May 30, 2012
From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:
In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).
|% Don’t believe in God||% Theists overall||% No doubt God exists|
|1998 2008||1998 2008||1998 2008|
|Great Britain||9.6 17.7||46.2 36||22.5 16.8|
|Austria||6.8 9.3||51.3 40.8||32.4 20.8|
|Netherlands||17.2 19.8||44.2 36.7||26.4 21.1|
|Australia||10.2 15.6||52.2 43.5||28.6 25.1|
|Norway||11.7 17.7||42.5 37||18.4 15|
|Ireland||2.4 4||77.3 67.5||49.8 45.1|
|New Zealand||7.9 12.5||52.9 46.4||30.9 28.2|
|Spain||8.6 9.7||64.7 59.5||45.8 39.2|
|Italy||4.1 5.3||73.5 69.5||48 42.9|
|Sweden||16.8 19.5||25.8 24.9||12.3 10.3|
|France||19.1 21.9||38.8 37.3||20.1 17.5|
|Denmark||14.7 18.4||34 33.4||13.6 13.4|
|United States||3.2 2.8||77.5 78.2||62.8 61.3|
|Switzerland||4.3 8.5||44.5 45.1||28.3 28.8|
|Germany west||12.1 10.5||41.3 48.1||23.4 27.2|
|Germany east||54 53||15.7 16.5||9.4 8|
|Japan||10.6 8.7||13.2 16.4||4 4.4|
|Northern Ireland||3.7 6.8||74.4 67.4||50 45.2|
|Portugal||1.9 4||84.8 72.9||60 54.4|
|Czech Republic||20.3 37.3||30.4 23.9||17.1 23.9|
|Hungary||12.8 15.3||51.6 42.4||31.1 23.2|
|Latvia||9.2 18.3||38.9 36.9||22.9 21.7|
|Poland||2.4 3.3||81 76.4||70.5 62.9|
|Russia||19.7 6.1||40.2 58.2||23.8 33.9|
|Slovakia||11.1 10.4||56.7 59.8||40.8 41.6|
|Slovenia||14.2 13.6||39.4 40.7||22.9 24.2|
|Chile||1.5 1.7||91.4 90.5||81.4 82.3|
|Cyprus||1.6 1.9||84.8 70.2||65 59|
|Philippines||0.7 0.8||82.3 92.5||79 82.7|
(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)
A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.
Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
Of the 28 countries sampled, in 20 of them theism is recorded as losing ground to atheism, by at least some degree, going from 1998 to 2008. This is mainly because this pattern is observed in 12 of the 16 First World democracies.
(Note: These are predominantly ISSP results. Solid lines indicate atheists from absolutist to marginal, empty spaces to the right are theists from marginal to absolutist, and results for western and eastern Germany are combined proportional to their populations. Differences between the 1998 and 2008 ISSP results are indicated by dashed segments.)
Of the 27 nations measured on belief in an afterlife, 22 showed a decrease, including all but one First World country, with the added proviso that the eastern part of Germany did not. In 20 of 28 countries, the number of those who never pray went up, including 13 of the 16 most prosperous countries. Atheism of at least some degree was a majority in nine developed countries prior to the turn of the century; a decade later, this was true in 12. In 1998, disbelief in theoimmortality was the majority opinion in one First World nation; in 2008, it was so in five. Never praying remains the majority practice in one.
The preponderance of these trends, separately and collectively, indicates that they are real—in which case, religiosity is losing popularity at large. If anything, the general trend is probably even stronger, particularly in the developed democracies. In only one First World case, western Germany, is a marked shift toward theism recorded, and this could be a statistical blip—other reports of a rise in Germotheism have not been appearing, and belief in living forever has not risen. Also, a slight move toward theism in eastern Germany may reflect an influx of more theistic western Germans into the region. The theistic turn in Japan is not statistically significant in most queries and very possibly errant in view of the absence of reports of a religious revival. The situation is muddled in Switzerland, where the rise in theism is statistically marginal, while strong atheists are recorded as rising, as life after death and prayer drop more sharply than seems realistic. And Euro-Islam is not stemming the tide of secularization. Over the 10 years between the surveys, western Europe saw a gain of more than 20 million new atheists that now total more than 200 million out of a general population of nearly 400 million; so atheists are the majority in western Europe.
The ISSP did not find a shift in the United States—an anomaly compared with the results emerging from other surveys (as I discuss in more detail here, which is a supplement to this article). Gallup recently found that the “no” response to the simple query on belief in God is currently four times higher than when it was last asked in the 1960s. The percentage of “no” responses to similar Gallup questions on God belief leave no doubt that (despite low rates of reproduction) atheism has persistently risen, making nontheists the main component of the well-documented rise of the nonreligious (rather than an increase in unchurched theists). No significant Amerofaith is expanding anywhere so fast. Even the (fast-breeding) Mormons are being left in the demographic dust.
It appears that Ameroatheists have expanded by 10 million since the turn of the century—representing about a million a year, and about a third of overall population growth, to a total of 60 million out of more than 300 million. Atheism has made large gains among the young, while congregation size has dropped by as much as a fifth. Even so, the ISSP results confirm that the United States is still the most theistic prosperous democracy—yet not nearly as theistic as some Second and Third World countries.
A multinational waxing of atheism and waning of theism seems to be occurring, and may well be universal in Western countries. The increase in Western atheism appears to be continuing a long-term trend that probably started in the 1800s, if not earlier, and has accelerated since World War II with no signs of slowing down, if the ISSP results are correct. Losses in theism have occurred in both Protestant and Catholic nations, albeit with the latter somewhat more resistant to losses. In most Western nations, the religious right is already weak, and in the few where it is a strong minority, it is losing ground. Demographically driven by a growing loss of piety among youth, the rise of secularism in the advanced democracies is in accord with the socioeconomic dysfunctionality hypothesis that predicts and observes that improving levels of financial and economic security in middle class majorities strongly suppresses interest in supernatural deities.
If the ISSP results are on target, then Northern Ireland has seen a marked decline in theism since the end of sectarian strife. The same has occurred in Portugal, although the doubling of disbelief in supernatural immortality cannot be real. These trends are also in line with the thesis that increasing security is detrimental to the popularity of religion.
In most former Eastern bloc countries sampled by the ISSP, theism is suffering, or at best holding its own. The religious declines in the Czech Republic and Hungary may be exaggerated by a degree of statistical randomness, but even so, are remarkable. The slippage of Catholicism in Poland must be especially galling to the Vatican considering the efforts that Pope John Paul II put into aiding the defeat of atheistic communism via support for Solidarity, a project intended to revive Christianity in Europe. That obviously did not work out. There is no statistical significance to the trends recorded by the ISSP in Slovakia and Slovenia. The lack of a religious revival in so many formerly communist nations belies the wide belief that the removal of atheocommunist indoctrination has resulted in the automatic revival of religiosity.
Russia looks like a former Eastern bloc county that is undergoing a religious revitalization. It is improbable that the rise of theism at the expense of atheism can be so dramatic as measured by the ISSP over such a short time, but the basic trend cannot be rejected out of hand. Although some elevation of theism is plausible in view of the theistic orientation of the current regime, the result is somewhat surprising since other accounts have observed a retention of substantial irreligiosity. On the other hand, a return to worship of a god in a traumatized autocratic country where lifespans are declining is compatible with the psychosociological prediction that religion is most able to thrive in seriously dysfunctional societies. The dramatic increase in praying fits with this theory. That support for the belief in an afterlife, which is a marker of serious belief in a heavenly deity, has not risen all that much suggests that much of the rise of Russoreligosity is in many cases a nationalist trend in support of the regime-backed Russian Orthodox Church than actual supernaturalism. It will be interesting to see if future polling confirms the trend.
There is no observed trend in Catholic Chile, where the recent president was openly atheistic. According to the ISSP, Cyprus is experiencing considerable secularization, and my information on this island is too limited to state whether this is plausible or why it may be occurring. Nor do I have sufficient information to comment on the apparent rise of Philippine theism—perhaps Catholic and very possibly involving Islamic fundamentalism—except to caution that polling in impoverished Second World countries can be unreliable for technical reasons.
The thesis that popular secularism is dead, or at least dying, is clearly false. In the most advanced and successful nations, it is religion that is in the demographic ICU. Also entirely discredited is the premise that religion is universal to the human condition, like language—while theists vary from constituting nearly entire populations to less than a third, verbal skills are nearly uniform across the board. Demographic extrapolations that suggest fast-reproducing fundamentalists are on a statistical course to outgrow low-fertility secularists are proving flawed because they fail to account for mass nonchalant conversion due to modernity.
Churches lack mechanisms to resist the secularization forces of hip modernity—including the cash-flush corporations that are in competition with churches for the attention and time of the population (check out the parking lots of Walmart and Home Depot on a Sunday morning, when only a quarter or less of Americans attend church). Meanwhile, atheism is organically expanding via spontaneous conversion with little organized effort by dedicated advocates. Thus, we can conclude that atheism is not fighting a desperate battle against a rising tide of organized religion in the West, and theists should be gravely concerned about their situation in many countries, especially the most successful societies, since the rise of atheism is predominant among Western youth, and largely casual atheism predominates when democratic societies are at their most successful.