How about some good news to cheer you up on a Monday morning?


Gregory Paul has been looking at trends in the International Social Survey Program (ISSP) and other polling data. We’re behind in some countries (I’m looking at you, USA), ahead in others, but the overall trend is good: atheism is winning out around the world.


(Note: These are predominantly ISSP results. Solid lines indicate atheists from absolutist to marginal, empty spaces to the right are theists from marginal to absolutist, and results for western and eastern Germany are combined proportional to their populations. Differences between the 1998 and 2008 ISSP results are indicated by dashed segments.)

We’re growing!

It appears that Ameroatheists have expanded by 10 million since the turn of the century—representing about a million a year, and about a third of overall population growth, to a total of 60 million out of more than 300 million. Atheism has made large gains among the young, while congregation size has dropped by as much as a fifth. Even so, the ISSP results confirm that the United States is still the most theistic prosperous democracy—yet not nearly as theistic as some Second and Third World countries.

A multinational waxing of atheism and waning of theism seems to be occurring, and may well be universal in Western countries. The increase in Western atheism appears to be continuing a long-term trend that probably started in the 1800s, if not earlier, and has accelerated since World War II with no signs of slowing down, if the ISSP results are correct. Losses in theism have occurred in both Protestant and Catholic nations, albeit with the latter somewhat more resistant to losses. In most Western nations, the religious right is already weak, and in the few where it is a strong minority, it is losing ground. Demographically driven by a growing loss of piety among youth, the rise of secularism in the advanced democracies is in accord with the socioeconomic dysfunctionality hypothesis that predicts and observes that improving levels of financial and economic security in middle class majorities strongly suppresses interest in supernatural deities.

That last bit is what worries me. Atheism thrives on economic stability; religion prospers when people are desperate and ignorant. Here in the US, the theocratic party, the Republicans, have no interest in keeping the majority in good economic shape — they’d like to destroy the social safety net and increase economic inequity. I see an awfully strong correlation there between religiosity and economy-wrecking.

The thesis that popular secularism is dead, or at least dying, is clearly false. In the most advanced and successful nations, it is religion that is in the demographic ICU. Also entirely discredited is the premise that religion is universal to the human condition, like language—while theists vary from constituting nearly entire populations to less than a third, verbal skills are nearly uniform across the board. Demographic extrapolations that suggest fast-reproducing fundamentalists are on a statistical course to outgrow low-fertility secularists are proving flawed because they fail to account for mass nonchalant conversion due to modernity.

Yes! I have never been concerned about all the people moaning about how the fundies and Muslims are outbreeding us — I see them as busily making minds that will be ripe for reason and knowledge.

Comments

  1. says

    Seems the only thing the USA is #1 at any more is consuming the world’s resources, and killing other people.
    Happy Monday!

  2. says

    From the link, in the table above the graph:
    United states:
    Don’t believe in God %
    1998 3.2%
    2008 2.8%

    I didn’t have time to read the discussion in the article yet but… it does not match the graph.

  3. says

    No offense meant, but I do hope You appreciate the true, ghastly scope of being behind Italy. We are the pope’s playground, for MSV*’s sake. That bad?
    On the other hand, it’s encouraging to see that atheism is growing even here. I’ve even seen this guy on TV. Unthinkable a few years ago.

    Also, the acronym of the Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) doubles as fearsome battle cry**.

    Fabiano

    *Mostro di Spaghetti Volante (the FSM)
    **citation needed

  4. Dick the Damned says

    Jumpin’ Jeezus on two sticks, that sure is dashed good. I mean, the dashes represent a good improvement over ten years.

    Just one thing, Canada has a way to go to catch up with N W Europe.

    And, David #2, the graph shows about a 3% improvement in the US, but you say the link says that things have gotten worse. I guess i’m gonna have to read it.

  5. pipenta says

    You describe the Republicans as wanting to destroy the safety net. Aren’t they already deep in that project? It looks to me like they’ve made a helluva lot of progress.

  6. joachim says

    Of course, correlation is not causation.

    And as far as the “safety net”…there isn’t any if you are a white adult male…Bill Clinton largely restricted that back in the 90’s.

    Both parties are tools of the Global Corpos and Bankers…and you know who runs the banks.

  7. Gregory in Seattle says

    I like the choice of graph: atheists are solid lines based in reality, while theists are nothing but an imaginary line that exists only in the viewer’s mind.

  8. redwood says

    So nice to see Japan up there at #1. I’ve certainly enjoyed living here for more than 30 years because of the low number of God-bots. Now if we can just get rid of the “new” religions like Aum (whose last fugitive was caught recently after 17 years on the run), we’ll be doing even better.

  9. Sili says

    They must use a very very narrow definition of “atheist”.

    Really? 90% atheists in Japan? A culture saturated with Buddhism and Shintoïsm. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

    Not least since Denmark is put down as 70%, and I can assure that more than 70% of the population are still paying members of the State Church. And while many if not most are indeed not orthodox trinitarians, a very high proportion at least subscribes to there “being something out there” in a manner hard to interpret as just Deïsm.

  10. Dick the Damned says

    Sili, you make a good point about the Japanese. Some Eastern religions don’t require belief in gods, but they’re still dealing with supernatural guff. So, an adherent can be suffused in woo, & also be an atheist, (but not as we know it).

  11. Dick the Damned says

    I’ve just remembered, some spiritualists call themselves atheists. That kinda takes the shine off the trend for increasing atheism.

  12. tomfrog says

    @Sili, #9

    Really? 90% atheists in Japan? A culture saturated with Buddhism and Shintoïsm. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

    “Atheism” doesn’t necessarily mean “without mysticism or whatever”… buddhists are atheists if I’m correct.

    You then have to differentiate between calling oneself from *this* religion and one actual beliefs.

    In the case of France, in a 2006 survey (CSA), 51% declared being catholic and of those only 27% declared believing in god. (!!)
    But numbers seem to vary from study to study.

  13. pj says

    They must use a very very narrow definition of “atheist”.

    you mean broad, don’t you?

    And I cannot quite buy these results either. Finland supposedly having more than 50% atheists? A very recent poll (this spring) here showed that about 20% of our population do not believe in god. A slightly higher proportion believed in a god but not the kind of god the church teaches about.

  14. Antares42 says

    I see them as busily making minds that will be ripe for reason and knowledge.

    PZ, I admire your optimism.

    Sorry, I’m in a bit of a gloomy mood today.

  15. Sili says

    you mean broad, don’t you?

    Yes. I should have said very narrow definition of theist, then. In fact, those numbers seem to fit a lot better with “non-Christian” than with atheist.

    And even then the Danish number is too high, as I said, so it might even be “non orthodox Christian” = “atheist” (= “satanist”?).

  16. says

    I agree with the other Nordic commenters. Not many people go to church here in Sweden (other than at Christmas and maybe Easter), but most people are “religious” in the sense that they believe in “something out there” or “something bigger than ourselves”.

  17. raven says

    The trend towards more Nones is supported by the xians own data.

    The 2012 yearbook of the National Council of Churches is out.

    They report 1.5 million people dropping out of the churches. The loot the churches rake in is down too.

    There are a lot of limitations on their data. But it is likely that the real number is more like 2 to 3 million gone. A lot of churches, notably the Catholics, SBC, and Mormons cook their numbers to appear stronger than they are.

    The Catholics report stable membership by just counting baptisms. Other Catholic sources say that 22 million members, 1/3 of them have left.

    US xianity is projected to go below 50% around 2030. Cultural shifts just take a lot of time.

  18. raven says

    NCC:

    Total church membership reported in the 2012 Yearbook is 145,691,446 members, down 1.15 percent over 2011.

    and

    NCC:

    Not all churches report their financial information to the Yearbook, Lindner said, but the downward trends are reasons for concern.

    The nearly $29 billion contributed by nearly 45 million church members is down $1.2 billion from figures reported in the 2011 Yearbook, Lindner said.

    A lot of churches don’t report financial data. Of those that do, their intake of money is down 3% year over year. The NCC blames the Great recession. Probably has something to do with it but it is probably not the whole reason.

    Something like 90% of their money is used internally to pay bills and salary.

  19. redwood says

    Talked about this with my Japanese wife and she said it would be hard to ask such a question in Japan because the meaning of God/god isn’t clear to most people. If you’re speaking of the Christian God, then I’d believe the 90%. However, many Japanese, like my wife, believe in “something out there,” just as Sili at #9 said about Denmark.

  20. Draken says

    I’m a lot more worried about the African continent, which seems to be more and more in the firm grip of either radical Islam or fundamentalist christianity. This is gut feeling, I admit, I don’t have numbers for that part of the world.

    And I really wonder what will happen to China if and when the government relaxes its stranglehold on the population. Areas of suppressed religion tend to be good breeding ground for evangelists, and christian evangelists get a boner from playing oppressed. They somehow took over South Korea anyway.

  21. Draken says

    Sili: Not least since Denmark is put down as 70%, and I can assure that more than 70% of the population are still paying members of the State Church.

    Yeah, but many of them are probably just too lazy to unsubscribe, or the church wouldn’t let go of them (in Danish).

  22. laurentweppe says

    I didn’t have time to read the discussion in the article yet but… it does not match the graph.

    I noticed as well: the graph put all the grey zone of lapsed religiousity/noncommittal answers/agnosticism in the atheism column.

    Reminds me when fundies took the same grey zone and proclaimed that everyone not shouting from the roofs that they were atheists were obviously believers…

    Of course, even if you take only the table, in most countries, the number of atheists is still growing, but the graph sure is misleading.

    ***

    We are the pope’s playground, for MSV*’s sake

    Forget about Panzer the First: you’ve been Berlusconi’s playground for decades: that alone will takes time to repair.

    ***

    In the case of France, in a 2006 survey (CSA), 51% declared being catholic and of those only 27% declared believing in god. (!!)

    Yeah something is lost in translation: in French, “agnosticisme” is seldom used as a euphemism for atheism: most of the time it either mean”don’t know”, “don’t know and don’t care” or “believe but has not absolute certainty”. If you add the fact that a lot of non-fundie Christians don’t like to profess absolute certainty precisely because fundies keep showing off their own self-proclaimed certainty, you end up with a lot of believers who end up answering “Agnostic”.

    Also, the correct numbers were as such
    • 52% expressed a strong or absolute belief in God’s existence
    • 10% expressed a that they thought God’s existence improbable
    • 7% declared that God does not exist, period
    • 31% either did not answer or answered “don’t know”
    Source

  23. Sastra says

    Also, the correct numbers were as such
    • 52% expressed a strong or absolute belief in God’s existence
    • 10% expressed a that they thought God’s existence improbable
    • 7% declared that God does not exist, period
    • 31% either did not answer or answered “don’t know”

    That response set worries me a bit. There was no group which thought God’s existence was “probable?” No room for theistic agnosticisme?

    The 7% sounds like a caricature atheist — even Richard Dawkins would not add that emphatic period. And what is with 31% refusing to answer the question or saying they “didn’t know?” That’s a high percentage. Maybe it’s including all the agnostics and liberal theists. Or philosophers.

  24. laurentweppe says

    There was no group which thought God’s existence was “probable?”

    The 52% who were expressing a strong or absolute belief in God’s existence were evenly divided between God’s existence is certain (26%), and God existence is probable (26% as well). But as I wrote, answering “probable” is not necessarily a sign of agnostic theism but often a way for believers to distinguish themselves from the fundies.

    ***

    The 7% sounds like a caricature atheist — even Richard Dawkins would not add that emphatic period

    the “Period” is just me trying to translate the level of certainty which arises from the poll context

    Anyway, in French the five options about God existence were:
    – C’est sûr
    – C’est probable
    – C’est peu probable
    – Non, il n’existe pas
    – Je n’en sais rien
    Although “C’est peu probable” can and is often interpreted as a negative answer (including by the CSA itself, which put these answer in the non-believer colums), “C’est peu probable” (it’s unlikely) is still regarded by atheists (just read some of the blogs here) as too weak an answer to define their belief -or lack thereof-.
    I seriously doubt that these 7% of atheists still presenting themselves are catholics are caricatures.

    ***

    And what is with 31% refusing to answer the question or saying they “didn’t know?” That’s a high percentage. Maybe it’s including all the agnostics and liberal theists. Or philosophers.

    That’s probably the case, yes

  25. marla70 says

    The graph sure looks promising. I’m from Belgium, and we are near the top, but to be honest, I do not get a happy feeling from it. The reason is islam. We do have a rather high amount of muslims in Belgium, and they seem to be radicalizing at an alarming pace.
    Recently I’ve been trying to discuss a lot with muslims, and instead of an open discussion, you get all kinds of hate and threaths thrown at you if you don’t agree to their belief. And it’s not the elder generation that seems to be the most anti-western values. Just my 2c.

  26. Rich Woods says

    @sili #9:

    Really? 90% atheists in Japan? A culture saturated with Buddhism and Shintoïsm. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

    The way I had this explained to me recently by a Japanese friend is that many people will engage with each religion without believing in any of them. For example, a child may undergo a Christian baptism, grow up and choose a Buddhist wedding ceremony, and at the end of life plump for a Shinto funeral. People go with the individual ceremony they like the most, that they can invite family and friends to and know that the family and friends will appreciate it. It’s a social occasion.

    In many ways, it’s like the traditional UK Anglican hatched, matched and dispatched arrangement (though this is now itself dying off) — no belief or services in between are either required or desired.

  27. Evader, the parasite-infested branch on the evolutionary tree says

    Interesting results. From my experiences at Fukushima Diary, it seems most the Japanese (that frequent that site) are religious, always offering to pray for Mochizuki-san. He even says “pray for me” when flying etc.

    I don’t want to “lecture” a man who left his country because of radiation/government, so instead I usually say “I won’t pray for you, but I’ll donate some money and pay for you instead”. Visible results anyone?

  28. Sili says

    In many ways, it’s like the traditional UK Anglican hatched, matched and dispatched arrangement (though this is now itself dying off) — no belief or services in between are either required or desired.

    That doesn’t stop the churches from claiming these people as dependants for whom they have a right to speak.

    But point taken about Japan. I obviously know much too little about cultures other than my own (and even on that I’m shaky).

  29. Sili says

    Yeah, but many of them are probably just too lazy to unsubscribe, or the church wouldn’t let go of them (in Danish).

    Yuck.

    Guess I was just luck with my vicar then.

  30. biologyismygod says

    I do love the phrase “mass nonchalant conversion”.

    I have a mental picture of newly minted atheists walking out of church with an air of casual dismissiveness. Possibly while wearing a beret. Nonchalantly.

  31. biologyismygod says

    Regarding Japan, my (quite possibly incorrect) interpretation is that some religions (eg the Theravada school of Buddhism) don’t actually include a god, and so may count as “atheist” for the purpose of this survey.

    I’m not sure about the specifics of Taoism or Shinto, but counting as theist/atheist may depend on how the question is worded.

  32. says

    Someone should have explained to the Mordor states that the constitution guaranteeing freedom didn’t mean it was a good idea to think you have the freedom to be an ignorant git that wants to bring down everyone else because it means their imaginary Pockylypse will take longer. Can’t we just put something in their water and put a note in their pockets saying the cRapture happened and then drop them off in Saudi Arabia before they wake up? They want theocracy, may as well give it to ‘em so they can see how heavenly it is.