New survey on international belief and unbelief

May 10, 2012 • 5:27 am

A new report by Tom Smith at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) here at the University of Chicago surveys the degree of belief and unbelief in God in 30 nations.  Countries were included if their inhabitants were polled in at least two of three surveys: 1991, 1998, and 2008. You can download a pdf copy of “Belief about God across time and countries” here.  I’ll provide a brief summary of the top and bottom five countries in each category.

Atheism (% who say “I don’t believe in God, 2008)

Top 5

  1. Germany (East): 52.1%
  2. Czech Republic: 39.9%
  3. France: 23.3%
  4. Netherlands:  19.7%
  5. Sweden: 19.3%

Bottom 5

  1. Philippines:  0.7%
  2. Cyprus:  1.9%
  3. Chile:  1.9%
  4. United States: 3.0%
  5. Poland:  3.3%

“Strong belief in God” (% saying “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it”, 2008)

Top 5

  1. Philippines:  83.3%
  2. Chile:  79.4%
  3. Israel: 65.5%
  4. Poland:  62.0%
  5. United States 60.6%

Bottom 5

  1. Japan:  4.3%
  2. Germany (East): 7.8%
  3. Sweden:  10.2%
  4. Czech Republic: 11.1%
  5. Denmark: 13.0%

Belief in a Personal God (2008)

Top 5:

  1. Philippines: 91.9%
  2. Chile: 71.8%
  3. United States: 67.5%
  4. Israel:  66.5%
  5. Ireland: 64.1%

Bottom 5

  1. Germany (East): 8.2%
  2. Czech Republic: 16.1%
  3. France: 18.7%
  4. Sweden: 19.1%
  5. Japan: 24.0%

No real surprises here: formerly Soviet countries are atheistic, the Philippines and Poland are Catholic, and the U.S. is, as usual, surprisingly religious compared to Western Europe.

Changes over time:  Religiosity is decreasing.  The percentage of people claiming atheism increased in 15 of 18 countries between 1991 and 2008 (decreases in atheism were seen in Israel, Russia and Slovenia). The average decrease was only 1.7%.  From 1998 to 2008, though, atheism increased in 23 of 30 countries with an average increase of 2.3%.  “Certain” belief in God declined in 14 of 18 countries between 1991 and 2008, with an average decrease of 2.4%, and the same average decrease occurred in the latter period, with 24 out of 30 countries showing declines.

Effects of getting older: Inhabitants of 30 countries were surveyed in 2008 as to their certainty that God exists, with respondents divided into different age classes from “less than 28” to “68 and older”.  In all but one country (Israel), the certainty increased over that period, with the average lifetime increase a whopping 20%. (Israel decreased by 16.4%).  This large change cannot be due simply to temporal changes, because, as we have seen, that certainty among all inhabitants decreased over this period.  It must, then reflect an increasing belief in God with age.  As the authors of the study suggest euphemistically, this may be “perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality occurring.”  (Why can’t they just say: “increasing fear of death”?).

At any rate, the conclusions are that secularism is increasing and belief decreasing in the countries surveyed, though the declines are modest.  However, given two centuries, the trend, if it continues, will lead to a largely secular world. Note, however, that Islamic countries were not surveyed; this is by no means a random sample of the world’s inhabitants.

55 thoughts on “New survey on international belief and unbelief

  1. Previously, I had never thought of the Philippines as an especially religious nation.

    1. Xtreme Catholicism.

      This is where folks annually crucify themselves on Good Friday. The fact that nobody ever dies from this process never brings the thought to them that crucifixion is not a particularly speedy form of execution.

      1. I wonder whether these fervent Catholics thank God for the Spanish colonizers who introduced Catholicism.

            1. At least as Catholics the women don’t have to get round in tents, Catholicism is bad, but Islam is worse.

              I was in Manilla at Easter last year, the main Cathedral was so overcrowded for the Good Friday mass that people flowed out into the square. Then they all walked around for the rest of the day with ashes in the middle of their foreheads!

      2. Grew up in the Philippines (now in the US). Folk catholicism is practised there which may be unrecognizable in other Christian countries, but have similar practices in other cultures. The Good Friday crucifixions and public self-flagellation are similar to festival celebrations featuring people with sticks pierced through their cheeks (I believe in India, Malaysia, and other non-Christian countries).

        Animism, as well as general superstition is very pervasive. I think the animism element is in common with Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and Paganism but injected with Catholic flavor. Crucifixes, rosaries, scapulars, and even bottles of holy water are carried or worn like amulets, where other cultures may use other artifacts. The Philippines is very much a demon-haunted world.

  2. For the same reason that people use the infuriating phrase “passed away”… L

  3. 3% seems remarkably low for US atheism to me, but I must admit I have very little to base my reaction on. Too much optimism, I suppose.

  4. Poland’s high rate is partly due to the recent John-Paul effect and will likely return to normal trends before too long.

    1. My (admittedly brief and geographically limited) travels in Poland indacted a very strong Catholic religiousity. I think Catholicism was one of the uniting forces of those people opposed to the Communist rule and a cultural feature.

      But I would agree that it is likely to be rdeuced soon, just based on interactions with the rest of Europe.

      1. It is correct that Catholicism is deeply rooted in Poland, and the popularity of John Paul II only added to that. Currently, Poland is witnessing a certain degree of political backlash against the Catholic Church, however, I believe that religion is there to stay for quite a while.

    2. My sister-in-law is both Polish and Catholic; enough to insist on magic spells being said over her dying father in defiance of his oft-stated wishes never to have anything more to do with priests, but not enough to stop her taking the pill or doing anything else that suited her, though I believe she made sterling though ultimately unsuccessful, efforts to remain a virgin until her wedding. She only goes to church for weddings, christenings and funerals and basically the whole thing seems to be a combination of cultural loyalty and superstition. Speaking of which there will be the christening of a grandchild soon, I think we will skip the church and go to the festivities afterwards.

  5. No real surprises that “formerly Soviet countries” are atheistic? Poland is not. Neither is Croatia, for example. I am Czech and I can tell you the high percentage of atheists in the Czech Republic has nothing to do with communism (not sure what you mean by “formerly Soviet countries,” BTW). People in the CR have been atheists for much longer—none of my grandparents , for example, believed in God and they were all born long before WWII.

    1. Aonther excellent reason to love the Czech Republic! I loved my visit to CR. I’ll be back …

      1. The reason why we don’t believe in God is obviously beer. LOL! (Kinda difficult to wake early on Sunday morning to go to church after a long night of drinking).

        Just in case you are feeling nostalgic:

    2. I agree with this, and I’ve noticed similar things. My family is Slovak and are still Catholic (it looks like it’s in the middle of those results). But all Czechs I know are atheists. I think it would be hard to implement that much of a change of religious attitudes in only 40-50 years.

      1. To clarify – I think Slovakia is in the middle of those results, not my family. And a radical change in religious attitudes may be possible in only 2 generations, I don’t know. But when I lived in the Czech Republic people generally seemed proud(!) that their lack of religiosity predates the Communists.

        1. well, czechoslovakia was quite the thriving liberal democracy before getting occupied by the 3rd reich. and liberal democracies tend to make their inhabitants more atheistic.

            1. Before 1918 (when Czechoslovakia was formed), the Czech lands had already been industrialized and modern, while the Slovak lands had remained largely agricultural and undeveloped, and more religious. This changed to a certain extent over the ensuing decades, as Slovakia’s development sped up, but its rural roots are still much more recent than those of much of the Czech lands. And as I think you can see in most other countries (the USA being a notable exception), industrialization, education, etc, go hand in hand with abandonment of religion.

  6. Israel may have gotten more religous because the secular folk emigrated. I know many secular people that loved living in Utah (and other Mormon strongholds in the mountain west of the US) but moved away because of the pervasive influence of the LDS church.

    1. That makes sense. Also, the most religious families are having 10+ kids, so are growing as a proportion o the population. It’ll be interesting to see where Israel is in another 10-20 years. Or frightening. Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel talks about the growing influence of the Haredim (ultra Orthodox), and how Israel is abandoning its secular founding values.

  7. “Germany (East): 52.1%”

    East Germany and West Germany have reunited in 1990, and the current number of atheists in Germany as a whole is much lower. In East Germany, the former German Democratic Republic, the number is that high because it was a socialist state, where the influence of church and religion was officially marginalized.

    1. But just as with the Czech Republic, that is only one part of the reason why atheism is so ubiquitous. It’s probably not even the most significant reason if you look further to the east and southeast. Some countries of the former communist block are still quite religious (e.g. Poland, Romania), even more so than some western countries.

      Since this report came out there has been a whole slew of articles on this “problem” in the German newspaper ‘Die Welt’. They can all be accessed at their website ‘’.
      As this newspaper is rather conservative most of them have a negative slant as you can imagine. However, they all see the reason for this situation going further back than the communists.

  8. “No real surprises here: formerly Soviet countries are atheistic”

    As I’m sure you’re aware, Sweden and Denmark were never behind the iron curtain, yet in many surveys we come out on top in terms of our lack of religiosity. Phil Zuckerman has written an interesting book on this very topic “Society without God” that’s well worth a gander if you’re interested in what might explain our wonderful godlessness.

    Nice chat by him here.

  9. It must, then reflect an increasing belief in God with age.

    Couldn’t it merely be a generational difference? That is, older people grew up at a time when religiosity was higher.

    1. I deal with that above: the problem is that the increase in religiosity with age is FAR GREATER than can be explained by those people simply growing up in earlier years. Remember, the decrease in religiosity is about 2% over 20 years or so, but the increase in religiosity over one’s life is 10 times that!

    1. Indeed, and for Australia, 15.9% “don’t believe in god” and 20.6% “don’t believe in god and never have” how does this work? Were different samples asked different questions or are people just really confused?

      1. I think the column headings must have got switched. It’s the same for every country.

        And it would make much more sense to compare ‘I don’t believe and I never have’ to ‘I believe and have no doubts’.

  10. Now at 63 years of age I invariably am finding myself contemplating what might possibly lie ahead for me. I am being told that I can look forward to decreased mental compacity resulting in increased fear of death and increased religous faith. Who said god is not cruel.

  11. Personally, I consider two samples separated by four years badly inadequate for extrapolation of the trends on lifetime religiosity. Color me a little skeptical.

    Contrariwise, I admit the result fits somewhat with the traditional understanding.

  12. I could let tom Smith have a list of Canadian area codes. Oh well, we generally come out similar to Australia and New Zealand in these things.

  13. Depends on what you consider western Europe. Portugal is the westernmost continental European nation and yet our government recently had to consult with the Vatican before suppressing religious holidays.

    we had a recent study showing the evolution in religiosity from 1999 to 2011. Catholics dropped from 86.9% to 79.5% so we’d beat the USA and we’d be there with Filipinos and Chileans. Atheists more than doubled (!) and are now 4.1% (from 1.7 in 1999) so the USA rank above us but the difference is probably non-significative.

    The small increase in atheism is only a small victory since there is a significant increase in fringe christian groups. They went from 2.8% to 5.9%, and what’s particularly worrisome is seeing evangelic christians going from from 0.3% to 2.8% in 12 years (although some of it might be due to immigration from Brazil).

  14. I’m from Brazil and I’m highly sceptical of such polls. In my country, in three years, the number of atheists went from 3% to 14% to 8%. Theses polls are not very reliable. If I had to estimate, I would say that 20% of Brazilians do not believe in Gods.

    1. All sorts of factors can influence the outcome, including the order and wording of the options. New Zealand had the same lowish number of unbelievers as most other such countries when the census required everyone to fill in the name of their religion. (Many wrote their baptisamal religion – especially “Anglican”/”CofE” – regardless of what they actually believed.)

      When the top religions were given as options including “No religion”, its number increased, partly at the expense of variants like “agnostic” “atheist” “rationalist” and “freethinker”. But when it was moved to the top of the list, as the default option, the numbers of the irreligious increased greatly.

  15. I think that there may be a difference between what people believe in practice and what emerges in surveys. The dominant religious view in the UK is indifferent. People might believe in God, or a higher power, or something out there, or whatever when asked specifically. However, in their day to day lives, I know hardly anyone who gives religion a second thought.

    I am fairly sure that I recall UK surveys done by the CofE* that tended to show that people did not start to attend church as they got older. The CofE is on borrowed time due to their congregations now being made up almost entirely of old people.

    *CofE = Church of England.

    1. I think the British Social Attotudes survey and the RDF Ipsos-MORI poll show that church attendance and religiosity, even among those who call themselves Christians, is falling dramatically.

      As I’ve recounted here before, I think many people still feel there’s an expectation to give a “traditional” response to any “religion?” question, as during hospital admission. I heard “Church of England … I suppose” so many times. (I just confused the nurse by answering, “humanist”. And, yes, I know it’s not a religion – but he hadn’t heard of it at all.)

      When I did jury service, only two of us affirmed rather than swore (although the other might have been a Quaker, of course). I was sorely tempted to ask the others if they were truly religious or just observing social norms. But it might just have been sampling error.



  16. The study did not include Islamic countries. But we can guess the numbers for countries where the penalty for apostasy is death.

  17. I saw this today, obviously its not accurate and will appeal to younger people but here about 3/4s of atheists are under 30.

    I can see younger crowds being more open to change. I can imagine a fear of death increases religious feelings.

    1. launched May 10, 2012
      Participants so far 2,403
      Potential participants 850,000,000
      Percentage of potential 0.000283
      Over 75% of participants are from U.S.A

      Pew research says 4% of internet users are over 70

      Given that information, there are approximately 2 people over 70 that could be included in the 2,403 but, my guess is those 2 people either don’t know about that census or aren’t much interested in participating. I also suspect that I had a far better chance of knowing about that census than those 2 people but I didn’t know about it.

      However, your conclusion is that those 2 people are afraid of dying and therefore have gone looney with christianity. How do you get that?

      1. I did say that “obviously its not accurate and will appeal to younger people”, of course on a poll like that you’d expect flawed results, I thought the newly founded poll was interesting, but not at all as an accurate survey.

        My second point about “I can imagine a fear of death increases religious feelings” was in response to the above paragraph:

        “It must, then reflect an increasing belief in God with age. As the authors of the study suggest euphemistically, this may be “perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality occurring.” (Why can’t they just say: “increasing fear of death”?).”

        I can see how this wasn’t clear.

        1. From the survey I made a list of the top atheist countries and another list of the looniest countries. The formatting will likely get changed upon posting so:
          First column = Country
          Second = percent of population
          Third = percent more loons with age
          Forth = letter indicating if the country also appears among the (H) highest or (L) lowest change with age. Israel is (W) weird because they show a decrease in looniness with age. My conclusion is that strong atheist countries don’t change to loons with increasing age as often as strongly looney countries do. I don’t think it correlates well with the suggestion that increasing age causes atheists to go to the doGs. It might be that the older loonies were always more loony in those christian and christian-alike countries.

          Strong Atheists % Age/Change *
          Germany,”East” 46.1 12.7 L
          Czech”Republic” 26.2 20.4
          France 19.3 17.8
          Sweden 18.4 6.5 L
          Denmark 16.7 14.2
          Norway 15.9 9.8 L
          The”Netherlands” 15.3 13.5 L
          Hungary 12.6 24.5
          Great Britain 11.2 13.1 L

          Strong Belief in doGs
          The”Philippines” 60.2″ 9.5 L
          Israel 38.0″ -16.4 W
          United States 35.0″ 12.2
          Cyprus 30.5″ 41.6 H
          Chile 29.0″ 26.7
          Slovakia 28.4″ 26.2
          Northern Ireland 25.8″ 35.3 H
          Poland 23.6″ 30.9 H
          Portugal 18.9″ 34.0 H

          1. So the formatting did get munched but note that there are 5 among “strong atheist” countries that are lowest in increase in belief with age, and none that rank high. Whereas, among the looniest countries they have 1 low and 4 high percentage increases.

  18. Oh my God! I’m thoroughly ashamed of my country (Chile). And I’m thoroughly shamed of how little I’ve contributed to change its shameful statistics.

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