Demographics of atheism
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Symbol designed by Atheist Alliance International in 2007
Studies on the demographics of atheism have concluded that self-identified atheists comprise anywhere from 2% to 13% of the world's population, whereas people without a religion comprise anywhere from 10% to 22% of the world's population. Several polls have been conducted by Gallup International: in their 2012 poll of 57 countries, 13% of respondents were "convinced atheists" and in their 2015 poll of 65 countries 11% were "convinced atheists". In Scandinavia, the Netherlands and East Asia, and particularly in China, atheists and the nonreligious are the majority. Of the global atheist and nonreligious population, 76% reside in Asia and the Pacific, while the remainder reside in Europe (12%), North America (5%), Latin America and the Caribbean (4%), sub-Saharan Africa (2%) and the Middle East and North Africa (less than 1%). In Africa and South America, atheists are typically in the single digits. According to Pew Research Center's 2012 global study of 230 countries and territories, 16% of the world's population is not affiliated with a religion, while 84% are affiliated. Furthermore, the global study noted that many of the unaffiliated, which include atheists and agnostics, still have various religious beliefs and practices.
Historical records of atheist philosophy span several millennia. Atheistic schools are found in early Indian thought and have existed from the times of the historical Vedic religion. Western atheism has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, but did not emerge as a distinct world-view until the late Enlightenment.
Discrepancies exist among sources as to how atheist and religious demographics are changing. Social scientific assessment of the extent of "atheism" in various populations is problematic. First, in most of the world outside of East Asia most populations are believers in either a monotheistic or polytheistic system. Consequently, questions to assess non belief often take the form of any negation of the prevailing belief rather than an assertion of positive atheism and these will then be accounted accurately to rising "atheism". According to the 2012 Gallup International survey, the number of atheists is on the rise across the world, with religiosity generally declining. However, other global studies have indicated that global atheism may be in decline due to irreligious countries having the lowest birth rates in the world and religious countries having higher birth rates in general.
- 1 Studies and statistics
- 2 Geographic distribution
- 2.1 Africa
- 2.2 Asia
- 2.3 Europe
- 2.4 North America
- 2.5 Oceania
- 2.6 South America
- 3 References
Studies and statistics
The demographics of atheism are substantially difficult to quantify. Different people interpret atheism and related terms differently, and it can be hard to draw boundaries between atheism, nonreligious beliefs, and nontheistic religious and spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, atheists may not report themselves as such, to prevent suffering from social stigma, discrimination, and persecution in some countries.
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 agnostic atheists. Additionally, many of these surveys only gauge the number of irreligious people, not the number of actual atheists, or group the two together. For example, research indicates that the fastest growing religious status may be "no religion" in the United States, but this includes all kinds of atheists, agnostics, and theists. Non-religious people make up 9.66%, while one fifth of them are atheists.
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, Hindu, Jains, Taoist, or hold other related philosophical beliefs. Some, like Secular Jews and Shintoists, may indulge in some religious activities as a way of connecting with their culture, all the while being atheist. 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. 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 that prevailing social norms will influence the responses of such people on survey questions that 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.
For example, a Canadian poll released September 12, 2011 sampled 1,129 Canadian adults and collected data on the numbers of declared atheists. These numbers conflicted with the latest Canadian census data that pre-supposed that a religious affiliation predisposed a belief in a deity and was based on a poorly worded question. A quote from the study:
The data also revealed some interesting facts about Canadians' beliefs:
A study on personality and religiosity found that members of secular organizations (like the international Center for Inquiry) have similar personality profiles to members of religious groups. This study found that members of secular organizations are very likely to label themselves primarily as "atheists", but also very likely to consider themselves humanists. It was also found that secular group members show no significant differences in their negative or positive affect. The surveyed individuals also had similar profiles for conscientiousness (discipline or impulse control, and acting on values like "pursuit of truth"). Secular group members tended to be less agreeable (e.g. more likely to hold unpopular, socially challenging views), as well as more open minded (e.g. more likely to consider new ideas) than members of religious groups. Luke Galen, a personality researcher, writes "Many previously reported characteristics associated with religiosity are a function not of belief itself, but of strong convictions and group identification." Catherine Caldwell-Harris notes that "non-believers" are interested in social justice concerns and posits that this is due to their lack of belief in an afterlife, leading to a focus on what can be fixed here and now. Another study by Caldwell-Harris describes atheists as being capable of experiencing awe, which she states debunks stereotypes of atheists as "cynical and joyless". A 2014 study created six different personality profiles of 'types' of nonbelievers and compared them to Big Five personality traits.
In a global study on atheism, sociologist Phil Zuckerman noted that countries with higher levels of atheism also had the highest suicide rates compared to countries with lower levels of atheism. He concludes that correlations does not necessarily indicate causation in either case. A study on depression and suicide suggested that those without a religious affiliation have a higher suicide attempt rates than those with a religious affiliation. A study into mental well-being in religious and non-religious people found that mental well-being for both religious people and non-religious people hinged on the certainty of their belief, and that previous studies had not controlled for the effect of belonging to a group when studying churchgoers. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi regarded atheists in Western society to be "much more likely to be a man, married, with higher education", and regarded the personality of atheists to be "less authoritarian and suggestible, less dogmatic, less prejudiced, more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate, conscientious, and well educated. They are of high intelligence, and many are committed to the intellectual and scholarly life". A review of the literature found that being non-religious did not necessarily entail poorer mental health.
Though atheists are in the minority in most countries, they are relatively common in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, East Asia and in former and present communist states. It is difficult to determine actual atheist numbers. Furthermore, the conflation of terms such as atheist, agnostic, non-religious and non-theist add to confusion among poll data.
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, however, 8% of the respondents specifically stated that they consider themselves to be "atheists". Diversity was observed in the views of atheists including that "across the entire sample, almost 30% of all atheists surveyed said they sometimes prayed." 65% of those polled in a 2011 survey by the British Humanist Association answered no to the question "Are you religious?"
A 2005 poll by AP/Ipsos surveyed ten countries. Of the developed nations, people in the United States were "most sure" of 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%).
A 2010 Pew Research global study found that 16 percent of the global population to be unaffiliated with a religion, however, Pew notes that "more than three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated live in Asia, the majority in China. Many of the people in this group do hold some religious or spiritual beliefs and may even believe in a deity, but they do not identify with a particular faith." Of the global atheist and nonreligious population, 76% reside in Asia and the Pacific, while the remainder reside in Europe (12%), North America (5%), Latin America and the Caribbean (4%), sub-Saharan Africa (2%) and the Middle East and North Africa (less than 1%). According to the same survey, the religiously unaffiliated are the majority of the population only in two European countries: Czech Republic (75%) and Estonia (60%). There are another four countries where the unaffiliated make up a majority of the population: North Korea (71%), Japan (57%), Hong Kong (56%), and China (52%).
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman's global studies on atheism have indicated that global atheism may be in decline due to irreligious countries having the lowest birth rates in the world and religious countries having higher birth rates in general.
A Pew 2015 global projection study for religion and nonreligion, projects that between 2010 and 2050, there will some initial increases of the unaffiliated followed by a decline by 2050 due to lower global fertility rates among this demographic.
In terms of the United States, a 2012 Pew report showed that 32% of people under 30, 21% of people between the ages of 30-49, 15% of people between the ages of 50-64 and 9% of people over the age of 65 could be characterized as religiously unaffiliated. However, 68% of all the unaffiliated expressed belief in God and out of the whole US population, only 2.4% self identified as "atheist".
A 2013 poll by UPI/Harris showed that three-quarters of U.S. adults say they believe in God, down from 82 percent in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Just under 2-in-10 U.S. adults described themselves as very religious, with an additional 4-in-10 describing themselves as somewhat religious down from 49 percent in 2007. Twenty-three percent of Americans identified themselves as not at all religious, nearly double the 12 percent reported in 2007.
The 2015 Pew Religious Landscape survey reported that as of 2014, 22.8% of the American population is religiously unaffiliated, atheists made up 3.1% and agnostics made up 4% of the US population.
A survey based on a self-selected sample of biological and physical scientists of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States found that 7% believed in the existence of God, 72.2% did not, and 20.8% were agnostic or had doubts. Eugenie Scott argued that there are methodological issues in the study, including ambiguity in the questions. A study with clearer wording on leading scientists in the US, concluding that 40% of prominent scientists believe in a god.
In 1916, 1,000 leading American scientists were randomly chosen from American Men of Science and 41.8% believed God existed, 41.5% disbelieved, and 16.7% had doubts/did not know; however when the study was replicated 80 years later using American Men and Women of Science in 1996, results were very much the same with 39.3% believing God exists, 45.3% disbelieved, and 14.5% had doubts/did not know.
Irreligion in Egypt is uncommon among Egyptians and Islam is the predominant faith. There are no official figures for irreligion, and there is media speculation that younger people are leaving Islam. In November 2013, it was estimated that up to 3 million Egyptians were atheists.
Atheism in Ghana is difficult to measure in the country, as although many citizens claim Christian faith, many atheists in Ghana are afraid to openly express their beliefs due to real or imagined threats of intimidation.
In the Ghana census taken in 2010, Christians make up 71.2% of the population, Islam 17.6%, Irreligion 5.3%, Traditional religion 5.2%. Other faiths include Hinduism, Buddhism and Nichiren Buddhism, Taoism, Sōka Gakkai, Shintoism and Judaism.
East Asian cultures define religion differently from those in the West, making classification of certain adherents of Buddhism and Taoism particularly difficult, as belief in gods is generally absent in principle in these schools of thought except in syncretic outliers to the mainstreams of the belief system. Japan can be especially confusing, with most of the population incorporating practices from multiple religions into their lives. In China, 59% of the population are non-religious. 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 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 Adherents.com in 1993, 59% (over 700 million) of the Chinese population was irreligious and 8% – 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million) as of 2005[update]. (see Religion in China). Officially, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an atheist state, as declared by its Communist regime. Census results record 81% percent nonbelief (2009) although this may be inflated because of Vietnam's official status as an atheist nation, or that many reported as "non-believers" in formal religions still have some adherence to informal religious customs and practices such as ancestor worship, or to non-State sanctioned Buddhist temples or Christian churches.
Atheism and agnosticism have a long history in India. Indian religions, like Buddhism, Jainism and some schools of Hinduism, consider atheism to be acceptable. India has produced some notable atheist politicians and social reformers. According to the 2012 WIN-Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism report, 81% of Indians were religious, 13% were not religious, 3% were convinced atheists, and 3% were unsure or did not respond.
A survey conducted by Times Of India revealed that 52% of IIT-Bombay graduates do not believe in the existence of God.
An unknown number of Filipinos are irreligious but may form as much as 10% of the population. Catholicism's historic dominance is steadily declining, with about 9.2% of adherents expressing a desire to leave the church.
A survey conducted by WIN/GIA showed that 22% of Filipinos are atheist.
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% respectively. The 2009 Avi-Chai study found 77% of Israeli Jews believe in a "higher power", while 46% define themselves as secular, of which 8% define themselves as "anti-religious". Conversely, the Fridman report for 2007 found that less than 20% define themselves as secular—and only 5% as anti-religious.
According to a 2010 Eurostat Eurobarometer poll, 51% of European Union citizens responded that "they believe there is a God", whereas 26% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force" and 20% that "they do not believe there is a spirit, God, nor life force". Results were widely varied between different countries, with 94% of Maltese respondents stating that they believe in God, on the one end, and only 16% of Czechs stating the same on the other.
According to another poll about religiosity in the European Union from 2012 by Eurobarometer, 16% are Non believer/Agnostic, and 7% are Atheist. 72% of EU citizens are Christians, and 2% are Muslims.
According to Pew Research Center survey in 2012 religiously unaffiliated (include agnostic and atheist) make up about 18.2% of Europeans population. According to the same survey religiously unaffiliated make up a majority of the population only in two European countries: Czech Republic (75%) and Estonia (60%).
there is a God"
|"I believe there is some
sort of spirit or life force"
|"I don't believe there is any sort
of spirit, God or life force"
|Croatia (joined EU in 2013)||69%||22%||7%|
|Iceland (EEA, not EU)||31%||49%||18%|
|Norway (EEA, not EU)||22%||44%||29%|
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. Next census in 2011, with a differently worded form, provided following figures: 34.2% not religious, 20.6% religious and 45.2% no answer.
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". According to a different poll, 32% declared themselves atheists, and an additional 32% declared themselves agnostic.
Eastern Germany is perhaps the least religious region in the world.  Atheism is embraced by young and old, though more so by younger Germans. One study in September 2012 was unable to find a single person under 28 who believed in a god. The popular explanation for this is the aggressive atheist policies of German Democratic Republic's Socialist Unity Party of Germany. However, the enforcement of atheism only existed for the first few years. After that, the state allowed churches to have a relatively high level of autonomy. Also, the same high numbers of atheists don't exist in the other European countries that have a history of Soviet occupation, except for the Czech Republic and Estonia. Another explanation could be the secular movements during the Weimar Republic which were strongest in the states of Thuringia and Saxony. Also, it was the Protestant areas of the Eastern Bloc that tended to turn irreligious under Communist rule the most. The most atheist parts of the former Soviet bloc were usually once the most Protestant (East Germany, Estonia, and most of Latvia), and the Czech Republic is the only one that was once mainly Catholic (although having the largest Protestant share following the above three).
Christianity still has a presence in the rest of Germany, although there is an atheist majority in Hamburg.
Religion in the Netherlands was predominantly Christianity until late into the 20th century. Although religious diversity remains, there has been a decline of religious adherence. The Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in all of Western Europe, with only 39% being religiously affiliated (31% for those aged under 35), and fewer than 5.6% visiting religious services regularly (meaning once or more per month) in 2010. In a December 2014 survey by the VU University Amsterdam was concluded that there are more atheists (25%) than theists (17%) in the Netherlands. The rest of the population being agnostic (31%) or ietsist (27%).
Although religious diversity remains, there has been a decline of religious adherence. KASKI (Katholiek Sociaal-Kerkelijk Insituut / Catholic Social-Ecclesiastical Institute) found 23.7% to be Catholic in 2013 and 10.2% to be member of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands. Approximately 56.1% (51.3-61%) of the population has no religious affiliation. Muslims in the country constitute 5% of the total population, and 6% are adherents of other faiths (including Hinduism 0,6%, Judaism 0,1%, Buddhism 0,4%, minor Christian communities, Ethnic religions, and New religious movements). The total number of members of Christian groups in the Netherlands has decreased from approximately 7,013,163 (43.22% overall population) in 2003 to 5,730,852 (34.15% overall population) in 2013.
The number of Catholic parishes in the Netherlands has dropped between 2003 and 2014 from 1525 to 842. Since the provinces North Brabant and Limburg are in the Netherlands historically mostly Roman Catholic, their people still use the term and some traditions as a base for their cultural identity rather than as a religious identity. The vast majority of the Catholic population in the Netherlands is now largely irreligious in practice. Research among Catholics in the Netherlands in 2007 shows that only 27% of the Dutch Catholics can be regarded as a theist, 55% as an ietsist, deist or agnostic and 17% as atheist. A planned visit of Pope Francis to the Netherlands was blocked by cardinal Wim Eijk in 2014, allegedly because of the feared lack of interest for the Pope among the Dutch public. Research shows that 42% of the members of the PKN are non-theist. Furthermore, in the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) and several other smaller denominations of the Netherlands, 1 in 6 clergy are either agnostic or atheist.
Atheism, ietsism, agnosticism and "Christian atheism" are on the rise; the first three being widely accepted and the last being more or less considered to be non-controversial. Among those who adhere to Christianity there are high percentages of atheists, agnostics and ietsists, since affiliation with a Christian denomination is also used in a way of cultural identification in the different parts of the Netherlands, especially among Catholics. The Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Social and Cultural Planning Agency, SCP) expects the number of non-affiliated Dutch to be at 72% in 2020. Religion is in the Netherlands generally considered a personal matter which is not supposed to be propagated in public.
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, As of December 2010[update], 78% of the population are members of the Norwegian state's official Lutheran Protestant church. All Norwegians with at least one parent who is a member are automatically registered as members at birth, so most members have done nothing actively to join, effectively creating an opt-out system where membership is not considered a serious statement of faith in Christianity, and one where many keep themselves enrolled for the sake of possibly wanting to have a ceremony in the church at some point in their life, without this necessarily implying belief.
According to a surveys of Levada Center, 22% of those surveyed self-described as non-religious, agnostic or atheist, with 69% describing themselves as Orthodox and 5% as Muslims. Although 10% visit a church at least once a month, the fact that there has been a substantial increase in the Orthodox proportion of the population, along with the fact that those who identify themselves Christian are more likely to go to church, suggests that atheism and irreligion has greatly waned in Russia since the Soviet collapse.
In Spain, 70.7% are religious believers (68.8% catholic and 1.9% others), 16.4% are non-believers and 9.7% are atheists, according to the April 2014 poll of the public Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas.
Several studies have found Sweden to be one of the most atheist countries in the world. 18% of Swedish citizens responded that "they believe there is a God", whereas 45% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force" and 34% 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.
According to a study carried out by doctor in political science Simon Geissbühler, Swiss atheists tend to be more left-leaning, even accounting for age and income, than the average Swiss population.
A poll in 2004 by the BBC put the number of people who do not believe in a god at 39%, while a YouGov poll in the same year put the percentage of non-believers at 35% with 21% answering "Don't Know". In the YouGov poll men were less likely to believe in a god than women, 39% of men and 49% of 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 England. A compilation of some sociological studies indicates that roughly 30-40% of the British population does not have a belief in a god, but only 8% self identify as convinced atheist.
A YouGov poll in 2013 showed that 38% of British youth (18–24 years old) did not believe in the concept of God or a "spiritual greater power", 25% identified as believing in God, 19% believing in no god but a "spiritual greater power", and 18% of those surveyed did not know. Those surveyed also had a generally negative view of religion, with 41% of those surveyed agreeing with the statement that "religion is more often the cause of evil in the world".
Unaffiliated populations in each country (1995-2015):
The exact number of atheists in Canada is disputed. (See the section "Statistical problems" above) The Canadian Ipsos Reid poll released September 12, 2011 entitled "Canadians Split On Whether Religion Does More Harm in the World than Good," sampled 1,129 Canadian adults and came up 30% who do not believe in a god. Interestingly, the same poll found that of the 33% of respondents who identified themselves as Catholics and Protestants, 28% said they didn't believe in a god.
An older poll shows 19–30% of the population holding an atheistic or agnostic viewpoint.[verification needed] The 2001 Canadian Census states that 16.2% of the population holds no religious affiliation, though exact statistics on atheism are not recorded. In urban centers this figure can be substantially higher; the 2001 census indicated that 42.2% of residents in Vancouver hold "no religious affiliation". A recent survey in 2008 found that 23% of Canadians said they did not believe in a god. The numbers do seem to suggest that the numbers of people in Canada who believe in a deity are dropping at a significant rate.
In a Pew Research Poll in 2013, it is estimated about 24%, consider themselves "religiously unaffiliated". Notably, the younger generation (those born between 1987 and 1995) are ranked at 29%.
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 (82%).
Although the demographics of atheism and irreligion in Mexico is hard to measure because many atheists are officially counted as Catholic, almost three million people in the 2000 National Census reported having no religion. Recent[when?] surveys have shown that only around 3% of Catholics attend church daily and, according to INEGI, the number of atheists grows annually by 5.2%, while the number of Catholics grows by 1.7%. The 2010 Mexican census by the INEGI shows that 4.9% of Mexicans have no religion, up from 0.6% in 1960 and 3.5% in 2000.
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, more than 90% of Americans say "yes" when asked the basic question "Do you believe in God?"; this is down only slightly from the 1940s, when Gallup first asked this question. However, when given the choice to express uncertainties, the percentage of belief in God drops into the 70% to 80% range. When Americans are given the option of saying they believe in a universal spirit or higher power instead of in "God," about 12% choose the former.
A 2004 BBC poll showed the number of people in the U.S. who don't believe in a god to be about 9–10%. A 2008 Gallup poll showed that a smaller 6% of the U.S. population believed that no god or universal spirit exists. The most recent American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) report, released March 9, 2009, showed a sharp distinction between belief and identity on the issue of the existence of a god. The survey showed that a total of 81.6% of Americans professed god-belief (69.5% in a personal god, 12.1% in a "higher power"), with the remaining 18.4% saying either there is no such thing as god (2.3%), there is no way to know (4.3%), not sure (5.7%), or refusing to answer (6.1%). Nevertheless, although almost one in five Americans did not affirmatively profess god-belief, the numbers actually identifying as atheist or agnostic were much lower. The survey found 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion, of which 1.6% explicitly describes itself as atheist (0.7%) or agnostic (0.9%), nearly double the previous 2001 ARIS survey figure of 0.9%. The highest occurrence of "nones," according to the 2008 ARIS report, reside in Vermont, with 34% surveyed.
According to the Pew Forum in 2007, 1.6% of the U.S. population describes itself as atheist. A 2012 study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reports that 2.4% of the US population identified as atheists and that the number of religiously unaffiliated has grown from 15% to just under 20% from 2007 to 2012. A Pew Research Center study done in 2014 found that self-identified atheists made up 3.1% of the US, up from 1.6% in 2007. According to the 2014 General Sociological Survey, the number of atheists and agnostics in the U.S. has remained relatively flat in the past 23 years. In 1991, only 2% identified as atheist, and 4% identified as agnostic. In 2014, only 3% identified as atheists, and 5% identified as agnostics.
Overall, Americans who profess no religion or self-identify as atheist or agnostic are more likely to be white or Asian and less likely to be black or Hispanic, as compared to the general adult population in U.S. Men are more likely to be atheists and less religious than women. 55 percent of atheists in America are under age 35, while 30 percent are 50 and over (compared to 37 percent of the total population). As a group, agnostics are older than atheists, though still younger than the general population. A study on recent generations such as Millennials shows that of those between 18–29 years old, only 3% of these emerging adults self-identified as "atheists" and only 4% self-identified as "agnostics". Overall, 25% of Millennials are "Nones" and 75% are religiously affiliated.
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. 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 Midwestern counterparts."
A letter published in Nature in 1998 reported a survey suggesting that belief in a personal god or afterlife was at an all-time low among the members of the U.S. National Academy of Science, 7.0% of whom believed in a personal god as compared with more than 85% of the general U.S. population, although this study has been criticized by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke for its definition of belief in God as "I believe in a God to whom one may pray in the expectation of receiving an answer" as ambiguous. Eugenie Scott noted the same issue and compared to study with clearer wording which showed that 40% of prominent scientists believed in God.
An article published by The University of Chicago Chronicle that discussed the above study, stated that 76% of physicians in the United States believe in God, more than the 7% of scientists above, but still less than the 85% of the general population. Another study assessing religiosity among scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that "just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power."
Frank Sulloway of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michael Shermer of California State University conducted a study which found in their polling sample of "credentialed" U.S. adults (12% had Ph.Ds and 62% were college graduates) 64% believed in God, and there was a correlation indicating that religious conviction diminished with education level.
In 1958, Michael Argyle of the University of Oxford analyzed seven research studies that had investigated correlation between attitude to religion and measured intelligence among school and college students from the U.S. Although a clear negative correlation was found, the analysis did not identify causality but noted that factors such as authoritarian family background and social class may also have played a part. Sociologist Philip Schwadel found that higher levels of education are associated with increased religious participation and religious practice in daily life, but also correlate with greater tolerance for atheists' public opposition to religion and greater skepticism of "exclusivist religious viewpoints and biblical literalism". Other studies have also examined the relationship between religiosity and intelligence; in a meta-analysis, 53 of 63 studies found that analytical intelligence correlated negatively with religiosity, with 35 of the 53 reaching statistical significance, while 10 studies found a positive correlation, 2 of which reached significance.
In the Australian 2011 Census of Population and Housing, in the question which asked "What is the person's religion?" 22.3% reported "no religion", which is a growth of 7 percentage points since the 2001 Census. This question was optional and 9.4% of the population did not answer the question. There are often popular and successful campaigns to have people describe themselves as non-mainstream religions (e.g. Jedi).
In New Zealand's 2013 census, 42 per cent of people said they had no religious affiliation - an increase of more than 7 percentage points since the previous census, in 2006. The proportion of the population identifying as Christian fell below 50 per cent for the first time since records began. Similarly to Australia, many New Zealanders have identified themselves as Jedi and Pastafarian in censuses. These responses are treated as illegitimate.
Unaffiliated population in each country (1995-2015):
In some parts of South America, affiliation with religion, particularly Catholicism, has declined though non-religion (unaffilaition, atheism, agnosticism) is still a minority in the region.
- Chile – 25% are unaffiliated
- Ecuador – 7.94% atheist and .11% are agnostic
- Venezuela – most identify with Catholicism, but 8% identify with Protestantism, other religion, or atheism
In Brazil, non religious people rose from about 4% in the end of the 20th century to around 8% in the most recent reliable census and recent estimates put it in 10–14% of the population, being the 2nd largest group after Christianity. According to recent researches, Brazilians who profess no religion or self-identify as atheist or agnostic are more likely to be White Brazilian, Amerindian or Asian and less likely to be Afro-Brazilian or Pardo when compared to the general population.
There is evidence that the atheist minority is more likely to suffer prejudice than other groups: when asked about presidential candidates, in spite of major racial discrimination against black people in Brazilian society, 83% of Brazilians would vote for an Afro-Brazilian; in spite of major forms of sexism present in Latin American societies, 57% of Brazilians would vote for a female candidate (indeed, the first woman elected to the office, Dilma Roussef, won the 2010 and 2014 elections); and the historical homophobia and major widespread forms of heterosexism in the country, 37% of Brazilians would vote for a gay candidate. Nevertheless, only 13% of Brazilians would vote for an atheist person to occupy the post of president without judging the candidate because of the candidate's religion and 6 in 10 Brazilians would not vote for an atheist president. A 2009 survey showed that atheists are the most hated demographic group in Brazil, among several other minorities polled, being almost on par with drug addicts. According to the research, 17% of the interviewees stated they feel either hate or repulse for atheists, while 25% feel antipathy and 29% are indifferent.
As happens with Brazilians of sexual minorities, practitioners of traditional African diasporic religions or Spiritism, affiliation to some Evangelical or Pentecostal sects can lead to even more negative social perceptions of atheist and irreligious people. Some critics have equated the widespread vision that Protestants are far less secularized, more intolerant and socially conservative than Catholics as an instance of classist prejudice, albeit not questioning that Catholic Brazilians are more tolerant and socially liberal.
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