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Demographics of atheism

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Ephesians 2,12 - Greek atheos


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The demographics of atheism are difficult to quantify. Different people interpret "atheist" and related terms differently, and it can be hard to draw boundaries between atheism, non-religious beliefs, and non-theistic religious and spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, atheists may not report themselves as such, to prevent suffering from social stigma, discrimination, and persecution in certain regions, or in cases where the situation is reversed, religious people may keep their beliefs secret in societies with a pro-atheist government.[1] Despite these problems, one study classified 2.5% of the world's population as atheists, and a separate 12.7% as non-religious.[2]

Studies and statistics

Because some governments have strongly promoted atheism and others have strongly condemned it, atheism may be either over-reported or under-reported for different countries. There is a great deal of room for debate as to the accuracy of any method of estimation, as the opportunity for misreporting (intentionally or not) a category of people without an organizational structure is high. Also, many surveys on religious identification ask people to identify themselves as "agnostics" or "atheists", which is potentially confusing, since these terms are interpreted differently, with some identifying themselves as being both atheist and agnostic. Additionally, many of these surveys only gauge the number of irreligious people, not the number of actual atheists, or group the two together.

Statistical problems

Statistics on atheism are often difficult to represent accurately for a variety of reasons. Atheism is a position compatible with other forms of identity. Some atheists also consider themselves Agnostic, Buddhist, Jains, Unitarian, Taoist or hold other related philosophical beliefs. Therefore, given limited poll options, some may use other terms to describe their identity. Some politically motivated organizations that report or gather population statistics may, intentionally or unintentionally, misrepresent atheists. Survey designs may bias results due to the nature of elements such as the wording of questions and the available response options. Also, many atheists, particularly former Catholics and former Mormons, are still counted as Christians in church rosters, although surveys generally ask samples of the population and do not look in church rosters. Other Christians believe that "once a person is [truly] saved, that person is always saved", a doctrine known as eternal security. Statistics are generally collected on the assumption that religion is a categorical variable. Instruments have been designed to measure attitudes toward religion, including one that was used by L. L. Thurstone. This may be a particularly important consideration among people who have neutral attitudes, as it is more likely prevailing social norms will influence the responses of such people on survey questions which effectively force respondents to categorize themselves either as belonging to a particular religion or belonging to no religion. A negative perception of atheists and pressure from family and peers may also cause some atheists to disassociate themselves from atheism. Misunderstanding of the term may also be a reason some label themselves differently.


Legal and social discrimination against atheists in some places may lead some to deny or conceal their atheism due to fears of persecution. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota involving a poll of 2,000 households in the United States found atheists to be the most distrusted of minorities, more so than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups. Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.[3] However, the same study also reported that, “The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation — with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Southern counterparts.”[3]


Though atheists are in the minority in most countries, they are relatively common in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina and Uruguay, in former and present Communist states, and, to a lesser extent, in the United States. A 1995 survey attributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica indicates that the non-religious are about 14.7% of the world's population, and atheists around 3.8%. Another survey attributed to Britannica shows the population of atheists at around 2.4% of the world's population. It is difficult to determine whether atheism is growing or not. What is certain is that in some areas of the world (such as Europe) atheism and Secularization seem to be on the rise.

While there are more atheists than ever before, polls show that atheism's percentages seems to be declining. This may be because birth rates in religious societies are much higher.[4] This is similar to a 2002 survey by, which estimates the proportion of the world's people who are "secular, non-religious, agnostics and atheists" at about 14%.[5] A 2004 survey by the BBC in 10 countries showed the proportion of the population "who don't believe in God" varying between 0% (Nigeria) and 39% (UK), with an average close to 17% in the countries surveyed. About 8% of the respondents stated specifically that they consider themselves to be atheists.[6] A 2004 survey by the CIA in the World Factbook estimates about 12.5% of the world's population are non-religious, and about 2.4% are atheists.[7] A 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that in the United States, 12% of people under 30 and 6% of people over 30 could be characterized as non-religious.[8] A 2005 poll by AP/Ipsos surveyed ten countries. Of the developed nations, people in the United States had most certainty about the existence of God or a higher power (2% atheist, 4% agnostic), while France had the most skeptics (19% atheist, 16% agnostic). On the religion question, South Korea had the greatest percentage without a religion (41%) while Italy had the smallest (5%).[9]

A study has shown atheism in the west to be particularly prevalent among scientists, a tendency already quite marked at the beginning of the 20th century, developing into a dominant one during the course of the century. In 1914, James H. Leuba found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. natural scientists expressed "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God" (defined as a personal God which interacts directly with human beings). The same study, repeated in 1996, gave a similar percentage of 60.7%; this number is 93% among the members of the National Academy of Sciences. Expressions of positive disbelief rose from 52% to 72%.[10] (See also Relationship between religion and science.)


According to the most recent relevant Eurostat Eurobarometer poll, in 2005, 52% of European Union citizens responded that "they believe there is a God", whereas 27% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force" and 18% that "they do not believe there is a spirit, God, nor life force". Results were widely varied between different countries, with 95% of Maltese respondents stating that they believe in God, on the one end, and only 16% of Estonians stating the same on the other.[11]

Europe belief in god

The percentage of people in European countries who said in 2005 that they "believe there is a God".

Europe No Belief

No Belief in a spirit, God or life force per country (Eurobarometer 2005)

Eurobarometer Poll 2005
Country Belief in a god Belief in a spirit
or life force
Belief in neither a spirit,
god or life force
Turkey Turkey 95% 2% 1%
Malta Malta 95% 3% 1%
Cyprus Cyprus 90% 7% 2%
Romania Romania 90% 8% 1%
Greece Greece 81% 16% 3%
Portugal Portugal 81% 12% 6%
Poland Poland 80% 15% 1%
Italy Italy 74% 16% 6%
Republic of Ireland Ireland 73% 22% 4%
Croatia Croatia 67% 25% 7%
Slovakia Slovakia 61% 26% 11%
Spain Spain 59% 21% 18%
Austria Austria 54% 34% 8%
Lithuania Lithuania 49% 36% 12%
Switzerland Switzerland 48% 39% 9%
Germany Germany 47% 25% 25%
Luxembourg Luxembourg 44% 28% 22%
Hungary Hungary 44% 31% 19%
Belgium Belgium 43% 29% 27%
Finland Finland 41% 41% 16%
Bulgaria Bulgaria 40% 40% 13%
Iceland Iceland 38% 48% 11%
United Kingdom United Kingdom 38% 40% 20%
Latvia Latvia 37% 49% 10%
Slovenia Slovenia 37% 46% 16%
France France 34% 27% 33%
Netherlands Netherlands 34% 37% 27%
Norway Norway 32% 47% 17%
Denmark Denmark 31% 49% 19%
Sweden Sweden 23% 53% 23%
Czech Republic Czech Republic 19% 50% 30%
Estonia Estonia 16% 54% 26%

Several studies have found Sweden to be one of the most atheist countries in the world. According to Davie (1999), 80% of Swedes do not believe in God.[12] In the Eurostat survey, 23% of Swedish citizens responded that "they believe there is a God", whereas 53% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force" and 23% that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force". This, according to the survey, would make Swedes the third least religious people in the 27-member European Union, after Estonia and the Czech Republic. In 2001, the Czech Statistical Office provided census information on the ten million people in the Czech Republic. 59% had no religion, 32.2% were religious, and 8.8% did not answer.[13]

A 2006 survey in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten (on February 17), saw 1,006 inhabitants of Norway answering the question "What do you believe in?". 29% answered "I believe in a god or deity", 23% answered "I believe in a higher power without being certain of what", 26% answered "I don't believe in God or higher powers", and 22% answered "I am in doubt". Still, some 85% of the population are members of the Norwegian state's official Lutheran Protestant church. Part of this deviance is because Norwegians are signed into this church at birth, and that signing out, if they are even aware of being signed in, is a time-consuming, bureaucratic affair yielding no immediate gains.

In France, about 12% of the population reportedly attends religious services more than once per month. In a 2003 poll 54% of those polled in France identified themselves as "faithful", 33% as atheist, 14% as agnostic, and 26% as "indifferent".[14] However, either the poll results are flawed or the categories were not mutually exclusive, as the total percentages add up to 127%. According to a different poll, 32% declared themselves atheists, and an additional 32% declared themselves agnostic.[15]

In the United Kingdom, a poll in 2004 by the BBC put the number of people who do not believe in a God to be 50%, while a YouGov poll in the same year put the percentage of non-believers at 35% with 21% uncertain.[16] In the YouGov poll men were less likely to believe in a god than women and younger people were less likely to believe in a god than older people.

In early 2004, it was announced that atheism would be taught during religious education classes in the United Kingdom.[17] A spokesman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority stated: "There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously." There is also considerable debate in the UK on the status of faith-based schools, which use religious as well as academic selection criteria. A 2009 study reported that two thirds of teenagers in the UK do not believe in God.[18]

In Spain, 81.7% are believers, 11% are non-believers and 6% are atheists (according to the 2005 poll of the public Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas).[19]

There is a complex situation with atheism in Russia. According to a surveys of Levada Center, 30% of those surveyed self-described as non-religious, agnostic or atheist. Although there are 66% of Orthodox believers (and 3% Muslims) in Russia, only 42% of people fully trust religious organizations and just 8% regularly (at least once a month) attend the service.[20]

North America

A 2004 BBC poll showed the number of people in the US who don't believe in a god to be about 9%.[6] A 2005 Gallup poll showed that a smaller 5% of the US population believed that a god didn't exist.[21] The 2001 ARIS report found that while 29.5 million U.S. Americans (14.1%) describe themselves as "without religion", only 902,000 (0.4%) positively claim to be atheist, with another 991,000 (0.5%) professing agnosticism.[22] The most recent ARIS report, released March 9, 2009, found in 2008, 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion. Of which, 1.6% explicitly describe themselves as atheist or agnostic, double the previous 2001 ARIS survey figure. The highest occurrence of "nones", according to the 2008 ARIS report, reside in Vermont, with 34% surveyed.[23]

Religious Belief in North America

The percentage of people in North America who identify with a religion as opposed to having "no religion" (1991), (2001).

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This, in conjunction with the no religious test clause, is used to support the separation of church and state by its advocates. U.S. courts have regularly interpreted the constitution as protecting the freedoms of non-believers, as well as prohibiting the establishment of any state religion.

In Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, Justice Souter wrote in the opinion for the Court that: "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion."[24][25] Everson v. Board of Education established that "neither a state nor the Federal Government can... pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another". This applies the Establishment Clause to the states as well as the federal government.[26] Interestingly, several state constitutions make the protection of persons from religious discrimination conditional on their acknowledgment of the existence of a deity. These state constitutional clauses have not been tested. Additionally, some state constitutions (namely those of Arkansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and North Carolina) forbid atheists from holding public office, in violation of Article Six of the United States Constitution. These provisions are probably not enforceable.[27] In the Newdow case, after a father challenged the phrase "under God" in the United States Pledge of Allegiance, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the phrase unconstitutional. Although the decision was stayed pending the outcome of an appeal, there was the prospect that the pledge would cease to be legally usable without modification in schools in the western United States, over which the Ninth Circuit has jurisdiction. This resulted in political furor, and both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning the decision. A large group consisting of many Senators and House Representatives was televised standing on the steps of Congress, hands over hearts, swearing the pledge and shouting out "under God". The Supreme Court subsequently reversed the decision, ruling that Michael Newdow did not have standing to bring his case, thus disposing of the case without ruling on the constitutionality of the pledge. Regarding this, atheists point out that the phrase "under God" was not originally in the Pledge of Allegiance, but added in 1954 during the Cold War to counter the USSR's official atheist state.[28] Four years later, the phrase “In God We Trust” began appearing on US paper currency.[29]

Atheism is more prevalent in Canada than in the United States, with 19-30% of the population holding an atheistic or agnostic viewpoint.[30] The 2001 Canadian Census states that 16.2% of the population holds no religious affiliation, though exact statistics on atheism are not recorded.[31] In urban centres this figure can be substantially higher; the 2001 census indicated that 42.2% of residents in Vancouver hold "no religious affiliation."[32] A recent survey in 2008 found that 23% of Canadians said they did not believe in a god.[33]

Separation of church and state is guaranteed by Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution, which also designates religious leaders as ineligible for public office, while the majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic (89%).[34]

The latest statistics show that a lack of religious identity increased in every US state between 1990 and 2008.[35] However less than 2% of the U.S. population describe themselves as atheist.[36]


In Israel, around 50% of Israelis who were born ethnically Jewish consider themselves "secular" or hilonim, some of them still keep certain religious traditions for cultural reasons, but most are immersed within the Secular Jewish culture. The number of Atheists and Agnostics is lower, and it stands at 15 to 37 percent.[37]

East Asian religions define religion differently than in the West, making classification of certain adherents of Buddhism and Taoism particularly difficult, as belief in gods is often not required by some of the schools of thought of those religions. Japan can be especially confusing, with most of the population incorporating practices from multiple religions into their lives (see Religion in Japan). In the People's Republic of China, 59% of the population claim to be non-religious[38] However, this percentage may be significantly greater (up to 80%) or smaller (down to 30%) in reality, because some Chinese define religion differently. Some Chinese[who?] define religion as practicing customs (which may be done for cultural or traditional reasons), while others define it as actually consciously believing their religion will lead to post-mortem salvation/reincarnation. According to the surveys of Phil Zuckerman on in 1993, 59% (over 700 million)[39] of the Chinese population was irreligious and 8% - 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million) as of 2005. (see Religion in China).


In the Australian 2006 Census of Population and Housing, in the question which asked What is the person's religion?, 18.7% ticked the box marked no religion or wrote in a response which was classified as non religious (e.g. humanism, atheist), which is a growth of 3.2% since the 2001 Census. This question was optional and 11.2% did not answer the question.[40] There are often popular and successful campaigns to have people describe themselves as non-mainstream religions (eg. Jedi).[41]

In 2006, the New Zealand census asked, What is your religion?. 34.7% of those answering indicated no religion. 12.2% did not respond or objected to answering the question.[42][43]

Trend in the UK

In the United Kingdom, religious adherence rates have been falling for some time while the proportion of people who self-classify as having no religion has been increasing.

The graph below shows the trends of people who self-classify as Christian, Non-Christian Religions and Non-Believers as measured by the British Social Attitudes Survey between 1983 and 2007[44] :



  1. Todd, Douglas China's stress on "harmony" keeps tight lid on religion Vancouver Sun blog.
  2. Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority, according to new U of M study". UMN News. Retrieved 2006-03-22. 
  4. "Worldwide Adherents of All Religions by Six Continental Areas, Mid-1995". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  5. "Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents". Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 "UK among most secular nations". BBC News. 2004-02-26. Retrieved 2005-03-05. 
  7. "CIA World Factbook". Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  8. "Part 8: Religion in American Life: The 2004 Political Landscape". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  9. "AP/Ipsos Poll: Religious Fervor In U.S. Surpasses Faith In Many Other Highly Industrial Countries". 2005. Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  10. Larson, Edward J.; Larry Witham (1998). "Leading scientists still reject God". Nature (Macmillan Publishers Ltd.) 394 (6691): 313. doi:10.1038/28478. 
  11. "Eurostat poll on the social and religious beliefs of Europeans" (PDF). Retrieved 2006-05-10. 
  12. Zuckerman
  13. "Obyvatelstvo podle náboženského vyznání a pohlaví podle výsledků sčítání lidu v letech 1921, 1930, 1950, 1991 a 2001".$File/4032060119.pdf. Retrieved 2007-02-23. 
  14. U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. "International Religious Freedom Report 2004". Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  15. "Religious Views and Beliefs Vary Greatly by Country, According to the Latest Financial Times/Harris Poll". Financial Times/Harris Interactive. 2006-12-20. Retrieved 2007-01-17. 
  16. "Telegraph YouGov poll" (GIF). Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  17. Hinsliff, Gaby. "Children to study atheism at school". The Observer.,6903,1148578,00.html. Retrieved 2005-03-05. 
  18. "Two thirds of teenagers don't believe in God - Telegraph". Telegraph. Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  19. "Barómetro Abril 2005, Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas" (PDF). 
  21. "Article available to subscribers only". Editor&Publisher. Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  22. "American Religious Identification Survey". Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  23. "American Religious Identification Survey(ARIS 2008)". Retrieved 2009-03-20. 
  24. "BOARD OF ED. OF KIRYAS JOEL v. GRUMET, ___ U.S. ___ (1994)". FindLaw. Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  25. "BOARD OF EDUCATION OF KIRYAS JOEL VILLAGE SCHOOL DISTRICT v. GRUMET". Legal Information Institute and Project Hermes. Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  26. "Everson v. Board of Education (1947)". Retrieved 2006-03-05. 
  27. God in the State Constitutions
  28. How the Pledge got God , Post Gazette, June 28, 2002
  29. History of In God We Trust
  31. "Religion data from the 2001 Canadian census". Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Retrieved 2007-10-17. 
  32. 2001 Community Profiles
  33. One in four don't believe in God, poll finds - The Toronto Star, May 31, 2008
  34. "CIA MSN Encarta, Mexico". Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. Retrieved 2007-07-06. 
  35. [1]
  36. [2]
  37. Top 50 Countries With Highest Proportion of Atheists / Agnostics
  38. "China - People". World Desk Reference. Retrieved 2007-01-01. 
  40. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Census of Population and Housing, 2006, Census Table 20680-Religious Affiliation (broad groups) by Sex - Australia
  41. Australian Bureau of Statistics (25 October 2007). "Australia". 2006 Census QuickStats. Retrieved 2007-06-28. 
  42. Statistics New Zealand, QuickStats About Culture and Identity, Religious affiliation
  43. "Religious affiliation (total responses) for the census usually resident population count, 2006". Retrieved 2007-03-29. 
  44. "Religion by Year". British Social Attitudes Surveys. 2007. Retrieved 2009-05-24. 

External links

  • The Demand for Religion - A study on the demographics of Atheism by Wolfgang Jagodzinski (University of Cologne) and Andrew Greeley (University of Chicago and University of Arizona).
hu:Statisztikák az ateizmusról és vallásrólfi:Ateistien osuus väestöstä

ta:இறைமறுப்பாளர் வகைப்பாடு tr:Ateizm (Nüfus Dağılımı) zh:无神论人口

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