What’s the Most Godless Place on Earth?

It’s not an American college town. Apparently, Eastern Germany wins the prize:

The statistics are most striking among those under 28 years old: more than 71% of eastern Germans in this age group say they have never believed in the existence of God. That’s nearly as many as in the 38-47 group, of which 72.6% are non-believers.

What the figures mean is that in eastern Germany, very young people are on the same wavelength as people from the middle generation when it comes to belief in God. The political transformation of former East Germany, in other words, hasn’t had much of an effect on people’s ideas about religion. While there are somewhat fewer atheists among young adults aged 28 to 37, where “only” 63.6% say they’ve never been believers, those in the following generation are at least as non-religious as their parents.

Because results for Germany were divided into East and West, it emerged that former East Germany was by far the most atheistic region on the planet. There, 52.1% of those asked agreed with the statement: “I don’t believe in God.”

This is all according to a new study called “Beliefs about God across Time and Countries” (PDF) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.

America has a long way to go…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Mark E Decarabas

    Hmm, it’s not fair they broke Germany down, but kept Great Britian as one entity. I could of sworn that Scotland may have them beat. Something like four of the seven million ethnic scots atheist, agnostic, or not-religious – or so I was told last I went there. Could be wrong though. Anyone with a census about?

    • Stev84

      East Germany is something of a special case in that it used to be a truly separate country until a little over 20 years ago. One with a completely different ideology. Communist East Germany wasn’t entirely atheistic, but religion was pushed back by the state there. Just as in other communist countries, they replaced some religious rites with secular ones, designed to inspire allegiance to the government.

      That legacy remains. If people are religious, they are Protestants. The Catholic Church is almost irrelevant there (in Germany the Protestant/Catholic division depends highly on the geographical area).

      But what’s most interesting is that the church wasn’t able to reestablish its hold there like in some other eastern European countries. The youngest generation has remained atheistic.

    • Tim

      I seem to recall that UK godlessness has Wales at the top of the table, then Scotland, then England then N Ireland.

      • Sindigo

        2001 Census data suggests no-religion in Scotland is 17.5%, England and Wales 14.8% with around 395,000 Jedis between them. According to Wikipedia anyway.

        • Tim

          We will get an update to this in September 2012 when the 2011 census data is released. It is a safe bet to predict that the figures will move in the right direcction for all parts of the UK

          • Sindigo

            Let’s hope it’s a good result. There was quite a lot of campaigning on our side. I certainly convinced a couple of my friends not to tick the X’tian box.

  • Mike Brownstein

    I have to double check “The New American Voter,” (Miller and Shanks 1996) but those  numbers sound about consistent with most polling.

  • AxeGrrl

    Uhm, Canada?

    *feeling left out*

  • Christian von Kietzell

    For once I’m happy to be from East Germany :D

  • Andrew Morgan

    The title sounds like a bad atheist joke that tries too hard.

    Q: “What’s the most godless place on earth?”
    A: “The nursery at your local hospital!  Get it, because babies are born without a concept of the supernatural, see, and …”

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Interesting, but it’s hard to know what to make of a study like this. I’m sure that a lot more than 3% of Americans don’t believe in a god. These just aren’t questions that many people answer comfortably, and how they answer varies across cultures, making country-to-country comparisons very difficult.

    To actually get useful numbers would require, I think, a very cleverly crafted survey that inferred theistic beliefs from indirect questions- so indirect that people wouldn’t actually recognize what the survey was actually about.

    • newavocation

      Maybe a question based on a Twain quote would help. Do you believe the mind can stay sober when the body is drunk? Which could lead to do the question can the mind stay awake when the body stops breathing?

    • JA

      I’ve seen numbers in the 15-20% range in other polls. I think it depends on how the question is asked because a lot of people take a more agnostic position.

  • Atheists from Norway

    I don’t believe these numbers, I think the number of godless people in Norway and Sweden is much higher. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/dwightwelch Dwight Welch

      I think it’s bad wording from the survey really. The problem is that Scandinavians on the whole don’t like dogmatism so belief in God is way low but identifying with atheism is quite low too. And the latter can skew the results

    • JA

      A lot of people in secular countries believe in a fuzzy concept of God. If you look at this article you will see the numbers are a lot higher when you account for this: http://gobangla.hubpages.com/hub/Is-Secularization-Responsible-for-Lower-Birth-Rates

    • Atheists from Norway

      Good news! “From tomorrow the government will no longer appoint deans and bishops, and Norway no longer has any official state religion.”http://translate.googleusercontent.com/translate_c?act=url&hl=en&ie=UTF8&prev=_t&rurl=translate.google.com&sl=auto&tl=en&twu=1&u=http://www.dagbladet.no/2012/05/14/nyheter/innenriks/kirken/religion/21593869/&usg=ALkJrhgQrM5MVKhjU5JM4xG7EKbEozo__w

    • Paul D.

      The numbers from Japan are strange too. Japan is less than 0.5% Christian. Exactly what God do the remaining 92.3% of this poll supposedly believe in?

      • Stev84

        Lots of people in Japan believe in Shintoism/Buddhism which comes with a whole pantheon of gods

  • Sindigo

    3%? Is that all?

  • Olaf

    My very 1st encounter with an east German atheist of my age was in vocational school in a mandatory(!) religion class.
    And what I have to say? Well, he asked me only one question “Why?” and I was speechless as I honestly never thought about what I was only repeating like a parrot back than (I was 17).
    And now, around 15 years later, I’m one of the West Germany Atheists ;).

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I think you mean

    What’s the Most Godless Region Surveyed in Recent Survey?

    Page 7 on the PDF has a really interesting contrast between “I don’t believe in God” and “I believe in God and am certain of it”.  Japan e.g. is very low on the “I don’t believe” scale (8.7%) but also at the bottom of the hard theist scale (4.3%).  Which obviously means Japanese can’t make up their minds?

    Still curious how Communist ideology had such an effect on East Germany, but not other Soviet Bloc nations.

    • Stev84

      That probably has to do with the diffuse state of religion in Japan. Many are religious in some way, but don’t identify themselves with a particular religion. Many of their traditions are cobbled together from different Asian belief systems. Also forms of ancestor worship in the Shinto and Buddhist tradition is more common than worship of deities.

    • Pseudonym

      Still curious how Communist ideology had such an effect on East Germany, but not other Soviet Bloc nations.

      I’m a bit hazy on the details, but as I understand the history, the Catholic and Orthodox churches of most of Eastern Europe were fairly heavily repressed and persecuted, especially during the Stalin era.

      Things were different in East Germany.  In 1949, the area was 90% Lutheran. The East German Lutheran Church started off resisting the government’s attempts to crack down on citizens and enforce atheism (Wikipedia reports the founding of university chairs to study “scientific atheism”, which is kind of spooky when you consider today’s New Atheist rhetoric), but eventually realised the DDR was here to stay, so they had to negotiate with the government. They eventually adopted a neutral stance, adopting some communist ideals (which makes sense since Jesus was a hippie) and even “conditional loyalty”, but reserved the right to speak out against the government if necessary.

      That’s where my vague knowledge ends, but on a personal note, I can see how this could be interpreted by some church members as a form of ersatz collusion from an institution which is supposed to be on the side of the downtrodden. Those who bought into the communist propaganda would of course be anti-religion, and those who didn’t would be rightly angry at the church for failing in its duty.

  • http://twitter.com/Cluisanna Cluisanna

    The thing is, even the people who do believe in God in Germany don’t make a deal about it at all and are very “liberal” – I know lots of Christians, and they don’t believe in hell and are of the “personal relationship with god” variety. They have no problem accepting all other religions as equally true, something I can’t understand today, although I believed that for some time too.
     My whole family knows I am an atheist, and nobody cares. My now retired uncle was the minister of the biggest church in Berlin and I have heard him talk about religion… once? Twice?

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      But, but, but, how will children learn about the controversy?  I mean, it’s ONLY a theory!

    • JA

      If someone sees religion as simply a relationship with God and they aren’t too concerned about doctrine then I can see how they wouldn’t have a problem seeing all religions as equally true. That makes far more sense than the idea of one correct religion.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    What interests me most about this finding is that those in E.G. under 28 did not experience much of the anti-religion teachings of Communism, nor did they experience the incredible destruction that their parents went through.  I can’t explain it, but I’m pleased to see that they are not thanking any gods for the reunification.

    • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

      Yeah, but their parents did, which I’m sure goes a long ways towards explaining their attitudes. They may not have been indoctrinated by the government, but they almost certainly were NOT indoctrinated by their parents.

      If you don’t brainwash a kid into theism, he isn’t likely to turn in that direction later in life.

  • TheHonestAtheist

    The report notes:

    “The ISSP Religion studies covered 18 countries in 1991 (counting East and West Germany and Northern Ireland and Great Britain separately), 33 countries in 1998, and 42 countries in 2008. This paper analysis the 30 countries that were in at least two of the three ISSP rounds and appear in the 1991–‐2008 merged ISSP Religion file created by GESIS. ”

    Which means many countries -Greenland, Canada- were completely excluded.

  • jeffj900

    An interesting figure on the second table is Israel; it is the only country in which the percent certain of god’s existence actually increases from older to younger generations.

    That must be the Haredim fundamentalists and their large families working hard to make Israel into a theocracy. They’re jealous of Iran perhaps.

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger/featured GodVlogger (on YouTube)

       I noticed that too…. Israel is the ONLY place where the older generation is LESS likely to believe in god… presumably they remember the Holocaust and question how their god could let that happen to his chosen people.
      Reminds me of that movie where the Jews in the concentration camp put Yahweh on trial.

  • http://aboutkitty.blogspot.com/ Cat’s Staff

    Looking at the countries at the top of the list, all either allow same-sex marriage or partnerships except Latvia.

  • SJH

    So I guess the conclusion from all of this is that we should be more like the former communist East Germany and that we should be indoctrinated from a very young age that God does not exist and that we should worship the state. Sorry for the sarcasm but are you really pointing to the former East Germany as the model?

    • advancedatheist

      East Germans stopped living under that system over 20 years ago. A whole generation of East Germans has grown up as atheists since then without state indoctrination against religion.

      • Pseudonym

        Oh, I don’t think SJH intended that. It’s a fair assumption that the young people who have grown up since then were raised and taught by those who grew up under the communist system. So the US shouldn’t adopt the communist East German model permanently, just for 50 years or so.

      • Rwlawoffice

         Atheists have raised atheists for over 70 years so the fact fifty percent of the population believes is really remarkable.   It is not a reflection on religion as much as it is a reflection of the lack of religious freedom.

    • Patterrssonn

       Nope, it simply shows the fragility of religion. It implies that belief in god is neither innate nor natural

  • MikeyM

    Trick question!  There’s no god, so the entire Earth is equally godless.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1047965482 Sam Mendez

    Canada? How about Mexico? Colombia? And more telling, China and India?

  • http://drmccoy.de/ DrMcCoy

    Unfortunately, East Germany is also the place where extreme right-wing / (borderline?) neo-Nazi parties get relatively high number of votes in elections (especially noticable in city and state elections)…

    I’m also a bit surprised that West Germany has such a low percentage in “I don’t believe in God”; that doesn’t match my experience. However, that might just be my bias being a 20-something student and mostly interacting with that circle.

    • Christian von Kietzell

      Your first sentence seems to imply causality, otherwise why bring it up in this context?

      • http://drmccoy.de/ DrMcCoy

         No, it’s just meant as a reminder that East Germany is not the spotless rolemodel either.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I’m also confused about the Scandinavian countries. Take, for example, Sweden:

    According to the most recent Eurobarometer Poll 2005,[13]

    23% of Swedish citizens responded that “they believe there is a god”.
    53% answered that “they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force”.
    23% answered that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, god, or life force”. Phil Zuckerman, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College,[14] writes that several academic sources have in recent years placed atheism rates in Sweden between 46% and 85%, with one source reporting that only 17% of respondents self-identified as “atheist”.[15]

    19.3% just doesn’t make sense, unless they were only counting Swedes who said they didn’t believe in any aspect of the supernatural. It’s not clear whether many of these people think the “life force” is even supernatural, let alone sentient, and I’d think both would be necessary if you were going to define the “life force” as a god.

  • http://twitter.com/BrookLaa Andy Laa

    Quite surprised England ranked so high in terms of believers, but I believe it has something to do with the wording – “they have never believed in the existence of a god”.
    I’m sure many of us at one point, as kids, believed in a god; we’re exposed to the idea of him from a dangerously early age and it’s not like any of us can say we never believed in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy because our parents told us.Plus I reckon there’s an aspect of people claiming by birthright that they are, for example, Roman Catholic as is the custom – my parents, for one, do that despite not really believing in anything.

    When pushed, most Brits will just say they don’t really care either way.

    Anyway, just my $0.02.

  • http://pgomez.myopenid.com/ Pablo Gómez

    As an ashamed Chilean, all I can say in our favor is we were the only Latin American country in the study. Things are far worse in some other places.

  • MariaO

    There is something seriously wrong with this report. Compare Table 1 and Table 2 in the report in the link. In Table one we have “% that does not beleive in god”, while in Table 2 we have “% don’t believe in god and never have”. The percentages in Table 2 is in almost all cases HIGHER than in Table 1, for some countries, much higher. How can this possibly make sense?? The people that have never believed in god are many more than those who do not believe in god right now? After seeing this, nobody should give any credence to anything here.

    Btw, in a more reliable report recently, Estonia won the price as most godless country, closely followed by Sweden.


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