Religion dying off: “Nones” are world’s third largest “faith”

December 24, 2012 • 6:12 am

The results of a new study on the prevalence of world religion were summarized in the New York Times last week, and I’ve now read the full report. The survey, “The global religious landscape” (download full report here) was conducted by the Pew Research Center (now in collaboration with the Templeton Foundation!).   It’s a long report (80) pages, but unless you’re interested in the variation among nations, there are only a few salient results for us.

  • The first is that although 84% of the world’s population (5.8 billion people0 identifies with a religious group, 16%—one in six—is “religiously” unaffiliated. This figure from the survey tells the tale:

Picture 1

These data are for 2010.  (Oy vey: only 0.2% Jews!)

The 1.1 billion people who aren’t affiliated with a religion aren’t, of course, all atheists.  As the report notes,

Surveys indicate that many of the unaffiliated hold some religious beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit) even though they do not identify with a particular faith. . .

For example, belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7% of Chinese unaffiliated adults, 30% of French unaffiliated adults and 68% of unaffiliated U.S. adults. Some of the unaffiliated also engage in certain kinds of religious practices. For example, 7% of unaffiliated adults in France and 2 7% of those in the United States say they attend religious services at least once a year. And in China, 44% of
unaffiliated adults say they have worshiped at a graveside or tomb in the past year.

Most of the unaffiliated are in the Asia-Pacific region, with China and its 365,000,000 unaffiliated (52.2% of the population) making up 62.2% of the world’s unaffiliated.  Most of that is undoubtedly the result of the hegemony of godless Communism. Japan has 6.4% of the world’s unaffiliated, and the U.S., with 16.4% inhabitants unaffiliated, makes up 4.5% of the world’s quasi-heathens. The six countries in which the unaffiliated are more than 50% of the population are China, the Czech Republic (the winner with 76% unaffiliated), North Korea, Estonia, Japan, and Hong Kong. The median age of unaffiliated people is 34, substantially higher than believers (28).

  • Here’s the world’s distribution of faiths from the report:

Picture 2

Mongolia is an off-color, representing a Buddhist majority (55%) but a substantial Hindu minority (39%). The rest of the countries are as you might expect, though Greenland, more Christian than the U.S. surprises me.

Besides the New York Times piece, there’s a substantial summary and ancillary information in a CBS Sunday morning report called “Losing our religion” piece (transcript is below the video):

According to a new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the nation’s spiritual landscape may be becoming a little LESS religious.

Some 45 million people, or one-fifth of the U.S. adult population, now say they belong to no church in particular.

Six percent of them are either atheist or agnostic.

“There’s a yearning to find like-minded people, to be able to have a conversation that’s not taboo,” said Red McCall, president of an atheist group in the buckle of the Bible Belt – Oklahoma City – whom we met last month.

In just the past three years, membership in the Oklahoma Atheists has jumped from just 300 members to well over a thousand. [Abbie Smith will like that!]

Shelly Rees, a college professor, in one of them. She feels the public mood on atheists – even here – has softened.

“There were still people when we were marching in the parade at Halloween yelling, ‘You’re going to hell,’ and stuff like that,” said Rees. “But there were more people who weren’t, and I think that’s going to keep going. I think that’s the trend.”

Researchers call them “The Nones” – those who check the “none” box when asked to describe their religious affiliation.

And they’ve more than doubled since 1990.

And I can’t help reproducing The Good News in extenso.  Why, asked CBS, is religion waning in the U.S.

The study suggests it’s organized religion—with respondents overwhelmingly saying many organizations are too focused on money, power and politics.

Protestants have suffered the greatest decline. They now account for just 48 percent of religious adults, making it the first time in history that the United States doesn’t have a Protestant majority.

Evangelical churches aren’t immune, either. The megachurches once bursting at the seams are a little less mega than they used to be. [n.b. Tanya Luhrmann made the opposite assertion in her book When God Talks Back].

“We’re seeing church attendance being much more inconsistent than I’ve ever seen it in my entire life,” said Ed Young, Senior Pastor of the Fellowship Church based in Dallas. He’s hardly conventional – even preaching a sermon with his wife while sitting on a double bed.

It’s his attempt not at a gimmick, he says, but to reach those who these days find organized religion, at its best, irrelevant – at its worst, intolerant.

“I don’t think we have been vulnerable enough,” said Pastor Young. “I don’t think we have been real enough about issues and about life. You have to realize that the church is pretty much one generation away from extinction.”

Indeed, it’s the young – one out of every three person surveyed under the age of 30 – who say they don’t link themselves with a church, a mosque, a synagogue, or anything else.

Compare that, with the “Greatest Generation,” where only one in 20 claimed no religious home.

“We’re in kind of a post-denominational phase, I think, in many ways in the United States,” said Charles Kimball, Director of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “That’s still dramatically different that what you see in Europe, but you see that pattern, I think, is present here as well.”

While Kimball says most of his students still respect religious organizations as a power to do good in the world, it’s often their stands on social issues – abortion and gay rights in particular – that he feels are driving the young away.

“The vast majority of students, even people coming out of pretty traditional religious backgrounds, don’t see these as a big deal. They don’t get, what’s the issue here, don’t understand it,” Kimball said. “You can see a real clear shift away from dogmatism there.”

The church “one generation away from extinction”? Well, maybe Ed Young’s church, but I think it will take about a century.  And it’s heartening that the unaffiliated comprise largely the young, who are starting to realize that religious dogma about stuff like gays, abortion, and hell just don’t comport with modern sensibilities.  Those churches, like Catholicism, who don’t go along with modernity are the ones doomed to the fastest extinction.

Just remember this the next time you hear the mantra, “Religion is here to stay” (we’ll hear that later today from England’s chief rabbi Sacks). It wasn’t there to stay in Europe, and it isn’t in the U.S., either.

h/t: Hempenstein, John B.

47 thoughts on “Religion dying off: “Nones” are world’s third largest “faith”

    1. I wouldn’t be so sceptical. Between 2007 and the 2011 Census there were 107,000 immigrants to Australia from China (excluding SARs). In the Census 78,000 checked the box “No religion”. Some 13,000 were Buddhists.

      Admittedly our immigration intake is skills based, so these were in the main educated Chinese, nonetheless the Chinese have never been theists (unlike the Russians).

      1. You may be right. But the Russian figures imply that many claim orthodoxy in autocratic states, but the habit breaks down. As commented by others here, it cuts both ways – in (not quite so autocratic) Catholic countries the level of Catholic adherence is no doubt overstated. No doubt many US politicians are only Sunday Christians. There must be a lot of “Friday Muslims” out there.

        1. From a sociological POV what one tries to do first of all is get from each respondent 1) affiliation 2) belief 3) attendance.

          But interpretation of these three variables is different depending on the society. For instance, in some places attendance is just a social ritual unlike somewhere such as the UK, where people usually only attend if they actually believe and relate.

          1. [UK example] I only know one friend (whose husband I bumped into on the bus earlier) and one member of the family who actually attend church, ever, despite a (probable) majority declaring themselves as “Xtian”.

  1. Science in the 21st century: Biotechnology (artificial limbs & bionic eyes etc.), gene therapy, according to Moore’s law amazing AI, nanotechnology, genome sequencing, in-vitro meat, genetic engineering, … Religions and their pathetic “miracles” will be put to shame fast.

  2. It is a bit worrisome, though, that the average age of unaffiliated persons worldwide is higher than that of religious persons. Outside the US, in developing countries like the one I live in, missionaries are quite good at making converts among the young. I don’t understand how they do it, since these missionaries are usually from wacky fringe sects like Mormons and ultra-evangelicals.

    1. On the other hand, lapsed Catholics are older than Catholics – older than the Catholics they once were.

    2. The Russian POV (my wife tells me) is that these successfully recruiting churches do so on the basis of social investment. I.E. jam today.
      In the post-perestroika confusion, knowing where to get supper was important, and worth painting one’s belly with woad (or whatever other rites these god-squaddies required).

  3. Still the most “atheistic” country in the world 🙂
    But in fact its not that great. Many ppl in our country do believe in “something greater” or something like that.
    Plus many of the top politicians here still believe in god (our president for one and probably all of the candidates in the oncoming presidential election), representatives of (cathlolic) religion are given much time on TV and still recieve much respect (as well as what they say).

  4. I suspect Europe is painted in that map as more religious than it really is. The thing is people who will tell you they’re catholic, couldn’t be clasified as such if you asked them what they do.

    In the case of Spain religion is as much folklore and tradition as it is faith. A funny recent example representative of the general attitude towards dogma: in his last book, the Pope said there was no donkey and ox there when Jesus was born. Well, we don’t care what the Pope says, we’re still putting the damned donkey and ox in our nativity scenes goddammit! xD That’s how “devout” we are.

    In short, is it reasonable to say “cultural catholics” are catholic?

    1. They are if they provide financial or moral support to that gang of pedophiles, misogynists and homophobes lurking in the Vatican.

    2. I still chuckle when reminded of the pope making sure we all knew that there weren’t any livestock in a stable, but an immaculately-concieved virgin mom? But of course!

    3. Spain is secularising at a surprisingly rapid rate on a generational basis. Analysis of the ISSP database indicates almost 40% of those under 30 identify as No religion.

      1. And yet we are fervent believers in… our own local wood figure. Religion devoid of faith, becoming just folklore and tradition, or if you will, idolatry. That’s why I thought that red hue all over Europe in the map might be a little too intense.

        1. I agree. Checking their data sources and adjustments for those countries for which I have either their dataset or one of better quality shows an overestimation of Christians in all cases.

          France stands out as one of the worst offenders, given we have multiple lines of evidence indicating a near 50-50 split of Christians and unaffiliated, yet they put Christians at 63%. Spain is more difficult because the overall Catholic affiliation remains high, but not only is the age gradient quite steep but belief in “God” is crumbling more rapidly than affiliation.

          In Australia, they took the 2011 Census and performed two illegitimate “adjustments”, which I won’t go into here, that results in a large overestimate of Christians.

          The effect is compounded in many cases by counting all children, which in societies undergoing generational secularisation is very misleading.

          1. In Hungary, there a special financial support system for Churches. Every year, during the annual tax report, the taxpayers have the right to give 1% of their personal income tax to a chosen Church. The form for this is included in the tax report documentation, you only need to spend about 1 minute with it and give 1% of the tax you pay anyway.
            Guess what is the percentage of the people who do this. It is about 20% of the taxpayers for all the registered religious organisations, included non-Christian ones.

            A typical example of the majority of that 81% Christian from this survey is my mother. She was brought up in a traditional Catholic farmer family, included religious education and defines herself as a Catholic, but she visits the Church like 3 times a year (this is already an elevated number, she is getting more religious with age) and absolutely does not keep any life regulation of the Church.

            Other example is one of my colleagues. I was surprised to hear the he is Catholic, since so far never heard anything religious from him. I asked him about this. He thinks the Bible is a fairy tale (though he is not atheist). But he told during the census that he is Catholic, because he was born into a Catholic family and it is a tribal affiliation for him.

            Despite all of this I do not think we go to the right direction. The current government is full of religious lunatics and they support the Catholic Church very aggressively. The number of religious schools is quickly multiplying and they are much better founded that the secular ones. (Not a surprise, while the last budget cut forced the state universities to close their doors for the middle of the Winter, the same time they just gave another extra sum for Catholic schools.)

    4. Good Points. It’s the same in Ireland. I think most would identify as Catholic without really knowing what it means or how it differs from other Christian faiths.

      Wnat about Sweden? I thought it was around 80% non-religious, indeed famously so. But it’s shaded in as a Christian majority.

      1. Pew uses the ISSP dataset for Sweden, and their figure for nominal affiliation is correct, BUT the Christian breakdown is as follows (from my own data extraction):

        Atheist/agnostic 22%
        Higher Power 23%
        God 24%

        In other words, only a quarter of population are Christians who believe in God (note this includes even the most tenuous/doubtful belief).

        All the Nordic countries have quite high levels of nominal Christian affiliation, essentially as a social identity, coupled with very low levels of theism.

  5. I think those numbers may be incorrectly reporting the success of nones, as they are mainly religious affiliation self-reporting. The worldwide gallup poll bought by the International Humanist and Ethical Union WEIT mentioned earlier this month has 36 % nones in 2012 as the largest individual group, by self-reporting on religiosity at 3-5 % error. (I.e. asking over 50 000 people from 58 nations on atheist/non-religious/religious self-identity, regardless of notional affiliation.)

    The IHEU study is further strengthened by being able to predict a huge 13 % relative drop in religiosity since the first study 2005 by a similar drop in worldwide relative poverty. This is a factor that can be derived out of Paul and Gregory’s theory on religiosity as codependent on dysfunctional societies, and comport with Jerry’s papers on the subject.

    [Another source for the discrepancy should be in that the Pew study looks to be a huge meta-analysis. These have been tested to be correct at ~ 60 % (IIRC) of cases at best when data is awful.

    While the gallup is in comparison a high quality poll.]

    Maybe the problem is that such results are unbelievable. (I’m not sure it sits well with my earlier notions on the subject either.) Which is kind of ironic.

    1. Best data currently available for developed countries comes from the International Social Survey Program, which is a collaboration of sociologists from 40 countries and runs large-scale scientific surveys on many different issues using standard and very extensive questionnaires (50 pages in Australia).

      Religion surveys were initiated in 1993, 1998 and 2009 (fieldwork for the last conducted in most countries in 2010-11). I’m currently doing a comparison of Anglophone countries (unfortunately Canada not included).

      I’m not a big fan of just lumping a whole lot of disparate societies together to produce essentially meaningless aggregate numbers.

  6. Another problem for Pew with a IHEU type study is that x-ians and µ-slims comes out about even. Can’t have that!

  7. Mongolia is a primarily Buddhist country with very little Hindu culture, so I was surprised to see you mention a 39% Hindu minority. My wife happens to be Mongolian, and I’ve been there several times.

    I double checked the data and found 35.9% unaffiliated, which better matches the history of a Buddhist land that became a Communist state aligned with Moscow for most of the twentieth century.

    There are 3.5% practicing folk religions, which in Mongolia are ancient shamanistic beliefs worshipping the sky god Tenger, which was Chinggis Khan’s religion. These beat out the Muslims at 3.2% and the Christians at 2.3%.

    1. Yes, I also noticed this. There is no mentionable hindu community in Mongolia, he just mistaken the column. It should be corrected.

  8. The Chinese numbers don’t add up. 365 million Chinese is far lower than 52.2% of China’s population of 1.35 billion. (And since 5.8 billion is said to be 84% of the world’s population, they are counting everyone including children.)

  9. I found the error: On p. 25 of the report, the unaffiliated number for China is put at 700 million – which is 52.2% of the total Chinese population.

    1. Hopefully she’s not rolling due to being dead.
      Poe IIRC wrote a tale about being buried and not being dead. Nasty.

    1. And while the high affiliation for Denmark is correct, only half of these Christians say they believe in a God, the other half are split evenly between atheists/agnostics and pantheists/woo.

  10. The problem with aggregating data from disparate sources is questions on religious affiliation and belief are *very* sensitive to the structure of the question. Discrepancies of 10-20 percentage points are not uncommon in well-conducted surveys of the same population.

    In a well-conducted survey that is sufficiently detailed you can often unravel what’s really going (as long as there’s enough power) through the cross-tabulations.

    And this report uses a real dog’s breakfast of different sources. Still interesting, but just saying …

    1. THIS Guardian newspaper article from Sept. 2011 attempts an explanation, but it reads like a load of codswallop to me

      The part that is true [from my anecdotal personal experience I admit] is that the lack of mainstream religious adherence in Estonia hasn’t resulted in a woo-free attitude among the people. Groovy people though.

      As for the Czech Republic? I dunno, but they have excellent beers, fine architecture & an open, educated & internationally aware society ~ perhaps some of those conditions vaccinate against religion.

      1. (also responding to gbjames above)
        Half of my missionary career was spent in the Czech Republic; in fact, it was there that my deconversion began. Though I have no statistics and no way of comparing it to, say, Scandinavia, and while my view was certainly warped by immersion in the small, evangelical protestant church, it seems to me that what you had there was a large amount of cultural christianity with very little religion, which is kind of how I picture Europe as a whole. There were a lot of liberal protestants, and a lot of catholics.
        One interesting fact is that Czechs and Slovaks show up #1 and #2 every year in the poll for “most pessimistic people”. That certainly might lead one away from “pie in the sky” religion. Another interesting idea is that the best-known Czech literary monument, Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk” is virulently anti-authority, and it is widely conceded that “svejkism” is a not-inconsiderable part of the Czech mentality.
        Obviously, neither of these two facts accounts for much of the non-religiosity of the Czechs; they might be at most the icing on the cake. Much more to the point would be the memory of Europe’s religious wars (after all, the start of the 30 Years War was the Defenestration of Prague, and the first phase of the war was fought in Bohemia), the prosperity and progressive culture of the country before WWII and the Russian takeover, the pro-scientific attitude of the people, the Velvet Revolution and subsequent democracy, ad infinitum. As always, religion feeds on ignorance, turmoil, and poverty, and where these are lacking, it tends to wither and die.

      2. The Guardian article make some points worth considering:

        1) Lutheranism indeed did very poorly in the Soviet period, compared with both Catholicism and Orthodox, just about everywhere it had previously been a force.

        2) Grace Davie’s “belief without belonging” hypothesis has been empirically refuted, and is no longer taken seriously by sociologists. She has since come up with other paradigms to try to show that religion isn’t really in decline, but the woman is basically an apologist in academic garb.

        3) The phenomenon of what the Dutch call “ietism”, or something-ism, has been increasing as religious adherence declines. This in the main is a kind of pantheism (what I call Star Wars religion) shading into various kinds of woo (like Wicca) depending on local conditions. This seems to me generally non-toxic and generally compatible with progressive views on both science and social issues.

        4) The latest tactic by the apologists to explain the decline in the religious affiliation is to say that most of the “nones” are still “spiritual”. This elides what I consider the central issue, which is the decline of theism, ie decline in a law-giving, creator God who cares for each human being personally.

  11. … said Pastor Young. “I don’t think we have been real enough about issues and about life. You have to realize that the church is pretty much one generation away from extinction.”

    Perhaps the reason you’re “pretty much one generation away from extinction” is because you’ve been real enough about issues and life — but not real enough about your religion. It’s not true, you know. None of them are.

    In the long run, this part will work out very badly for you.

    You’re already feeling its effects. When the tribal-identity is no longer so important, people start to examine what it is they’re actually believing. “Metaphor” will only take you so far … and it ends up at “humanism.”

  12. Christianity seems to be estimated a bit too high in Suriname as well; according to CIA World Factbook it’s about 48% of all the believers. So in fact it’s even a bit lower, as there are about 4% atheists/agnosts in this country according to latest census.

  13. (Oy vey: only 0.2% Jews!)

    For a global population of 7 billion … I make that 140 million. Is that wildly wrong? It passes first sanity check for me (I’d have to go to Wikipedia for second check).

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