My previous post examined trends in religious belief and irreligion (non-religious and atheism) over the last 40 years using data from the World Values Surveys (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) [1-4]. There is considerable interest in the prevalence of atheism, particularly from Americans, and a variety of quite different statistics are quoted, and have been written about in various media. In this post, I present my estimates of global prevalence of atheism for the year 2020 and discuss the various other sources of international statistics and the definitional issues. But first, here is my global map based on data from the WVS/EVS (see here for details of analysis).
And here is a closer view of the map for Eurasia. Further below in this post, I have included a more detailed country-level plot of all the religiosity categories (practicing religious, non-practicing religious, non-religious, atheist) for 2020.
Censuses and national surveys may include questions on religion, but there are a wide range of such questions and in many cases they are quite inadequate for identifying atheism or other categories of religiosity [5, 6] There are four major sources of population-level data from cross-national surveys using a standard survey instrument. These are:
WVS/EVS: Relevant questions can take different forms and have different response categories between WVS and EVS and across waves. Not all questions are available in all waves.
Pew Research Centre. While this organization focuses on USA in many surveys, it also does international multi-country surveys, including a 34 country study in 2019 which included all regions of the world. The Pew reports tend to use self-identification as “atheist” for their statistics, which results in substantially lower prevalences than I report here based primarily on self-report of whether the respondent believes in God.
Win/Gallup. The WIN/Gallup International Association has run international surveys of religious beliefs in 2005, 2012, 2015 and 2017 (see here and here), including over 70 countries.
ISSP. The International Social Survey Program has carried out four cross-national surveys in 1991, 1998, 2008 and 2019. Questions are generally similar to those of WVS/EVS and there is almost total overlap of countries surveyed.
A truly comprehensive analysis of religiosity would make use of all these data sources and address issues of comparability across survey instruments. I’ve not had the time or interest to tackle this. As it is, I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last 3 months developing an analysis of the WVS/EVS data which is now getting into more interesting territory for me: examining fundamentalism, pre-modern religious beliefs, and rejection of science. For a more detailed discussion of the definitional issues associated with various surveys on atheism prevalence, see the Wikipedia article on atheism and also Zurlo and Johnson  and McAndrew and Voas .
So-called statistics on atheism from any of these sources typically rely on one of three types of question – all of which are included in the WVS/EVS surveys. The first is the question “Are you a religious person?” with response categories “Religious”, “Non-religious” and “Convinced atheist”. This question is used in surveys by WVS/EVS, ISSP and WIN/Gallup. WIN/Gallup has tended to combine the “Non-religious” and “Convinced atheist” categories and report these as “irreligious”, which is then often interpreted as “atheist”. While the non-religious group includes atheists, it also includes people who state they believe in God. In the WVS/EVS surveys, 52% of people who said they were non-religious also said they believed in God. There is substantial survey evidence for the so-called Western countries that the high levels of irreligion and non-practicing religious are associated with increasing levels of disengagement from institutional religion. Apart from the general secularising trend associated with rising levels of income and education, some of this is also associated with the clinging of many religious institutions to pre-modern values such as non-acceptance of homosexuality, women’s right to control their own fertility, etc and some to issues of sexual abuse and cover-up of sexual abuse by religious institutions .
The USA has experienced one of the highest rates of increase of irreligion in the world over the last decade and its likely that the increasing political polarization in the USA, and the strong suppport from evangelical white Christians for an anti-democratic authoritarian President in order to impose their values and laws on all Americans has been a major factor in increasing the rejection of institutional religion in the USA [7, 8]. Rightly or wrongly, the public face of American Christianity seems to have become much more about hatred, discrimination and exclusion than about love and inclusion. At least that is a common perception from here in Western Europe.
I find the category “Convinced atheist” to be quite puzzling. Only one quarter of WVS/EVS respondents who say they do not believe in God classify themselves as a “Convinced atheist”. While stigma or persecution associated with the “atheist” label in some countries may be an important factor, the qualifier “convinced” likely puts many atheists off selecting this category. Does “convinced” mean an atheist who not only does not believe in God but is convinced that God does not exist (ie. is not an agnostic atheist), or does it refer to the length and stability of the lack of belief, or something else? In any case, it seems certain that it results in much lower prevalence of atheism than that based on a question on belief in God or a simple unqualified “atheist”.
The second type of question often used to report on irreligion is a question on religious affiliation. Some surveys assume those who report “none” for religious affiliation are non-religious or atheist. This is not a valid assumption . People who reported “none” for affiliation in the WVS/EVS dataset were classified 6% to practicing religious, 28% to non-practicing religious, 11% to non-religious but believe in God, and 55% to atheist. The religious nones include many religious people who have become disillusioned with institutional religion as discussed above.
The third, and less commonly used to report atheism prevalence, is a direct question “Do you believe in God?” The version included in the WVS/EVS has three response categories: yes, no, don’t know. How should the “don’t know” category be treated. I have used the following definition of atheism: “Lack of a belief in God or gods, and not actively practicing a non-theistic religion”. According to this definition, “agnostic” is not an alternative to atheism (which refers to presence or absence of belief) but refers to knowledge (whether able to know definitely that God does or does not exist). So one can be an agnostic believer or an agnostic atheist. Thus I included the “Don’t knows” as lacking a belief in God. Among 457,000 wvs/evs respondents unweighted for sampling or country population, 89% stated they believed in God, 19% that they did not believe in God, and 4% don’t know.
The WVS/EVS questions, and those of other similar survey programs, are biased towards monotheistic religions and do not adequately take the non-theistic religions into account (these include Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism and some folk religions such as ancestor worship). Thus “confirmed atheist” is a separate response category to “religious person” although around half of practicing Buddhists in the surveys said they do not believe in God. Overall, I don’t feel that any of the major cross-national surveys of religion adequately deal with the issue of non-theist religions and their questions have a considerable monotheist bias. Although the vast majority of Chinese report as atheist or non-religious, there are claims in the literature that around 85% of Chinese do undertake religious practices but do not label these or themselves as religious, seeing that label as reserved for the main institutional global religions. Similarly, many Japanese participate in Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies but do not label themselves as religious.
Survey questions about atheism don’t usually define what is meant by the term. Are we referring to a personal God who intervenes in human affairs, or determines human fates? Do we include the God of Spinoza or Einstein? What about Big Mind or non-dual consciousness? None of the surveys make any attempt to specify the terms used in questions, and given that these are population level data, I think we can safely assume that the inclusion or exclusion of panentheists or Spinozans or other forms of spirituality will make little difference to the statistics. And it is worth remembering that “atheism” does not mean someone is necessarily non-spiritual or non-religious, or a materialist.
For my analysis, I have made use of all three of the questions discussed above, and also of the questions on importance of God in life and frequency of religious practice (see here for details). In particular, those practicing non-theistic religions are classified as religious even if they state they do not believe in God. The non-religious group includes those who state they believe in God but consider God of no importance in their lives and are not practicing.
The following plot shows the estimated prevalence of all religiosity categories in 2020 for countries ranked in descending level of irreligion. Note that the likely uncertainty ranges for most of these statistics are 1 to 2 percentage points for the lower prevalence categories and around 3-5 percentage points for higher prevalence categories. Small differences between similar country statistics or ranks should not be overinterpreted. Also, that the Asian countries with a significant tradition of non-theist religions may not be well described by these data, particularly in the case of China. It is also likely that the actual prevalence of atheism and irreligion are higher in Islamic countries than shown below, due to the risks and in some cases severe penalties for identifying as apostate or atheist. A recent internet-based anonymous survey for Iran found much higher levels of reported atheism (around 12%) and lower level at 40% of Iranians who identify as Muslim .
- Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWVL.jsp. Madrid: JD Systems Institute.
- Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWV7.jsp].
- Gedeshi, Ilir, Zulehner, Paul M., Rotman, David, Titarenko, Larissa, Billiet, Jaak, Dobbelaere, Karel, Kerkhofs, Jan. (2020). European Values Study Longitudinal Data File 1981-2008 (EVS 1981-2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4804 Datenfile Version 3.1.0, https://doi.org/10.4232/1.13486.
- EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
- Zurlo G, Johnson TM. Unaffiliated, Yet Religious: A Methodological and Demographic Analysis. Ch4, pp50-74 in Cipriani R, Garelli F eds. Sociology of Atheism. Brill: Leiden and Boston, 2016.
- McAndrew S, Voas D. Measuring religiosity using surveys. UK Data Service Survey Question Bank: Topic Overview 4, Feb 2011. Available at https://ukdataservice.ac.uk/media/263004/discover_sqb_religion_mcandrew_voas.pdf
- Inglehart R Giving up on God: the global decline of religion. Foreign Affairs 2020, 99(5): 110-118.
- Copper E. Anything but Christian: why Millenials leave the Church. Medium, Jan 30, 2019. Available at https://emmacopper.medium.com/anything-but-christian-why-millennials-leave-the-church-ccae210dfb06
- Maeki A, Arab PT. Iranians’ attitudes toward religion: a 2020 survey report. The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN). Published online, gamaan.org: GAMAAN. https://gamaan.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/GAMAAN-Iran-Religion-Survey-2020-English.pdf
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