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The hidden size of nonbelievers

The people who are nonbelievers in any religion sometimes feel like a small minority. But this is purely a local illusion. When it comes to religions, different ones dominate different parts of the world. But when it comes to nonbelievers, we are all pretty much the same everywhere. We are the true uniters, not dividers, our shared unbelief uniting us across nations, races, and ethnicities.

So it should not be surprising that a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that when you add up the global figures, the religiously unaffiliated group is now the world’s third largest ‘religion’, accounting for 1.1 billion or 16% of the population, though some of the unaffiliated do express some religious feelings.

Christians are the largest group and account for about 32% (2.2 billion), split equally between Catholics and Protestants, while Muslims make up 23% (1.6 billion). So the number of unaffiliated is roughly the same as Catholics and Protestants and not much smaller than the Muslims. Hindus come in a close fourth with 15% (one billion) and Buddhists are fifth with 7% (488 million).

I expect the size of the unbelievers to grow quite rapidly, especially as people become more comfortable thinking of themselves in that way and being more willing to say so.

Comments

  1. Jean says

    I would assume the number of Muslims is inflated by the fact that in some places it’s not safe to declare yourself non-Muslim.

  2. says

    One of my favorite closet atheists is “Mother Teresa”
    I mean, she was a despicable human being, but knowing she was a closet coward and hypocrite sort of re-humanizes her in my eyes.

    I don’t mention MT in an attempt to side-track, but rather to illustrate that there are probably a whole lotta lot more atheists than the faithful are even close to realizing. Wanna bet the pope still believes? C’mon, you gotta laugh out loud at that question. How many of the hypocrites and liars preaching sermons on sundays know they’re liars and are either hoping in vain that they can re-ignite their faith, or going through the motions because of the limitations of their career?

    The issue – the real problem – is that atheists are not a unified force in politics. Because we agree that we disagree about one thing does not mean we have an agenda above and beyond that, which is the tempest that quickly formed around A+ and still swirls around the retrogressive atheists who want to decouple human rights (namely feminism) and fairness from simple nonbelief. So, while we look at the numbers and think, “that’d make a great big powerful voting-bloc” the sad fact is that it wouldn’t and will never even come close to being a voting bloc.

  3. says

    ..and the number of mormons is inflated by the fact that you can become a mormon after you’re dead.

    Hey, I just now invented a religion that’s tenets are that:
    - Those who say they do not believe, are true believers
    - Those who say they do believe, they too are true believers
    Even if you don’t believe you believe, you believe. Thus 100% of the people on earth are religious, according to my religion! I think that unlocks me some special power-ups or something, amirite?

  4. raven says

    It’s likely to be higher for xians, nonbelievers that is.

    US xianity has hollowed itself out in part. It looks like a religion from the outside but it is all superficial.

    The fundie version is mostly just right wing extremist politics with a few crosses stuck on for show. It’s tribal identification and box checking on survey forms.

    1. They never walk their talk. Fundiestan has high rates of crimes, social problems, and lying is a key ritual of fundies. The other two sacraments are hate and hypocrisy.

    2. The fundies claim to have a magic book written by god. They never read it and have no idea what the bible really says.

    3. Their god is just a sockpuppet who hates what they hate.

    4. Most of them have no idea what the doctrines or dogma of their cults are. Which doesn’t really matter because they change all the time.

    5. Probably half or more never go to church.

  5. says

    @ #2, who says The issue – the real problem – is that atheists are not a unified force in politics.

    Why do you want to mix god beliefs, or the absence thereof, with politics? What does either have to say about economics, foreign policy, arms races, war versus peace, or anything else that citizens ought to consider when voting?

    I assume you decry the tendency of ‘conservative’ christians to vote pretty much the same way. Why then do you want atheists to become political lemmings too?

    Do you really support separation of church and state?

  6. mnb0 says

    “We are the true uniters”
    Disagree – there remain lots of political issues to be divided on, as I have experienced in my home country The Netherlands.

  7. says

    Why do you want to mix god beliefs, or the absence thereof, with politics?

    I just meant from a standpoint of if atheism were to be treated as a political power.

    Personally, other than “leave us alone” I don’t think that’s necessary. Although “leave us alone” still has some way to go.

    I assume you decry the tendency of ‘conservative’ christians to vote pretty much the same way

    That’s a bizzare assumption. No, I don’t.

    Do you really support separation of church and state?

    Are we playing “20 non sequiturs”? Would you prefer a nice game of chess?

  8. says

    I’ll anticipate your next question. What I mean by treating atheism as a political power is that it would be reasonable to expect a proportionate amount of ass-kissing from politicians. :) It would please me to see more politicians admit (or lie, as they sometimes do) that they make their decisions based on understanding of the objective world rather than the imagined wishes of a god.

    In order to expect any kind of response from politicians, however, atheists would have to present themselves somehow as a unified political force. A voting bloc. That’s the problem. For example, if we had enough atheists say, “Hey, I’m atheist and I don’t vote for people that publicly claim to base their executive decisions on the voices they hear from a little man in their heads” we’d pretty quickly see politicians stop talking so much about the voices they hear in their heads. Surprise!

  9. says

    Marcus says, In order to expect any kind of response from politicians, however, atheists would have to present themselves somehow as a unified political force. A voting bloc. That’s the problem. For example, if we had enough atheists say, “Hey, I’m atheist and I don’t vote for people that publicly claim to base their executive decisions on the voices they hear from a little man in their heads” we’d pretty quickly see politicians stop talking so much about the voices they hear in their heads. Surprise!

    No need for a unified political force. All we need is for pollsters, including exit pollsters, to ask about religion/non-religion. It would become abundantly clear how many of us there are and how we vote. But don’t expect politicians to stop talking about GAWD or claiming to follow her wishes — not as long as the majority of voters eat that stuff up.

    To put this another way, young voters are not a ‘unified political force’ — they have no organization representing them, they pay no dues, they elect no leaders — but they’re courted as a group because they tend to have similar concerns. That’s all we need.

    And, IMO, we don’t want to talk to politicians — certainly not openly — about ignoring voices from sky. If they respond positively, they become the ATHEIST CANDIDATE, lose 98.6% of the religious (majority) vote, and don’t get elected. We don’t care what they say to the religious folk; we care about how they vote whlle in office. That’s what we want to influence.

  10. says

    It would become abundantly clear how many of us there are and how we vote

    But, it’s not abundantly clear how we vote. That’s the point. We vote all over the place.

  11. says

    @ Marcus

    But, it’s not abundantly clear how we vote. That’s the point. We vote all over the place.

    If that’s true, which I doubt, then we won’t become a political force.

  12. octoberfurst says

    I feel the same way you do about Mother Teresa. Growing up I thought of her as a saintly woman who just wanted to help the poor and suffering. Then I read Hitchen’s book about her and some other articles by people who knew her and realized that she was quite an asshole. Obsessed with suffering for God she deliberately let the sick in her care suffer needlessly & gave them only the barest of care. But after her death and reading about her personal journal I realized that she too suffered a lot. She had no feeling that God was in her life and she even questioned whether he existed. She was still a dastardly person but yet part of me felt sorry for her. Religion really screwed up her life.
    And yes atheists will never be unified by politics. That would be like trying to herd cats! I’ve met hard-core socialist atheists, hard-core libertarian atheists and even a couple conservative atheists. So no, we will never truly agree on politics. But I do belong to Atheism+ because I like the fact that they combine atheism with progessive politics.

  13. Jared A says

    “Christians are the largest group and account for about 32% (2.2 billion), split equally between Catholics and Protestants.” So are the various orthodox christian religions lumped under catholic?

  14. Mano Singham says

    If you follow the link for Christians, it goes into finer-grained analyses of the various categories. Same with the other religions.

  15. AsqJames says

    Re. #1 & #3,

    I think probably all the religious counts are inflated for various reasons. Just thinking about the situation in the UK (which I admit is almost certainly not globally representative)…

    - Some people identify with a religion as a cultural marker but don’t practice any religious observance.
    - Some people identify with a religion, but don’t believe in a supernatural deity (e.g. many who describe themselves as Christians do not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus).
    - Some people identify with a religion because that’s what their parents were, but never give it a moment’s thought from one year to the next.

    The 2011 census figures just released purportedly show a bare majority still call themselves “Christian”, but the figure would be much lower if they were asked what they actually believe/practice. And it’s probably the same for most, if not all, religious groups. As I said, the UK probably isn’t representative in terms of how much the figures are inflated by these factors, but I’d bet all of those groups (and others) exist to some extent, and are counted as religious people, wherever you go in the world.

  16. Erik Jensen says

    Jenny,

    There are lots of political things that atheists as a group could promote. Of course individuals will object (as do individual fundamentalists), but here are a few issues:

    1) Support politicians who are likely to appoint or approve judges who support separation of church and state.
    2) Support politicians and ballot measures that protect the environment. I would argue that this is more important to atheists because we don’t have the idea that god will take care of everything for us so we can pollute all we want.
    3) Support politicians and ballot measures to legalize gay marriage, drugs, abortion, and euthanasia. Prohibitions against these things are mostly based upon religion.
    4) Support school board members who want to teach science in science classes.
    5) Support politicians who don’t have a fetish about Israel.

    I’d agree with you that some things have little to do with atheism (economics, some foreign policy, gun control).

  17. says

    Erik Jensen responds to me, “There are lots of political things that atheists as a group could promote. Of course individuals will object (as do individual fundamentalists), but here are a few issues:

    1) Support politicians who are likely to appoint or approve judges who support separation of church and state.
    2) Support politicians and ballot measures that protect the environment. I would argue that this is more important to atheists because we don’t have the idea that god will take care of everything for us so we can pollute all we want.
    3) Support politicians and ballot measures to legalize gay marriage, drugs, abortion, and euthanasia. Prohibitions against these things are mostly based upon religion.
    4) Support school board members who want to teach science in science classes.
    5) Support politicians who don’t have a fetish about Israel.”

    The vast majority of atheists do support those items now. A group (or group-think) won’t increase that already high percentage. The only purpose of a politically oriented atheist group that I can think of would be to influence theists, and that would be hugely counterproductive.

    1. Atheists selling (say) euthanasia# would be like a very stinky garbage collector going door to door selling the most heavenly of angel food cake. The connection would give angel food cake a VERY bad name. No one would buy the stuff … from him or anyone else.

    2. Atheists are already a fractious bunch. We fight over just about everything with much jockeying for position and a lot of name calling. We don’t need a pro-Israel atheist sect, a pro-Palestinian atheist sect, or the inevitable splitting of those into a pro-Israel anti-drug atheist sect plus the other three combinations. Hey, your five items guarantee at least 32 atheist sects. We don’t need that!

    Erik, I support pretty much support the same causes you do, plus some you didn’t mention, and I’m quite active about it with both money and time. I’ll work with anyone to achieve those goals — whatever their religious POV. I don’t talk atheism while promoting euthanasia# — and the others I work with don’t gush about gawd and jebus — although I’m sure they do in other contexts. That’s the way it ought to be, the way that works.

    Let’s let atheism be atheism, and promote it tirelessly, while separately and individually working with anyone who supports the other causes we do. That’s what works.

    Jenny

    # Eric, by using the term ‘euthanasia’ you’re falling into the Popish catholic trap. They pull that shit every time the topic come up. Per medical dictionaries and most non-medical ones too, the word means both “The act or practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness or an incurable condition, as by lethal injection or the suspension of extraordinary medical treatment” and “a quiet, painless death.” There’s nothing there about self-killing at the behest of the self-killer. Both definitions imply that someone else both decides and acts. I’m unalterably opposed to euthanasia and strongly in favor of suicide by self-administered pill or Advance Directive.

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