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Irreligion or nonreligion is the absence or rejection of religion, or indifference to it.[1] According to the Pew Research Center's 2012 global study of 230 countries and territories, 16% of the world's population is not affiliated with any religion.[2] The population of the religiously unaffiliated, sometimes referred to as "nones", grew significantly in recent years, though its future growth is uncertain.[3] Objective irreligion is difficult to isolate because many of the global "nones" actually hold religious beliefs and some engage in religious practices.[4]

Irreligion takes many forms, ranging from the casual and unaware to full-fledged philosophies such as secular humanism. Other examples are atheism, agnosticism, and antitheism. Social scientists[citation needed] tend to define irreligion as a purely naturalist worldview that excludes a belief in anything supernatural. The broadest and loosest definition, serving as an upper limit, is the lack of religious identification, though many non-identifiers express metaphysical and even religious beliefs. The narrowest and strictest is subscribing to positive atheism. Measurement of irreligiosity requires great cultural sensitivity, especially outside the West, where the concepts of "religion" or "the secular" are not always rooted in local culture.[5]


The term irreligion is a combination of the noun religion and the ir- form of the prefix in-, signifying "not" (similar to irrelevant). It was first attested in French as irréligion in 1527, then in English as irreligion in 1598. It was borrowed into Dutch as irreligie in the 17th century, though it is not certain from which language.[6]


  • Agnostic atheism is a philosophical position that encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not hold a belief in the existence of any deity and agnostic because they claim that the existence of a deity is either unknowable in principle or currently unknown in fact.[7]
  • Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable.[8]
  • Antireligion is opposition or rejection of religion of any kind.[9]
  • Apatheism is the attitude of apathy or indifference towards the existence or non-existence of god(s).[9]
  • Atheism is the lack of belief that any deities exist or, in a narrower sense, positive atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. There are ranges from Negative and positive atheism.[10]
  • Deism is the philosophical position and rationalistic theology[11] that rejects revelation as a source of divine knowledge, and asserts that empirical reason and observation of the natural world are exclusively logical, reliable, and sufficient to determine the existence of a Supreme Being as the creator of the universe.[11][12][13][14][15]
  • Freethought holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma.[9]
  • Naturalism is the idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the universe.[16]
  • Secular humanism is a system of thought that prioritizes human rather than divine matters.[17] It is also viewed as a humanistic philosophy viewed as a nontheistic religion antagonistic to traditional religion.[18]
  • Secularism is overwhelmingly used to describe a political conviction in favour of minimizing religion in the public sphere, that may be advocated regardless of personal religiosity. Yet it is sometimes, especially in the United States, also a synonym for naturalism or atheism.[19]
  • "Spiritual but not religious" is a designation coined by Robert C. Fuller for people who reject traditional or organized religion but have strong metaphysical beliefs. The SBNR may be included under the definition of nonreligion,[20] but are sometimes classified as a wholly distinct group.[21]
  • Theological noncognitivism is the argument that religious language – specifically, words such as God – are not cognitively meaningful. It is sometimes considered as synonymous with ignosticism.

Human rights[edit]

In 1993, the UN's human rights committee declared that article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights "protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief."[22] The committee further stated that "the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief necessarily entails the freedom to choose a religion or belief, including the right to replace one's current religion or belief with another or to adopt atheistic views." Signatories to the convention are barred from "the use of threat of physical force or penal sanctions to compel believers or non-believers" to recant their beliefs or convert.[23][24]

Most democracies protect the freedom of religion, and it is largely implied in respective legal systems that those who do not believe or observe any religion are allowed freedom of thought.

A noted exception to ambiguity, explicitly allowing non-religion, is Article 36 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China (as adopted in 1982), which states that "No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion."[25] Article 46 of China's 1978 Constitution was even more explicit, stating that "Citizens enjoy freedom to believe in religion and freedom not to believe in religion and to propagate atheism."[26]


Although 11 countries listed below have nonreligious majorities, it does not necessary correlate with non-identification. For example, 58% of the Swedish population identify with the Lutheran Church.[28] Also, though Scandinavian countries have among the highest measures of nonreligiosity and even atheism in Europe, 47% of atheists who live in those countries are still formally members of the national churches.[29]

Determining objective irreligion, as part of societal or individual levels of secularity and religiosity, requires cultural sensitivity from researchers. This is especially so outside the West, where the Western Christian concepts of "religious" and "secular" are not rooted in local civilization. Many East Asians identify as "without religion" (wú zōngjiào in Chinese, mu shūkyō in Japanese, mu jong-gyo in Korean), but "religion" in that context refers only to Buddhism or Christianity. Most of the people "without religion" practice Shinto and other folk religions. In the Muslim world, those who claim to be "not religious" mostly imply not strictly observing Islam, and in Israel, being "secular" means not strictly observing Orthodox Judaism. Vice versa, many American Jews share the worldviews of nonreligious people though affiliated with a Jewish denomination, and in Russia, growing identification with Eastern Orthodoxy is mainly motivated by cultural and nationalist considerations, without much concrete belief.[30]

A Pew 2015 global projection study for religion and nonreligion, projects that between 2010 and 2050, there will be some initial increases of the unaffiliated followed by a decline by 2050 due to lower global fertility rates among this demographic.[31] 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.[32] Since religion and fertility are positively related and vice versa, non-religious identity is expected to decline as a proportion of the global population throughout the 21st century.[33] By 2060, according to projections, the number of unaffiliated will increase by over 35 million, but the percentage will decrease to 13% because the total population will grow faster.[34][35]

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.[2] A 2012 Worldwide Independent Network/Gallup International Association report on a poll from 57 countries reported that 59% of the world's population identified as religious person, 23% as not religious person, 13% as "convinced atheists", and also a 9% decrease in identification as "religious" when compared to the 2005 average from 39 countries.[36] Their follow-up report, based on a poll in 2015, found that 63% of the globe identified as religious person, 22% as not religious person, and 11% as "convinced atheists".[37] Their 2017 report found that 62% of the globe identified as religious person, 25% as not religious person, and 9% as "convinced atheists".[38] However, researchers have advised caution with the WIN/Gallup International figures since other surveys which use the same wording, have conducted many waves for decades, and have a bigger sample size, such as World Values Survey; have consistently reached lower figures for the number of atheists worldwide.[39]

Being nonreligious is not necessarily equivalent to being an atheist or agnostic. Pew Research Center's global study from 2012 noted that many of the nonreligious actually have some religious beliefs. For example, they observed that "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."[40] Out of the global 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%).[40]

The term "nones" is sometimes used in the U.S. to refer to those who are unaffiliated with any organized religion. This use derives from surveys of religious affiliation, in which "None" (or "None of the above") is typically the last choice. Since this status refers to lack of organizational affiliation rather than lack of personal belief, it is a more specific concept than irreligion. A 2015 Gallup poll concluded that in the U.S. "nones" were the only "religious" group that was growing as a percentage of the population.[41]

The Pew Research Centre data in the table below reflects "religiously unaffiliated" which "include atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion in surveys".

The WIN-Gallup International Association (WIN/GIA) poll results below are the totals for "not a religious person" and "a convinced atheist" combined. Keysar et al. have advised caution with WIN/Gallup International figures since more extensive surveys which have used the same wording for decades and have bigger sample sizes, have consistently reached lower figures than the numbers in the table below. For example, the WIN/GIA numbers from China were overestimated which in turn inflated global totals.[42]

The Zuckerman data on the table below only reflect the number of people who have an absence of belief in a deity only (atheists, agnostics). Does not include the broader number of people who do not identify with a religion such as deists, spiritual but not religious, pantheists, New Age spiritualism, etc.

Country or region Pew[43]
 Afghanistan (details) < 0.1 % 9% 15%
 Albania (details) 1.4% 39% 8%
 Argentina 12.2% 34% 20% 26% 13% 4–8%
 Armenia 1.3% 6% 5% 5% 34%
 Australia (details) 24.2 63% 58% 58% 24–25%
 Austria 13.5% 53% 54% 53% 12% 18–26%
 Azerbaijan (details) < 0.1% 64% 54% 51%
 Bangladesh (details) < 0.1% 19% 5%
 Belarus 28.6% 48% 17%
 Belgium (details) 29% 64% 48% 34% 35% 42–43%
 Bosnia and Herzegovina 2.5% 22% 32% 29%
 Brazil (details) 7.9% 17% 18% 14%
 Bulgaria (details) 4.2% 39% 39% 30% 30% 34–40%
 Cameroon 5.3% 17%
 Canada (details) 23.7% 57% 53% 49% 26% 19–30%
 Chile 8.6% 34%
 China (details) 52.2% 90% 90% 77% 93% 8–14%
 Colombia 6.6% 14% 17% 15%
 DR Congo 1.8% 17%
 Croatia (details) 5.1% 13% 7%
 Cuba 23% 7%
 Czech Republic (details) 76.4% 72% 75% 78% 64% 54–61%
 Denmark (details) 11.8% 61% 52% 10% 43–80%
 Dominican Republic 10.9% 7%
 Ecuador 5.5% 18% 28% 29%
 Estonia (details) 59.6% 60% 76% 49%
 Fiji 0.8% 8% 7% 6%
 Finland (details) 17.6% 55% 42% 44% 12% 28–60%
 France (details) 28% 50% 53% 63% 43% 43–54%
 Georgia (details) 0.7% 7% 13%
 Germany (details) 24.7% 60% 59% 48% 25% 41–49%
 Ghana (details) 4.2% 1% 2%
 Greece 6.1% 22% 21% 4% 16%
 Hong Kong 56.1% 63% 70% 60%
 Hungary 18.6% 43% 32–46%
 Iceland (details) 3.5% 49% 44% 41% 4% 16–23%
 India (details) < 0.1% 5% 23% 16% 7% 9.11%
 Indonesia (details) < 0.1% 30% 15%
 Iran (details) 0.1% 20% 1%
 Iraq (details) 0.1% 34% 9%
 Ireland (details) 6.2% 56% 51% 54% 7%
 Israel (details) 3.1% 58% 65% 15–37%
 Italy (details) 12.4% 26% 24% 23% 18% 6–15%
 Japan (details) 57% 60% 62% 62% 52% 64–65%
 Kazakhstan (details) 4.2% 11–12%
 Kenya (details) 2.5% 9% 11%
 Kosovo 1.6% 3% 8%
 Kyrgyzstan 0.4% 7%
 Latvia 43.8% 52% 50% 41% 20–29%
 Lebanon (details) 0.3% 28% 18% 35%
 Lithuania 10% 40% 23% 19% 13%
 Luxembourg 26.8% 30%
 Malaysia 0.7% 23% 13%
 Malta 2.5% 1%
 Mexico (details) 4.7% 36% 28%
 Moldova 1.4% 10%
 Mongolia 35.9% 29% 9%
 Morocco (details) < 0.1% 5%
 Netherlands (details) 42.1% 66% 56% 55% 39–44%
 New Zealand (details) 36.6% 20–22%
 Nigeria (details) 0.4% 2% 16% 5% 1%
 North Korea 71.3% 15%
 North Macedonia 11% 10% 9%
 Norway (details) 10.1% 62% 31–72%
 Pakistan (details) < 0.1% 6% 11% 10%
 Palestinian territories < 0.1% 35% 19% 33%
 Panama 4.8% 13%
 Papua New Guinea < 0.1% 5% 4%
 Peru (details) 3% 23% 13% 11% 5%
 Philippines (details) 0.1% 9% 22% 11%
 Poland (details) 5.6% 10% 12% 14% 5%
 Portugal 4.4% 38% 37% 11% 4–9%
 Puerto Rico 1.9% 11%
 Romania (details) 0.1% 9% 17% 7% 2%
 Russia (details) 16.2% 30% 23% 32% 48% 24–48%
 Saudi Arabia (details) 0.7% 24%
 Serbia 3.3% 21% 21% 19%
 Singapore (details) 16.4% 13%
 Slovakia 14.3% 23% 10–28%
 Slovenia 18% 53% 30% 35–38%
 South Africa (details) 14.9% 32% 11%
 South Korea (details) 46.4% 60% 55% 46% 37% 30–52%
 South Sudan 1% 16%
 Spain (details) 19% 57% 55% 47% 16% 15–24%
 Sweden (details) 27% 73% 76% 58% 25% 46–85%
  Switzerland (details) 11.9% 58% 47% 17–27%
 Taiwan 12.7% 24%
 Tanzania 1.4% 2%
 Thailand 0.3% 2% 2%
 Tunisia 0.2% 33%
 Turkey (details) 1.2% 15% 75% (anomalous) 3%
 Uganda (details) 0.5% 1%
 Ukraine 14.7% 42% 24% 23% 42% 20%
 United Kingdom (details) 21.3% 69% 66% 31–44%
 United States (details) 16.4% 39% 39% 35% 20% 3–9%
 Uruguay (details) 40.7% 12%
 Uzbekistan 0.8% 18%
 Venezuela 10% 2% 27%
 Vietnam 29.6% 63% 54% 65% 46% 81%

Historical trends[edit]

According to political/social scientist Ronald F. Inglehart, "influential thinkers from Karl Marx to Max Weber to Émile Durkheim predicted that the spread of scientific knowledge would dispel religion throughout the world", but religion continued to prosper in most places during the 19th and 20th centuries.[50] Inglehart and Pippa Norris argue faith is "more emotional than cognitive", and advance an alternative thesis ("existential security"). They postulate that rather than knowledge or ignorance of scientific learning determining religiosity, it is how weak/vulnerable a society is that does this – religious values being more important the more poor and chaotic a society is, and less so as they become more rich and secure. As need for the support of religion diminishes, there is less willingness to "accept its constraints, including keeping women in the kitchen and gay people in the closet".[51]


In a study of religious trends in 49 countries from 1981 to 2019, Inglehart and Norris found an increase in religiosity from 1981 to 2007 (when a survey asking respondents "how important God was in their lives" on a scale of one to ten found people in 33 of the 49 countries more religious), but a sharp reversal of the trend from about 2007 to 2019, (when 43 out of 49 countries studied became less religious).[50] The 1981–2007 increase occurred in most former communist countries and developing countries, but also in some high-income countries; the 2007 to 2019 reversal appeared across most of the world. The United States was a dramatic example of this trend – with the mean rating of importance of religion dropping from 8.2 to 4.6 – while India was a major exception.

Inglehart and Norris speculate that the decline in religiosity comes from a decline in the social need for traditional gender and sexual norms, ("virtually all world religions instilled" pro-fertility norms such as "producing as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and any sexual behavior not linked to reproduction" in their adherents for centuries) as life expectancy rose and infant mortality dropped. They also argue that the idea that religion was necessary to prevent a collapse of social cohesion and public morality was belied by lower levels of corruption and murder in less religious countries. They argue that both of these trends are based on the theory that as societies develop, survival becomes more secure: starvation, once pervasive, becomes uncommon; life expectancy increases; murder and other forms of violence diminish. As this level of security rises, there is less social/economic need for the high birthrates that religion encourages and less emotional need for the comfort of religious belief.[50] Change in acceptance of "divorce, abortion, and homosexuality" has been measured by the World Values Survey and shown to have grown throughout the world outside of Muslim-majority countries.[52][50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Colin Campbell (1998), "Irreligion", Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, ISBN 9780761989561, retrieved 2012-02-18
  2. ^ a b Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (18 December 2012). "The Global Religious Landscape". Retrieved December 18, 2012.
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  4. ^ "Religiously Unaffiliated". The Global Religious Landscape. Pew Research Center: Religion & Public Life. December 18, 2012. The religiously unaffiliated include atheists, agnostics and people who do not identify with any particular religion in surveys. However, many of the religiously unaffiliated have some religious beliefs...Some of the unaffiliated also engage in certain kinds of religious practices.
  5. ^ Zuckerman, Phil; Galen, Luke W.; Pasquale, Frank L. (2016). "Secularity Around the World". In: The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 6-8, 13-15, 32-34.
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  7. ^ Harrison, Alexander James (1894). The Ascent of Faith: or, the Grounds of Certainty in Science and Religion. London: Hodder and Stroughton. p. 21. OCLC 7234849. OL 21834002M. Let Agnostic Theism stand for that kind of Agnosticism which admits a Divine existence; Agnostic Atheism for that kind of Agnosticism which thinks it does not.
  8. ^ Hepburn, Ronald W. (2005) [1967]. "Agnosticism". In Donald M. Borchert (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 1 (2nd ed.). MacMillan Reference USA (Gale). p. 92. ISBN 978-0-02-865780-6. In the most general use of the term, agnosticism is the view that we do not know whether there is a God or not. (page 56 in 1967 edition)
  9. ^ a b c A Dictionary of Atheism. Oxford University Press. 2016. ISBN 9780191816819.
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  12. ^ Harper, Leland Royce (2020). "Attributes of a Deistic God". Multiverse Deism: Shifting Perspectives of God and the World. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 47–68. ISBN 978-1-7936-1475-9. LCCN 2020935396.
  13. ^ Bristow, William (Fall 2017). "Religion and the Enlightenment: Deism". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University. ISSN 1095-5054. OCLC 643092515. Archived from the original on 11 December 2017. Retrieved 3 August 2021. Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason. Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher. Deism is the form of religion fitted to the new discoveries in natural science, according to which the cosmos displays an intricate machine-like order; the deists suppose that the supposition of God is necessary as the source or author of this order. Though not a deist himself, Isaac Newton provides fuel for deism with his argument in his Opticks (1704) that we must infer from the order and beauty in the world to the existence of an intelligent supreme being as the cause of this order and beauty. Samuel Clarke, perhaps the most important proponent and popularizer of Newtonian philosophy in the early eighteenth century, supplies some of the more developed arguments for the position that the correct exercise of unaided human reason leads inevitably to the well-grounded belief in God. He argues that the Newtonian physical system implies the existence of a transcendent cause, the creator God. In his first set of Boyle lectures, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1705), Clarke presents the metaphysical or “argument a priori” for God’s existence. This argument concludes from the rationalist principle that whatever exists must have a sufficient reason or cause of its existence to the existence of a transcendent, necessary being who stands as the cause of the chain of natural causes and effects.
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  15. ^ Kohler, Kaufmann; Hirsch, Emil G. (1906). "Deism". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation. Archived from the original on 15 January 2013. Retrieved 3 August 2021. A system of belief which posits God's existence as the cause of all things, and admits His perfection, but rejects Divine revelation and government, proclaiming the all-sufficiency of natural laws. The Socinians, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity, were designated as deists [...]. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries deism became synonymous with "natural religion," and deist with "freethinker." England and France have been successively the strongholds of deism. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the "father of deism" in England, assumes certain "innate ideas," which establish five religious truths: (1) that God is; (2) that it is man's duty to worship Him; (3) that worship consists in virtue and piety; (4) that man must repent of sin and abandon his evil ways; (5) that divine retribution either in this or in the next life is certain. He holds that all positive religions are either allegorical and poetic interpretations of nature or deliberately organized impositions of priests.
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  17. ^ Compact Oxford English dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2007. humanism n. 1 a rationalistic system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.
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