There are a lot of nonreligious people in the world

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.


  1. Paul W., OM says

    In the US, maybe especially in the south, “not religious” can mean Christian and churchgoing in the usual default way, but not obsessed with religion.

    If you hear an evangelical Christian say that somebody “is a religious man,” that is likely to mean that he’s particularly religious.

    And if somebody “got religion” it likely means that they were religious in the usual default way before, but then got infused with religious fervor, such that they were very evidently religious. That can be meant as a “good” thing, with somebody “getting religion” and undergoing a positive personal transformation, or a negative thing, with somebody “getting religion” and becoming annoyingly religious, e.g., talking about religion constantly, judging others for failure to be religious enough, being a general prig and/or prude, etc.

    It’s a lot like other adjectives—what it means is relative to some assumed default, and that default is context-dependent.
    (If you call somebody “selfish,” that doesn’t just mean that they’re about as selfish as most people, who are fairly self-interested. It means that they’re very selfish.)

  2. Anonymous Atheist says

    Keep this in mind, though:

    There are significant percentages of people, even in religion-heavy areas, who only make sparse token appearances in church, or never go to church.

    I think there’s plenty of room for the ‘nonreligious’ numbers to match up with the ‘hardly bother going to church’ numbers. And if there are some people who wrongly called themselves nonreligious because they’re ‘spiritual but not religious’ or whatever, there would likely also be people cancelling them out by wrongly calling themselves religious when they are just ‘going along to get along’ while secretly not believing.

  3. Chiroptera says

    Well, this may eventually take the heat off of some people who get flack for explicitly stating that they are atheists.

    On the other hand, I don’t see many more people able to come to decisions about public policy based on reasoned analysis of empirical facts; I suspect that a heck of a lot of people are still falling back on some sort of woo-based thinking that isn’t traditionally classified as “religious.”

  4. svinter says

    The qualifier “convinced” in front of “atheist” most probably decreeses the atheist numbers. And rightly so, it (an unqulified “convinced”) could (not totally unfonded I think) be interpreted as “totally convinced atheist” (identically zero probability for existence of good), and then no good skeptic could cross atheist in that survey. I have seen other surveys (e.g. in wikipedia entry on atheism) showing higher number for atheists in many countries than this survey shows.

    Futhermore, atheist does not have to mean non-supranaturalist. The high number for China for example, how should that be interpreted? What I have heard (not much, I know too little about the situation in China) is that various not theistic superstitious thoughts are very common, and that the skeptics movement is very small and having very large difficulties in China.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Interpreting China’s data has always been a big problem for all the reasons you give. And it can’t be ignored because of the weightage it gives to global averages. In the US too it is not clear how to classify Unitarians but their numbers are small enough that it does not change things much.

    It seems like you could ask whether people believe in a god instead of whether they are religious but then again you would get into how people interpret ‘god’.

  6. DavidMHart says

    Also, remember that some evangelicals object to being called religious because “it’s not a religion; it’s a relationship with God”. I’m not sure how those folks would tend to answer such a survey.

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