I wrote recently about the rapid decline in religion in Ireland. Thanks to reader Peter, I was able to track down the report of the much larger survey from which that information was gleaned. The survey was done in 2012 by WIN-Gallup International which asked over 50,000 people in 57 nations across five continents the following question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”
What they found was that “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.”
This was surprising to me. Usually the quoted number of atheists is much smaller because there are people who do not believe in a god but shy away from that particular label and call themselves other things. It is noteworthy to have so many willing to go even beyond admitting to being a ‘kinda-sorta atheist’ and embrace the much stronger label of convinced atheist.
I like the wording of this survey because it is short and simple and would be easy for people to answer. One drawback is that it is not clear what those who describe themselves as ‘not a religious person’ might mean by it. It likely encompasses people who chose it because they rejected the other two options, and ranges from those have some vague sense of the transcendental but do not belong to any identifiable religious tradition nor take part in any kind of group ritualistic practices (like those who refer to themselves as ‘spiritual’) all the way to those who consider themselves humanists, skeptics, agnostics and the like.
It likely does not include those who belong to non-theistic religions such as Buddhism. In my experience growing up in predominantly Buddhist country, such people very much tend to see themselves as religious. So we see that even excluding those who belong to nontheistic religions, the number of people who are abandoning the idea of an activist deity turns out to be quite large, roughly 40% world’s population.
It is interesting to compare this with the results obtained from the General Social Survey (GSS) data which also showed that the number of nonreligious among white people in the US was also high and also increasing with time. When I first saw the GSS results, I was surprised but this new survey seems to support such high numbers.
One difference is that in the US, as income levels increased the number of religious increased whereas the global survey found the opposite trend.
66% religious – Bottom quintile (low income)
65% religious – Medium-low quintile
56% religious – Medium quintile
51% religious – Medium-high quintile
49% religious – High quintile (high income)
Of the 57 countries surveyed in 2012, 39 of them had also been surveyed in 2005, enabling us to see changes over that time. For that subset of countries, the average number who self-identified as religious dropped from 77% to 68%, while those calling themselves atheist increased from 4% to 7%, meaning that the remaining category (not religious or did not answer) increased from 19% to 25%.
What is remarkable is that such large changes occurred in just seven years. So all in all, the number of people who consider themselves as not religious is surprisingly large and growing rapidly.