For a long time, the big debate in the sociology of religion has been framed by a yes or no to “secularization theory,” meaning the claim that the world is destined to become more secular and therefore less religious.
A growing body of data, capped by Monday’s release of a new poll from the Switzerland-based market research firm WIN Gallup, suggests the answer may be that both sides in that argument were right all along – secularization is clearly a growing social force, but religious belief is also remarkably tenacious.
(Naturally, market research companies have an intense investment in accumulating detailed knowledge of what people think about such matters, so they can sell them soap and beer based on their convictions.)
The results, based on surveys in 65 nations conducted from September to December 2014, show that worldwide, 1 in 5 people today consider themselves “non-religious,” and 1 in 10 say they’re atheists. That’s a global pool of 1.5 billion non-religious people and 770 million atheists, among the largest numbers ever recorded for either camp.
In the United States, 56 percent of residents say they’re religious, 33 percent say they’re not, and 6 percent describe themselves as atheists. That’s roughly 180 million believers and 125 million who aren’t, meaning the fault line runs between two massive pools of Americans of increasingly equal size.
China, by consensus the world’s emerging superpower in the early 21st century, is also the world’s least religious nation, with 61 percent of the population identifying themselves as convinced atheists. An additional 29 percent of the Chinese say they’re non-religious, with only 7 percent professing religious belief.
Yet illustrating the paradox of the time, China is also an emerging Christian superpower.
Christian growth in China, especially among Evangelicals and Pentecostals, is well-documented. According to Prof. Fenggang Yang of Purdue, China had almost 70 million Christians in 2010, making it at that stage the world’s seventh largest Christian nation, a number he projects to rise to 160 million by 2025 and 247 million by 2030.
At that point, Yang believes, China will replace the United States as the world’s largest Christian nation, though it will remain the largest atheist nation, too.
Overall, the WIN Gallup poll makes crystal clear that religion isn’t about to disappear.
According to the results, 63 percent of the world’s population remains religious in 2015 despite decades of secularizing pressure. In Africa and the Middle East, more than 8 out of 10 people — 86 percent and 82 percent respectively — are religious, while 7 out of 10 are religious in Eastern Europe and the Americas and more than 6 out of 10 remain religious across Asia.
The seven most intensely religious nations in the poll are Thailand, with 94 percent of the population saying it’s religious, followed by Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia, Morocco, Fiji, and South Africa.
Interestingly, those countries are fairly evenly distributed among the major world religions. Two (Bangladesh, Morocco) are majority Muslim, four are majority Christian (Armenia, Fiji, South Africa, and Georgia) and one (Thailand) is a predominantly Buddhist society.
It should be noted that some even more intensely religious nations were left out simply because they weren’t part of the poll. Sri Lanka, for instance, a majority Buddhist nation visited by Pope Francis in January to great acclaim, was flagged by a 2009 Gallup survey as the world’s second-most religious society, with 99 percent of the population saying religion is important in daily life.
According to the new poll, Western Europe and Oceania are the regions where the contrast between the religious and non-religious is the sharpest. In Western Europe, 43 percent of people say they’re religious and 37 percent say they’re not, while in Oceania the numbers are 44 percent and 37 percent. Those two regions are also where the highest share of self-described atheists is found: 14 percent and 12 percent respectively.
Beyond China, Hong Kong and Japan are also atheist strongholds, with 34 and 31 percent of the populations respectively identifying themselves that way. Swedes lead the secular pack in the West, with 78 percent saying they’re either not religious or are convinced of atheism. Sweden is followed closely by the United Kingdom, where just 30 percent of the population says it’s religious.
Perhaps counter-intuitively for people unfamiliar with the complicated sociology of Israel, 65 percent of Israelis say they’re either “not religious” or atheists, as compared with just 30 percent who say they’re religious. On the West Bank and Gaza, 75 percent of people say they’re religious and 18 percent say they’re not.
(Interestingly, the best hope for peace in the Holy Land thus may lie not in improved Jewish/Muslim relations, but alliances between secularists on each side.)
Secularists may take satisfaction in results showing that religious belief remains strongest among the least educated and poorest segments of the global population. The share of convinced atheists, for instance, is only 6 percent among low-income people, but rises to 25 percent in the high-income bracket.
On the other hand, believers will be cheered to learn that despite claims of religion becoming less vibrant with each passing generation, young people globally are actually more likely to be religious. The poll finds that 66 percent of people under 34 identify themselves as religious, as compared to 60 percent for all other age groups.
The bottom line from the WIN Gallup poll, which confirms findings from other sources, is that both secularism and religious belief are deeply entrenched options in the early 21st century that aren’t going away.
Believers and secularists are fated to live together, in other words, and the quality of the world we live in is likely be determined by how well they get along.