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.

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 [5] and McAndrew and Voas [6].

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 [7].

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 [5]. 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 [9].

References

  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 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
  5. 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.
  6. 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
  7. Inglehart R Giving up on God: the global decline of religion. Foreign Affairs 2020, 99(5): 110-118.
    https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-08-11/religion-giving-god
  8. 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
  9. 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

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 Health 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.

I used these questions to define four categories of “religiosity” as follows:

Atheist: A “confirmed atheist” and/or does not believe in God

Non-religious: A non-religious person who believes in God, but rates the importance of God as 8-10 at the not important end of a 10-point scale.

Non-practicing religious person: A religious person who believes in God but does not attend religious services or pray to God outside of religious services at least once a month.

Practicing religious person: A religious person who believes in God and attends religious services or prays to God outside of religious services at least once a month.

Modified versions of these definitions are used for persons stating affiliation to a non-theist religion and for the predominantly Buddhist countries. A more detailed explanation of these definitions and the survey questions used, as well as details of the analysis, is available here and here. Note that my definition of religiosity is based on belief in God (or engagement with nontheist religious teachings) and degree of engagement with religious practice, not on a stated religious affiliation or type of affiliation, or on the types of belief (such as degree of fundamentalism, degree of tolerance or bigotry etc).

Country-level trends in religiosity and atheism

The following plots show trends in the prevalence of the four religiosity categories from 1980 to 2020 for six representative countries from different religious/culture zones. High income countries in Western Europe and North America are characterized by declining religiosity and rising prevalence of atheism. Former Communist countries of Europe are characterized by a drop in atheism after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some rise in the practicing religious and a much larger rise in the non-practicing religious. The vast majority of people in Africa and Islamic countries are religious, though substantial proportions are non-practicing, and the prevalence of stated irreligion (non-religious and atheists) is very low.

In his article, Inglehart notes that the USA has had the sharpest decline in the importance of God of all the countries in the WVS, and now ranks as the 11th most irreligious country (based on the single question he analysed). The graph for the USA also shows a very substantial rise in the prevalences of atheism and non-religious across the last two waves, and a corresponding decline in non-practicing and practicing religious prevalences.  If I exclude China and South Korea due to the difficulties in classifying religiosity in countries with historically important non-theistic religions, then the USA has the 3rd highest rate of decline after Chile and Denmark, but these countries all share a very similar rate of decline over the last decade around 3.5% per year.

Based on my projections of atheism prevalence to 2020 for all the WVS/EVS countries, the leading 31 countries are listed in the following table. Note that the prevalence of atheism is now higher in the USA than in Russia. The prevalence of “non-religious” has also been rising fast in the USA, now around 10% compared to between 1 and 5% in other developed countries.

China has the largest prevalence of atheism in the world at an estimated 78% but as the plot shows there has been a substantial shift from the non-religious category to the atheist category and it is difficult to interpret this given the lack of fit of the WVS questions with the non-theist religions that are most common in China.

Many of the reports of prevalence of atheism add the Non-religious to Confirmed Atheist, but the data shows that a majority of the non-religious believe in God but are estranged from institutional religion. Other reports use data on those who report “None” when asked their religion, but these also include many people who believe in God but have rejected institutional religion.

Most of the countries of Western Europe, excluding Portugal and Italy, as well as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have more people who are non-religious or atheist than religious people. There is considerable cultural variability in the willingness of people to label themselves atheist, even if effectively they do not believe in god or consider god irrelevant to their life. The USA is an outlier with high prevalence of “non-religious” compared to other high income countries with a European heritage, and this may reflect unwillingness to use the label “atheist” due to the stigma associated with it in the USA.

Religiosity in Iran and other Islamic countries

Iran and other Islamic countries generally report very low levels of atheism, 2.4% on average, and I suspect this is lower than reality because of the quite severe social and legal consequences in many Islamic countries. The WVS uses telephone interviews and its quite likely irreligious respondents would be fearful of being identified if they respond honestly to a telephone interview. A recent internet survey provides some support for this concern. The internet-based survey collected responses from 40,000 Iranians living in Iran in June 2020 [6]. Respondents took part in the survey anonymously, and would have felt safer to express their real opinions than in telephone surveys or surveys conducted at respondents’ residence. According to this survey, only 40% of Iranians identify as Muslims (quite similar to the 43% if Iranians who are practicing Muslims according to the WVS), 8% as Zoroastrian and 9% as atheist (12% if those who identify as humanist are included). Around 20% said that they did not believe in God. This contrasts with the WVS, where 96% state they are Muslim (43% practicing, 53% non-practicing) and only 1.5% say they do not believe in God. %. Its quite likely that real levels of irreligion are higher in many other Islamic countries than the WVS survey data suggest.

Global trends in religiosity and atheism

At global level, the proportion of people who are religious and practicing has barely changed over the last 40 years, as has the prevalence of atheism, but there has been a shift from non-religious to non-practicing religious, reflecting mainly the change in former Soviet bloc countries.  Excluding China, there is a slight decline in the prevalence of atheism but overall, there has been relatively little change in prevalence of religiosity at global level over the last 40 years. This conceals quite substantial changes in developed countries and in former Soviet countries, in opposing directions.

Trends in average religiosity over the last 40 years

It is entirely possible that while the prevalences of religiosity categories have changed little, the average religiosity within categories has changed, for example through less frequent religious observance, or lesser importance placed on God in the respondent’s life (as used by Inglehart for his claim that religion is in global decline). To examine this, I used the set of religiosity variables in the WVS/EVS to compute a continuous latent variable for religiosity using an item response analysis of the relevant survey variables measuring aspects of religiosity (see here for details).

The following plot shows population-weighted trends in average religiosity from 1980 to 2020 for 10 culture zones and the world. Note that negative values indicate higher levels of religiosity and positive values indicate higher levels of irreligion. The large increase in irreligion in North America stands out, as does the more steady increase in the Reformed West, and the decrease in irreligion following the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries around 1991. However, the continuous latent variable also picks up an increase in religiosity in Sub-Saharan Africa and an decrease in religiosity post-2000 in Latin America, the Old West and the Returned West. At global level there has been a slight increase in religiosity over the forty year period. This is the opposite conclusion to that reached by Inglehart in his recent Foreign Affairs article.

The country groups used in this plot are based on the 10 culture defined by Welzel [7] and used in my previous post, 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 (European countries strongly affected by the Reformation) and renamed the New West as North America. The Old West includes the mostly Catholic countries of Western Europe, the Returned West those former Soviet bloc countries who have joined the EU, and the Orthodox East includes the Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the former Soviet bloc countries.

Why is religion on the decline in the Reformed West, Old West and North America? Not coincidentally, these countries are essentially those in which the scientific and industrial revolutions of the last three centuries first occurred. In my view, a key reason for this was the utter revulsion intelligent people developed for absolutist religious and political institutions which regulated beliefs and speech and resulted in centuries of wars in Europe. Europeans rejected the idea that the King or Pope or Bishop could order them what to believe and think on pain of death. Freedom of thought was a crucial factor in the development of science, which underpins the technological revolution. Widespread education, improving standards of living, and the evident benefits of scientific knowledge have all resulted in fewer and fewer people continuing to hold to fundamentalist (ie Bronze Age) understandings of religion. And religious extremists are reacting to this. Just two days ago, a French teacher discussing freedom of thought with his class was beheaded by a Muslim student offended by his use of cartoons to illustrate freedom of thought.

To be clear, science and modern values are not at all incompatible in principle with spirituality, but are definitely incompatible with forms of religion that define their truths as being absolute and beyond question.

References

  1. Inglehart R Giving up on God: the global decline of religion. Foreign Affairs 2020, 99(5): 110-118.
    https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-08-11/religion-giving-god
  2. 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.
  3. 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].
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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