Does it matter that one region of the world produces facts which make complete nonsense of the statistics? Actually, yes. There are more individuals in Asia than all the other regions on the planet put together. The people of Asia make up more than 60% of the world’s population6. If we ignore or fudge the data in this region, our global figures are by no measure global figures, but minority ones. This is not just a case of ignoring nuances, but a case of “A equals B” being read as “A equals not B”.
What do we do about this? Clearly, we must look at factors that make up people’s entire world-views as the only way to avoid smashing round pegs into square holes and creating artificial dichotomies. We can also re-examine the available data, and see what we can learn from it by taking a global perspective rather than a Western one. After all, the figures come from expert survey firms with good reputations, and—crucially—we can now compare them with the many additional surveys done within Asia itself.
THE MYSTERY OF THE “NONS”
Clues to solving the mystery can be found by looking at the “nons”. While the majority of researchers agree that at least 16% of the world’s population is non-religious, the number of people who actually call themselves atheists remains a curiously small separate group—at between 2% and 8%, in most surveys, 11% in the WIN/Gallup poll quoted above. (Non-religious people and atheists are usually counted separately.)
Let’s leave this small group of atheists aside for a moment, and look at the “in-betweens”. Who are the “non-religious”, if they are not comfortably to declare themselves as atheists? Are they agnostics, in the sense of people who don’t know or believe you can’t know whether a universal mind exists? They could be, although the most common term for them in the surveys is “unaffiliated”.
They seem to be a rather uniform group in size across different polls. Taking a big picture view of all the surveys, we see we always have a very large number of religious people (59% to 84%, so let’s think of it as about 70%), a smaller but still sizeable number of “nons” (averaging 20%), and a much smaller number of atheists (in single digits or low double digits, so let’s call it 10% to 15%).
The proportions we see in these global figures are roughly reflected in certain country-specific polls, although some have markedly fewer atheists. Some countries organize their census data so as to have none at all (in the Egyptian census, “atheist” is not presented as a belief choice). A less unreasonable example would be the US, where an ARIS report of beliefs in 2008 said 85% of people were religious, while 15% claimed to have no religion.7 Of that 15%, only 0.9% said they were agnostic and 0.7% atheist. So the US believers are believers, and the vast majority of the “nons”, 13% of the 15%, are alsoconvinced believers in something—but what? We’ll hold that question for a while, too. Other surveys, such as the aforementioned BBC one in 2004, put the number of US atheists higher, but rarely does the figure surmount 13%.
The indication is that the vast majority of the planet’s people, the religious and the nons, believe in something non-material as a key part of their world-view.
In all the surveys, the number of atheists is relatively small, perhaps surprisingly so, considering their enormous prominence in media debates and on the internet, where they often feel like the majority. (This may be partly due to a confusion between atheism and secularism, which are not the same thing: people often forget that the separation of church and state, and the spread of secularism were historical movements led by Christians, not atheists.)
When we take a closer look, we find puzzling data that shrinks that small number of atheists further. In one of the most comprehensive US surveys, 38% of atheists and agnostics went on to say that they DID believe in a higher consciousness. And 14% of people who identified themselves as atheists added that they believed specifically in God or a universal spirit. That percentage included 5% who said they were “absolutely certain” that God or a universal spirit existed.8
Confused? Hold on, we’re just getting started. Of the atheists, “a quarter (26%) say they think of themselves as spiritual people, and 3% consider themselves religious people,” says Michael Lipka of the Pew Research Centre. So a proportion of people listed as atheists are religious people who are more sure of a deity’s existence than some of the people listed as believers! A further puzzle: In that US survey, more people (7%) say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit than say they are atheist (2.4%). So some people listed as believers are also non-believers.
Many media outlets repeatedly group the nons with the atheists to justify headlines on the rise of atheism. This is clearly unsafe. The one thing we know for sure about the unaffiliated is that they have chosen not to tick the box that identifies them as atheists. Other journalists choose to use the word “irreligious”, although this is misleading: the word does not have the same meaning or associations as “unaffiliated”. The Pew Forum’s 2007 US Religious Landscape Survey revealed that 42% of the unaffiliated pray at least once a month, and 41% considered religion to be somewhat or very important in their lives. Those are not small percentages.
It’s clear that to many people, the concepts of atheism and non-belief in God come across as only tangentially connected, if related at all. It is very hard to escape the conclusion that the non-binary, non-opposite system that applies to Asia also applies to the Western world. If you position religion and atheism as opposites, you’re asking the wrong questions. Humanity’s chosen world views are far more complex than the summaries in popular media indicate.
Similar puzzles appear in other well-studied communities. The UK is often painted as an irreligious place, and visitors can see shuttered churches in big cities. Various sociological studies indicate that between 30% and 40% of British people do not believe in God. Yet in a major survey, only 8% identify themselves as “convinced atheists”—again, it appears that in the UK, “not believing in God” and “being an atheist” are not considered the same thing.9 For the majority of people, “not believing in God” actually appears to mean “not believing in God the way grandma does”.
Look at other questions in that country and things blur further. Three out of four adults (77%) and three fifths (61%) of self-declared non-religious people in the UK said they believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”. In other words, the majority of people find the narrow materialistic interpretation of some scientists unappealing. (We are using the word “materialistic” in the scientific sense of holding a belief that reality is entirely explicable in material terms of physics and chemistry).
The statistics specifically of the beliefs of UK atheists found that nearly one in four (23%) believe in the human soul, and 15% in life after death. Fourteen per cent believe in reincarnation. Whoever these atheists are, they are not Richard Dawkins.
ENTER THE EUROZONE Crunch more data and glaring contradictions multiply at high speed. When we move our strictly-by-the-numbers probe across the rest of Europe, we find it is not the atheistic continent it is painted to be. Surveys across the 27 member countries indicate that 77% of people believe in a God-like higher consciousness.10 Only 20% of people said they did not believe in God or any type of over-arching spirit. And again we see the definition gap: alongside these figures, we get a separate number which tells us that only 7% of Europeans said they were atheists.
Not believing in God does not make you an atheist, the public keeps telling us, not just all over Asia (where it’s obvious), but in many places, including Europe. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the word “atheist” is regularly understood to mean “not an active churchgoer”, “not a member of a specific congregation”, or have other similar meanings.
(History-lovers will be reminded of the ancient Roman word for Christian, which was “atheist”. Early Christian leader Justin Martyr happily embraced the term, because he felt that there was a world of difference between the multiple deity ideas of the Romans and the concept of the one great underlying mind that his people had. Justin had surprisingly modern attitudes for a man born circa 100 AD.)
A PASSAGE ON INDIA
What about the numbers we find in the rest of the world? India, it is often said, has a long tradition of supporting atheism, as the birthplace of Jainism and Buddhism, both of which are thriving Supreme Being-free traditions more than two millennia old. Are Indian results different?
The most widely cited results are those from the WIN/Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism (the uncomfortably binary nature of which is indicated in its title). This tells us that 81% of Indians identified themselves as “religious”. And what of the remaining 19%? By now, you can guess the pattern. The remaining groups were “not religious” at 13% and “convinced atheists” at just 3%.11 So even if we take a largely “either/or” view of the issue, the intriguing middle group is as strongly present in India as it is in the West.
If we take a more nuanced view—recognizing that many Indians are fundamentally atheistic AND religious at the same time, the world’s middle group (i.e., those who are not specifically atheist nor theist) becomes immeasurably larger. There are a lot of people in India! And it isn’t just Buddhism and Jainism that we are talking about. We can also consider the fact that Hindu philosophy has different schools, and some do not include the concept of any type of monotheistic Almighty God or similar supreme power. Some ancient Hindu traditions, such as the Carvaka school, produce views which are atheistic and materialistic in ways which are remarkably similar to those in modern schools of atheism. Many people in hat will soon be the world’s most populous country are technically atheists, yet that doesn’t clash with the fact that in the Indian government census of 2001, the number of people listed as religious was 99.9%, against 0.1% “religion not stated”.
HUGE ATHEIST KINGDOM, OR IS IT?
In China, it’s hard to get at the facts, not because they are so few of them, but because there are so many, and they contradict each other. It’s generally assumed that most of the population does not belong to any religion, which is not surprising, given the Chinese communist party’s origins in the strictest forms of Marxist secular humanism, and the resultant hostility to organized worship. Party members are not allowed to join a faith. The WIN/Gallop 2015 poll suggested that 61% of people in China claim to be convinced atheists. Next highest was Hong Kong (34% atheist) and Japan (31% atheist).
Or could this be another case in which the “tick one box ” nature of typical surveys fails to capture complex attitudes? If we turn to more subtle surveys of beliefs by scholars actually based in China and its special administrative region Hong Kong, tests which include detailed questions about ancestor worship and folk-religious practices, we end up with very different figures.
In 2012, researchers in China did a survey of 25 provinces on this basis12, and it indicated that while 90% claimed to belong to no religion, only 6.3% were definable as non-religious, in the sense of people who did not build regular acts of spiritual worship into their lives. Chinese people tend to be classified as non-religious, while clearly this is not the case. An academic study in 2010 concluded that there were 436 million followers of “Chinese folk religion” in China, making it a significantly large group of believers. (Compare the number of Jewish people in the world, which is about 16.5 million.) The various Chinese surveys produce a strong indication that numerous people exist who simultaneously claim to disbelieve in any form of formal faith system while sticking rigidly to schedules of folk-religion and ancestor worship.
Hong Kong is said to be 34% atheist by the poll quoted above and about half “non-religious” by official government measures. But when we look closely at local polls, we find a different, non-binary story. Much of the population is aligned to spiritual organizations (21% Buddhist, 14% Taoist and 12% Christian, adding up to 47%), but it is the ones who are “not religious” who are most strongly associated with traditional Chinese beliefs, such as the burning of spirit money and other folk-religion practices. The city’s population has a surprisingly rich and widespread spiritual life.
LOOKING AT OUTLIERS
What about the “poster-boy” countries for atheism that many of us have all read about? Isn’t Sweden a majority atheist country? And weren’t there big headlines about Australians being 70% atheist? And isn’t the same true for some place in Europe, like Estonia or something?
The answer is: Yes, the popular media do print headlines like this regularly. One of the most widely-quoted surveys on this topic was a Gallup poll which produced outliers, particularly in regard to Australia13. It posed an unusually broad key question: “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Note the word “daily”. With the question set like this, people could only truthfully answer “yes” if they did something religious every day. Thus it appears possible that folk who went to church or temple every weekend of their lives could end up listed in figures which commentators could take to mean “atheist”. As for Sweden and Estonia, we’ll travel thence shortly.
Other survey data oft quoted in newspapers and on the internet comes from Phil Zuckerman14, who is an academic, but is also a pro-secular activist.
DEALING WITH THE ANOMALIES
A simple way to help deal with the anomalies is to fix the critical problems inherent in the terminology. To take a leaf from the books of psychology and the social sciences, we can remove unhelpful terms such as “religion” and “atheism”, used as false opposites, and replace them with “world-views”, defining the term as referring to an individual’s understanding of reality, incorporating both physical and non-tangible aspects. This gives us more scientific, analytical tools to solve the myriad problems in the data above, and equips us with a system that can cope with people who have a mixed view of reality, from Confucianists to quantum physics theorists.
What exactly do we mean by world-view? This can perhaps be best explained using a narrative analogy. Imagine two people: Subject A is an Anglican Church minister and Subject B is a Hindu software engineer. We lazily label both “religious”. Yet a scientific study of the data points which make up their world-views might reveal they have, perhaps, only 1,875 overlapping beliefs in the, say, 3,000 data points we might specify as making up their world views.
At the same time, Subject C, a Parisian economics teacher, tells us he is an atheist. But a scientific study of the data points in his world-view reveals he has identical views to Subject A except for perhaps one single point (“Does a personal God exist?”). Thus instead of A and B being alike, we find that A and C are virtually twin souls, despite one being a church minister and the other an atheist.
By considering world-views instead of the “religious or atheist” false dichotomy, we can cope with the levels of complexity in the real world—and the simplification problems that beset the data above disappear. No longer does the Communist Party official performing ancestor worship rites cause our research to stop making sense. He doesn’t believe in Christianity’s God (he is not allowed to), but heaven and the unseen world are very real to him. He is an atheist, a Confucian, a secular humanist, and deeply religious. He has a complex world-view, as indeed do people everywhere.
THE LAWS OF NATURE
A related side-point: One of the world’s most respected theoretical physicists, Lee Smolin, has argued convincingly that anybody who believes in the laws of physics is displaying religious thinking.15 That person is assuming that over-arching principles exist over and above the world of facts explicable by materialist explanations of science. We “modern” people are happy to say that the entire universe erupted out of a miniscule disturbance in quantum foam but we ignore the fact that no one can tell us how to imprint the laws of physics on a quantum particle. Indeed, the very words used in discussions of the laws of nature, such as “fundamental” and “absolute” are identical to those used in philosophical debates about divinity, pantheism and the like. (Ironically, one popular scientist who argues that the laws of physics should not be seen as fundamental and unchanging, Rupert Sheldrake, has been criticized as being too sympathetic to religious ideas.)16
Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online: http://www.science20.com/writer_on_the_edge/blog/atheism_peaks_while_spiritual_groups_move_toward_convergence-156528