Pew Study: Worldwide, One in Six Has No Religious Affiliation

A new study (PDF) out today by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life looks at numbers from 2010 and finds that 16.3% of the global population (approximately 1,126,500,000 people) have no religious affiliation:

Considering how this study analyzes 2,500 different sources of data from 232 countries, it’s about as rigorous as a study can get. Keep in mind that since it relied on self-identification of your religious group, there may still be a large percentage of people who called themselves, say, Catholic, without actually believing any of the doctrine. In other words, the “1-in-6-are-non-religious” headline is very likely an underestimate.

Still, the 1-in-6 number is the big takeaway from the study:

“Something that may surprise a lot of people,” said Conrad Hackett, a primary researcher on the report, “is that the third-largest religious group, after Christians and Muslims, is the religiously unaffiliated. There may have been some guesses floating out there before, but this is the first time there are numbers based on survey data analyzed in a rigorous and scientific way.”

Where do the Nones live? According to “The Global Religious Landscape,” as the study is called, most of us live, not surprisingly, in Asia and the Pacific (mostly China):

In fact, the Unaffiliated constitute the majority of the population in six countries: the Czech Republic (76%), North Korea (71%), Estonia (60%), Japan (57%), Hong Kong (56%), and China (52%).

In the U.S., the number (circa 2010) is around 16.4%, though more recent Pew studies put the percentage a little higher, closer to 20%.

Though the U.S. only has about 4.5% of the global unaffiliated population, that still amounts to 50,980,000 people. Imagine how much political clout we could have if even a fraction of that number decided to advocate for church/state separation and socially liberal policies…

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.

  • chicago dyke

    when i have some time i’ll take a look at growth rate and age breakdowns, along with internet access by affiliation; i bet those would make a great paper. 

    NK will snap back just like russia and china did when nonreligious totalitarianism falls. i almost hate calling NK ‘nonreligious’ because if those people don’t have a cult of worship the leader i don’t know who does. 

    and lard, that 16% us figure sounds so pathetic now. we really do get the choice religious brainwashing over here, and by gum it’s working. we should at least be of the middle of the pack, given our wealth, technology and ethnic diversity. sad. 

  • Guest

    Attention atheists.  Having no religious affiliation is not atheism.    It may not be agnosticism.  It may not be secularism.  It simply means people have no particular affiliation, making it up as they go, borrowing from this or that.  That’s all.  Not anything to boast about, for the atmosphere that encourages this trend is probably one of the reasons you have religious people who mix their beliefs without realizing it, and atheists according to the Pew research who pray to God.  I see the growing ‘no affiliation’ being a bane to atheists, religious, and secularists alike.  

  • Chris B.

    Just to clarify, the study seems to show that North America (which would also include Canada and Mexico) has 50,980,000 unaffiliated, not the United States.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Well that is pretty stupid. If nothing else, a rise in religiously unaffiliated means the religious right losing your the “christian nation” argument. You see a bane to atheists, I see an idiot “guest” commentator.

  • Hemant Mehta

    North America has around 59 million unaffiliated. The U.S. alone has 50,980,000 as I said. No error there!

  • NotTHATguest

    I was about to point out the same thing myself. And since there isn’t a separate listing for Caribbean, then America also includes the island nations.

  • Steve Bowen

    Well “Guest” is sort of correct

    ” However, many of the religiously unaffiliated have some religious beliefs. 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. ”

    I’m not sure where ze gets the ‘praying atheists’ from though.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    Correct only to the extent that not all the unaffiliated population are atheists (which no one claimed to begin with). But rising numbers of unaffiliated does mean more atheists, and to say this is just as bad for nonbelievers as for believers is about the silliest example of false equivalence that I have ever seen.

  • C Peterson

    All religion was made up as it went. The only difference is when. There’s a peculiar notion that old batshit is somehow more respectable than new. That’s nonsense.

    There is no suggestion that all, or even most, nones are atheists. Most of the world’s problems come from two sources: religious dogma, and the sort of uncritical thinking that theism is a symptom of, and perhaps a cause of as well. Getting rid of religion is a huge step forward, which is why we are happy to see a growth in the nones. In addition, divorcing oneself from religion is usually the first step in becoming an atheist. For most who were born into a religion, repairing that damage is a process. First you recognize the inherent silliness and immorality of your religion. Next you move away from that religion, perhaps exploring others, perhaps not. Finally, you realize that it isn’t the particular religion that is flawed, but the concept of religion and theism itself. And you become an atheist.

    The statistics on the growing number of nones also show that within that category, the number of atheists is growing, as well. Which is just what we would expect.

  • cathouseumbrella

    There are far more Sihks in the world than Jews. I wonder why they’re lumped in the “other” category but Jews aren’t.

  • Kristian

    Interesting! I’m looking forward to read the study.
    Still, I don’t think this means 1/6 of all people are atheists/agnostic, but it still sends a strong signal…

  • Cat’s Staff

    I know many Asian people who would be called unaffiliated, because they don’t belong to one of the recognized religions.  But, many practice ancestor worship, believe in astrology and fortune tellers, and are very superstitious.

    One of these days someone needs to do a survey with a the question… “Do you think there is anything supernatural? Yes or No.”  As far as I’m concerned, all the theists up there are in the “yes” group (with the exception of some of the Budhists and some of the unaffiliated and the people in the other groups who simply used the label they were born with when they were asked).

  • Mjy1945

    The pie chart shows 31.5% Christians (more than 2 billion of them!) but I wonder how many will be down on their knees in church next Sunday? Not very many is my guess; not even 10% of them.

  • Ibis3

     My guess is that in this survey, the animists and ancestor worshippers are counted among the Folk Religions rather than Unaffiliateds.

  • Tim

    Pew is baised?  perhaps because Pew is an American organisation.  Jews are more numerous than Sihks in the USA? 

  • The Other Weirdo

     My guess would be because Jews are a part of the 3 Abrahamic faiths(Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and Sikhs aren’t.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Next time I hear somebody blather on about the Jewish Conspiracy(tm), I’m going to print this post out, roll it up into a tube and shove it up their arse. There are so few Jews in the world, that if we’ve managed to take it over, we bloody well deserve to.

  • cathouseumbrella

    Why would that matter though? Numbers are numbers. According to the same document that chart comes from, there are 25 million Sikhs in the world and 14 million Jews. Why not either give the Sikhs their own slice or include Jews in the “other” category? As it stands it reads like a weird cultural bias on the part of Pew.

  • cathouseumbrella

    It does certainly make it look like Pew is biased. Really disappointing to see.

  • Namr

    This still means that five in six people worldwide belong to a religion, which makes atheists outnumbered by a large margin.

    I wonder if, as China gains more influence, it’s atheism will be exported? Or is Chinese atheism not like that?

  • Anna

    Doubtful, although Wikipedia has some interesting information on religion and atheism in China.

    I’m not really sure how much Chinese atheists would have in common with Western ones. They might not believe in gods, but it’s possible that many of them believe in other supernatural things like the ghosts and spirits of their ancestors. Unless they’re strict materialists who lack belief in any kind of supernatural realm, it doesn’t seem like they’d have much in common with us.