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Atheist Nation

by Michael Shermer, May 08 2012

Where in the world are the atheists? That is, in what part of the globe will one find the most people who do not believe in God? Answer: East Germany at 52.1%. The least? The Philippines at less than 1%. Predictably, strong belief shows a reverse pattern: 84% in the Philippines to 4% in Japan, with East Germany at the second lowest in strong belief at 8%. Not surprising, those who believe in a personal God “who concerns himself with every human being personally” is lowest in East Germany at 8% and highest in the Philippines at 92%.

These numbers, and others, were collected and crunched by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, in a paper entitled “Beliefs About God Across Time and Countries,” produced for the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and released on April 18, 2012. Smith writes: “Countries with high atheism (and low strong belief) tend to be ex-Socialist states and countries in northwest Europe. Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus.”

Many religious scholars invoke the “secularization thesis” to explain lower religiosity in Northern European countries (compared to the United States) in which mass education, especially in the sciences, coupled to the fact that governments do what religions traditionally did in the past in taking care of the poor and needy. With a tight social safety net religions simply fall into disuse; with a porous social safety net people fall through the cracks and are picked up by religions. Other scholars have suggested a “supply side” explanation for the difference between the U.S. and Europe, in which churches and religions in America must compete for limited resources and customers and thus have ratcheted up the quality of religious products and services: mega churches with rock music, baby sitting, BBQs, and even free parking! Smith seems to find evidence of both forces at work, noting that “In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism,” whereas elsewhere in the world “there is also evidence that religious competition and/or religious conflict may stimulate higher belief.”

Religion is a complex phenomenon and thus explanations are likely to be complex. (I find that in the social sciences Occam’s razor is rarely true—the simpler explanation is not only usually wrong, it can be terribly misleading.) Smith notes, for example, that “Belief is high in Israel which of course has a sharp conflict between Judaism and Islam, in Cyprus which is divided along religious and ethnic lines into Greek/Orthodox and Turkish/Muslim entities, and in Northern Ireland which is split between Protestant and Catholic communities and shows much higher belief levels than the rest of the United Kingdom.” In the United States there is relatively little overt religious conflict, but intense religious competition across both major religions and denominations within Christianity.”

The outlier appears to be Japan: “The one country that shows a low association between the level of atheism and strong belief is Japan. Japan ranked lowest on strong belief, but also in the lower half on atheism (a difference of 18 positions across the two rankings when the average difference in positions was only 2.7 places). Japan is distinctive among countries in having the largest number of people (32%) in the middle categories of believing sometimes and the agnostic, not knowing response. This pattern is consistent with a general Japanese response pattern of avoiding strong, extreme response options.”

Changes in God beliefs were modest from 1991 through 2008, with the percent saying they were atheists increasing in 15 of 18 countries at an average rise of 1.7%. Between 1998 and 2008 the atheist gain was bigger, with an average increase of 2.3 points in 23 of 30 countries. Predictably, again, the corresponding belief in God decreased by roughly the same amount that atheism grew. The exceptions were Israel, Russia and Slovenia where from 1991 to 2008 there was a consistent movement towards greater belief and less atheists. Israel’s religious shift was a result of an increase in orthodox Jewish and right-wing population, “and the relative decline of the more secular and leftist segment in Israeli society.”

Most interestingly, Smith computed the overall gains and loses of religious beliefs comparing those who say “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to.” With those say “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to.” “In 2008 there was a net gain in belief across the life course in 12 countries and a decline in 17 countries. The gains averaged 4.1 points and the losses -7.0 points for an overall change of -2.4 points.” The shifts also varied by age, with older people gaining in belief while younger people decreasing in belief. Smith concludes his study with this projection for the future of atheism:

“If the modest, general trend away from belief in God continues uninterrupted, it will accumulate to larger proportions and the atheism that is now prominent mainly in northwest Europe and some ex-Socialist states may spread more widely.”

In case you’re wondering, the percentage of Americans who say “I don’t believe in God” was 3% at 4th lowest in the world, and who said “I know God really exists and I have no doubt about it” at 60.6%, the 5th highest in the world. Americans who agreed “I don’t believe in God and I never have” was 4.4 at 6th lowest in the world, who agreed “I believe in God now and I always have at 80.8% at 3rd highest in the world. In terms of the changes in atheism and belief in God over time, from 1991 to 2008 the U.S. showed an increase of 0.7% atheists and -0.2 from 1998–2008; in 2008, taking those who said “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to” minus “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to” nets +1.4 in the United States.

The paper is chockablock full of data figures. Here’s the press release for more information.

38 Responses to “Atheist Nation”

  1. Max says:

    3% of Americans don’t believe in God, and 4.4% don’t believe in God and never have? Doesn’t add up.

    Israel absorbed a million largely secular Jews from Russia between 1989 and 2003. I doubt that an increase in orthodox Jewish population could match that.

    • John K. says:

      Yes, very weird.

      Although, the idea that 1.4% of Americans did not read the questions correctly is not too outrageous. Such are the shortcomings of surveys.

    • Derek says:

      I think that means some of the 3% at one time believed in God at one time in their life. The 4.4% represents those who have never at anytime believed in God. You would think, then that the 3% and the 4.4% would equal 7.3%.

      Or the statistic could simply be wrong.

      • Kenn says:

        Orthodox Jews make more babies (sometimes dozens of ‘em per couple) and, thereby, enhance their share of the population.

  2. BillG says:

    Stats and damn lies? I’m a bit skeptical on this release.

    Regardless, to quarantine true beliefs can be difficult at best. “There’s no atheists in foxholes” – or perhaps conversely, there’s no true believers in “foxholes”? Wouldn’t certainty remove fear? Or does attending religious service equate to true belief? Customs, doubt and social/family structures, all factor into play which can mask genuine piety.

    For many, fear and struggles on these questions don’t always fashion their ambivalence within a survey paper.

  3. JonMac says:

    East Germany hasn’t been a country since 1990!

  4. Josh says:

    I am rather curious why this survey contains only about 30 countries, most of which are concentrated on the European continent? I am thankful for the data they did gather, but it is pretty much useless for generalizing globally. The population being generalized to is very misleading. Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and the majority of Latin American and East Asia is absent. In fact, I suspect this study can only be claimed to represent trends and data for majority Christian and former majority Christian societies (since there is an absence of any except Israel and Japan that does not fit that profile). Is it a bad thing to want better data or more accurate conclusions (in terms of population)? I often find that the sampling done for social, psychological, and cultural research is incredibly misleading as a result of terrible sampling. Thanks for the data anyway Mr. Shermer. It was worth a read.

  5. Adrian Morgan says:

    The paradox of Occam’s Razor in social or psychological phenomena is this:

    * By definition, Occam’s Razor tells us to minimise unnecessary assumptions.
    * If a theory posits a simple social/psychological mechanism, then it makes a significant and unverified assumption: namely that simple social/psychological phenomenae exist.
    * If a theory posits that the underlying social/psychological mechanisms are complicated, then it does not ASSUME that complicated social/psychological mechanisms exist, because we already KNOW that.
    * Therefore, Occam’s Razor favours the more complicated explanation.

    • Max says:

      The Wikipedia page on Occam’s Razor has a picture of the Earth, and the caption, “It is possible to describe the other planets in the solar system as revolving around the Earth, but that explanation is unnecessarily complex compared to the contemporary consensus that all planets in the solar system revolve around the Sun.”
      Would you say that Occam’s razor favored epicycles on epicycles when heliocentrism was a significant and unverified assumption?

      • Bad Boy Scientist says:

        Occam’s Razor is at best a rule of thumb and over-analyzing it is a waste of time (although it can be a fun waste of time – like many late-night debates held by undergrads).

        My understanding is that it does not claim to have any bearing on the “Truth”, rather it claims that the “best” explanation has the fewest underlying assumption. IOW: It’s a rough guide for those who make hypotheses (like telling people who print office memos not to use too many different type faces).

  6. Loren V. Million says:

    Taking back the world from religion one educated Atheist at a time. Thank You, L. M.

  7. George says:

    When I was a child, I believed in God: my parent’s God, the God of the Christian religion, as I absorbed that belief through their church services (after I had moved up from Sunday School), and some basic tutoring in the tenets of Christianity. I had been Christened as an infant (as was my parents’ church tradition), and had attempted the rite of Confirmation after some study, but as the minister remarked to my mother, “I think the boy needs some more work.” Eventually, at about the age of thirteen, I stopped attending church every Sunday, and went only at major holidays. Eventually, at about fifteen years, I decided that it wasn’t for me. It took a long time before the habits of thinking about things religiously (that is, with some awareness of the practical existence of a higher power) eventually disappeared. I then had to create an awareness of my existence without any such supernatural controlling being. That then became the defining characteristic of my conscious awareness; I had become free and clear of any deep personal need for a supporting supernatural power in my life. But there was a catch: over the following decades, I had to learn to live with close family and friends who did ascribe their existence and happiness to belief in a supernatural power, and who often simply supposed that I felt as I once had. When I mentioned that I was not “religious,” the assumption was that I still had some “spiritual” essence to my nature, meaning that I was not fully devoid of any conscious contact with some supernatural power. Now, as a mature adult in my seventh decade, it’s assumed by everyone I know that I am sincere when I state that I have no religion, that I am an atheist, and there is little if any discussion of the matter. Only those who are not aware are even surprised, and most appear to be indifferent. The sole holdouts are some of the many friends I have met over the decades in Alcoholics Anonymous, who, being mainly religious in thought, persist in thinking it’s not possible for me to follow the guidelines of the AA recovery method without my being open, at least in theory, to conceding that religion works for some of them. And I do admit to knowing that for them it’s become necessary, although it is not mandatory, as is clear from passages in the AA textbook. That many of them feel that I should be as they are is not material to me, nor to my discussions in meetings. Other friends and associates are largely indifferent to my atheism, or pretend to be so, although I have startled some co-workers who have discovered through incidental conversation that I am a non-believer. I an not aware that it has ever been a personal issue in the workplace, but I do not participate in so-called religious holiday events, such as gift-giving over Christmas, and so on, where I will however celebrate Christmas as a secular event with my close kin, such as my siblings and their children.
    I am very happy simply being alive in the world today, doing what I do to support my wife and myself and our three little pets. Some of those I know have accused me of being angry at god, but the rejoinder often sets them back: “How can I be angry at something I don’t believe in?” Which is a pretty good way of stopping an attack.
    It’s such a wonderful life, being free of all the guilt and nonsense of religion. I’m glad I never followed any religious path, for no matter how many “relationships” it may have cost me, the price has been well worth it.
    Yours in happiness and freedom from the tyranny of religion.


    • Frank C says:

      Does it bother you to hold hands and say the Lords Prayer at the close of an AA meeting? It does bother me but I do it for the sake of harmony. If AA did not offer a “higher power as I understand him (or it) I probably would not be a member.
      Frank C

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      Thank you, George, for sharing that.

      I wish more atheists would tell their story (and be so sincere). It is out of character for me to refer to anything as a sweet story – but yours is. It is a conversion story to a way of life as valid as any “believer’s” way of life.

      With your permission I will copy it and save it to share with people who may benefit from reading it.

    • Syd Foster says:

      They used to call that class, you are a good man to hear from, George, well done mate! Thank you, and respect!


    • Kenneth Polit says:

      That was wonderful. Thank you for sharing that George.

  8. chickenfog says:

    China. India. Ooops, forgot a few people.

  9. Mary Moon says:

    For George:
    Since I was a pre-teen, I’ve questioned many things I was taught in a Southern Baptist tradition. I didn’t have the courage that George has to admit my beliefs, but continued in the social/religious structure that was my “heritage” in order to keep from being ostrasized. As a result, I’m now in my 80’s, and very uncomfortable and unhappy with my life. Good for you, George!

    • Ann H. says:

      It is never too late, Mary. And you don’t need to “come out” in a big way–whatever is comfortable for you. I’m in the South as well, and understand the dilemma.

      I have been quietly atheist for some years now–it can be done!

  10. Halidom says:

    I don’t think any survey or census can be really taken as true when it comes to religion. People don’t want to be ostracized if they live in a religious community. I drive pass many churches with empty parking lots. Yet the census says that the majority of people are religious. Australia is in the top 4 countries with declining religious beliefs and I think it’s the younger group that is ahead of this trend. They wont be ostracized as their friends aren’t religious either. I think there is still a stigma associated with the term atheist so when the census form comes they just pick a religion that’s known in their area and tick that box. When I said if they live in a religious community that could be just a fallacy created by others who don’t want to be known as atheist. I’m an atheist and I can’t remember anyone asking me about my beliefs. I also can’t remember asking anyone about their beliefs. I do have friends that are religious and that’s fine with me. I do have one belief that everyone can make their own decisions and if that decision doesn’t effect me then that’s fine with me.

  11. mahto says:

    World history teaches us that religion was stated by witchcraft as Buddha was the first to be witnessed to fly into the heavens and as a general to be reincarnated to conclude the star wars etiologically? Unlike some statements which can neither be settled nor ruled out by experience the determinist principle is at least relevant to experience as shown on Hardball with Chris Matthews people are asking why their children were dismembered so that people would believe in god sense therefore given the notion of assenting to the determinist principle. This makes one wonder of the future = MASS MEDIA – FORMS OF COMMUNCATION SUCH AS RADIO, NEWSPAPERS, TELEVISION THAT IS DIRECTED TOWARDS MASS AUDIANCES.
    Government Patents to Control Us
    Patent 3,951,134 – Apparatus and method for remotely monitoring and altering brain waves
    Patent 5,123,899 – Method and System for Altering Consciousness
    Patent 5,159,703 – Silent Subliminal Presentation System
    Patent 5,270,800 – Subliminal Message Generator
    Patent 5,507,291 – Method and an Associated Apparatus for Remotely Determining information as to Person’s Emotional State
    Patent 5,878,155 – Method for verifying human identity during electronic sale transactions (Mark of the Beast) Read more about this patent here: Mark of the Beast: The Patent

    Life is a Masquerade
    Each day integers of day’s morning sun I see
    The perception to see the fire and the tree
    Arguments and controversies in humanities news
    Descartes black bile “You are not true”
    To the moment they must choose
    The lottery of stones
    Brains are tiny computers moving my bones
    Space at such a rate me and my kind
    Happy mortal creature in the center we find
    All partial evil, universal good, discord not understood
    Philosophical meaning of humanities place universal good
    It’s yourself you should scrutinize to see
    Nature is harmony; unknown nor understood thou canst not see.

    • Syd Foster says:


      Mahto mate, I claim my £5, you are a performance artist pretending to be a surrealist cultural guerrilla, only you are 7 decades late! Andre Breton and Man Ray and Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp did it all long before you were born…. get real, and get a new line of scam, cos you are rumbled!

      Now piss off, there’s a good kid.

      • Syd Foster says:

        On second thoughts, I really would like to know…. do you actually believe that first sentence of yours makes any kind of sense? It’s why I tipped you for a surrealist. The atrocious “poem” is what tells me you’ve no chance of competing with the originals.

        So tell me… are you kidding, or do you really think anyone can understand that first sentence?

      • tmac57 says:

        I don’t know…I thought the poem had merit.
        I give it five stars on the Sagan scale.

      • Syd Foster says:

        You’re joking! As a poem it has the lead ear of a bad victorian poem…
        “unknown nor understood thou canst not see.”! Puhleeeese!

        Get real , get now, get a life, that’s all I can say…. no, I can also say READ SOME CONTEMPORARY POETRY!


      • tmac57 says:

        Was “the Sagan scale” too subtle for you Syd?

      • Syd Foster says:

        er… yes it was! Didn’t stop to think, but although I’ve read Sagan’s Candle Against the Dark (if memory serves for the title) I’m not that familiar with Sagan’s writings and don’t know what the scale refers toy… vaguely remember something to do with categories of civilisations…

      • tmac57 says:

        It was a reference to the apocryphal notion that Sagan often used the phrase “Billions and billions” of stars in the universe.
        So, 5 stars out of billions and billions.

  12. Syd Foster says:

    “humanities news”? It’s not only grammatically nonsense, (it’s not “poetic” just because it is illiterate… takes more than “liberated diction” to create a poem… that’s to speak a poem, see?) it’s also obviously inarticulate, which goes along with the disconnected thinking displayed in the first part of his post… honestly it reads like a bad computer program made to imitate surrealist automatic writing… the lack of clarity of thought is replicated in the obscurity of the poem….

    To be generous he seems to be trying to say we should live in harmony with nature… I’m down with that… but the diction is cod-poetical antiquarian, and the whole is an exercise in mystification masquerading as profundity… it goes right along with his satanic warnings and all that old bs…. it makes me feel like cobwebs are filthing the crevasses in my brain! Mahto, stick to conspiracy theories and incomprehensible ranting…. leave the poetry out of it…. and READ some contemporary poetry!

  13. Syd Foster says:

    “Descartes black bile ‘You are not true'”…..? Are you trying to say black bile from Descartes? Put an apostrophe after the word, and you have said what you were trying to say! As it is, you are just stringing words together, and they don’t say anything. (Leave aside the fact I think you are slandering Descartes… he wasn’t trying to produce a nasty nauseous result, he was seriously thinking about what it is to exist… more than you seem to have done.)

    Then comes the “You are not true” quote, but who is speaking? You, the poet? or Descartes? And who are you addressing? Descartes’ conclusion? or Descartes himself? Or me? and does true me correct, or does it mean the archaic “loyal”? Given your there diction, I am inclined to think you mean “loyal”… the whole thing is a mess… that’s because you don’t think clearly. Here’s a hint: tune in to your heart, and then bring forth in simplicity what you find there…. and try centring yourself in a humble communion with your heart before speaking, and then speak directly, simply, and briefly… poetry is more about concision than expression… the expression follows on from the concision. Learn to think, and your poetry will follow…. and maybe some human happiness… forget the government and all that crap… if what you seem to think is true, you’ve got no chance to change it… but if you clarify your poet self, you will realise that it is all irrelevant… and maybe eventually you will realise that they can’t do what you seem to want them to be able to do… do some local work to help people who are disadvantaged, or campaign against pollution… something practical… all this theoretical mind control nonsense is a distraction from the real fight, mate… you support the status quo by disappearing into nonsensical mystical paranoia… you hand victory to your oppressors… which is a shame, because those people are so unimaginative and incompetent that it’s impossible for them to do what you think they can… and you waste your life fighting shadows instead of doing real work against their moribund vision of consumerist capitalist exploitative heartlessness… create love instead of fear and paranoia, and you are already winning! Good luck. And be nice to yourself!

    • Syd Foster says:

      This is mistyping and blooming autocorrection … must turn that off, it changes what I type!…

      This should read, instead of “does true me correct, or does it mean the archaic “loyal”? Given your there diction”
      as “does ‘true’ mean ‘correct’, or does it mean the archaic ‘loyal’? Given your diction there”

      I wish they let you edit your own posts after posting!

  14. Henry (from San Jose) says:

    You only have to read the three survey questions to see why these results are worthless, and I’m surprised Michael bothered to even comment. The first question asks readers to choose 1 of 6 levels of belief from atheism to strong belief, but then the second question about changes in faith over time forces a binary choice between atheism and theism. That’s how you get 3% of Americans picking the atheist option in question A, but 4.4% picking “I’ve never believed” in question B because it was probably the closest option to the view of most agnostics and deists. The report on the survey makes things worse by omitting the results for all faith levels except atheist and strong believer, and failing to provide the number of respondents for anything.

  15. Bob Benham says:

    Lighten up. My take on religion is that if it makes a believer’s stay on the planet a little happier, and his/her ultimate leaving of it a bit easier, then the religion has done its job. If somebody wants to worship a #2 can of Del Monte tomatoes with a lit candle on top, it’s ok with me. Since I’m an atheist, it’s easy for me not to care.

    • Dan says:

      It’s all fun and games until those tomatoes start telling you to fly an airplane into a farmer’s market.