Religious statistics index page
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics

The Present and Future of Atheist and Secularist Populations

The percentage of world population that is religiously unaffiliated has been falling in recent decades because of the fall of communism in many countries and the lower birth rates of atheists, agnostics, secularists, and other unaffiliated people. The Pew Research Center projects that this will continue. As of 2015 16 percent of the world's population was religiously unaffiliated. By 2060 that will fall to about 12.5 percent according to Pew's projection.

The total population of the unaffiliated is projected by Pew to grow three percent over this time period, but the world's population is projected to grow 32 percent. Christians will hold their 2015 percentage, 31% and slightly increase it, the Muslims who were at 24% in 2015 will be about equal with the Christians in 2060 according to Pew.

You can read the Pew article "The Future of World Religions" here. Pew provides you with their estimates of what will happen, the rest of this page will provide you with my views of what may push the numbers higher or lower over the next few decades.

Factors That May Increase or Decrease the Unaffilated Population

Since 2015 some things have changed. China has become more authoritarian and is putting greater emphasis on communism. Religion is being persecuted more and atheism is being encouraged. As about 60% of the world's religiously unaffiliated are in China this could be important factor in determining what percentage of the world's population is unaffiliated.

When the Soviet Block fell the Russians did not all immediately rush back to religion but over the last few decades the Russian Orthodox Church has reasserted itself. By some statistical measures Russia is now about as religious as the United States. If the Communist Party loses power in China something similar could happen there. The future of China is uncertain and this introduces a lot of uncertainty into what percentage of the world's population will be religiously affiliated and what religion they will be affiliated to.

What has remained predictable is that religious people have far more babies than the unaffiliated, and the unaffiliated do not have enough children to reproduce themselves. According to Pew the religiously unaffiliated have 1.6 children per woman, the Christians 2.6, the Muslims 2.9 and all religions 2.4. This is crucial to the falling percentage of the unaffiliated. Nevertheless the unaffiliated are expected to grow in absolute numbers, the conversion of religious people to unaffiliated status is no doubt part of this as the unaffiliated are no where close to having enough children to break even.

Atheism and Secularism Strong & Growing in 1st World

Outside of the communist and formerly communist countries the unaffiliated are a very small portion of the population in most developing counties. They are a much larger and growing portion of the population in developed nations. The threshold for developed nations according to the World Bank was 12,375 US dollars in 2018.

Developed nations, like the unaffiliated tend to have low birth rates, but in recent years this has been more than made up by the net migration of people from developing to developed nations and national economies ascending from developing to developed status.

Will a Developed World be a Religiously Unaffiliated World?

I believe that almost all of the world's population will live in high income, developed countries by 2060. If I am right, or even if a larger portion of the world's population lives in developed nations, atheism and more generally the unaffiliated population may grow to be a larger portion of the world's population.

It is frequently argued that as people reach a comfortable level of income they will tend to lose their religious faith. There is considerable evidence for this, but it could turn out that relative income rather than absolute income is more important.

Religions often emphasize the responsibility of the rich to share their wealth with the poor. This idea is likely to be more popular among the relatively poor than the relatively rich. The relatively rich are not likely to find what Jesus said about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven comforting. So as the developing countries enter into high income or developed status their people may not consider themselves rich as they will still be relatively poor. Thus the people of these new developed countries may remain religious.

Mother Theresa provides an example. She felt it necessary to live as one of the poorest of the poor. As poverty is reduced and the poorest of the poor become more comfortable living as one of the poorest of the poor will be less of a sacrifice. This may make religion more popular.

How Cold War 2 May Increase or Decrease the Unaffiliated Population

9/11 and the conflict between Islam and the West has tended to make religion less popular in the West over the last couple of decades. Secularists successfully sold the idea that all religions were the problem. This made their attacks on Islam seem more even handed. It also helped them to convert many Christians to various secular positions.

However, the focus of conflict is shifting away from Islam and toward China and North Korea. Where before religious fanatics were the enemy and religion was suspect, now Communists are once again the enemy and atheists therefore may again become suspect as they were in the cold war. The cold war may have strengthened religion in America, and may have been one of the reasons that America was so religious compared to other developed democracies. This might happen again.

On the other hand the Soviet threat may have discouraged religion in Europe. Europeans adopted economic policies, for example socialized medicine, and relatively generous help for the poor that weakened the communist critique of capitalism. They accommodated the communists. Perhaps the weakening of religion in Europe was part of the same accommodationist trend.

This might suggest that those countries that are closest to China might see reductions in religious belief, but perhaps those that are far away, for example, Europe might go in the opposite direction.

The Internet and the Unaffiliated

The media environment also has changed. One element in the persistent high religiosity of America as opposed to other advanced nations maybe have been religious broadcasting, both TV, cable TV, and radio. With the Internet religious people in other countries can bring similar programs to all developed countries.

On the other hand the Internet has also allowed the atheists to more widely broadcast their message. At this point the Internet seems to be a win for secularists.

Which Side will Artificial Intelligence Take

The rapidly improving communications technology is likely to provide hope for both the religious and the atheists. Both groups are likely to believe that as they gain greater and greater power to spread their messages their views will win out. After all the other side is irrational.

In the future artificial intelligence can, like the Internet, be seen as force for which ever position you believe in. Artificial intelligence could theoretically act as a neutral observer, having neither a desire for an afterlife nor a fear of hell. The artificial intelligence would not reject a religious message because it did not want to give up its sins. What sins could a machine have. So both secularists and religious believers might look forward to the artificial intelligence supporting them just as both secularists and religious believers may believe the Internet will favor them.

Coerced vs. Free Secularism

Finally, let me address atheist/secular numbers and communism. In 2010 about sixty percent of the religiously unaffiliated population of the world lived in China. In China professing atheism is rewarded and professing religion is punished. So the success of atheism and secularism is achieved through coercion and bribery. In the developed democracies the success of atheism and secularism is voluntary. If the overall percentage of the world's population that is religiously unaffiliated falls, but we move from coerced and bribed secularism to voluntary secularism this should be seen as a good thing even by the secularists. Taking pride in the number of secularists, when they are secularists merely because they were bribed or coerced is an example of taking pride in your groups intolerance.

If you are interested in the idea that a rapidly growing portion of the worlds population will soon live in developed nations you can check out several pages that are linked to my economics index page particularly the section on developing economies.

If you wish to read more of my speculation about artificial intelligence and religious belief you can check out some other links on the economics index page, particularly the one where I explore a senario where artificial intelligence convinces the human race to vote itself into extinction. and the Devil's History of Life and Humanity.

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Posted May 24, 2020

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