Sunday, August 19, 2012

The decline of religion

Will religion die out? It’s way too early to answer that, but the world is certainly becoming less religious. Given the bloody history of religious conflict on this planet, there are plenty of people who think this is a good trend.

The most recent WIN-Gallup International “Religiosity and Atheism Index” has found that, globally, religiosity has dropped by 9 percentage points while atheism has grown by 3 points. Even so, the planet is still plenty religious, with 59% classifying themselves that way, 23% saying they’re not religious and only 13% saying they are atheists (mainly in East Asia).

Still, religion doesn’t yet need to worry, and that’s true for most religious groups: 81% of those who say they’re Christian also call themselves religious (only 16% say they’re not religious). Muslims are less religious than Christians, with 74% saying they’re religious (20% are not), and Jews are less religious still: A mere 38% say they’re religious and a majority—54%—are not religious. The most religious group are Hindus, at 82% with only 12% not religious.

As with other studies (such as by Pew Research), religiosity declines the more education one has: 68% of those with less than secondary education described themselves as religious, as did a still strong 61% of those who have secondary education. However, only 52%—a bare majority—of those with post-secondary education call themselves religious.

The United States, where religion overshadows much of the country’s politics, saw its religiosity drop by 13 percentage points, from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2012. Atheism in the United States remains a tiny minority, however, rising from only 1% in 2005 to 5% now. I bet we’ll see panicked publicity from the US’ religious right about the “500% rise in atheism in the United States” which may be technically true, but which is also a “gee whiz statistic”—that is, a stat that sounds impressive until one realises it actually says nothing. Growth from 1% to 5% is pretty insignificant and is probably merely the result of demographic changes.

New Zealand wasn’t included in this survey, though our cousins across the ditch, Australians, were. Although Australia’s religiosity isn’t terribly relevant to New Zealand, given some pretty significant cultural and demographic differences, I still find it interesting: 37% religious, 48% not and 10% atheist, meaning a clear majority are not religious. Not that you’d know that from their politics sometimes.

Surveys like this are interesting, particularly as a way of mapping cultural change over time, but they are, at best, mere snapshots. Events can change things in either direction, and so can demographic changes. Neither the religious nor the atheist should read too much into this or any other statistical snapshot.

However, multiple studies and censuses do indicate that the world is slowly becoming less religious over time. I sincerely hope that this means that, over time, there will be less religious conflict in the world. Sadly, there’s not yet any evidence of that happening.

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

FYI - if you go to TheARDA website, mentioned here, you'll find statistics not only of US religions but cursory stats from around the world.

One could argue about its methodology in that it includes children and other attendees, rather than members, but it's still interesting stuff.