What Is Atheism?
In short, atheism is the belief that gods or other religious figures do not exist. Atheists, people who identify with atheism, utilize several factors in order to defend their personal belief system. One of these arguments is that religions around the world lack evidence to support the claim of the existence of deities. Despite this basic shared belief, atheism itself does not have one particular defined ideology. Because of the lack of an agreed upon and uniform ideological system, identifying atheists around the world is a difficult endeavor. This difficulty is reflected in the widely differing atheist population sizes found by different polls and censuses conducted around the world.
Atheists Around The World
According to the 2015 Gallup International poll, 11% of the global population identifies as atheist. In some countries this non-religious identity is more common than in others. Atheism seems to be primarily concentrated in the Western world, where economies are considered to be more stable and developed. The 2012 Gallup International poll identified those nations where more than a quarter of the population identifies as atheist. Those countries are as follows: China (47%), Japan (31%), the Czech Republic (30%), and France (29%). Other surveys have found larger percentages in a wider range of countries, perhaps due to the design and wording of the questionnaire.
Further studies of atheists around the world have found a positive correlation between intelligence and holding no religious beliefs. This finding is explained by one evolutionary psychologist as the result of wealth, environment, and social factors. In places where social safety, a developed economy, and a positive outlook for the future exist, the population is more likely to report a nonreligious identity. In this situation, the individuals questioned are also far more likely to have a higher level of formal educational attainment than in lesser developed countries, thus causing the correlation.
Growth Of Atheism In The West
As previously mentioned, atheists do not currently make up the majority of the global population. That fact could change in some countries around the world in the near future, however, as more people are increasingly identifying as atheist, according to a report by National Geographic. Over the last 10 years, says the publication, the number of people who identify as atheist in the US has overtaken the number of Protestants, Catholics, and other religions. In fact, 11% of US babies born after 1970 were brought up by nonreligious parents.
The growth and spread of atheism is expected to continue at a faster than average rate, explained in part by the fact that atheists tend to be younger than religious individuals in the Western world. So fast, in fact, that the populations of Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, and the Netherlands will soon no longer have a majority Christian percentage.
Growth Of Atheism In Asia
Currently, over 60% of the world’s atheists live in Asia, concentrated primarily in North Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Japan. This region of the world has been significantly influenced by Communism in modern history, which promoted having no religious affiliation. According to the Pew Research Center, atheists in this region of the world experienced a population increase between 2010 and 2015 due to a higher number of births compared to deaths.
The Process Of Secularization
This process of declining religious affiliation is known as secularization and, as previously mentioned, is occurring in countries with high standards of living. The explanation for this is known as secularization theory. The premise of this theory is that as people become more comfortable in life and secure that their basic necessities will be fullfilled, their need to have hope in a higher being decreases. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian, famously introduced the phrase “post-religious age” to describe this phenomenon. The secularization of a community brings about new social problems. As those religious groups that previously held the majority begin to lose power, they clash with other religions (or in this case, non-religious) to maintain their position. In the US, for example, regulations that allow one religious group to discriminate against another are currently being introduced.
Bigger Numbers, Smaller Percentage
Although the number of atheists in more developed countries is growing rapidly, the percentage of atheists globally is expected to decrease. According to the Pew Research Center, atheists numbered around 1.17 billion in 2015. This number represents 16% of the global population, which is roughly 7.3 billion. By 2060, the number of nonaffiliated individuals will rise to 1.2 billion. The total global population by then is expected to be around 9.6 billion, a 36% increase over 2015. This increase in global population means that atheists will make up only 13% of the total by 2060. Part of the increase in individual numbers will be due to individuals leaving behind their familial religious affiliations, a behavior known as religious switching
The Pew report goes on to explain that the number of instances of religious switching will not be able to keep up with fertility and mortality rates. This percentage decrease is explained by the fact that atheists, on a global basis, are older on average than other religious individuals. For example, in 2015, nonreligious individuals had an average age of 36, while religiously affiliated individuals were 29 on average. Additionally, atheists tend to have fewer children, 1.65 compared to 2.45. In both the Asian-Pacific and European regions of the world, atheist deaths will actually outnumber births. Between 2055 and 2060, those deaths will outnumber births by around 26 million.
The report’s findings show that the correlation between improved economic conditions and increased secularization, as seen in Christian-majority developed countries around the world, does not hold true in all places. For example, the improvement in the economy has not brought about secularization in Muslim majority nations. The same has also been noted in India, where the economy is developing quickly, but the population maintains its religious affiliation.
About the Author
Amber is a freelance writer, English as a foreign language teacher, and Spanish-English translator. She lives with her husband and 3 cats.
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