By George Kane

george head smallAt the end of July, Gallop International released its Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012, which shows that the atheist movement is advancing rapidly worldwide. The international survey asked respondents, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious persons [sic] or a convinced atheist?” The response to polls on religiosity and atheism is heavily influenced by the way the question is worded. For example, a 1996 poll by Free Inquiry magazine asked people if there is a personal god who can answer prayer. By selecting this wording they avoided counting as “religious” people who define god, for example, as love or the laws of physics.

As Gallop formulated the question, their “atheism index” counts only self-described atheists, thereby excluding people who prefer to call themselves, for example, rationalists, materialists, freethinkers, humanists, skeptics, or secular. Gallop’s option of “convinced atheist” will also be selected only by “strong” atheists—people who believe that there are no supernatural gods—and not by “weak” atheists, who have no opinion on the existence of gods, or believe that the question of the existence of supernatural gods is unanswerable or meaningless.


The country with the most atheistic population is China, with 47% of respondents calling themselves convinced atheists, and another 30% reporting themselves as not religious. This result probably reflects the influence of a government which exerts considerable control over potentially dissident organizations. Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in China’s constitution, the government bans churches that are centrally controlled outside of China. That is why Catholic Bishops are appointed by the Chinese government rather than by the Pope. Perhaps most significantly, Chinese law forbids religious indoctrination of anyone younger than sixteen years old.

Here is a list of the top ten atheist populations after China (% of "Not Convinced" / % of "Convinced Atheist"):

Japan: (31% / 31%)
Czech Republic: (48% / 30%)
France: (34% / 29%)
South Korea: (31% / 15%)
Germany: (33% / 15%)
Netherlands: (42% / 14%)
Austria: (43% / 10%)
Iceland: (31% / 10%)
Australia: (48% / 10%)
Ireland: (44% / 10%)

Of these nations, the only ones with the majority of the population reporting as religious are South Korea, 52%; Germany, 51%; and Iceland, 57%.

The ten most religious populations are Ghana, Nigeria, Armenia, Fiji, Macedonia, Romania, Iraq, Kenya, Peru, and Brazil. The data for all nations shows an undeniable trend: the nations with the most religious population have the lowest annual per capita income, while countries with the highest per capita income have the least religious populations. Worldwide, the highest income quintile is 19% atheist and the quintile below that 20%. The world’s lowest quintile of income is only 7% atheist. The rate of atheists among people with a college education is 19%, but only 7% among those with no formal education.

The decline of religiosity is surprisingly rapid. Comparing 2012 results to responses to the same survey in 2005, only seven years earlier, Gallop found that religiosity declined 23% in Vietnam, 22% in Ireland, 21% in both Switzerland and France, and 19% in South Africa. Globally, there was a 9% decline during those seven years, demonstrating a rapid cultural shift.

In the United States, only 5% describe themselves as convinced atheists, while 30% call themselves not religious and 5% are undecided. The percent of Americans self-identifying as religious declined from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2012. This reflects the trend that we have seen in Minnesota, where we have experienced a surge in the numbers of people attending atheist events. The Gallop survey does not provide demographic information, but local experience suggests that the growth has come primarily among people twenty to forty years old. Older people reached their religious conclusions when atheism carried an enormous stigma. People who believed there were no gods kept their opinions to themselves; at the very least, they described their beliefs with a term other than atheism. Mainstream acceptance is a major cultural change that promises continued growth.

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