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Home » Cultural Geography, GeoNotes, Religion, World

A Global Decline in Religiosity?

Submitted by on August 22, 2012 – 8:25 pm 27 Comments |  
New global poll on religion and atheism by WIN-Gallup International has been receiving some attention. The poll, which covered 57 countries containing a solid majority of the world’s population, shows a clear decline in religiosity between 2005 and 2011. Globally, the number of adults claiming to be religious* evidently declined by 9 percent, with the number of atheists increasing by 3 percent.

The report itself highlights the especially striking decline of religious sentiments in Ireland, where the percentage claiming to be religious dropped from 69 to 47 of the adult population in this six-year span. Intriguingly, the number of self-professed atheists in Ireland dropped from 13% to 10% in the same period. These declines were made up by the large rise in the number of people claiming to be merely “non-religious,” which jumped from 25% to 44% of the Irish population. According to the WIN-Gallup data, Vietnam showed an even larger drop in the degree of religiosity during this period, from 53% to 30% of the adult population. The decline of religious belief in Ireland is often related to the sexual scandals of the Roman Catholic Church: those of Vietnam are much more difficult to explain. It is notable, however, that several other countries (Switzerland, France, South Africa) registered somewhat similar drops in religious belief.

Mapping the WIN-Gallup data reveals some interesting and unexpected patterns. Most striking is the low level of religious belief in Turkey; if the poll’s findings are to be accepted, 73 percent of Turks describe themselves as non-religious. The report itself finds such a situation difficult to credit, noting that:

Turkey … show[s] notable change since 2005. These changes are not from a faith to atheism but a shift from self- description of being ‘Religious’ to ‘Not Religious’. We have requested researchers … to investigate reasons which might explain this extra-ordinary shift.

I suspect that this mystery stems from changes in the manner in which the question is interpreted by respondents: even if one fully accepts the tenets of a given religion, one might still consider oneself to be, relatively speaking, “not a religious person” if one is regularly exposed to other people who are far more devout. Many signs indicate that marked religious devotion has been increasing among certain segments of the Turkish population, which may account for the seeming drop in religiosity for the population as a whole.

A similar slippage in the understanding of what it means to be “a religious person” may also explain the fairly low religiosity figures recorded for the Palestinian Territories (65%) and even Saudi Arabia (75%), areas that, like Turkey, show low levels of atheism. Surprisingly, however, the poll indicates that the level of atheism in Saudi Arabia is essentially the same at that of the United States: 5%.

More expected is the poll’s discovery of pronounced irreligion in China and Japan, with 47% of Chinese respondents claiming to be “convinced atheists” and only 14% marking themselves as religious. In Japan, the corresponding figures are 31% and 16%. But despite these figures for China, much evidence suggests that religious practices are increasing in many areas of the country.

In regard to global patterns, the poll indicates an especially high level of religious belief in sub-Saharan Africa, although the data here are very spotty. This finding fits well with the report’s more general claim that “religiosity declines as worldly prosperity of individuals rises.” As the map shows, religious belief tends to be more pronounced in poorer Eastern Europe than in wealthier Western Europe, although the very low level shown for the Czech Republic in Central Europe is an outlier—and one that is also found in other assessments of religious belief. The very high levels of religiosity in Georgia and especially Armenia are also striking. Not surprisingly, the map shows high levels of religious belief in South Asia. The almost equally high level of religiosity indicated for South America is less expected.

*Question: “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”

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  • even if one fully accepts the tenets of a given religion, one might still consider oneself to be, relatively speaking, “not a religious person”
    if one is regularly exposed to other people who are far more devout. Many signs indicate that marked religious devotion has been increasing among certain segments of the Turkish population, which may account for the seeming drop in religiosity for the population as a whole.

    It could also mean that displeasure with the actions of a zealous minority could be driving some people away from religion. This would be unlikely to happen in the United States because there are many denominations to choose from – for example, if you are a lifelong Southern Baptist, a devout Christian, but you believe the denomination is getting too fundamentalist, you can always start attending (for example) a Methodist or Presbyterian church. In Turkey, where Islam is pretty much the only game in town as far as religion is concern, people who think that the Imams have become too extreme don’t really have much of an option except to cut back on their religious observances.

    • Your point is well taken and probably works for many countries (Israel, for example, comes to mind), but I am not sure that it applies in Turkey because of the (still!) overwhelming support for the Justice and Development Party, which has been described as “mildly Islamist”, “Islamist-rooted”, and “Islamic-leaning”. Some of its recently proposed actions, discussed on elsewhere GeoCurrents, mark it as quite Islamist:

      • A change in overt religious activities by a minority might also raise the bar, so to speak. I, a person who attends services once a week or so, might consider myself “religious” if such attendance is rare where I live. If I then move to a town where people attend multiple services, wear religious symbols, and quote scripture frequently, I might not consider myself to be among the “religious.” Even if there is no displeasure, a woman who used to consider herself among the “religious” before wearing a headscarf in urban areas became common might now no longer consider herself so.

        • I agree absolutely, but I think this is the point that Martin was making in the post, no?

          • Yes indeed. i do think that Gallup needs to ask this question in a much more focused manner.

          • I suppose it is, Asya. Sorry about that.

          • No problem… It’s always fun to discuss things with you, James!

  • Not a religious person. I am interested to find out what software you use to make your maps. I want to get started with mapmaking myself.

    • Steven, this and most other GeoCurrents maps are made in Keynote using the base map available for free download from our site:

      There’s a corresponding base map file for working in PowerPoint, but I am not finding it online (note to self: we should put it up too before long). While such manual map making takes longer than using other tools, it is often easier to work out the patterns by going through the data on country-by-country basis (not to mention learning where all the countries are located!). There is also Google Fusion Tables that have a mapping function, and we might be posting maps made using this software too. Stay tuned!

      • Thank you! I was looking at some online tools. Cartodb and Indiemapper looked promising, but with a bit of a steep learning curve. I am still one of those heathens not worshipping Apple yet, so I will wait for the Powerpoint map to open it in OpenOffice!

  • Yoav

    The question itself seems to be a weak measure of religiosity. It is too open to interpretation, which can vary wildly from one culture to another. For instance, in a Muslim culture being “not religious” is hardly the same as in a Western culture. Religiosity would be much better measured by actual practice (e.g. “How many times do you pray each day?”; “Do you attend services regularly?” “Did you fast during the previous Ramadan/Lent/Kippur” etc.).

    • Agreed. As you can see from the footnote to the post, the question was asked in such a way as to be specifically NOT about attendance of religious service. I wonder why? Was there a separate question about religious practice, I wonder? It would be interesting to compare how many people CONSIDER themselves religious (as per this question) and how many actually DO anything religious. Plus perhaps support for political parties/movements that position themselves as religious. I would expect rather large discrepancies between these three things, wouldn’t you?

      • I agree as well, although I would again note that people are not not necessarily honest when it comes to personal questions asked by pollsters. I must confess to this myself: when forced to fill in a survey on drug use as a high school student, I claimed to have never consumed alcohol, coffee, or tobacco, but to have used cocaine, heroin, and LSD on a daily basis. I did so because I did not consider such questions to be anyone’s concern but my own. I imagine that my results were thrown out.

        • As far as I understand how sociologists work, they never throw out any data, however incongruous… So somebody might still be scratching their head about these weird results 😉

          But yes, I agree, some things are personal and having to disclose them in a survey is rather disturbing!

    • I am also curious as to why this poll has no data on Israel? Any thoughts?

  • Excellent post as usual, and I haven’t looked at the Gallup numbers, but I echo your highlighted section about querying numbers! I looked some myself from the UN (by way of Wolfram Alpha, a “Google for stats”) for religious spread globally:
    and the last line says:
    “assuming the reported numbers are correct of course, for example the percentages for China don’t add up to 100 and leave ‘other’ at almost 50%!”

    • Thank you for sharing your blog post on this! I think we are all in agreement that “religiosity” is a “mushy” concept and a subjective one too. Hence, a lot of the data doesn’t make sense, which is what I think Martin’s larger point here is. What I wonder is why the Gallop pollsters haven’t thought of this before going into all the trouble of collecting this (these?) data? Surely, there are better ways to ask the question? It’s an interesting exercise for students in a “sociology methods” course, I would think.

      • Although I cannot recall the source, I once read an account by a sociologist of religion who claimed that many people lie to pollsters about church attendance. He did this by counting the numbers of cars parked in church parking lots and then comparing them with demographic and polling data. He determined that many people who claimed to regularly attend religious services did not actually do so.

        • This is an interesting technique…. I wonder of those who do go inside the church/synagogue/mosque/whatever, how many are actually paying any attention…

  • I am not at all surprised at the Chinese number. To identify oneself as religious could potentially put one at odds with the ruling party, which could be disadvantageous. The Japanese number is perhaps surprising until I think about the activities and attitudes of Japanese people (much of which I have only heard second-hand). It seems that a person who is not a member of one of the Christian or Buddhist organizations might consider themselves atheist and yet pray at temples or engage in other activities meant to petition or propitiate the spirits. The lexical field (is that the term, Asya?) of the word used to translate “atheist” in Japanese might leave open the possibility of sorts of belief in the supernatural that the English term would exclude. Of course, I wonder how many of the American respondents who said they were not “religious” would say that they were “spiritual.”

    • Thank you for sharing these thoughts, James! I don’t know enough about the Japanese to know if you are right… perhaps Martin knows more about this.

      As far as you linguistic question, “lexical field” refers to a range of meaning referred to by different words, examples of lexical fields being colors, furniture, fruit, etc. What you mean here is probably just “the meaning”…

    • Interesting points. Much the same could be said, in reverse, about atheism in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which is technically against the law in both countries (hence my surprise at the 5% figure given for Saudi Arabia). In Japan, it is common for people to occasionally pray at a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine without otherwise being religious — although after retirement, many do begin to take Buddhism seriously. But some people argue that Buddhism (especially Theravada Buddhism of SE Asia and Sri Lanka) is essentially an “atheistic religion.” The issue is complicated!

  • BorisDenisov

    The link to the poll does not work. It is only my problem, or smb else ?

    • Works for me, but it is to a pdf file which my computer wants to save rather than open directly (which is what it always does with pdf files). Do you have problems with other pdf links?

  • Black

    I am not surprised by the number of Turkey. The country has a strong secular tradition, like France. The numbers of Saudi Arabia will be explained by rebelling against the very strict religious regime.

    • Thank you for your comment, Black! You might be right on this, but I am perplexed by the divergence between the number of people who self-identify as “not religious” and people who actual behave as non-religious (e.g. in both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, it seems to me, a lot more people behave in a religious way or support Islam-inspired ideologies). Which all supports the original point of this post, that the definition of religiousity is “in the eye of the beholder”, so to speak.

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