Religion Declining, Secularism Surging

An ongoing spate of recent studies - looking at various countries around the world - all show the same thing: religion is in decline.
05/12/2016 08:51 am ET Updated May 13, 2017

An ongoing spate of recent studies - looking at various countries around the world - all show the same thing: religion is in decline. From Scandinavia to South America, and from Vancouver to Seoul, the world is experiencing an unprecedented wave of secularization. Indeed, as a recent National Geographic report confirms, the world's newest religion is: No Religion.

Consider the latest facts:

* For the first time in Norwegian history, there are more atheists and agnostics than believers in God.

* For the first time in British history, there are now more atheists and agnostics than believers in God. And church attendance rates in the UK are at an all-time low, with less than 2% of British men and women attending church on any given Sunday.

* A recent survey found that 0% of Icelanders believe that God created the Earth. That's correct: 0%. And whereas 20 years ago, 90% of Icelanders claimed to be religious, today less than 50% claim to be.

* Nearly 70% of the Dutch are not affiliated with any religion, and approximately 700 Protestant churches and over 1,000 Catholic churches are expected to close within the next few years throughout the Netherlands, due to low attendance.

* According to a recent Eurobarometer Poll, 19% of Spaniards, 24% of Danes, 26% of Slovenians, 27% of Germans and Belgians, 34% of Swedes, and 40% of the French, claim to not believe in "any sort of spirit, God, or life-force."

* In the United States, somewhere between 23% and 28% of American adults have no religious affiliation, and these so-called "nones" are not only growing in number, but they are becoming increasingly secular in their behaviors and beliefs.

* Among Millennials - Americans in their 20s - over 35% are non-religious, constituting the largest cohort of secular men and women in the nation's history.

* In Canada, back in 1991, 12% of adults stated "none," when asked their religion - today that is up to 24%.

* In Australia, 15% of the population said they had no religion in 2001, and it is up to at least 22% today.
* In New Zealand, 30% of the population claimed no religion in 2001, but it had risen to 42% in 2013.

* In South America, 7% of men and women in Mexico, 8% in Brazil, 11% in Argentina, 12% in El Salvador, 16% in Chile, 18% in the Dominican Republic, and 37% in Uruguay are non-religious -- the highest such rates of Latin American secularity ever recorded.

* In Japan, about 70% of adults claimed to hold personal religious beliefs sixty years ago, but today, that figure is down to only about 20%; In 1970 there were 96,000 Buddhist temples throughout Japan, but in 2007, there were 75,866 - and around 20,000 of those were un-staffed, with no resident priest. In the 1950s, over 75% of Japanese households had a kamidana (Shinto altar), but by 2006 this was down to 44% nationwide, and only 26% in major cities.

* While 11% of South Koreans were atheists in 2005, that has increased to at least 15% as of late, and the percentage of South Koreans who described themselves as religious has dropped from 58% to 52% over the past decade.

* Over 50% of Chinese adults are secular (although in Communist dictatorships where religion is officially oppressed, valid information on people's religiosity is always hard to come by).

* In Africa, while religiosity remains high, there are none the less growing pockets of irreligion: over 5% of the those in Ghana claim to have no religion, and 9% of people in Madagascar and Tanzania, and 11% of people in Gabon and Swaziland are now non-religious.

* Approximately 20% of Botswanans now claim to have no religion.

* Over 20% of Jamaicans are now non-religious.

Many other nations contain significant populations of nonreligious people, such as Slovenia, Israel, Finland, Hungary, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, etc. -- but a nation-by-nation breakdown is not possible here. Suffice it to say that most countries have experienced notable degrees of secularization over the past century, and for the first time in the world's history, there are now many societies where being secular is more common than being religious.

Although openly supporting atheism is sometimes punished in some Muslim-majority countries - in fact, in 13 Islamic nations, atheism is a crime warranting the death penalty-- there are still numerous signs of growing secularism throughout the Muslim world, although reliable numbers are hard to come by.

Finally, the sheer number of secular men and women on planet earth is unprecedented -- according to the Pew Research Center's latest estimates, there were over 1.1 billion non-religious people in the world in 2010, and that number is expected to increase to over 1.2 billion by the year 2020.

Will this tidal wave of secularization continue to wash over planet earth?
Hard to say for sure.

On the one hand, we know that socialization is the number one engine that drives religiosity: children are raised to become religious by their religious parents. And thus, as more and more people stop being religious, it is quite likely that they won't raise their children to be religious, and thus the inter-generational spread of religion will weaken in the decades ahead. Additionally, secularization is highly correlated with internet access and usage. And thus, as the web becomes more ubiquitous in more people's lives, secularism will continue to grow.

On the other hand, religious people have more kids than secular people. And those nations today with the highest birthrates are the most religious, while those nations today with the lowest birthrates tend to be among the most secular - so demographically, in terms of who has more babies, the religious have the breeding advantage. And this is why, according to Pew's latest predictions, the growth of secularity will most likely level off within a few decades, while Islam will continue to grow, becoming the world's largest religion by 2050.

But for now, churches are closing across the world, faith is fading, and those men and women who live their lives according to secular values and humanist principles are on the rise.