What do people mean when they say they believe in God

I recently came across the 2017 Pew Research Center survey of more than 4,700 U.S. adults which found that of those who say they believe in God, 30% say they believe in some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe rather than the God of the Bible. Among those who say they do not believe in God (aka atheists), 47% say they believe in some other higher power or spiritual force. What do people mean when they say this? And do atheists and theists mean the same or different things?

Before discussing this, I first present some similar data for the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada (the mother country and two other English speaking ex-colonies).

A 2020 YouGov poll in Britain found that 27% say they believe in “a god”, 16% say they believe in the existence of a higher spiritual power, but not a god, 41% do not believe in a god or a higher power and 18% don’t know.  Among British Christians, just over half say they believe in God, 16% believe in a higher power, 10% don’t believe in God or higher power, and 16% don’t know.

The 2019 Australian Community Survey found that 29% of Australians say they believe in a personal God and 32% say they believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Around two in 10 (21%) do not believe and 18% remain unsure.

A very recent Canadian survey carried out in November 2022 found that just over a third of Canadians believe in God or gods (33.6%), with a further 32.1% saying that they believe in a higher power or spiritual force, but don’t necessarily believe in a god or gods. More than one-in-five (22.1%) don’t believe in any spiritual power. 

Personal god(s) versus an impersonal higher power

Survey questions probing beliefs about “god” vary widely in wording and you don’t have to look at many surveys before you realize that question framing, wording, context dramatically affect responses.  What do people (and survey writers) mean by “God” or by other powers or forces. Here are some of the phrases I have come across that are contrasted with god or gods: higher power, spiritual force, life force, fate, karma, universal consciousness, the Absolute, the ground of being.

A personal god or goddess is a deity who can be related to as a person, instead of as an impersonal spirit or force, such as the Absolute, or the “Ground of Being”. A personal god is conscious, sentient, has will and purpose, and is capable of feelings.

A god that is not personal cannot be worshiped or prayed to, let alone answer prayers. Only a personal god dispenses rewards and punishments in this life or an afterlife. This is not something an impersonal force would do.

An impersonal force or spirit is usually much less defined for people who say that is what they believe in rather than a personal god.  It can refer to impersonal forces such as karma or fate, or to some guiding force underlying the universe, or perhaps to a universal life-force or to a universal field of consciousness. The “god” of pantheism is an impersonal god (God is everything) as is the god of panentheism (God is in everything).

The god of deists is a creator god who does not intervene in or react with the universe after its creation. I find it quite puzzling why someone would bother thinking up this type of god. I assume it must be because many people seem to have a compelling need to make up a reason for the existence of the universe in the absence of any evidence or proposed mechanism.

The apparent need for a creator is claimed by many theists to be an important reason to believe in a personal god, though clearly an impersonal god or force could also be responsible for creation. God-did-it or The-Force-did-it are equally unhelpful non-explanations for a postulated creation. And who knows, possibly some as yet theory of everything that combined all the known physical forces in a single theory, and included an explanation for consciousness, might also contain an explanation for the existence of the universe. And those who say they believe in a universal life force might say, aha, that theory of everything is exactly what we have been talking about.

Christianity and Judaism conceptualize a God who is both universal, like The Force, and personal. The Abrahamic God is able to be everywhere at once. He has all energy and power; in fact, he created the universe. At the same time, he is able to visit individuals, speak with them, express his feelings, thoughts and opinions to them, and do things for them in a very personal way.

I have no knowledge of Islamic theology but was surprised to find that Wikipedia describes Islam as rejecting the notion of a personal god as anthropomorphic. This is certainly in conflict with my impressions from what I have heard and read various Muslims say and with the data from the Integrated Values Survey which I discuss below. Based on limited data for Muslim countries, Muslims have the highest level of belief in a personal god of any of the major religions or culture zones.

An analysis of global survey data on belief in a personal god

In my previous analysis of the worldwide prevalence of and trends in atheism and religiosity (see here and here), I used questions in the World Values Survey and the European Values Study asking whether you believe in God (Yes/No/Don’t know), but also “Are you a religious person” (Religious, Non-religious, Confirmed Atheist) and questions on frequency and type of religious practices, and on the importance in your life of religion and God. The combined data of these two survey programs is referred to as the Integrated Values Survey (IVS) covering the period 1981-2020 and 105 countries.

The IVS includes a question on whether belief is in a personal god vs. a spirit or life force in surveys in 54 countries, predominantly in Europe. The surveys for the USA and Canada that included this question were carried out in 1981 and 1990, when the prevalence of atheism was lower than now.  This will obviously impact the prevalence of those who believe in a personal god.  The UK included this question in five surveys across the period 1981-2018 and I plotted the distribution of responses separately for theists (those who said they believe in god) and atheists (those who said they did not believe in god). As can be seen in the graphs below there is very little change in the distribution of responses across time within each group. 

On the assumption that this is generally the case in other countries, I have estimated the distribution of beliefs in 2023 as follows.  I estimated the distribution of beliefs within each of four religiosity categories (practicing religious, non-practicing religious, non-religious, atheist) using the pooled IVS survey data for each country for the entire period 1981-2020.  I estimated the prevalence of each of these religiosity categories by projecting previously estimated recent time trends for 2015-2020 three years forward to 2023. To be a little conservative in the projections, the projected rates of change were adjusted downwards 20%.  The distribution of beliefs for each of these categories was then weighted by 2023 prevalences of religiosity categories and added to give an overall estimate of belief prevalences by country and culture zone in 2023. Table 1 gives the results tabulated by culture zone.

* See Endnote for definitions of culture zones

Belief in a personal god is lowest in the Sinic East (based on data for China and Japan), the Indic East (based on data for India) and the Reformed West (based on data for 10 countries).

Despite Wikipedia’s documented description of the God of Islam as a non-personal god, the survey data above show that the Islamic East has the highest prevalence of people, at 90%, who say they believe in a personal god. The only survey in the Islamic East which included the meaning of belief question was for Turkey.  Its possible Turkey is non-representative of other Islamic countries. However, I also analysed the prevalence of belief in personal vs. impersonal god by religious affiliation and there are many Muslims in other countries outside the Islamic East. The table below tabulates the prevalence of beliefs by religious affiliation. Muslims still have the highest level of belief in a personal god.

* Note that the prevalences in this table relate to the 54 countries which included the belief question in surveys and may not accurately reflect the belief distribution in all members of a religious affiliation globally.

Countries ranked by prevalence of belief in a personal god

For the 54 countries with data on the distribution of beliefs concerning god(s), I also estimated the prevalence of beliefs in 2023 using the same methods as above. The following table ranks countries from lowest to highest prevalence of belief in a personal god.

A number of key points to note about these results. Two of the three countries with very low prevalence of belief in a personal god are China and Japan. The other is Czechia.  China has high prevalence of non-religious and atheists and its main religions are non-theist. The main religions of Japan are Buddhism and Shinto. Buddhism is non-theist and Shinto, while it has many gods, these are mostly sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility.

As expected, levels of belief in a personal god are low in most of the formerly Protestant countries of western and northern Europe, where levels of atheism are also high. My estimate for the UK that 22% believe in a personal god is somewhat lower than the earlier 2017 estimate of 27%, but probably not inconsistent given the continuing decline of religion in Britain since then.

My estimate that only 49% of Americans believe in a personal god in 2023 is also reasonably consistent with the Pew Survey of 2017’s finding that 56% of Americans believe in the God of the Bible, given the IVS data for America that shows and acceleration in the prevalence of atheism in recent years, likely in response to the increasing right-wing extremism of Christians in the USA. At the bottom of the table are some predominantly Orthodox Christian countries and two Muslim countries where the prevalence of belief in a personal god is around 70% and 90% respectively.

Some questions and conclusions

I will look a little more closely at the distribution of beliefs in atheists and theists in the Reformed West. These are the largely Protestant countries of western and northern Europe, characterized today by a low proportion of the population practicing religion and a large minority or majority of the population who are atheist. This culture zone includes Britain, Australia and Switzerland as well as the Scandinavian countries. The table below shows the distribution of beliefs for theists and atheists in the Reformed West.  Only 39% of people who say they believe in God believe in a personal god. A higher proportion (43%) say they believe in a spirit or life force and 15% don’t know what to think.

Among atheists (those who say they do not believe in God) 25% say they believe in a spirit or life force and only 42% are clear that they do not believe in God, spirit or life force.

I am not surprised and somewhat comforted by the low level of belief in a personal god among theists. It’s the personal god who is responsible for most of the unacceptable behaviour of religious people in trying to impose their views of moral behaviour on others and in promoting hatred and discrimination against others.  An impersonal force is not going to care about your sexual preferences, the colour of your skin or whether you believe in it, let alone judge you and send you to heaven or hell.  Premodern beliefs and values assocated with concepts of a personal god are increasingly hard for modern well-educated people to accept.

Given the continuing decline in religious belief, I can hope that the proportion of people who believe in the God of the Bible continues to drop. It is already less than 50% for Americans if my projection is reasonable, and around 20% for the UK, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands. I don’t have data from IVS for Australia, but the proportion of Australians who believe in the God of the Bible will be less than 27% now. For both the Reformed West and North America, the countries where Protestantism has been the leading form of religion, it is now the case that less than half the adult population believes in the God of the Bible.

One quarter of atheists (those who say they do not believe in God) also say that they believe in a spirit or life force.  Are these beliefs similar to those of the theists who say they believe in a spirit or life force? I have not come across research looking more closely at this, but I suspect there are differences.  I think its likely the theists who say they believe in a spirit or life force are those who have rejected the mythical bearded father figure in the sky but are not yet ready to fully let go of belief in a god. Their impersonal god is likely a fuzzy ill-defined thing, perhaps with residual “personal” characteristics eg.  God is love, or god is creative power.

The atheists who believe in a “spirit or life force” may include some who have stepped away from theism but not entirely comfortable with letting go of any belief in something “larger than themselves”.  But it may also include those atheists who are not out-and-out materialists or reductionists. For example, Buddhist atheists, and some others, might believe that non-dual consciousness is some sort of universal field or ground of being.  

From time to time I come across atheists or philosophers, even atheist philosophers, who assume that all atheists must be materialists or believe only physical things exist. This is clearly not the case, since the proportion of atheists who positively state that they do not believe in god, spirit or life force is relatively low, ranging from around 25% in the USA to 30-40% in other regions where Christianity is the dominant religion. Other atheists may simply have some vague feeling that there is something more to reality that they don’t want to pin down and conceptualize as something with specific attributes, or simply don’t know what to think, or they may have some well-developed view of reality (in their mind) which might involve some non-physical field or force (universal love, consciousness etc). It would be interesting to interview people and find out more about what they mean when they say they believe in a higher power or other similar phrase, and how this might differ between theists and atheists.

Endnote. Definitions of culture zones used to group countries

I am using the 10 culture zones defined by Welzel [1], with one modification. Because Australia’s and New Zealand’s culture values are much closer to the countries of the Reformed West than to those of the USA and Canada, I have included Australia and New Zealand in the Reformed West and renamed the New West as North America. The culture zones are defined as follows:

Reformed West — Western European societies strongly affected by the Reformation: Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, plus Australia and New Zealand;
North America — USA and Canada;
Old West — Mostly Catholic parts of Western Europe being core parts of the
Roman Empire: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Luxembrg, Malta, Portugal, Spain;
Returned West — Catholic and Protestant parts of post-communist Europe returning
to the EU: Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia;
Orthodox East — Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the post-communist world,
mostly parts of former USSR;
Indic East — Parts of South and South East Asia under the historic influence
of Indian culture: Bhutan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor-Leste;
Islamic East — Regions of the Islamic world that have been parts of the Arab/Caliphate,
Persian and Ottoman empires;
Sinic East — Parts of East Asia under the historic influence of Chinese culture: China, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam;
Latin America — Central and South America and the Caribbean;
Sub-Saharan Africa — African countries south of the Sahara.


[1] Welzel C. Freedom Rising. Human Empowerment and the. Quest for Emancipation. 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/freedom-rising/80316A9C5264A8038B0AA597078BA7C6

Religiosity and atheism in younger adults

I recently came across a headline referring to a 2016 survey in Iceland which found that 0.0% of Icelanders 25 years or younger believe God created the world. My immediate impression was that this implied a zero per cent prevalence of atheism in this age group. When I read the article, I found that the relevant question gave respondents four options: the world was created in the big bang, the world was created by God, the world was created by other means, or no opinion. Outside of countries dominated by fundamentalist religious groups, most religious people would likely choose “created in the big bang”.  The survey actually found that 40.5% of respondents aged 25 years and younger said they were atheist, and 42% said they were Christians.

It is certainly the case that the prevalence of atheism is higher in younger ages in the developed countries where religiosity has been declining for decades.  So I thought I would take a look at the prevalence of atheism in younger adults aged 15-34 years from the Integrated Values Surveys [1-3]  that took place in the last wave, in the period 2017-2020. See my earlier posts (see here and here), which examined global, regional and country-level trends in religious belief and practice, for more details on the data and definitions of atheism and religiosity categories.

Countries with the highest prevalence of atheism and non-religion in 2017-2020

The following plot shows the prevalence of religious and irreligious adults for the 31 countries with the highest irreligious prevalence (atheists plus non-religious). China and South Korea lead these countries with irreligious prevalences over 80%, followed by Sweden, Czechia, New Zealand and Japan, with prevalences in the 70’s. In terms of atheism, there are 18 countries with prevalences over 50% in the 15-34 year age group, including Australia at 53%.

In these countries, the prevalence of practicing religious generally increases with age and the prevalence of atheists generally decreases with age.  The plot for the USA 2017 survey data below illustrates this.

Are these prevalence patterns predominantly due to ageing, time period or birth cohort?  Since period = birth year (cohort identifier) + age it is not possible to determine the separate effects of all three factors. Ageing as a driver of religiosity would imply that people become more religious as they get older, and this seems the least likely of the three factors to fit observed age patterns over time. 

Relative contribution of cohort and period to the overall trends in religiosity

I’ve attempted to estimate the relative contributions of birth cohort and period to the evolution of religiosity in the USA using a cohort projection model. I first used the data from all waves of the US surveys to impute religiosity prevalences for years 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020. I then projected religiosity prevalences for each age group in 2020 assuming that those prevalences remained constant at the values that age group would have had in the past when it was aged 15-24. Comparing this with the actual prevalences for 2020 allows estimation of the proportion of the change in prevalence over time that is attributable to cohort effects.

For practicing religious, non-religious and atheists, the cohort projection explains around 25% of the overall change, the other 75% is attributable to period.  For the non-practicing religious, these proportions are reversed with 25% explained by period and 75% by cohort.

Projecting religiosity prevalences to 2030

My previous projections of religiosity to year 2020 were carried out using trends in all-ages-both sexes prevalences. I thought it would be interesting to explore projections at age-sex level for selected countries, given the likely variations in trends across age groups. I experimented with several statistical models including a period-cohort projection model, and a model that projected all four prevalences simultaneously, using seemingly unrelated regression techniques to constrain the prevalences to add to 100%.  It proved difficult to get sensible results from these models when not tailored to specific country data.  The disaggregation of survey data to 7 age groups for each sex resulted in highly variable prevalences across cells. The years for which surveys were available varied across countries in ways that made it difficult to develop generalized projection methods that were not sensitive to small number issues and outlier trends.

I eventually decided to do some quite simplistic projections for each age-sex category as follows:

  1. Project from last available wave to 2022 using short-term trends given by last two waves
  2. Project from 2022 to 2030 using longer-term trend from wave closest to year 2000 to last wave
  3. Adjust extreme trends to either the smaller of the short and long run trends, or to trends for neigbouring age-sex groups.

I carried out these projections for five high income countries with rising prevalence of atheism:  USA, Australia, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Sweden. The following plots illustrate the observed and projected prevalences for the four religiosity categories. The dashed lines denotes the projected trend for irreligion (non-religious plus atheist).

The nonreligious category includes people who state that they believe in God, but that they are non-religious and rate the importance of God as 8-10 at the not important end of a 10-point scale. In the table below, I summarize the projected prevalence of irreligion (nonreligious or atheist) in 2030 for the five countries for all ages combined and for the young adult age group 15-34 years.  The irreligion prevalence is generally higher in the younger age groups, and the 2030 value gives an indication of likely future trend for all ages.

Is irreligion likely to continue increase in the future? If the economies of high income countries continue to grow, with decreasing levels of poverty, and education levels continue to improve, it is likely that religiosity in these countries will decline in the longer term. The joint global crises of global warming and the pandemic, with rising populism and rejection of global institutions and actions, may on the other hand result in economic downturns that result in a stalling or reversal of the current religiosity trends. The situation in the USA where a religious minority is actively seeking to impose its values on the entire population, and undermining the democratic system to achieve that, may likely accelerate the turning away from religion of the young adult population. The USA already has one of the fastest rates of increase of irreligion in the last decade.


  1. EVS (2021): EVS Trend File 1981-2017. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7503 Data file Version 2.0.0, https://doi.org/10.4232/1.13736
  2. EVS/WVS (2021). European Values Study and World Values Survey: Joint EVS/WVS 2017-2021 Dataset (Joint EVS/WVS). JD Systems Institute & WVSA. Dataset Version 1.1.0, doi:10.14281/18241.14.
  3. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno, A., Welzel, C., Kizilova, K., Diez-Medrano J., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2021. World Values Survey Time-Series (1981-2020) Cross-National Data-Set. Madrid, Spain  &  Vienna,  Austria:  JD  Systems  Institute  &  WVSA Secretariat. Data File Version 2.0.0, doi:10.14281/18241.15.

Values and religion in 2020: an updated map

In my previous post, I presented updated estimates of trends in average religiosity and religious values for 110 countries using latent variable analysis of data from the World Values Survey and European Values Study [1-4]. The map below plots these countries according to their latent variable values for modernity (horizontal axis) and religiosity (vertical axis) in the year 2020. The colours indicate culture zone and the shading roughly indicates the main domain of countries in each culture zone. Moving downwards to the right on this graph indicates increasing modern values and decreasing religiosity. The inspiration for this map presentation was the culture zone maps produced for earlier waves of these surveys by the political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel [5]. The culture zones are defined in a previous post here.

Apart from the uncertainty in these values resulting from survey sample size limitations, differences in the ways surveys were administered, and differences in translation and cultural understanding of questions, there is also statistical uncertainty in the latent variable estimation process.  Not too much should be made of small differences between countries, and I focus on the broader patterns.

The degree of premodernity of religious values is fairly similar for the Islamic East and Sub-Saharan Africa, but the African region is somewhat more religious than the Islamic region. The Indic East has higher levels of premodern values than either of these regions. One manifestation of this is the current rising level of Hindu nationalism in India along with the violent persecution of Indians of other religions. The degree of modernity of values is similar for the majority of Latin American countries and the former Soviet bloc countries, but religiosity is significantly lower in the latter, where religion is largely a marker of national identity and most are non-practicing.

The North America culture zone includes only two countries, the USA and Canada. It is clear from the map that Canada belongs with the Reformed West countries in contrast to the USA, which sits in the Old West zone close to Italy, and also not far from three South American countries: Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Malta and Cyprus are also outliers for the Old West culture zone, with higher levels of religiosity and less modern values. Along the decreasing religiosity-increasing modernity axis, Qatar is at the top end and Sweden at the bottom end. China is an outlier to the lower left, with the lowest level of religiosity of all the countries, but also a modernity value towards the middle of the scale between modern and pre-modern.

It should be emphasised that this map reflects national averages for individuals and may not be reflected in laws and form of government. Increasingly authoritarian regimes across the world are imposing values that a substantial proportion of their population do not accept. The USA has a growing proportion of the population rejecting democracy in favour of minority rule and the restriction of various rights particularly for women and minority voters. Unhappiness with the results of neoliberal economic and social policies over recent decades has been successfully redirected into “values wars”  rather than addressing the real causes of declining average incomes and reductions in social safety nets along with the reduction of taxation and regulation for high income individuals and companies.


  1. 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.
  2. 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].
  3. 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.
  4. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3d. WVS. Archived from the original on October 19, 2013.
  5. Ronald Inglehart; Chris Welzel. “The WVS Cultural Map of the World”. WVS. Archived from the original on October 19, 2013.

Global, regional and country-level trends in religiosity and atheism: an update

In two earlier posts (here and here), I examined global, regional and country-level trends in religious belief and practice, and the prevalence of atheism. The analysis was based on data from the  World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS), covering the period 1981 to 2020. Earlier this year, I discovered that the World Values Survey dataset has been updated. Some data collected using a mobile phone app in the most recent US survey was incorrectly coded and this mainly affected the religiosity categories.  Comparison of the US prevalences for religiosity show that the coding errors resulted in an overestimate of the atheist and non-religious categories as shown in the following table:

Comparison of religiosity prevalence estimates
 for USA in year 2020

I have now updated the previous analyses using the 2021 release of the combined data for the WVS and EVS in the Integrated Values Surveys (IVS) 1981-2021 [1-3]. In carrying out these updates, I also addressed some definitional issues which have resulted in mostly slight changes to estimates for other countries. The details of the updated analysis are described elsewhere.

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Definitions of God and the Motte-and-Bailey fallacy

Recently, I got involved in an online discussion about whether spirituality was compatible with atheism (see previous post Atheism and Spirituality) and foolishly did not clarify what the term “god” referred to. But it was clear from the general context that those arguing atheism was incompatible with spirituality were assuming spirituality required belief in God and were using a concept of God (singular) largely consistent with the standard Christian God who is conceived of as an eternal being who created the universe and life, and who is both transcendent (wholly independent of the material universe) and involved in the world.

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Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Global and country-level prevalence of atheism in 2020

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.

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Is religious belief in decline and atheism on the rise?

Ronald Inglehart has recently published an article in Foreign Affairs called “Giving up on God: the global decline of religion” in which he uses data from the most recent wave of the World Values Surveys (WVS) to claim that between 2007 and 2019, the importance of religion has declined in most countries [1]. This is based on a single question on the importance of God in the respondent’s life on a 10-point scale. The average importance declined in 39 countries and increased in only 5.  Apart from the fact that this is based only on a single question on the importance of God, it also does not tell us how regional or global average ratings have changed. Depending on the relative populations and scale shifts in different countries, it could potentially even be consistent with a global average increase.

I’ve taken a closer look at trends in religious belief and practice using data from the World Values Survey and European Values Study [2-5] which have interviewed over 630,000 people in 110 countries in seven waves of the surveys over the period 1981 to 2020. These surveys include a direct question on whether you believe in God (Yes/No/Don’t know), but also “Are you a religious person” (Religious, Non-religious, Confirmed Atheist) and questions on frequency and type of religious practices, and on the importance in your life of religion and God. Of the 105 countries, 76 have data for years in range 2017-2020, and another 17 have data on or later than 2010.

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