Demographics of atheism

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The demographics of atheism are difficult to quantify. Different people interpret atheism and related terms differently, and it can be hard to draw boundaries between atheism, nonreligious beliefs, and nontheistic religious and spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, atheists may not report themselves as such, to prevent suffering from social stigma, discrimination, and persecution in some countries.[1]

Research by Doctor Professor Luke Galen suggests that atheists may be more likely to be less agreeable, but also more open minded compared to religious populations.[2][3]


Studies and statistics

Because some governments have strongly promoted atheism and others have strongly condemned it, atheism may be either over-reported or under-reported for different countries. There is a great deal of room for debate as to the accuracy of any method of estimation, as the opportunity for misreporting (intentionally or not) a category of people without an organizational structure is high. Also, many surveys on religious identification ask people to identify themselves as "agnostics" or "atheists", which is potentially confusing, since these terms are interpreted differently, with some identifying themselves as being agnostic atheists. Additionally, many of these surveys only gauge the number of irreligious people, not the number of actual atheists, or group the two together. For example, research indicates that the fastest growing religious status may be "no religion" in the United States, but this includes all kinds of atheists, agnostics, and theists.[4][5]

Statistical problems

Statistics on atheism are often difficult to represent accurately for a variety of reasons. Atheism is a position compatible with other forms of identity. Some atheists also consider themselves Agnostic, Buddhist, Hindu, Jains, Taoist, or hold other related philosophical beliefs. Therefore, given limited poll options, some may use other terms to describe their identity. Some politically motivated organizations that report or gather population statistics may, intentionally or unintentionally, misrepresent atheists. Survey designs may bias results due to the nature of elements such as the wording of questions and the available response options. Also, many atheists, particularly former Catholics and former Mormons, are still counted as Christians in church rosters, although surveys generally ask samples of the population and do not look in church rosters. Other Christians believe that "once a person is [truly] saved, that person is always saved", a doctrine known as eternal security.[6] Statistics are generally collected on the assumption that religion is a categorical variable. Instruments have been designed to measure attitudes toward religion, including one that was used by L. L. Thurstone. This may be a particularly important consideration among people who have neutral attitudes, as it is more likely that prevailing social norms will influence the responses of such people on survey questions that effectively force respondents to categorize themselves either as belonging to a particular religion or belonging to no religion. A negative perception of atheists and pressure from family and peers may also cause some atheists to disassociate themselves from atheism. Misunderstanding of the term may also be a reason some label themselves differently.

For example, a Canadian poll released September 12, 2011 sampled 1,129 Canadian adults and came up with some interesting unrelated data on the numbers of declared atheists.[7] These numbers conflicted with the latest Canadian census data that pre-determined that a religious affiliation predisposed a belief in a deity and was based on a poorly worded question. A quote from the study:

The data also revealed some interesting facts about Canadians beliefs:

  • A majority (53%) of Canadians believe in God. What is of particular interest is that 28% of Protestants, 33% of Catholics, and 23% of those who attend weekly religious services do not.
  • One quarter (23%) of those with no religious identity still believe in God." [8]

Personality profiles

Michael Newdow speaks at the Atheist Alliance International Convention. Members of secular groups are very likely to be atheists, but also more willing to hold unpopular views and explore new ideas thoroughly.

Luke Galen is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who uses the Big Five personality model. Galen says that he researches demographics of non-religious communities directly, rather than as a byproduct of investigating religious groups. One of Galen's studies attempted to control for demographics and church attendance; he found that members of secular organizations (like the international Center for Inquiry) have similar personality profiles to members of religious groups. Galen describes how members of secular organizations are very likely to label themselves primarily as "atheists", but also very likely to consider themselves humanists.[2] Galen explains that secular group members show no significant differences in their negative or positive affect - meaning they are no more or less happy (in line with other research on religion and happiness). These members also have similar profiles for conscientiousness (discipline or impulse control, and acting on values like "pursuit of truth"). On the other hand, secular group members do tend to be less agreeable (e.g. more likely to hold unpopular, socially challenging views), as well as more open minded (e.g. more likely to consider new ideas) than members of religious groups. Galen writes "Many previously reported characteristics associated with religiosity are a function not of belief itself, but of strong convictions and group identification."[2][3]


Legal and social discrimination against atheists in some places may lead some to deny or conceal their atheism due to fears of persecution. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota involving a poll of 2,000 households in the United States found atheists to be the most distrusted of minorities, more so than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups. Many of the respondents associated atheism with immorality, including criminal behaviour, extreme materialism, and elitism.[9] However, the same study also reported that, “The researchers also found acceptance or rejection of atheists is related not only to personal religiosity, but also to one’s exposure to diversity, education and political orientation—with more educated, East and West Coast Americans more accepting of atheists than their Midwestern counterparts.”[9]

Geographic distribution

Though atheists are in the minority in most countries, they are relatively common in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, in former and present communist states, and to a lesser extent, in the United States and the Southern Cone. A 1995 survey attributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica indicates that the non-religious are about 14.7% of the world's population, and atheists around 3.8%.[citation needed] Another survey attributed to Britannica shows the population of atheists at around 2.4% of the world's population.[citation needed] It is difficult to determine whether atheism is growing or not. What is certain is that in some areas of the world (such as Europe and South America) atheism and secularization are increasing, and in other areas of the world (such as China and other current and former Communist states), atheism is decreasing. This shifting data of these populations makes assessment difficult. Furthermore, the conflation of terms such as atheist, agnostic, nonreligious and non-theist add to confusion among poll data.

While there are more atheists than ever before as global population continually increases, the atheist percentage of the total population seem to be declining. This may be because birth rates in religious societies are much higher.[10] This is similar to a 2002 survey by, which estimates the proportion of the world's people who are "secular, non-religious, agnostics and atheists" at about 14%.[11] A 2004 survey by the BBC in 10 countries showed the proportion of the population "who don't believe in God" varying between 0% (Nigeria) and 39% (UK), with an average close to 17% in the countries surveyed. About 8% of the respondents stated specifically that they consider themselves to be atheists.[12] 65% of those polled in a 2011 survey by the British Humanist Association answered no to the question "Are you religious?".[13] A 2004 survey by the CIA in the World Factbook estimates about 12.5% of the world's population are non-religious, and about 2.4% are atheists.[14] A 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that in the United States, 12% of people under 30 and 6% of people over 30 could be characterized as non-religious.[15] A 2005 poll by AP/Ipsos surveyed ten countries. Of the developed nations, people in the United States were most sure of the existence of God or a higher power (2% atheist, 4% agnostic), while France had the most skeptics (19% atheist, 16% agnostic). On the religion question, South Korea had the greatest percentage without a religion (41%) while Italy had the smallest (5%).[16]

A study has shown atheism in the West to be particularly prevalent among scientists, a tendency already quite marked at the beginning of the 20th century, developing into a dominant one during the course of the century. In 1914, James H. Leuba found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. natural scientists expressed "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God" (defined as a personal God which interacts directly with human beings). The same study, repeated in 1996, gave a similar percentage of 60.7%. Expressions of positive disbelief rose from 52% to 72%.[17] (See also relationship between religion and science.) This survey is not without criticisms however.[18]

Europe and Russia

According to a 2005 Eurostat Eurobarometer poll, 52% of European Union citizens responded that "they believe there is a God", whereas 27% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force" and 18% that "they do not believe there is a spirit, God, nor life force". Results were widely varied between different countries, with 95% of Maltese respondents stating that they believe in God, on the one end, and only 16% of Estonians stating the same on the other.[19]

Percentages of people in European countries who said in 2005 that they "believe there is a God"
Percentages of people in European countries with no belief in a spirit, god, or life force (Eurobarometer 2005)
Eurobarometer Poll 2005
CountryBelief in a godBelief in a spirit
or life force
Belief in neither a spirit,
god, nor life force
Malta Malta95%3%1%
Turkey Turkey90%2%1%
Cyprus Cyprus90%7%2%
Romania Romania90%8%1%
Greece Greece81%16%3%
Portugal Portugal91%6%3%
Poland Poland80%15%1%
Italy Italy74%16%6%
Republic of Ireland Ireland73%22%4%
Croatia Croatia67%25%7%
Slovakia Slovakia61%26%11%
Spain Spain59%21%18%
Austria Austria54%34%8%
Lithuania Lithuania49%36%12%
Switzerland Switzerland48%39%9%
Germany Germany47%25%25%
Luxembourg Luxembourg44%28%22%
Hungary Hungary44%31%19%
Belgium Belgium43%29%27%
Finland Finland41%41%16%
Bulgaria Bulgaria40%40%13%
Iceland Iceland38%48%11%
United Kingdom United Kingdom38%40%20%
Latvia Latvia37%49%10%
Slovenia Slovenia37%46%16%
France France34%27%33%
Netherlands Netherlands34%37%27%
Norway Norway32%47%17%
Denmark Denmark31%49%19%
Sweden Sweden23%53%23%
Czech Republic Czech Republic19%50%30%
Estonia Estonia16%54%26%

Several studies have found Sweden to be one of the most atheist countries in the world. 23% of Swedish citizens responded that "they believe there is a God", whereas 53% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force" and 23% that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force". This, according to the survey, would make Swedes the third least religious people in the 27-member European Union, after Estonia and the Czech Republic. In 2001, the Czech Statistical Office provided census information on the ten million people in the Czech Republic. 59% had no religion, 32.2% were religious, and 8.8% did not answer.[20]

A 2006 survey in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten (on February 17), saw 1,006 inhabitants of Norway answering the question "What do you believe in?". 29% answered "I believe in a god or deity", 23% answered "I believe in a higher power without being certain of what", 26% answered "I don't believe in God or higher powers" and 22% answered "I am in doubt". As of December 2010, Still, 78% of the population are members of the Norwegian state's official Lutheran Protestant church. All Norwegians with at least one parent who is a member are automatically registered as members at birth, so the vast majority of the members have done nothing actively to join, effectively creating an opt-out system where membership is not considered a serious statement of faith in Christianity, and one where many keep themselves enrolled for the sake of possibly wanting to have a ceremony in the church at some point in their life, without this necessarily implying belief.[21]

In France, about 12% of the population reportedly attends religious services more than once per month. In a 2003 poll 54% of those polled in France identified themselves as "faithful," 33% as atheist, 14% as agnostic, and 26% as "indifferent."[22] According to a different poll, 32% declared themselves atheists, and an additional 32% declared themselves agnostic.[23]

In Spain, 75.5% are believers, 14.9% are non-believers and 7.4% are atheists (according to the September 2011 poll of the public Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas).[24]

There is a complex situation with atheism in Russia. According to a surveys of Levada Center, 22% of those surveyed self-described as non-religious, agnostic or atheist. Although there are 69% of Orthodox believers (and 5% Muslims) in Russia, just 10% regularly (at least once a month) attend the service.[25]

According to a study carried out by doctor in political science Simon Geissbühler, Swiss atheists tend to be more left-leaning, even accounting for age and income than the average Swiss population.[26]

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, a 2007 survey found 15% of the population attends church more than once per month.[27] A poll in 2004 by the BBC put the number of people who do not believe in a God at 39%,[28] while a YouGov poll in the same year put the percentage of non-believers at 35% with 21% answering "Don't Know".[29] In the YouGov poll men were less likely to believe in a god than women, 39% of men as opposed to 49% of women, and younger people were less likely to believe in a god than older people.

In early 2004, it was announced that atheism would be taught during religious education classes in England.[30] A spokesman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority stated: "There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously." There is also considerable debate in the UK on the status of faith-based schools, which use religious as well as academic selection criteria. A 2009 study reported that two thirds of teenagers in the UK do not believe in God.[31]

The graph below shows the trends of people who self-classify as Christian, non-Christian religious, and non-believer as measured by the British Social Attitudes Survey between 1983 and 2009:[32]



Eastern Germany is perhaps the least religious region in the world.[33] [34] Atheism is embraced by young and old, though more so by younger Germans.[35] The popular explanation for this is the aggressive Atheist policies of the Soviet Union, which at one point ruled over Eastern Germany as the German Democratic Republic. However, the Atheist policies of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany only existed for the first few years. After that, the state allowed churches to have a relatively high level of autonomy.[36] Also, the same high numbers of Atheists don't exist in the other European countries that have a history of Soviet occupation, except for the Czech Republic. Another explanation could be the secular movements during the Weimar Republic which were strongest in the states of Thuringia and Saxony.

Christianity still has a notable presence in the rest of Germany, though there is an Atheist majority in Hamburg.

2008 map of Christian denominations in the states of Germany. Majority of population is:
  member of the Roman Catholic church
  member of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD)
  either member of the Roman Catholic church or the EKD with EKD the largest
  either member of the Roman Catholic church or the EKD with Roman Catholic being the largest denomination
  mainly not religious, largest Christian minority is EKD

North America

The percentage of people in North America by sub-national divisions (except Mexico) who identify with a religion, as opposed to having "no religion" (1991, 1998, 2000, 2001)


The exact number of atheists in Canada is disputed. (See the section "Statistical problems" above) The Canadian Ipsos Reid poll released September 12, 2011 entitled "Canadians Split On Whether Religion Does More Harm in the World than Good," sampled 1,129 Canadian adults and came up 30% who do not believe in a god. Interestingly, the same poll found that 33% of respondents who identified themselves as Catholics and 28% Protestants said they didn't believe in a god.

An older poll shows 19–30% of the population holding an atheistic or agnostic viewpoint.[37] The 2001 Canadian Census states that 16.2% of the population holds no religious affiliation, though exact statistics on atheism are not recorded.[38] In urban centers this figure can be substantially higher; the 2001 census indicated that 42.2% of residents in Vancouver hold "no religious affiliation."[39] A recent survey in 2008 found that 23% of Canadians said they did not believe in a god.[40] The numbers do seem to suggest that the numbers of people in Canada who believe in a deity are dropping at a significant rate.


A 2004 BBC poll showed the number of people in the US who don't believe in a god to be about 9-10%.[12] A 2008 Gallup poll showed that a smaller 6% of the US population believed that no god or universal spirit exists.[41] The most recent ARIS report, released March 9, 2009, found in 2008, 34.2 million Americans (15.0%) claim no religion, of which 1.6% explicitly describes itself as atheist (0.7%) or agnostic (0.9%), nearly double the previous 2001 ARIS survey figure of 0.9%.[42] The highest occurrence of "nones", according to the 2008 ARIS report, reside in Vermont, with 34% surveyed.[43] According to a study conducted by Gallup in May 2010, 16% of Americans declared they have no religious affiliation.[44]

The latest statistics show that a lack of religious identity increased in every US state between 1990 and 2008.[45] However less than 2% of the U.S. population describes itself as atheist.[46]

Overall, U.S. Americans who profess no religion or self-identify as atheist or agnostic are more likely to be white or Asian and less likely to be black or Hispanic, as compared to the general adult population in U.S.[47]

In the U.S., 55 percent of atheists are under age 35, while 30 percent are 50 and over (compared to 37 percent of the total population). As a group agnostics are older than atheists, though still younger than the general population.[47] Comparing this 2001 data with the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) provides evidence of a trend towards secularization among the younger American population.[47][48]

In the US men are more likely to be atheists than women, and also rate lower on various other measures of religiosity such as frequency of prayer.[49]

"The analyses of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Study 1) and the General Social Surveys (Study 2) show that adolescent and adult intelligence significantly increases adult liberalism, atheism, and men's (but not women's) value on sexual exclusivity."[50]


Separation of church and state is guaranteed by Article 130 of the Mexican Constitution, which also designates religious leaders as ineligible for public office, while the majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic (82%).[51]

Although the demographics of atheism and irreligion in Mexico is hard to measure because many atheists are officially counted as Catholic, almost three million people in the 2000 National Census reported having no religion.[52] Recent surveys have shown that only around 3% of Catholics attend church daily[53] and, according to INEGI, the number of atheists grows annually by 5.2%, while the number of Catholics grows by 1.7%.[54][55] The 2010 Mexican census by the INEGI ( shows that 4.9% of Mexicans have no religion, up from 0.6% in 1960 and 3.5% in 2000.

South America

Irreligion in South America had increased for a period of 30 straight years, and it had a growing status in all countries in the first decade of the 21st century.


In Brazil, it rose from about 4% in the end of the 20th century to around 8% in the most recent reliable census and recent estimates put it in 10–14% of the population, being the 2nd largest religious group after Christianity.[65] According to recent researches, Brazilians who profess no religion or self-identify as atheist or agnostic are more likely to be white Brazilian, Amerindian or Asian and less likely to be Afro-Brazilian or Pardo when compared to the general population.[66]

There is evidence that the atheist minority is more likely to suffer prejudice than other groups: when asked for presidential candidates, in spite of major forms of racism, historical prejudices and racist-based classism against black people in the country, 83% of Brazilians would vote for an Afro-Brazilian; even with major forms of sexism present in Latin American societies (see machismo) 57% of Brazilians would vote for a woman president (the first one in the country's history is the present Dilma Roussef, elected in late 2010), and the historical homophobia (hate crimes practiced both by homophobic macho vigilantes and far-right skinheads as well, the latter widely common in White-majority Southern Brazil and São Paulo, for example) and major, widespread forms of heterosexism due also to the sexist machismo culture, 37% of Brazilians would vote for a gay men. Nevertheless, only 13% of Brazilians would vote for an atheist person to occupy the post of president without judging the candidate because of the candidate's religion. 6 in 10 Brazilians would not vote for an atheist president.[67][67]

As happens with Brazilians of sexual minorities and/or members of traditional African diasporic religionsUmbanda, Candomblé and Quimbanda, collectively called Macumba, nowadays a pejorative term — or Spiritism, affiliation to some of the new rising Protestant churches in Brazil (mostly Evangelical or Pentecostal) can lead to even more negative social perceptions of atheist and irreligious people.[68] Some critics present the widespread vision that Protestants are more intolerant and socially conservative than the Roman Catholic church as classist prejudice, an institution as large in Brazil as racism and sexism, although still not questioning that Catholic Brazilians are more tolerant and socially liberal.[69]

One unique feature of the atheist population of Brazil is the disproportional amount of female who claim no belief on god. Whereas virtually all countries around the world have more men identifying as atheist, most studies show that about 70% of Brazilian atheists are women.


In Israel, around 50% of Israelis who were born ethnically Jewish consider themselves "secular" or hilonim, some of them still keep certain religious traditions for cultural reasons, but most are immersed within the secular Jewish culture. The number of atheists and agnostics is lower, and it stands at 15% to 37%. The 2009 Avi-Chai study found 77% of Israeli Jews believe in a "higher power", while 46% define themselves as secular, of which 3% define themselves as "anti-religious".[70] Conversely, the Fridman report for 2007 found that less than 20% define themselves as secular—and only 5% as anti-religious.[71]

East Asian religions define religion differently than in the West, making classification of certain adherents of Buddhism and Taoism particularly difficult, as belief in gods is often not required by some of the schools of thought of those religions. Japan can be especially confusing, with most of the population incorporating practices from multiple religions into their lives (see Religion in Japan). In the People's Republic of China, 59% of the population claim to be non-religious.[72] However, this percentage may be significantly greater (up to 80%) or smaller (down to 30%) in reality, because some Chinese define religion differently. Some Chinese define religion as practicing customs (which may be done for cultural or traditional reasons), while others define it as actually consciously believing their religion will lead to post-mortem salvation/reincarnation. According to the surveys of Phil Zuckerman on in 1993, 59% (over 700 million)[73] of the Chinese population was irreligious and 8% – 14% was atheist (from over 100 to 180 million) as of 2005.[74] (see Religion in China). In Vietnam, up to 81% of the population are atheists, agnostics, or non-believers; and the Vietnamese merely see their religions as a tradition rather than a belief (see Religion in Vietnam).[75]


In the Australian 2011 Census of Population and Housing, in the question which asked "What is the person's religion?" 22.3% reported "no religion", which is a growth of 7% since the 2001 Census. This question was optional and 9.4% did not answer the question.[76] There are often popular and successful campaigns to have people describe themselves as non-mainstream religions (e.g. Jedi).

In 2006, the New Zealand census asked, "What is your religion?" 34.7% of those answering indicated no religion. 12.2% did not respond or objected to answering the question.[77][78] The New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign of 2009 is largely regarded as one of the most successful atheist campaigns of all time.

Income distribution

According to a study carried out by professor of sociology at Pitzer College, Phil Zuckerman "levels of religiosity and creationism tend to decline as income levels rise ..."[79]


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