Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

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.

Category: Expert Opinion, Featured Expert Opinion


29 Responses

  1. Matt McCaskey says:

    The internet. Good ideas always trump superstition and ignorance.

  2. His good teenr says:

    There is hope afterall…

  3. Colin Walls says:

    Surely you mean Northern Ireland, not Northern Island

  4. Heather Wax says:

    We do. Thanks for pointing out the error, Colin. We have corrected it.

  5. chuckles says:

    I lived in the Republic of Cyprus for several years. A large number of young people leave the island for their university education and return later, and the country has experienced a dramatic increase in standards of living over the last 50 years as cheap flights have allowed holidaymakers to come to the island providing great income. I knew of many young people whose grandparents were landowners along coastal areas and lived in shacks and grew potatoes or citrus, the parents built hotels on the land and the youngsters were wealthy and university educated. I’m suspecting this information would make sense to Dr Paul’s views of how irreligiosity speads…

  6. Bruce Wilson says:

    Any idea on the apparent divergence of US results from the findings of the most recent ARIS survey?

  7. Alan Mortensen says:

    I don’t understand these numbers. How is it in Japan, for instance, that only 8.7% don’t believe in god (atheist) and only 16.4% are theists??? Are the remaining 75%, confused, non-committal, what?

  8. Jan Wesenberg says:

    The point about religion as a national marker in Russia is important, but this is not restricted to Russia. The same mechanism is in action in the West. Although there perhaps is a net decline in religiosity going on in the long term, at the same time there is a substantial populistically religious countercurrent stimulated by nationalism – wearing crosses has visibly increased within the majority youth population as a response to seeing religiously more profiled Muslim immigrants. “If they are wearing their symbols, so will we”. Even if these religious sentiments perhaps are rather superficial, it seems that fighting theism is inseparable from fighting nationalism. Focusing on people and what unites people helps both.

  9. Vlastimil says:

    “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.”

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but: really? Flawed in how long run? First, what has been the percentage of apostates among those raised religious? Second, what are the rates of reproduction for religious and irreligious? Third, what are the resulting projected percantages of religious and irreligious? For which times? Are there breaks in the timeline? And, fourth, what about developing countries?

    “. . . despite low rates of reproduction . . . atheism has persistently risen . . .”

    But will it continue to rise? How long? That’s the question.

  10. Jan Wesenberg says:

    The fear of fundamentalists reproducing faster than non-fundamentalists (and its special case, the fear of Muslim takeover of the West which motivated the fascist mass murderer Breivik and still motivates his like) stems from ignoring memetics and horizontal transfer of memes. All existing atheists and humanists are a walking proof for religion not being hereditary. We people can influence each other, we can be persuaded by arguments and change our minds. Yes, to a certain extent religious environments tend to reproduce themselves, but there is a constant meme flow eroding them at the same time.

  11. Vlastimil says:

    But the question is, how strong the secular erosion is and will be? A couple of years ago, I read that nowadays Western citizens who were raised religious drop their religion in about 25 %. This claim was made by a Christian political philosopher. I haven’t tried hard to check it by any overall surveys. Are there any serious out there?

  12. Vlastimil says:


    Has anyone here read Phillip Longman’s Empty Cradle? (I haven’t.) He’s a demographer, and not a conservative one.

    A short review says: “To summarize: fertility rates are dropping everywhere, it’s because people are selfish and stupid, and because of it we’re pretty much screwed, at least in the first world. . . . the author is a liberal . . . one of his primary worries is a rise of fundamentalism, by which he means, an increase in the relative number of religious people . . .”

    Here’s Longman in paper length.

    Philip Jenkins, who’s Christian, highlights that many immigrants from Asia and Africa to Europe are likely charismatic Christians, which will also play a role in future Europe.

    Now, what we need most to know to address this dispute about future Western religious demography? Two things.

    First, what are probable future trends of loosing inbred worldview, both among the religious and the irreligious?

    Second, what are probable future trends of reproduction, both among the religious and the irreligious?

    Now, somebody informed or keen around, do your best and find the most reliable and relevant quantitative data, so that we can answer those two questions.

  13. This survey is remarkably parochial. It claims to be about atheism and theism “around the world,” then totally neglects the world’s two largest countries, plus Africa, the Middle East, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Brazil — all but a thin sliver of humanity, in fact. And it pretty much ignores even Eastern Europe, and interprets the US in terms of Western Europe.

    I find (in an initial survey) Chinese intellectuals to be twice as likely to avow atheism in college, as after graduation:

    Gregory Paul doesn’t seem to be much of a social scientist; I’ll have to post my rebuttal of one of his earlier works, some time.

  14. shahab says:

    Marxists also believed their so-called “scientific ideology” would conquer the whole world! Such statistics can’t give us much information as we have different atheists and religious people. Plus, this new trend of atheism started after 9/11 attacks, which makes it more political than ideological in terms of intellectualism.

  15. fred says:

    I simply can’t see the correlation between the numeric tabulation and the accompanying graph. Please explain.

  16. Reality Check says:

    As Vlatimil points out all of these countries that are becoming predominantly atheist are also imploding demographically. What kind of future does atheism have when most atheists will have 0-1 children and fundamentalists will have up to 10? How much longer can weak, old, broke Europe resist massive waves of immigration from Africa and the Middle East, comprised exclusively of vigorous, high-breeding religious fundamentalists?

    Europe is sick, old and dying- celebrating its atheism is like celebrating the vasectomy of a man in a nursing home. Moves to normalize gay marriage might increase birthrates slightly among American atheists, but not nearly enough to keep pace with the religious. Look at New York- 74% of Jewish schoolchildren in New York City are Orthodox.

  17. tacitus says:

    Re: “Reality Check” (more like fantasy):

    Your analysis is hopelessly flawed.

    First of all, atheists and fundamentalists, together, only make up a minority (and often a small minority) of the population in most countries. The majority are those for whom religion is a secondary concern in their lives. The real situation is much less black-and-white than you paint it.

    Secondly, if you look at birth rates around the world, they are much more heavily correlated with standard of living than religion. Poor and struggling nations tend to have much higher birth rates because of less access to family planning resources and education (depending instead on more traditional practices. Yes religious beliefs play a part, but even the most Islamic of nations–like Turkey and Tunisia–have seen their birth rates plummet as they have become more stable and prosperous nations. How can that be happening in countries that are still 99% observant Muslims if religious belief is the overarching factor?

    Finally, fundamentalists can have as many children as they want, but in secular nations, many of those kids are going to grow up rejecting their parents’ faith. It’s easier in some religions than others (i.e. Muslims risk a lot more than Christians do when rejecting their faith) but no religion is immune to the effects of secularization. Muslim dreams of a worldwide caliphate are no more realistic than Christian dreams of successfully evangelizing the entire globe.

    Pew Research just published a poll showing that “doubts about God” have skyrocketed amongst the youth of America in the last decade, as the long term trend away from religion in the US begins to accelerate as it has already done in much of the Western world. That’s despite the presence of a large minority of fundamentalist Christians who still hold a lot of political power across the nation. Why? Because of the factors I mentioned above — most parents aren’t interested in having more than two or three children, and successful childhood indoctrination into the faith is much tougher in this time of the Internet and social media.

    The bottom line is that the author of the article is correct in saying that the fears of an out-breeding fundamentalist tide drowning the secular world are overblown (to the point of fear-mongering). They ignore the impact the twin forces of modernization and secularization on birth rates and the religious beliefs of young people.

  18. Reality Check says:

    Spin all you want. Then look at the median ages in Europe, the birthrates there, and the replacement of vigorous, religious, foreign-born populations with your graying, native ones. Look at the pressures on the Welfare State, the health care system, and so on. Look at the decline in productivity that will be the inevitable result of dying populations. Look at the fate of an older, weaker, sicker world in general, most especially the industrialized world.

    Look at Japan today, there’s Europe’s future for its native born, at least. Within the decade. The Crash is coming and an elderly, fractured Europe won’t be able to cope.

  19. Reality Check says:

    And by the way, put this fantasy of Fundamentalist children leaving religion out of your mind. You’re thinking of soft-boiled American Evangelism, which is about as Fundamentalist as Lady Gaga. Already you in the UK have people on city councils taking their marching orders from imams from Riyadh and Teheran- that is your future, Atheist Europeans. Spin all you want, call people names, but get used to it. It’s happening now and nothing is going to stop it.

  20. Reality Check: Nothing is written in stone, including the fate of Europe, IMO. Rodney Stark points out that the Christian church in Europe has lately become more market-oriented, believing that this may portend renewal and new growth. (This would be nothing new; the Church has ebbed and waned, over the centuries, and its death predicted many times before.)

    Meanwhile, the birth rate for Muslims is also falling. Their influence in Europe is, I agree, stronger than it ought to be in some fields, but the Muslim Reconquista may not come as rapidly as the pessimists predict. In short (at the risk of banality), we know less about the future than we often like to suppose.

  21. Anthony says:

    I will always be Catholic. If people want to change their belief to non belief that’s their choice. f people want to lose their morals and become atheist that’s their choice.

  22. charles says:

    It’s a shame that science and religion can’t agree on the subject of existence. They can learn much from each other. Religion fears that science will prove there is no God and science’s fear there is. For me it was science that convince me that God exist. The more science I learn the more I believe. Anyone that want to know why and how God works I refer them to their science ( it’s all there). Religion has to accept that its teachings are based mostly on mythology and they need to open up to fact not superstition and science need to stop preaching theories as fact.

  23. kastelsky says:

    There is no disagreement between science and religion regarding existence as expected. Science deals on the rational realities of our physicalized world and the universe while religions are preoccupied with the abstracts or superstitions and myths, as you aptly pointed out. Science has long discovered the secular God of the universe that emerged from the cosmic vacuum of the bulk space in what is known in physics as the quantum fluctuation law, which is the source of cosmic intelligence that keeps the universe alive in delicate balance. However, religions cannot accept a secular God; only their sectarian Gods as it is not one of the dogmatic mythical beliefs of religious storytellers.

  24. Angus says:

    Here in Canada, between the 1991 census and the next in 2001 the percentage of people who answered “no religion” went from 12.6% to 16.5%. But anyone who concludes that 16.5% of Canadians were atheists in 2001 would be wrong, wrong, wrong. The overwhelming majority of this group would be “spiritual but not religious.” SBNRs are a step backwards from the point of view of most atheists, having greater tendency to use of tarot cards, flakey alternative medicines and other “new age” beliefs and practices. This whole article exagerates the number of atheists. Why?

  25. Ćamile Manchini says:

    Greetings. Don’t know where did you get information, but atheism in many european countries are over 50%. For example Slovenia has 43% of atheists.


  26. Ćamile Manchini says:

    I mean, I gave a particular example for your outdated data for Slovenia for example. But many other countries has higher atheism % than your sources too.

  27. Cornell says:

    Oh no, atheism is on the rise and theists are losing their fundies……so what?

    So in other words the atheists are taking away all the fundies and now those same ‘fundies’ are making irrational arguments against Theism.

    Ironic isn’t it? Though this explains why I see horrible arguments against the existence of God from all those ‘youths’ that are leaving religion and becoming followers of ‘naturedidit’

    ie: I can’t see God, as he doesn’t personally wave hello to me when I ask him to, therefore he must not exist

    ^Actually that just means he doesn’t take orders from atheists who want to take the ‘lazy’ road into Theism^

    One of my personal favorites is

    We used to think lightning was caused by Gods, but we have now found a natural explanation, therefore naturalism is true

    Please keep taking these intellectual giants away from our Theistic camp!!! They are hurting us big time

    Honestly, I don’t really care if the world becomes 99% atheistic, as that doesn’t make it the case that Theism is false.

  28. David says:

    All things considered, let’s just hope there is something more intelligent than humans in the universe.

Leave a Reply