Is the World Becoming More Religious?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Reports like this must cause Dawkins foot soldiers massive indigestion. The standard atheist dogma is that religious belief is on the decline and will eventually die out altogether. According to the study titled “Christianity In Its Global Context, 1970-2010,” conducted by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, religion is on the rise. The study is summarized at the Christian Post, but here are some highlights:

In 1970, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population was religious, and by 2010 this had grown to around 88 percent, with a projected increase to almost 90 percent by 2020, the report states. The growth of religious adherence can largely be attributed to the continuing resurgence of religion in China, it notes.

In 1970, agnostic and atheist populations together claimed 19.2 percent of the world’s total population, largely due to communism in Eastern Europe and China. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of the nonreligious returned to religion. . . .

“If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a smaller portion of the world’s population in 2020 than they were in 2010,” says the report. “Although the number of atheists and agnostics continues to rise in the Western world, the current growth of a variety of religions in China in particular (where the vast majority of the nonreligious live today) suggests continued future demographic growth of religion.” . . .

Between 1970 and 2020, all major Christian traditions are likely to grow more rapidly than the general population in the global South, according to the report. However, at the same time, Christianity is declining as a percentage of the population in the global North “at a dramatic rate.” This can be attributed to birth rates in many European countries in particular being below replacement level, and aging populations.

  • Andrew Ryan

    The report’s figures are in direct contradiction to Gallup’s recent survey, which show that those claiming to be religious has dropped 9% from 2005 to 2012, while those claiming to be atheist has risen from 10% to 13%.*

    For the record, that survey relied on simply asking people if they consider themselves religious, non-religious or atheist. The report you quote, by contrast, says it uses the following method:

    “Researchers analyzed data on church membership and activities from thousands of Christian denominations and other religions worldwide”

    I can’t really tell what they’ve actually done there, and so for now I’ll figure the Gallup method is probably a more reliable way of finding out what’s actually going on. Certainly I’m not suffering indigestion over it!


  • Andrew Ryan

    I would also question the reports extrapolation assumptions:

    “However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of the nonreligious returned to religion. . . . If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a”

    Doesn’t that strike you as an odd leap to make? It identifies a big ‘one-off’ event – the collapse of Communism in a huge are of Europe – and then refers to it as a trend that might continue. It’s like pointing to the collapse of skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan in late 2001, and saying “If that trend continues there’ll be half the number of buildings there by 2050”.

  • I didn’t realize that you considered yourself a Dawkins foot soldier! Those are the only people I would expect this report to cause indigestion.

  • The Gallup survey shows 47% of Chinese claiming they are convinced atheists, and that number totally skews the global numbers, given that China represents about 1/6th of the world’s population.

    I find it extremely hard to believe that number for China is correct. Given the persecution of religious people and groups that has gone in China, and given the fact that the communist government has been brainwashing the population toward atheism for decades, the survey results are highly suspicious.

    No other country in the world is even close to China with that high percentage of atheism.

  • Andrew Ryan

    For your first point I might as well say that there being lots of religious people in India skews the figures too. If you want to look purely at the West, then even the figures you quote from the Christian Post admits that “the number of atheists and agnostics continues to rise in the Western world”.

    For your second point, either we’re taking the figures at face value or we’re not – both sides can explain them due to brainwashing by the culture of the ‘other side’. What’s to stop me saying “Well of course American parents all brainwash their children!”.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ha ha! No, I find much fault with Dawkins’ pronouncements on many things. And yes, I agree with you that he has ‘foot soldiers’ who seem to defend him regardless. And I’m pleased that much as you disagree with me on practically everything, you at least have gathered I’m not among them.

  • sean

    Religion and atheism/agnosticism are not mutually exclusive terms. It’s certainly the case that being an atheist and christian isn’t possible, but religion in general can have both. Indeed. People agnostic about the existence of God can be Christian. I happen to be an example of a religious atheist.

  • Well, I would argue that the evidence for government-sponsored brainwashing and indoctrination is far stronger for communist China than the democratic US. You have to admit that China’s percentage of 47% atheists is a massive outlier compared to every other country in the world. There has to be an explanation for this, and the fact that the communist government is officially atheistic has to be a big part of that explanation.

  • Sean,
    What do you mean when you call yourself a religious atheist?

  • sean

    That’s a brilliant question. I don’t know why I didn’t explain what I mean from the start. The label I’ve just used could apply to Buddhism or another religion that believes specifically in supernatural claims I disagree with. But when I talk about myself I mean I was raised in the Unitarian Universalist church, and I still consider myself to be a member of that religion. I suppose this could get into the semantics of what we mean by religion. To me, religion is an organized group of people looking for meaning in life that have some factor linking them. In Christianity, and most of the largest religions this is a specific text. Unitarian Universalism is a bit different from more mainstream religions though. The problem with explaining it as a whole is that the religion has very little dogma, and what it does have isn’t really binding. Basically, it’s a group of people who want to search for the truth and are generally very open and receptive to new ideas and to the free exchange of thoughts. In my own experience, the community tends to be liberal and democratic, and has a higher representation of middle class white people and gay people than most groups of people. But these are merely characteristics I’ve seen and heard from others in my own experience. These trends are not binding in any way. It’s interesting, because you can simultaneously be a Unitarian Universalist and a member of another religion, something fairly unique amongst religions I think. There are many Jewish people who attend my church, as well as atheists and Christians (though usually with a much looser sense of the word Christian than you’d use) and pantheists. It’s an interesting group of people.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Sure, but we were discussing rises or falls in religiosity. And as I said, the Gallop poll shows an overall rise in atheism and drop in religiosity and even your poll shows a rise in atheism in the West. If you dismiss China you dismiss one of the areas religiosity is increasing.

  • Paul Pousson

    Andrew isn’t it very likely that many of the religious in The USSR where hiding their beliefs in order to get by in an atheist/communist government for the sake of survival?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Yes it is. Very good point. As I said, one cannot take such a one-off event and identify a trend from it. Thanks for backing up my point, Paul.