Next week’s New Yorker makes a point that I hadn’t considered, perhaps because there is so much religiosity in America. In a review of recently-published books on atheism, Anthony Gottlieb writes:
…one can venture conservative estimates of the number of unbelievers in the world today. Reviewing a large number of studies among some fifty countries, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, in Claremont, California, puts the figure at between five hundred million and seven hundred and fifty million. This excludes such highly populated places as Brazil, Iran, Indonesia, and Nigeria, for which information is lacking or patchy. Even the low estimate of five hundred million would make unbelief the fourth-largest persuasion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. It is also by far the youngest, with no significant presence in the West before the eighteenth century. Who can say what the landscape will look like once unbelief has enjoyed a past as long as Islam’s–let alone as long as Christianity’s? God is assuredly not on the side of the unbelievers, but history may yet be.
It’s quite nice to broaden one’s view, and realize that one isn’t so lonely being an atheist/agnostic in this world.
10 thoughts on “The 4th Largest Religion: No Religion”
The biggest religious group in the English-speaking world is people who self-identify as Christian, but do not regularly attend a place of worship. In the US, it’s something like 40% of the population. In the UK, it’s more like 65%.
One should wonder, of course, how accurate the self-description is. How many put down “Catholic” because they were just brought up in that church? Do even the majority of them count as “believers”?
But still, it’s an interesting phenomenon.
God is on the side of beetles. There are more than 250,000 different known types of beetle, more varieties than any other species; in fact, one in 4 of all species is some kind of beetle. Unbelievers might be a distant second.
Pseudonym makes a good point, in that many people when asked to state their religion say whatever they were brought up with, although they don’t actually practice that religion. They don’t believe in God on an everyday basis but will pull a Pascal when questioned. I was living in China for a brief time and was interested to see how many young people disdained religion and had as much contempt for Christians (a rapidly growing religion there) and Buddhists as Christians here have for atheists. Communism may have failed in many crucial ways, but it did succeed in raising a couple of generations of atheists.
@Jessica, I actually omitted an important part of the quote above. In coming up with the 500M number, they omitted nations that enforced belief in religion. So, I would imagine that would include China and former Russian countries. Here’s the full quote:
That’s an interesting way to skew statistics, since a society “in which there might be some social pressure to deny belief in God” seems equally as problematic for a proper count as a society in which there is pressure to say that you *do* believe in God. Whether the pressure is imposed by the government or the people (and isn’t that line kinda “patchy”?) it’s still pressure; as a product of Alabama’s socially enforced Southern Baptist upbringing, I can’t imagine many Southerners admitting to their atheism.
Yep, but since it makes his estimate more conservative, it does not materially challenge his conclusion, it only reinforces it.
Hear, hear! — although I suspect you mean broaden one’s view by reading about it, vs. venturing forth from fortress America — ideologically or physically.
JS: That was my point.
On the other hand, there are many more non-christians or non-muslims than non-religionists. Up near the very top of the list would be the non-scientologists, per http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html
Remember that the non-religionists just reject one more religion than others reject.
I think he should have qualified this statement. Ancient religious skeptics such as Democritus, Xenophanes, Epicurus, Lucretius and Lucian had wide readership, so at least some people in Greco-Roman times must have been seriously doubtful of the gods.
Also, in the Middle Ages it was illegal in much of Europe to endorse nonbelief openly–so there may have been a lot of nonbelievers who just didn’t say so for fear of being killed. Many of the Renaissance humanist philosophers seem to endorse religious ideas rather reluctantly. I mean, just how serious was Machiavelli about religion? Did he actually believe it, or did he merely think of it as a political expedient? I think it’s hard to tell.
In the 18th century it became more safe to be a nonbeliever, but I think it would be a big mistake to presume that nonbelief suddenly sprang into existence with the Enlightenment. A safer bet might be that it was always there, under the surface.
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