? 83% said yes, 9% said they didnt know, and 8% said no. In the early 1990s, in response to the same question, only 38% said yes, 16% didnt know, and 46% said they did not. According to CUNYs 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 14% of Americans claim no religion in terms of self-identification, up from 8% in 1990. Finally, according to Norris and Inglehart (2004:90), the percentage of people believing in God over the past 50 years has declined by 33% in Sweden, 22% in the Netherlands, 20% in Australia, 19% in Norway, 18% in Denmark, 16.5% in Britain, 12% in Greece, 11% in Belgium, 7% in Canada, and 3% in Japan.

 

In sum, loss of belief in God has occurred over the course of the 20 th century in Canada, Australia, and various European countries ( Davie, 2000), including Germany (Shand, 1998; Greeley, 2003), the United Kingdom (Bruce, 2001, 2002), the Netherlands (Grontenhuis and Scheepers, 2001), and Scandinavia (Bruce, 1999). However, secularization is quite limited to specific advanced industrialized nations (with relatively low birth rates), and has not occurred throughout much of the rest of the world. Secularization is thus very limited in scope, for as Peter Berger (2001) observes, most of the world is bubbling with religious passions.

Atheism and the Innateness of Religious Belief

In recent years, a new attempt at explaining religious belief has emerged. Its central tenet is that belief in God is biologically natural or neurologically based. Developed largely by cognitive neuropyschologists and academic theists, this thesis argues that belief in God is in-born and inevitable, growing out of the natural processes of the human brain.

 

Justin Barret (2004) has argued that belief in God is a result of the way our minds are structured (p.viii) and the way human minds operate (p.30). He argues that belief in God is greatly supported by intuitive mental tools(p.17) and is an inevitable consequence of the sorts of minds we are born with (p.91). Belief in God is natural, resulting from the natural workings of the human mind, and atheism is thus unnatural (p.108). David Wilson (2002) suggests that religion is part of humanitys naturally evolving adaptive strategy, and that religious belief represents the healthy functioning of the biologically and culturally well-adapted human mind (p.228). Michael Persinger (1987) has stressed the role of the hippocampus, the amygdala, temporal lobes, and hormonal processes, in explaining religious belief in God. Ashbrook and Albright (1997) focus on the neural underpinnings and workings of the brain in explaining belief in God. Newberg and D-Aquili (2001) argue that the religious impulse lies in an evolved neurological process (p.9), that the roots of belief in God are to be found in the wiring of the human brain (p.129), and that as long as our brains are arranged the way they are, belief in God will remain (p.172).

 

The data presented in this chapter delivers a heavy blow to this new explanation of theism. First of all, the sheer numbers must be contended with. With between 500,000,000 and 750,000,000 non-theists living on this planet today, any suggestion that belief in God is natural, inborn, or a result of how our brains are wired becomes manifestly untenable. Secondly, anyone who argues that theism has neural roots and is a direct result of the natural way human minds work must then explain the dramatically different rates of belief among similar countries. Consider Britain (31-44% atheist) compared to nearby Ireland (4-5% atheist), the Czech Republic (54-61% atheist) compared to nearby Poland (3-6% atheist), and South Korea (30-52% atheist) compared the Philippines (less than 1% atheist). It is simply unsustainable to argue that these glaring differences in rates of atheism among these nations is due to different biological, neurological or other such brain-related properties. Rather, the differences are better explained by taking into account historical, cultural, economic, political, and sociological factors (Norris and Inglehart, 2004; Grontenhuis and Scheepers, 2001; Verweij, Ester, and Natua, 1997; Zuckerman, 2003).

Conclusion

Based on a careful assessment of the most recent survey data available, we find that somewhere between 500,000,000 and 750,000,000 humans currently do not believe in God. Such figures render any suggestion that theism is innate or neurologically based untenable. The nations with the highest degrees of organic atheism (atheism which is not state-enforced through totalitarian regimes but emerges naturally among free societies) include most of the nations of Europe, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel. There also exist high degrees of atheism in Japan, Vietnam, North Korea, and Taiwan. Many former Soviet nations, such as Estonia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus also contain significant levels of atheism. Atheism is virtually non-existent in much of the world, however, especially among the most populated nations of Africa, South America, the Middle East, and much of Asia. High levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low homicide rates, low poverty rates, low infant mortality rates, and low illiteracy rates, as well as high levels of educational attainment, per capita income, and gender equality. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism. In some societies, particularly Europe, atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the world particularly nations with high birth rates atheism is barely discernable.

 

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(1) - I would like to thank the following people for their help with this chapter: Russ Dalton, Paul Froese, Jill Grigsby, Ronald Inglehart, Charles Lachman, Beatrice Leung, Peter Nardi, Katherine Meyer, Arthur Rosenbaum, Fenggang Yang, and Kwasi Yirenkyi.

( i ) - A glaring example of just such a phenomenon was uncovered by Chaves and Stephens (2003) and Hadaway et al. (1993), who found that Americans claim to attend church much more often than they actually do. The weekly church attendance rate in the United States is actually closer to 20%, far lower than the 40% often cited.

( ii ) - Even within the same culture, specific terms can be contestable and confused. For example, many Evangelical Christains will say that they are not religious and have no religion, but instead insist they have a relationship with Christ or God. Many Israelis consider themselves both Jewish and atheist. In Ireland, one may identify oneself as a Catholic for political or ethnic reasons, and yet not maintain a personal belief in God. In Thailand, religious might refer to the piety and practices of monks, and thus a Thai individual may describe him or herself as not religious even though he or she holds deep personal religious beliefs. In many societies, one could feasibly be secular in practice but hold a personal belief in god, or conversely, religious in outward practice but atheist in terms of personal belief. See Demeraths (2001) discussion of cultural religion for further analysis.

( iii ) - Noteworthy improvements in obtaining higher response rates have been reported in recent years, at least among western democracies (Dillman, 1991, 2000; Yammarino, Skinner, and Childers, 1991). Given enough money and resources, innovative questionnaire design, repeated attempts, well-trained interviewers, and amenable socio-political circumstances, obtaining relatively valid survey information about the beliefs and activities of people is possible (Michael, et.al., 1994:15-41).

( iv ) - Most countries with a population of less than 1 million were excluded.

( v ) - The results of this BBC study, which I cite elsewhere, were posted on-line by bbcnews.com ( UK edition) under the heading What the World Thinks of God and can be easily found via google.

( vi ) - The Gallup International Survey Polldata can be found and requested via the web (google search: Gallup International Association), under their Millennium Survey. Oddly enough and perhaps reflecting the Evangelical Christian bias of George Gallup, JR, -- this survey does not specifically ask people if they are an atheist or agnostic.

( vii ) - What about the United States? While the U.S, is one of the wealthiest nations on earth, Norris and Inglehart (2004) are still able to account for its high degree of religiosity and religious belief. As they explain on page 108: The United Statesis one of the most unequal postindustrial societiesrelatively high levels of economic insecurity are experienced by many sectors of U.S. societymany American familiesface risks of unemployment, the dangers of sudden ill health without adequate private medical insurance, vulnerability to becoming a victim of crime

( vii ) - This suggests that the change from Communist to post-Communist societies is probably more likely to account for these nations high suicide rates than their relatively high levels of atheism. It is also important to note that, contrary to popular belief, the Scandinavian nations do not lead the world in suicides.

( ix ) - It is important to note that within these nations with high illiteracy rates, the illiteracy rates were often twice as high or more for females compared to males within each country.

( x ) - Acceptance of gender equality among irreligious nations may be linked to relative acceptance of homosexuality. Inglehart et al (2004) found that of the top 18 nations least likely to condemn homosexuality, all are highly-ranked organic atheistic nations. Conversely, of the top 18 nations most likely to condemn homosexuality, all but one ( Hungary) were highly religious nations marked by statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.

( xi ) - Various sociologists of religion, such as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (2000), have declared that secularization is a myth and that there is no empirical evidence for the decline of religion. For decades, Andrew Greeley has been in denial about the loss of religious belief. In 1972 he claimed that the observation that religion was in decline in certain societies was mere dogma not substantiated by empirical fact (p.45). In (1995:199) he claimed that there is little evidence that men and women are less religious than they used to be, and that such a claim contains no data to support it. And again in 2003 (ix-x) he maligns the observation of secularization as dogma and charges that anyone who uses the term secularization does so as an excuse for not thinking. Greeley is dead wrong. Religion in much of the world may show little decline, but elsewhere, the evidence for secularization is strong and the empirical data sound and abundant.

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