Where in the world are the atheists? That is, in what part of the globe will one find the most people who do not believe in God? Answer: East Germany at 52.1%. The least? The Philippines at less than 1%. Predictably, strong belief shows a reverse pattern: 84% in the Philippines to 4% in Japan, with East Germany at the second lowest in strong belief at 8%. Not surprising, those who believe in a personal God “who concerns himself with every human being personally” is lowest in East Germany at 8% and highest in the Philippines at 92%.
These numbers, and others, were collected and crunched by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, in a paper entitled “Beliefs About God Across Time and Countries,” produced for the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and released on April 18, 2012. Smith writes: “Countries with high atheism (and low strong belief) tend to be ex-Socialist states and countries in northwest Europe. Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus.”
Many religious scholars invoke the “secularization thesis” to explain lower religiosity in Northern European countries (compared to the United States) in which mass education, especially in the sciences, coupled to the fact that governments do what religions traditionally did in the past in taking care of the poor and needy. With a tight social safety net religions simply fall into disuse; with a porous social safety net people fall through the cracks and are picked up by religions. Other scholars have suggested a “supply side” explanation for the difference between the U.S. and Europe, in which churches and religions in America must compete for limited resources and customers and thus have ratcheted up the quality of religious products and services: mega churches with rock music, baby sitting, BBQs, and even free parking! Smith seems to find evidence of both forces at work, noting that “In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism,” whereas elsewhere in the world “there is also evidence that religious competition and/or religious conflict may stimulate higher belief.”
Religion is a complex phenomenon and thus explanations are likely to be complex. (I find that in the social sciences Occam’s razor is rarely true—the simpler explanation is not only usually wrong, it can be terribly misleading.) Smith notes, for example, that “Belief is high in Israel which of course has a sharp conflict between Judaism and Islam, in Cyprus which is divided along religious and ethnic lines into Greek/Orthodox and Turkish/Muslim entities, and in Northern Ireland which is split between Protestant and Catholic communities and shows much higher belief levels than the rest of the United Kingdom.” In the United States there is relatively little overt religious conflict, but intense religious competition across both major religions and denominations within Christianity.”
The outlier appears to be Japan: “The one country that shows a low association between the level of atheism and strong belief is Japan. Japan ranked lowest on strong belief, but also in the lower half on atheism (a difference of 18 positions across the two rankings when the average difference in positions was only 2.7 places). Japan is distinctive among countries in having the largest number of people (32%) in the middle categories of believing sometimes and the agnostic, not knowing response. This pattern is consistent with a general Japanese response pattern of avoiding strong, extreme response options.”
Changes in God beliefs were modest from 1991 through 2008, with the percent saying they were atheists increasing in 15 of 18 countries at an average rise of 1.7%. Between 1998 and 2008 the atheist gain was bigger, with an average increase of 2.3 points in 23 of 30 countries. Predictably, again, the corresponding belief in God decreased by roughly the same amount that atheism grew. The exceptions were Israel, Russia and Slovenia where from 1991 to 2008 there was a consistent movement towards greater belief and less atheists. Israel’s religious shift was a result of an increase in orthodox Jewish and right-wing population, “and the relative decline of the more secular and leftist segment in Israeli society.”
Most interestingly, Smith computed the overall gains and loses of religious beliefs comparing those who say “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to.” With those say “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to.” “In 2008 there was a net gain in belief across the life course in 12 countries and a decline in 17 countries. The gains averaged 4.1 points and the losses -7.0 points for an overall change of -2.4 points.” The shifts also varied by age, with older people gaining in belief while younger people decreasing in belief. Smith concludes his study with this projection for the future of atheism:
“If the modest, general trend away from belief in God continues uninterrupted, it will accumulate to larger proportions and the atheism that is now prominent mainly in northwest Europe and some ex-Socialist states may spread more widely.”
In case you’re wondering, the percentage of Americans who say “I don’t believe in God” was 3% at 4th lowest in the world, and who said “I know God really exists and I have no doubt about it” at 60.6%, the 5th highest in the world. Americans who agreed “I don’t believe in God and I never have” was 4.4 at 6th lowest in the world, who agreed “I believe in God now and I always have at 80.8% at 3rd highest in the world. In terms of the changes in atheism and belief in God over time, from 1991 to 2008 the U.S. showed an increase of 0.7% atheists and -0.2 from 1998–2008; in 2008, taking those who said “I believe in God now, but I didn’t used to” minus “I don’t believe in God now, but I used to” nets +1.4 in the United States.
The paper is chockablock full of data figures. Here’s the press release for more information.