Is Atheism Increasing or Decreasing Globally?


Right wing news outlets like the Worldnetdaily and CNS News are trumpeting a new report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, which claims that the number of atheists and agnostics is decreasing around the world. But let’s just say there are some methodological problems with that report:

Atheism is in decline worldwide, with the number of atheists falling from 4.5% of the world’s population in 1970 to 2.0% in 2010 and projected to drop to 1.8% by 2020, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

In its report, Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020: Society, Religion, and Mission, researchers analyzed data on church membership and activities from thousands of Christian denominations and other religions worldwide, presenting that data from 1970 and 2010 for a 40-year comparison and, using that information and related demographic data to forecast the world religious makeup in 2020.

What on earth could that even mean? The report itself says that organization “collates and analyzes data on church
membership and activities collected by thousands of Christian denominations around the world” and “combin[es] this with other relevant demographic data.” What does that mean? I have no idea and they don’t bother to say.

On the other hand, you could look at another report from Gallup that offers a clear and simple methodology of polling populations around the world and asking them if they consider themselves religious, non-religious or atheist. They polled 50,000 people in 57 countries and found entirely different numbers.

59% of the world said that they think of themselves as religious person, 23% think of themselves as not religious whereas 13% think of themselves as convinced atheists.

Comparing this to data from the same study in 2005, it finds that those claiming to be religious have dropped by 9%, while atheism has increased by 3%.

Comments

  1. voidhawk says

    I’ve seen figures that suggested that atheism was decreasing elsewhere, but only in formally state-atheist countries like Russia and China where the church has been all-too happy to fill the slot previously occupied by Communism. In Russia the Orthodox church has done it by appealing to nationalism, heritage and tradition, whereas in China it’s said to offer platitudes to people living under a heartless regime.

  2. raven says

    collates and analyzes data on church membership and activities collected by thousands of Christian denominations around the world” and “combin[es] this with other relevant demographic data.” What does that mean? I have no idea and they don’t bother to say.

    What does that mean?

    It means they just make it all up as they go along. It’s a xian thing.

  3. matty1 says

    The church membership thing is particularly dodgy. First people can end up on a church membership list because their parents were members even if they never believed and stopped attending as soon as they were able. Second many churches don’t remove former members from the membership list but leave them on inflating numbers further.

  4. says

    Gallup always inserts a goofy term like “convinced atheist” to skew the responses a bit in the direction they want. As an organization, they’re just not reliable on so-called “moral” topics.

  5. says

    The church membership thing is particularly dodgy. First people can end up on a church membership list because their parents were members even if they never believed and stopped attending as soon as they were able. Second many churches don’t remove former members from the membership list but leave them on inflating numbers further.

    On that front, I wouldn’t be surprised if my old church still has me on their list, even though I abruptly and angrily left over a decade ago.

  6. grumpyoldfart says

    Next Sunday there will be sermons by preachers who will quote those figures; declare that the battle is almost over, and then request a special donation for the fighting fund that will carry them to the final victory.

  7. Mr Ed says

    Well that does folks, we tried but it looks like Christianity won out. Guess there is nothing left but for us to find churches and say grace. Even if the number are correct it doesn’t mean they are right, appeal to majority.

  8. raven says

    The church membership thing is particularly dodgy.

    QFT.

    I’ve been looking at church membership numbers lately.

    They cook their numbers, sometimes outrageously.

    One group claimed to have over a million members. People looked closer and it is more like 50,000. Buy, hey, they are only 20 fold off.

    One common trick is in how they count members. Some just count baptisms like the Mormons and Catholics. Others count everyone who has ever been a member even if they stopped going to church decades ago.

    They also keep multiple lists and switch back and forth. They might count currently attending and tithing members one day and baptisms over a century the next.

    There is also a lot of double counting. My ex-Catholic relative is a mid level Protestant church official. He is counted as a Catholic and a Protestant. For that matter, AFAICT, I’m still officially a Protestant. .

  9. raven says

    Vancouver Sun Douglas Todd

    The Catholic church is losing huge numbers of members. If ex-Catholics were their own denomination, they would make up the third largest denomination in the United States, according to The National Catholic Reporter. Canadians have much to learn from a powerful new study released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which shows that one out every 10 Americans is now an ex-Catholic. {Scroll through my take on more Catholic church issues.}

    “Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening,” writes Jesuit Father Thomas Reese continues

    Here is an example of a church cooking their numbers.

    It’s no secret why they do it. To appear bigger and more powerful than they really are. My cat does the same thing, arching her back and fluffing out her fur to appear more intimidating.

    The RCC just counts baptisms. Official dogma, once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

    The reality is that they have lost 1/3 of their membership in the last few years. A huge 22 million people.

    Half of those go Protestant. Which means they are double counted by the Protestants and the Catholics.

  10. Greg says

    From a 5 minute web search:

    The USSR from 1970 to 1991 was officially an atheist country. In 2011, the population of Russia was 143 million. If we assume that 100 million Russians chose some religion, that results in a change of 1.4 % of the world’s 7 billion people.

    Anyone know what the religious situation is in the People’s Republic?

  11. dickspringer says

    I became a church member 70 years ago at age 13. At age 16 I decided to stop kidding myself and have been an atheist ever since. For all I know I may still be on the church rolls.

  12. says

    I could believe that atheism is declining as a proportion of the world’s population if other religious groups were increasing due to higher birth rates. I’m not sure that the evidence bears that out (in fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen evidence to the contrary), but it would be a reasonable position that would say nothing about the increase in raw numbers of atheism, which is almost certainly the case.

    I do agree that church membership rolls have no real use, though. I’m still on the membership rolls of an American Baptist church that I haven’t attended in two and a half years, and I have no intentions of asking them to remove it until I move out of this town (too many questions that I don’t want to have to address from people I attended with and worked with).

  13. exdrone says

    I don’t know what to think about this until I hear some polling analysis from Dean Chambers and Dick Morris.

  14. Draken says

    Of course if you could measure the concentration of religious zeal, Africa, the Arabian peninsula and Indonesia together could easily outdo the rest of the world together.

  15. scienceavenger says

    @6 re “convinced atheist”, I see that too as progress, since we used to be “admitted atheists”, like its a crime or something.

    As for the counting, 3 will be the counting, and the counting shall be three…I was confirmed in the Catholic church, and never made any formal renounciation, wonder if I’m counted as a believer.

  16. Synfandel says

    We could gain ground even faster is we just started converting dead Mormons to atheism.

  17. andrewjohnston says

    What does that mean? I have no idea and they don’t bother to say.

    Yes, they do. If you actually read the report – rather than one paragraph describing the organization, not the report itself – you’d see that the information is derived from a pair of databases that use census data from relevant countries. They also have individual breakdowns for each of the 21 United Nations regions, giving more historical detail. The bulk of the change comes from the reintroduction of Christianity (and Buddhism, in some cases) into nations that previously restricted religious liberty and above average birth rates in traditional religious societies.

    The report is actually looking at affiliations rather than adherents, so if you want to argue that many of those people are only nominal or cultural Christians, that would be consistent with the findings. But don’t just declare the whole thing a lie and traipse off without reading a word of it. And don’t try to generalize your own experiences in affluent, developed countries to the rest of the world. It doesn’t work that way.

  18. Artor says

    Okay, now I find myself wondering how one finds out if they’re on a church’s membership rolls. There’s a few churches I have been tangentially associated with in my youth. I never explicitly joined any of them, but as others have noted, that doesn’t mean they haven’t put my name on their lists. Is there a way to find out if my name is claimed by a church in general, or would I have to investigate each church individually and ask them?

  19. raven says

    Is there a way to find out if my name is claimed by a church in general, or would I have to investigate each church individually and ask them?

    There is no xian central. You have to remember only one of the 42,000 cults is the true xianity and no one agrees on which one it is. They don’t talk to each other very much. If it wasn’t for our laws, they might well be still killing each other.

    It depends entirely on the church. And on what you are asking.

    Baptism is one list. Confirmation is another. Current on tithing is another.

  20. says

    researchers analyzed data on church membership and activities from thousands of Christian denominations and other religions worldwide

    So the percentage of atheists who are church members or participate in church activities is declining. I guess that means fewer of us feel the need to go along to get along.

  21. steffp says

    @ andrewjohnston

    you’d see that the information is derived from a pair of databases that use census data from relevant countries
    The only databases cited are Johnson, Todd M., and Brian J. Grim, eds. “World Religion Database”. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007 and 2008. The diverse tables of the study aren’t referenced in a way that would allow fact-checking. Most available databases (Pewt, UN, just to name a few) give significantly lower figures for Christian and other believer populations. The study does not discuss these polls and analyses.

    I summarily checked the facts for Germany (mentioned on p.15 of the study). The study claims 55.7 mio Christians, the official 2011 census resulted in 49.1 mio.
    I summarily checked the facts for Mexico, where the study claims 95.9% Christians, and the 2010 census resulted in 90,2%
    I summarily checked the facts for Russia, where the study claims 81.2% Christians, while the 2012 survey showed a meager 46.6%

    Want more details?
    I mean, this is a paper spread (with cutely colored pictures) by a theological seminary, a kind of high-brow madrassa, with close ties to Evangelical and Reconstructionist circles. Those guys think they can have their own facts…

  22. Erp says

    Depending on denomination counts can also double or triple count Christians as they switch denominations but never officially (or can’t) leave the old one(s). Some Christians also attend multiple churches (mixed family may attend one church for two Sundays in a month and another on the other two).

    Also while some denominations overcount, a few undercount. Under counting I suspect is more common in denominations which give a great deal of power to the actual members (e.g., Quakers, Unitarian Universalists) and not to the hierarchy. Usually they don’t have ‘birthright’ members (i.e., because you were born or raised in the church you are automatically a member) but require some explicit statement and in the Quaker case some hurdles. Some may require payment to the central authority (UUA) depending on the number of actual members so individual churches have an incentive to drop non-active members. A Pew survey found that about twice as many people call themselves UUs than are actually in the UUA books.

    BTW one of the more interesting misuses of data is the CIA fact book on Norway’s religions. It has 85.7% belonging to the Church of Norway while the government’s own stats are 79.4% (actually that is the stat is for all Lutherans so the CoN numbers would be slightly less). I think their error is the CIA looked at a table that broke down by religion but the table only included people who listed a religion in the first place; however, 13.6% of Norwegians list no religion.

  23. steffp says

    @ diingojack
    Religions in Brazil, according to the 2010 census by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics)
    Roman Catholicism: 123.000.000 – 64.6%
    Protestantism: 42.300.000 – 22.2%
    No religion: 15.000.000 – 8%
    Other religions: 9.300.000 – 5.2%
    Brazilian Catholicism is a rather syncretistic branch which incorporated native and African slaves indigenous
    religious ceremonies. Hence Samba ;-) …

  24. dingojack says

    steffp – and how is that changing over time? (I tried to find info on the IBGE website but I couldn’t find anything remotely helpful [Primarily because my Portuguese is non-existent]).
    Dingo

  25. steffp says

    @ dingojack
    Living in Asia, I don’t speak much Portuguese, too. I checked a few websites I could read… It seems that until 1970 more than 90% of the population were regarded Catholic. Then, due to political changes in the 70s, the RCC lost its domineering role in Brazilian society. Since then, the adherence to Indigenous and African religions has gone up. So has – due to heavy-duty proselytizing by Evangelical Revivalists, Mormons, LDS etc. – the number of protestant Brazilians, mostly at the expense of the RCC.
    Nothing seems to be as important to US-fundies as converting Catholics… Christian solidarity at work.

  26. martinc says

    I had a look at some of their data. A few fun facts:

    1) They say:

    Christians are enumerated in two primary ways: first, from the point of view of the state, society at large, or the general public, such as in government censuses or public opinion polls; and second, from the perspective of the churches, where denominations report membership figures (usually including children).

    The two figures are obviously incompatible. They also mention that they use figures from:

    (1) births and deaths;
    (2) converts to and converts from; and
    (3) immigrants and emigrants

    The issue of how you might obtain ‘converts to’ something like atheism which has no central register of adherents is undiscussed. They dismiss the double-counting problem – when a Christian leaves one branch of Christianity and joins another branch of Christianity without bothering to inform the first one of their departure (surely a majority of such departures?) – with this, buried away at page 88:

    Thus, the figures given for the major traditions can perhaps be considered a measure of ‘affiliations’ rather than individuals. A count of affiliations, unlike one of individual Christians, legitimately can exceed not only the number of Christians in an area, but also even the total population.

    Data problem? Just wave your hands at it, it’ll go away.

    2) All the data is extrapolated to 2020. Why? Well one stat gives a clue. World % Christian: 1970 33.2%, 202 33.3%. A very modest increase, right? Well, if you include the last genuine (i.e. non-extrapolated) figure – 2010 – Christians are at 32.8%. ie. a decline. The ‘very modest increase’ is entirely in the extrapolated 10 years, not the 40 years of actual data. Forgive me if I smell a rat about the extrapolation.

    3) The funny thing is that in cheering for the apparent – and highly dubious – decline of atheism, they’ve ignored the bad news for Christianity. The above dubious 33.2% to 33.3% increase compares with Islam, which went from 15.6% to 23.9% in the same period. Funny, this is one trend they did not extrapolate.

    4) They list atheism in Europe as going from 8.2% in 1970 to 2.1% in 2020. Yes, that’s EUROPE … the continent full of countries where people answer census data on not believing in God in the majority. Let’s look at their national data for Scandinavia, usually considered a hotbed of atheism, compared to the EC’s Eurobarometer poll of 2005 which simply asked “Which of these statements comes closest to your beliefs?

    – I believe there is a God
    – I believe there is some sort of spirit or life force
    – I don’t believe there is any sort of spirit, God or life force
    – Don’t Know”

    For a number of countries, I’ve put the claimed “Christian” % from the dubious survey agains the EC % who answered “I believe there is a God”.

    Sweden 60.7 vs. 23
    Norway 87.2 vs. 32
    Denmark 79.8 vs. 31
    Finland 79.5 vs. 41

    So in each case, the survey is claiming as “Christian” a majority of the population, where only a minority of that population actually belief in God at all. Even in the most charitable interpretation of the data, this makes a mockery of any definition of the word “Christian”.

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