Globalized data shows hardliners on all sides losing, and points to emergence of open-minded pro-science, pro-spiritual outlook
THE WORLD IS TURNING ATHEIST, the media tells us. Europe is already dominated by non-believers and plummeting church attendance figures elsewhere indicate that religion itself could disappear within a generation. Christianity is shrinking fast, extremism has soured Islam, and the fastest growing belief-system is to have no beliefs, which could lead to the world becoming a peaceful, atheist utopia. So says conventional wisdom in some quarters.1
Are there figures to back this up? Actually, no. Indeed, a close examination of empirical data about world-views tells a story that is different in almost every way—and especially in regard to humanity’s next chapter.
Atheism as a belief system has peaked and its share of humanity is shrinking, demographic studies indicate. Win/Gallup’s 2012 global poll on religion and atheism put atheists at 13%, while its 2015 poll saw that category fall to 11%. Other figures suggest the changes have deep, broad roots.
There appear to be at least three reasons for the shrinkage.
First, a community’s possession of atheistic world-views—for whatever reason—correlates with low or negative birth rates. The most significant examples are East Asian and European countries, which are at “below replacement” rates of birth, shrinking at speed.
Second, “forced” atheism has been disappearing steadily over the past 40 years and we see a corresponding surge of people towards spiritual clusters. In percentage terms, 1970 may be considered the high point for global atheism and agnosticism. As communism weakened, and eventually collapsed in 1989, there was a significant resurgence of religious belief (see chart below). The same thing is now happening in China.
Third, the surge of popularity for a novel type of “evangelical atheism” which began about a decade ago appears to be losing some of its steam. The movement’s celebrity leaders have fallen out of the bestseller lists, and are often now criticized by their former cheerleaders in newspaper columns. After a high-publicity start in 2013, Sunday Assemblies have plummeted out of the limelight and growth has been glacial.
And the near future? The latest global data also shows that young people, classified as those under 34, tend to be measurably more religious (66%) than older ones (60%). “With the trend of an increasingly religious youth globally, we can assume that the number of people who consider themselves religious will only continue to increase,” said Jean-Marc Leger, President of WIN/Gallup International Association.
"NOT SO MUCH RELIGIOUS, BUT SPIRITUAL"
As atheistic countries shrink, religious regions globally are growing: Asia and Africa now make up three out of four members of humanity. Yet there are numerous signs that they are not following the old-fashioned, “walled compounds” model of religion, but a different stance in which adherents often avoid even the word “religion” (they prefer to talk of being “spiritual”). These individuals are flexible in terms of meeting places (often gathering in homes and coffee shops instead of conventional places of worship), and are far more likely to focus on what humanity shares rather than what sets people apart (all the major world view groups now have active interfaith organizations and science-focused offshoots). Revered texts are not seen as “inerrant” law books but as historical documents containing statements that must be seen as “context-specific”, even by devout believers.
Why is there such a contrast between the popular media story of rising atheism and the actual facts on the ground of popular spirituality? (We define spirituality not as simply feeling awe when looking at the stars, but in the classic sense of the inner person having some kind of primacy over outer reality.) There are many reasons for the confusion, but the biggest one is the Western-centric model used by most media-savvy research organizations, plus the related attitudes of the international press. In truth, the statistics of global belief make no sense unless they are examined from a global perspective, in particular, bringing in data and world-views from Asia, the most populous part of the planet.
But first, the numbers. Atheism is growing and church attendance falling, the media has been saying for years, quoting regular research findings. “Atheism is on the rise around the world,” said a BBC news report on 19 December 2014, one of dozens of similar reports.
At the same time, we also find solid statistics that the world’s popular belief systems appear to be growing steadily. Looking at various measures, it appears that Christianity adds about 25 million people a year, giving it a 1.56% growth rate. Islam has been growing at 1.5% to 1.84% but from a smaller base, adding 22 million people a year.2
That’s in terms of absolute numbers. A more scientific question to ask is: are religious populations growing in proportion to the rest of the world population? The answer appears again to be yes. If we blend in figures from the smaller faiths, we find that organized spiritual groups are growing on average at 1.2% a year, while world population growth is about 1.1% a year.3 So religions are growing in absolute and proportional terms, with Islam and Christianity expanding faster than the others.
GROWING NUMBERS, GROWING IDEAS
So how can atheism and religion both be growing? We need to consider people changing their ideas or evolving their belief systems. Such factors are notoriously difficult to measure but will give us a richer image of what is happening. How do we get such facts?
The newspaper reports about shrinking churches tend to come from surveys undertaken by respected research firms headquartered in the Western world, such as WIN/Gallup, the Pew Research Center and others. In general, the surveys show a dramatic contrast between two sides, indicating that some 63% to 84% of the world’s population is religious, while the remaining 27% to 18% isn’t4.
Whichever surveys we go with, we have a pretty clear dichotomy to start with, right? But in fact, we don’t. And that’s where this strange and winding journey really begins.
ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION
There’s one huge problem with the statistics favored by the media. They are based on answers to questions which are, at heart, binary: are you a religious person or an atheist? Even in the surveys which allow you to be in-between or neither, those two points are presented as contrasts: and that’s where the major problem lies.
A system in which “religious” and “atheist” are presented as opposites may make sense in 2015 in a pub debate in London or a panel discussion in the United States. But it makes none at all in Asia. The most popular codes of belief in the region lead people to be atheists as a key part of being religious. (We will define “atheist” in the most popular way, as “people who don’t believe in God”5.)
In Asia, we find Buddhists, Taoists, Jainists and Confucians, all representing huge numbers of people, showing up for gatherings to mark World Religion Day—yet ALL these would be counted as atheists under many systems of analysis. For members of groups which follow these world-views, there is no supreme being who goes under names such as God, Allah, or the Force. Some have no deities at all, and are clearly atheistic in tone. Yet are these individuals religious? Look at the Jainist in his robes and beads, or the Confucian, enthusiastically joining in with the group prayer at a World Religion Day meeting, and most people would say: yes, definitely. (The major schools of Hinduism also include groups who specifically consider themselves atheistic, as a key belief of their religious practice.)
Furthermore, much of the analysis for this paper was done in Hong Kong, China: a city and region where large numbers of residents classified as atheist have a very, very long list of what many people would describe as “superstitions” or examples of “magical thinking”, while people listed as religious preach regularly about the harmfulness of superstition.
Also, the researchers live in the (claimed) missile range of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who runs a regime and community that is a textbook example of all that is quoted as being bad about religion—except he and it are atheist.
The situation in East Asia is the direct opposite of what the Western-designed binary model would lead us to believe should be the case.
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