It is difficult to find statistics on the prevalence of atheism around the globe. So it was refreshing to find a recent poll that was conducted by WIN-Gallup International that asked more than 50,000 people in 57 countries (representing 73% of the World’s population) whether they were religious or not. The sample size ranged from a minimum of 200 (South Africa) to a maximum of 2705 (Pakistan).
The question that was put forth to the sample of respondents was: Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious persons or a convinced atheist? [I am not sure what they meant by ‘convinced atheist’ but I assume that atheists would affirm their atheism by choosing this option]
Below I highlight some of the key findings (from my perspective).
PREVALENCE OF ATHEISM
Seven out of the top 11 nations with the highest percentages of self-identified atheists are European, three are Asian, with Australia rounding out the list. Canada, the place where I live, falls just below the top 11 with 9% of the population endorsing atheism (this is within the margin of error +3-5% of the poll, so I will count Canada as being in the top list :-)). No African, South American, Middle Eastern, or North American (although Canada is close) countries make it into the top 11. For the United States, only 6% of respondents self-identify as atheists. This figure matches that of a recent PewResearch survey showing that 6% of the population identify as agnostic or atheist, providing a measure of validation for the current WIN-Gallup poll.
Are you surprised by this list? Are there any inclusions or exclusions that are surprising? For me, the inclusion of South Korea is a bit of a surprise. I didn’t think that Korea would have a higher percentage of atheists than Canada. This shows my bias from my personal experience. I live in a predominantly Asian community, with a significant percentage of Koreans. Most of the Koreans I know are Christians, and there are quite a few Korean churches in my area. I would be curious to know whether the 15% atheist figure holds from the immigrant Korean community in Canada as well. Also, prior to recent events ( imprisonment of members of Pussy Riot, anti-gay laws), I would have thought Russia would have had a higher percentage of atheists, owing to the fact that they had been under communist rule for the better part of the last century. But the percentage of atheists in Russia (6%) is similar to the US. The disparity between China and Russia (47% vs. 6%) suggests that communism per se does not significantly account for atheism in these countries; although it is possible that the brand of communism was significantly different in the two countries and this could lead to the disparity. Doubtless there would be other socio-cultural factors that could account for the differences between these two countries with respect to the prevalence of atheism.
The global average for the percentage of respondents who self-identify as atheist is 13%, which is more than double that of the US. The 13% is quite promising but it is really driven in large measure by two geographic regions, Western Europe (14%) and, more so, North Asia (42%!). I will try to dig deeper into the reason(s) for the high prevalence of atheism in China and Japan and will make that the topic of a future post. The third highest region is North America, with only 6% of respondents identifying as atheists. However, when you add in ‘not a religious person’, the numbers balloon for Western Europe (46%) and North Asia (72%), and North America actually plays catch-up (39%) to Europe. So while we have some work to do, the numbers are promising.
PREVALENCE OF RELIGIOSITY
The top 10 religious countries (as indicated by the percentage of people self-identifying as religious) show more of a geographic spread, with countries from Africa (3), South America (2), Europe (3), the Middle East (1), and the South Pacific (1) making it into the top ten (see table below). I suppose there are no surprises on the list other than the fact that it is dominated by Christian nations. I would have thought more Islamic nations would be represented in the top 10. If Brazil continues to emerge as an economic force I will be curious to see if Brazil remains in the top 10.
Overall, the poll shows for most of the countries sampled (37 out of 57) 10% or less of the population endorsed atheism, including Canada and the US. As well, there was no country where fewer than 10% of the population endorsed religion. In fact, for 55 out of 57 countries, the percentage of the population that endorsed religion was 20% or higher. Switzerland, of course Switzerland, was the break even country, with 50% of the population endorsing religion and the rest not. Greater than fifty percent of the population endorsed religion in 42 out of the 57 countries sampled.
FACTORS THAT CORRELATE WITH RELIGIOSITY AND ATHEISM
Given the make-up of the top countries for atheism and religiosity, it is not surprising that a negative correlation is found between religiosity and income, with poorer countries (as assessed by per capita income) being more religious and richer countries being less religious. Interestingly, both China and the United States deviate from the regression line, with China being significantly less religious than predicted by per capita income and the US being more religious than predicted by per capita income. The Chinese situation is likely explained (at least in part) by the impact, both socially and economically, of communism. The reason(s) why the US is more religious than predicted by income awaits elucidation.
Education level shared a positive correlation with atheism and negative correlation with religiosity in this sample set. Sixty-eight percent of respondents with no education or basic education endorsed religion compared to only 52% of those with higher education. In contrast atheists, only 7% of those with no or basic education endorsed atheism, while 19% of respondents with higher education endorsed atheism.
It would be interesting to see where countries would line up viz an education index (e.g., percentage of people with higher education) plotted against religiosity. Based on the data presented here, we would expect a similar plot to that for per capita income. Also, it would be interesting to determine the correlation between income and education level in the current sample set. Could education level account for both the per capita income differences as well as the differences in religiosity? The most recent statistics in US would suggest that would be the case. As shown below, there is a positive correlation between education level and median weekly earnings in the US labour force.
A clear message that emerges from these data is that we need to foster education, which will promote economic success as well as rationality.
CHANGES IN PREVALENCE OF RELIGIOSITY AND ATHEISM (2005-2012)
The pollsters were able to assess changes in the prevalence of religiosity and atheism as they had conducted a similar poll in 2005 with a subset of the countries (39 of 57) sampled in the recent poll. The Europeans led the pack, with 5 countries represented in the top 10 countries showing a decline in religiosity. Globally, there was a 9% decline in religiosity from 2005-2012. This trend is very promising indeed. Now, this drop in religiosity does not entirely equate with a rise in atheism. The global increase in atheism was only 3% over the same period of time. Vietnam is a prime example of this disconnect. Vietnam heads the list of countries with declining religiosity (a 23% reduction). However, no respondent endorsed atheism in the 2012 poll. In fact, this was a decline from the 1% of respondents who endorsed atheism in the 2005 poll. So while atheism is non-existent in Vietnam (at least as assessed by the question that was asked), there is a sharp reduction in religiosity. The authors also noted this was the case from Hong Kong and Turkey as well. Is the drop in religiosity a way-station to atheism? Only time will tell.
The largest absolute increases in atheism were seen in France (14% to 29%), and the Czech Republic which showed an increase from 20% to 30% respondents endorsing atheism. Canada saw an increase from 6% in 2005 to 9% in 2012, while the US saw an increase from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012! At this rate, the US will be 100% atheist sometime in the year 2025 :-).
The take home message from this poll is that atheism is on the rise and religiosity is on the decline. Higher education appears to be a major contributing factor towards a decrease in religiosity and an increase in atheism.