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Population Growth and Decline of Atheism and Agnosticism


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Quick Summary, Third World Decline, First World Rise, for Atheism

Atheism and other forms of non-belief, have been declining in the Third World, largely because of the fall of communism. Non-belief has been rising in the First World, but that trend is slowing.

Atheist Decline in Recent Past and Near Future

In the last few decades atheists have been a rapidly declining percentage of world population. They are now 2.5% of world population. Agnostics and those who are indifferent to religion are also a somewhat more slowly declining percentage of the world's population, they are now 11.5%.

There are two factors. First, the end of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the loss of faith in communism elsewhere, particularly China. Atheists and non-religious people are overwhelmingly concentrated in communist countries. About two thirds of the world's atheist population is in China.

Second, religious people have far higher birth rates.

For the future the low birth rates among the more radical atheists and anti-religious people, and the agnostic and religiously indifferent will tend to lower their percentage in the population.

There also maybe a vast decrease in the atheist and non-religious population as communism continues to lose its grip in China.

Does this mean that the percentage of the world's population that is not religious must decrease. Probably in the short run, but not necessarily over the longer run.

Atheism's Prospects Stronger Over the Long Run

With the exception of those Third World countries that are controlled by communists, or were formerly controlled by communists, atheism and other forms of non-belief are rare in the Third World, but much more common in the First World, particularly Japan and Europe. Atheism and non-belief in general may gain strength as an increasing portion of the world's population lives in rich, industrialized, First World democracies.

In recent decades the rise of some Third World countries, for example South Korea, to First World status, and the net migration of Third World people to the First World has been roughly matched by the higher birthrate of the Third World. Therefore the ratio of five people in the Third World for every one in the First World has remained fairly stable. Note that I am counting communist countries, formerly the Second World, as Third World countries.

First World Likely to be an Increasing Portion of World Population

But for the future there are reasons for thinking the First World maybe an increasing portion of the world's population. First, the population growth of the Third World nations is rapidly declining while the population growth of First World nations is declining much more slowly. One reason for this is that European countries have been more willing to accept Third World immigrants to stave off population decline.

Second, many of the people in the Third World are living in countries with rapidly growing economies that may achieve First World status in a few decades. Roughly one quarter of the Third World lives in China, and China doubles its economic output every ten years, recently China has been growing even faster. India is home to another twenty percent of the the Third World population and through Internet outsourcing India may also start doubling its output every decade. If fact the whole of the Third World seems to be moving close to a growth rate that would double their economic output every decade.

As the population growth of the Third World nations is less than one percent higher than the population growth of First World nations it would take more than seventy years for the Third World's population to double relative to the First World's population if no Third World Countries rose to First World status. But as China is likely to attain First World status in much less than thirty five years (half of seventy), and China alone would more than double the size of the First World if it became a First World country today, it seems likely that the First World will become a larger portion of the World's population. If so the percentage of the world's population who is atheist, agnostic etc. might tend to increase.

I have written more on the likely growth of the First and shrinking of the Third World here.

Atheism and non-belief is increasing in First World

Both Atheists and other radically anti-religious groups, and agnostics and other religiously indifferent groups are a growing portion of the First World's population. While their birth rates are lower, they are more than making up the difference through conversion.

I checked the eleven industrial democracies with population over twenty million and found that the non-religious were making more converts than they were losing in all eleven between 1990 and 2000. Atheists had a net loss from conversions in Germany, no doubt because East Germans turned to religion after the fall of communism, but in the other ten large industrial democracies the atheists had net gains through conversion.

Furthermore, atheists were an increasing portion of the population in First World countries, with the exception of Germany, and non-religious people were an increasing portion of all eleven First World countries with populations over 20 million.

Non-belief is clearly on the rise in the First World, and the First World will probably become a larger part of the world's total population, so atheism maybe headed toward a long term recovery.

The Growth of Atheism and Non Belief is Slowing

This recovery could be limited however. In several European countries I checked the Atheists and Non-religious are increasing at a decreasing rate. They had relatively big increases between 1970 and 1990, but the growth rate was far less in the ten years between 1990 and 2000. It looks like the social revolution of the late 1960's and early 1970's produced a trend toward non-belief which was working its way through society in the next several decades but by the 1990's the trend was rapidly slowing. So it appears that there may well be a shift in the First World to non-belief but the shift is slowing.

This may mean that in the longer run the higher birth rates of the religious will outweigh the advantage in conversion that the atheists and non-religious have had in recent years.

Voluntary Atheism Clearly on the Increase

With the fall of communism, coerced atheism has fallen rapidly. But voluntary atheism and other forms of voluntary non-belief are clearly on the rise. The formerly high numbers for non-belief, and even the vast majority of non-belief today is coerced, and therefore nothing for atheists and other non-believers to brag about. Bragging about the millions of non-believers in communist countries is the equivalent of bragging about your own group's intolerance. But if there was no reason for atheists to brag about those numbers in the first place, there is no reason for atheists to get upset about their decline. Religious people can cheer the decline in atheist numbers, while atheists cheer the rise in voluntaty atheism. Everyone can cheer the decline of coercion.

I also have pages on the growth prospects for Christianity and Islam

If you want to check more about the present situation you can see my summary of world relgious statistics. At the top of the page I give the information on atheists, agnositics, etc.

I also have a page of links to major sites for religious statistics.

If you are interested in the relative size of Christian groups I have a page on that.

My main source for the above is David Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia. Which is not really Christian or an Encyclopedia. The World Christian Encyclopedia is really a census of all religions. Part of it is on the net, see the links page above.

In the above discussion the word atheist, is short for a atheist, free thinker, anti-religious etc. This is a category used by Barrett in the World Christian Encyclopedia. I am aware that atheists may prefer terms like materialist or humanist, and I use them in other web pages, but the term atheist makes things clear for many people.

The term non-religious is once again Barrett's and means agnostic, indifferent to all religion, etc.

But perhaps you are more interested in the surprising relationship between education and religious belief and practice, based on a series of Gallop Polls.

You can leave comments in my guest book. If you leave an email address I will probably get back to you.

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Last updated February 12, 2007


Discussion on the above

Some time more than six months ago I was excited to find that this and several related pages on future of various metaphysical groups has created excitement on a couple of newspaper online forums. More recently I found that if I put "richleebruce" into Google far more web pages linked to me than I could find with a normal Google links search. I found hundreds of references and links. My earlier excitement about a few links seems a little over done.

Nevertheless, as space on the web is basically free I am leaving my responses to the comments to some of this discussion here at the bottom of the page for those who are interested. I might note however that much of this simply repeats what was said above.

This page has been discussed on the Baltimore Sun's on line forum in a thread that begins with a comment on this page and is titled "Is Atheism on the Rise".

The writer who began the thread, who goes by Kenect2, is convinced that Atheism is on the rise. He cites the numbers for 1900, 1970, 2000, 2004, and an estimate for 2025. Yes, there was a big increase from 1900 to 1970. Atheism was almost nonexistent, something like one out of every 7,000 people on the planet, in 1900. There was a drop off after the fall of the Soviet Block but numbers are moving up again. Kenect2 sees that as significant, but misses the point that the growth while positive is much slower than major religiously defined groups, so the portion of the world population that is Atheist is still falling.

Finally, a huge portion of the atheists that he is pointing to were or are in communist countries. As religious people were or are frequently excluded from the better jobs in communist countries, an Atheist who counts them is effectively bragging about his own group's intolerance.

On the other hand we can not discount the possibility that after most of the countries of the world become First World countries the proportion of the world's population that is atheist, agnostic, or some other flavor of non-belief may increase, and even if we discount the paid atheists in communist countries the portion of the world's population that freely chooses to believe there is no God is larger than it was in 1900, and very probably increasing. On the other hand that unknown number is probably less than one percent of the world's population.

I have just got an angry note in my guestbook which assumes that I am saying Atheism is genetic. Hardly, parents are fairly successful at passing on their faith, but it is a matter of nurture not nature. As atheists and other non-believers have lower birth rates they will have to make up for that by converting people. The statistics for the First World suggest that they are succeeding at this and more.

The writer also says I think all atheists are communists or liberals. Not at all. But atheists today and in the last century were very much concentrated in communist countries. They were and are paid atheists, living in societies that provide many advantages to those who deny all religious faith. I did not say, or even suggest that this was the only type of atheist. I simply have said that unpaid atheists are relatively rare. As one of the joys of atheism is sneering at the unwashed masses who believe, this rarity may not bother them.

One non-believer objected to this last statement, but as one group of atheists recently tried to say that atheists should be called brights, just as homosexuals are called gays, I think it is fair to say that many atheists do think of themselves as an elite.

The discussion on the future population growth of Islam has been mentioned on a similar discussion forum of a Pakistni newspaper. The writer was impressed with the balanced approach. As far as I can tell the discussion of population growth among Christians has not made it into the forums.

If you want to keep these discussions going I have a guest book.