Survey Says: Atheism is on the Rise Worldwide (and in America)

A new global survey on religiosity (PDF) by WIN-Gallup International has two big findings:

First, the United States has gone from being 1% godless in 2005 to 5% in 2012. (The percentage of people simply calling themselves non-religious is 30%, significantly higher than ever before.) That jumps us up quite a bit on the Global Atheism Index:

The other finding is that atheists are now 13% of the world population, an increase of 9% since 2005:

… the number of self-declared atheists in the world has risen by 9% since the measure was last taken in 2005.

The massive poll, conducted in 57 countries (not, apparently, including Britain) among 51,000 people asked a single 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?”

It shows that on average 59% of the world said that they think of themselves as religious, whereas 23% think of themselves as not religious and 13% think of themselves as convinced atheists. Naturally there are enormous variations from country to country.

What does all this mean? For America, where only 60% of the population calls themselves “religious,” and an additional 30% calls themselves “non-religious,” politicians are making a big mistake by ignoring us during election seasons. As philanthropist Todd Stiefel pointed out in an email, “they go after Jews (1%), African Americans (12.6%) and Hispanics (16.3%) like crazy, but [the] non-religious+atheist crowd (35%) is larger than those three groups combined (29.9%).”

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • CultOfReason

    Italy, home to the pope, has a higher percentage of atheists than the US?  WTF?

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I suspect that atheism isn’t substantially on the rise at all. A high percentage of smart people have always been atheists. What’s changing is that the social environment is making it more acceptable for people to identify as atheists.

    If so, this should be important to activist atheists and activist anti-religionists, since it would suggest we don’t need to continually be demonstrating the logical flaws in theism and religion… the people who are going to get that probably already do. What may be more important is continuing to push for social recognition. I think that as we do that, more and more closet atheists will make themselves known.
     

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/K4W25PSJSOBXLC7BPFHYBDRFBM FSM follower

    Why are they using the Philippine flag for Palestinian territories?

  • gski

    I wonder where Vatican City would fall on the list.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com/ Kacy

    I can’ t help but wonder what this means in light of the economic recession.  Religiosity has always had a negative relationship with income, meaning that poorer people tend to also be some of the more religious people.  But we’re seeing more atheism with general  lower socioeconomic status (SES) in the US.  I don’t want to commit the ecological fallacy and assume there is a relationship there, but I think another study is in order to see if the relationship between income and religiosity is changing among individuals in countries like the US, rather than just seeing the unsurprising data that poorer nations tend to be more religious.  This likely has more to do with education and development than strictly income.  I think I read a study earlier this year that showed that the working class is fastest growing irreligious group in the US, and since they and unemployed college students are the demographics hurt most by the recession, I’m very curious about the relationship.

    I studied Sociology of Religion in grad school, so I always find religious surveys fascinating.

  • m1n4

    I was just reading some statistics of atheist in my state (I don’t live in the US). In the past ten years, the atheist population grew 80.8%  and now we round the 20% statewide.
    I felt so happy when I read this, yet, we don’t have any atheist organization and local news still cover church’s activities and celebrations and have at least one priest to give their opinion on the news.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I expect that Vatican City has a high level of atheism. It’s where Church leaders end up, ambitious and often intelligent people… just the sort who have always been atheists. I have little doubt that quite a few Popes have been atheists.

    That said, you’re not going to find very many people in Vatican City who self-identify as atheists, so any survey is going to give useless results there.

  • advancedatheist

    This seems to support psychologist Nigel Barber‘s thesis that world religiosity could fall below 50 percent by the 2030′s:

    http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6 

    I look forward to the coming “Jesus who?” era. Those radical philosophes in the 18th Century, for example the Baron d’Holbach and his circle, had basically the right idea of the possibility of a postreligious world worth living in.

  • usclat

    It seems to me that you are saying that those who are, are and those who aren’t aren’t and the two are pretty much set in stone. I believe that while the general social environment IS becoming more conducive to identifying oneself as a person of reason, there are also many legitimate “conversions” away from faith.   

    As an example, my sister-in-law and her husband had been life-long Catholics. In fact, her uncle recently celebrated 55 years as a priest. They have two children, one who is gay. When he (her son) finally came out of the closet, it was devastating to her and her husband. Nevertheless, as the years went by, she realized that the Church’s (and Bible’s) position with regard to her son’s nature, were no longer acceptable to her. She lost her faith in all religion and significantly, she lost her belief in a god. Her husband did too. I could sense that for them it was a great sense of relief that they could embrace their son as always without the nonsensical fear of god’s wrath.

    Yes, many others would have doubled down on the side of religion in this scenario, but more and more, I hear of these later life “epiphanies” that bring people around to reason. 

    I do agree with you about pushing for social recognition as non-believers and people of reason. If more people could become comfortable with their atheism and just say they are non-believers, the frightful hold on this country by “Faith” would erode much quicker. 

  • CultOfReason

    Sort of like the countries at the bottom of the list where they face a death sentence if they were to self-identify as atheists.

    Nothing  skews survey results like the threat of death.

  • Gus Snarp

    Well those are heartening numbers.

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

    I hope this means that all the anti-blasphemy legislation that’s cropping up around the world is actually some sort of “extinction burst” of behavior.

  • Pedro Lemos

    Brasil´s position in this list is shameful… and I don´t see things changing in short term… :(

  • Gus Snarp

    I don’t know if atheist would be the right word for many, but I’m quite convinced that most Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, and a fair number of priests don’t believe most of what they’re spreading. Mother Theresa apparently didn’t.

  • Gus Snarp

    Yeah, but if you drill down in the results you find that Italy has a much higher proportion that is religious, and about half the proportion of non-religious. So the higher atheist proportion is more than balanced by a decrease in the general non religious group.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I don’t disagree at all that genuine conversions are on the rise. I’m just speculating that more of these “new” atheists were atheists all along, and are just now willing to admit it in surveys.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Saudi Arabia is two steps above the U.S. in atheism??? It must have been very interesting to conduct such a survey there.

    “Pssst! Effendi, I have a survey from the West. I’ll keep your answers a secret locked in my heart. Let’s meet tonight, behind the souq. Come alone.”

  • Paul Bennett

    It would appear that you have no result for New Zealand, which is unfortunate given that at our last National Census around 30% of the countries population identified as no religion. We are having another census in 2013 and we hope to see a further increase in those numbers. 

  • Stephen Cameron

    Vietnam is at the bottom with zero?   On other surveys I’ve seen, vietnam comes out near the top.

    Like the graphic on this page:
     http://startthinkingright.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/atheist-country-japan-smashed-by-tsunami/

    which shows vietnam at position number 2, beaten out only by Sweden.

    And as another commenter noted, Saudi Arabia has a higher percentage of atheists than the U.S.?

    Wonder what gives?   Some weird things in this chart.

  • James Tomlinson

    You hear this all the time…  ” I felt all alone in my belief.. there is no god!”   I thank the Internet for my ultimate conversion to a life time of REASON.. Blogs like Friendly Atheist..  Authors like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennet..  and thousands more who blog and respond to Humanist issues gave me the incite to free myself from the illusion of life after death..  Now I just have life!  I’m out of the closet!

  • Michael

    The results for the UK should be out in the next census report, around the end of the year. Should be.

  • Ibis3

    As for appealing to atheists as a voting bloc, there’s not really a single issue that atheists agree upon to a degree that politicians can tap into.

    * not social justice issues (a.k.a. women’s rights, lgbt rights, rights of PoC & ethnic minorities)–we’ve seen plenty of misogynist, homophobic, racist assholes in our ranks recently and that’s not even including those apathetic on these issues; I mean we can’t even get enough agreement on this issue among ourselves to have anti-harassment policies instituted at events without blow back

    *not poverty, not socialised medicine etc–there’s a large number of libertarian douchebags too

    *not crime, gun control, drug policy–there seem to also be a lot of non-progressive “tough on crime, pass me my pistol, and lock up the druggies and their pushers forever, or better yet, where’s the lethal injection” types also

    *not environmentalism–there are still AGW deniers and others who think that climate change isn’t so bad since it won’t affect them very much and you can’t stand in the way of the free market anyway

    *not even secularism when there are so many accommodationists who just want everyone to play nice and there’s so much good that religion does we can’t hurt their feelings

    So sure, there may be a large percentage of non-religious and growing, but it doesn’t mean much on a political level.

  • Keulan

    I see two problems with this survey. First, they only have numbers of declared atheists from 57 countries, which leaves out all the atheists in countries not included in the survey. Second, the number of atheists in the survey are only the ones who use the term ‘atheist’ to describe themselves. So I’m pretty sure the actual percentages of atheists worldwide and in the separate countries are higher than this poll found.

  • David

     “Nothing  skews survey results like the threat of death.”

    Or the threat of everlasting hell  ;-)

  • Agnostic

    Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Poi Pot , the most infamous atheists in recent history must have known that.

  • US Infidel

    THANK GOD!

  • machintelligence

    Just for fun: Daniel Dennett “You Might Be an Atheist”.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLYjCqZx0xg 

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Hitler was a Catholic, and based his personal views on a mix of Christianity and Germanic mythology. His government was not atheistic. A Poi Pot is something you find at a luau.

  • Agnostic

    Hitler religious belief apparently is being debated. Pol Pot was infamous for being responsible for killing fields in Cambodia

  • kaydenpat

    I was going to say the same thing.  Atheists who are conservative can vote Republican, and those who are liberal can vote Democratic.  Or if not satisfied with those two parties, atheists can vote for a 3rd party. 

    Why would Republicans seek atheist votes?  This current strain of Republicans is very pro-Christian.  I just can’t imagine any Republican politician actually reaching out publicly to atheists without some serious blowback.

  • randall.morrison90

    How choice that China, at the top of the Atheism Index, is a totalitarian state that oppresses believers, forces abortions, and stifle human rights.

    Thats what the world has to look forward to if atheists get political control.

  • randall.morrison90

    Don’t forget the mass murderers Trotksy and Mao!

  • Laertes

    They aren’t making a big mistake by not going after us in elections.  A politician can reach out to Jews, African-Americans, and Hispanics without significantly offending non-Jews, non-African-Americans, and non-Hispanics.

    The religious hate and fear atheists.  A politician who was seen to be “reaching out” to us would be demagogued into oblivion by her lucky opponent.

  • RIRedinPA

    An atheist in the GOP is as confusing to me as gay GOP members. I get that ones sexual orientation doesn’t denote ones political views (i.e. Andrew Sullivan) in the same sense neither does ones religious (or lack thereof) determine a political ideology.

    But at the same time, why would an atheist belong to the party that places a fig leaf over it’s duality as a religious organization? A party that would not only disagree with one’s atheist views but do so with extreme prejudice. 

    Better to work within the Democratic party to introduce conservative views to liberalism than try to convert the Christianist party to something different. 

  • http://www.kadestorm.com Hedonist: The Devil’s Advocate

    Lol. Yeah, I am really curious as to how they came up with that figure since Saudi-Wahabist law is horrendously stringent with regards to Islamic dominion over freedom of conscience. Death penalty for apostasy makes the whole idea of stepping outside the closet of dogma quite troublesome in those parts.

  • http://www.kadestorm.com Hedonist: The Devil’s Advocate

    It could certainly be the case, especially with the present climate where many educated folk aspiring for upper financial status are also falling into the lower socio-economic bracket with their own share of problems. I certainly agree with the idea that we might benefit from another study.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X