The Coming Atheist Demographic Tide

The WIN-Gallup International network of polling firms has released a new poll titled Global Index of Religion and Atheism 2012, and there's a lot of good news in it for us. Some of these results are so encouraging, I hesitate to believe them without additional confirmation - but if they bear out, they show that atheism is rising all around the world like the tide coming in!

The highlight of the survey was Ireland. One of the questions was, "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?" And according to the survey, this one-time Catholic stronghold has undergone a dramatic shift. In 2005, when this poll was last conducted, 69% of Irish defined themselves as religious, 25% as non-religious, and 3% as convinced atheists. In 2011, those same numbers stood at just 47% religious, 44% non-religious and 10% atheist. In other words, in just six years, one in every five Irish people has given up religion, which is enough to vault Ireland into the top 10 nations worldwide with the most atheists. This is less a demographic tide than a demographic earthquake.

And it's easy to guess why. In per-capita terms, Ireland suffered more from the Catholic child-rape scandal than any other nation in the world, and the Vatican's response has consistently been one of denial, arrogance and condescension. There's been such fury at the church in the last few years, some pundits wondered if Ireland was "divorcing" from Catholicism, and it appears that this is exactly what's happening. The church authorities have acted as if they were immune from the law and even from public opinion, and that all they had to do was hunker down and wait for everything to blow over. They seem to have forgotten that simply leaving the church is a choice that fed-up people can make. But the Irish people clearly haven't forgotten, and they're voting with their feet in a way that could well set the church on an irreversible slide into demographic irrelevance.

Ireland is a special case, since it's largely dominated by one religion with one central authority whom the people can spurn. But it's not the only country in the world where nonbelief is on the rise. Among 57 countries surveyed in the WIN-Gallup poll, the average religiosity of respondents was 59%, a 9-point decline since 2005. Again, this is a startlingly rapid demographic shift. Among the few countries to buck the trend and show an increase in self-reported religiosity were Macedonia (by 5%), Romania (4%), Pakistan (6%), and Italy (1%). But in many more countries, atheism is growing: in France (by 15%!), the Czech Republic (10%), Japan (8%), Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina (5% each), Canada, Poland and South Africa (3% each), and more.

But I've saved possibly the biggest surprise for last. In 2005, WIN-Gallup found that the United States was 73% religious and 1% atheist, which is relatively in line with other polls. And in 2011 (...drumroll, please...), the newest results are: 60% religious and 5% atheist!

This is an incredibly welcome result, but some caveats are in order. First of all, I don't think this means the number of atheists in the U.S. has quintupled in six years. Previous polls like the 2008 ARIS have found that about 12% of Americans are de facto atheists, lacking belief in a higher power, whether or not they choose that word to describe themselves. Given that information, what this result more likely means is that the number of atheists who are willing to use the A-word has increased. To be sure, this is still very good news: it means that atheism is losing its stigma, that the New Atheist strategy of community-building and outspoken advocacy is working. All that stuff we're doing? We need to keep doing it!

Second: The U.S. findings were apparently based on a sample size of 1,000 people, which isn't too small, but isn't huge either. There are definitely error bars, and I'd like to see this result reproduced by other surveys before leaning too heavily on it. That said, the general trend of fading religiosity and rising nonbelief in America is one that's been reinforced by multiple polls over the last few years.

And third: Of course, even if these findings are absolutely true, even if our numbers have grown dramatically in just a few years, atheists are still just a small minority of the population. We won't be winning elections single-handedly any time soon. But if we don't set our expectations unrealistically high, a growing and engaged atheist movement can accomplish a lot of worthwhile things: fighting back against prejudice, spreading our ideas into the broader cultural discussion, boosting the legitimacy of reason and secularism and weakening the pull of superstition and fundamentalism. 5% of the population may be small in absolute terms, but it's larger than other minorities whom politicians wouldn't dare denigrate for political gain!

Daylight Atheism: The Book is now available! Click here for reviews and ordering information.

Will China’s green energy tipping point come too late?

Pay attention to the decisions made by the provinces.

Surprising Science
  • China leads the world in numerous green energy categories.
  • CO2 emissions in the country totaling more than all coal emissions in the U.S. have recently emerged.
  • This seems to be an administrative-induced blip on the way towards a green energy tipping point.
Keep reading Show less

Got a question for a real NASA astronomer? Ask it here!

NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller is coming back to Big Think to answer YOUR questions! Here's all you need to know to submit your science-related inquiries.

Surprising Science

Big Think's amazing audience has responded so well to our videos from NASA astronomer and Assistant Director for Science Communication Michelle Thaller that we couldn't wait to bring her back for more!

And this time, she's ready to tackle any questions you're willing to throw at her, like, "How big is the Universe?", "Am I really made of stars?" or, "How long until Elon Musk starts a colony on Mars?"

All you have to do is submit your questions to the form below, and we'll use them for an upcoming Q+A session with Michelle. You know what to do, Big Thinkers!

Keep reading Show less

5 communication pitfalls that are preventing people from really hearing what you're trying to say

If you want to be a better and more passionate communicator, these tips are important.

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash

If you identify as being a socially conscious person in today's age of outrage, you've likely experienced the bewildering sensation when a conversation that was once harmless, suddenly doesn't feel that way anymore. Perhaps you're out for a quick bite with family, friends, or coworkers when the conversation takes a turn. Someone's said something that doesn't sit right with you, and you're unsure of how to respond. Navigating social situations like this is inherently stressful.

Below are five expert-approved tips on how to maintain your cool and effectively communicate.

Keep reading Show less

Take the Big Think survey for a chance to win :)

Calling all big thinkers!

  • Tell us a little bit about where you find Big Think's videos, articles, and podcasts.
  • Be entered for a chance to win 1 of 3 Amazon gift cards each worth $100.
  • All survey information is anonymous and will be used only for this survey.
Keep reading Show less
(Photo: ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • The next Mega Millions drawing is scheduled for Oct. 23 at 11 pm E.T.
  • The odds of any one ticket winning are about 1 in 300 million.
  • This might be a record-setting jackpot, but that doesn't mean you have a better chance of winning.
Keep reading Show less

The value of owning more books than you can read

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love my tsundoku.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
Personal Growth
  • Many readers buy books with every intention of reading them only to let them linger on the shelf.
  • Statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb believes surrounding ourselves with unread books enriches our lives as they remind us of all we don't know.
  • The Japanese call this practice tsundoku, and it may provide lasting benefits.
Keep reading Show less

How to raise a non-materialistic kid

Money makes the world go 'round. Unfortunately, it can make both children and adults into materialists.

Robert Collins / Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Keeping a gratitude journal caused children to donate 60 percent more to charitable causes.
  • Other methods suggested by researchers include daily gratitude reflection, gratitude posters, and keeping a "gratitude jar."
  • Materialism has been shown to increase anxiety and depression and promote selfish attitudes and behavior.
Keep reading Show less

Elon Musk says Boring Company tunnel opens Dec. 10

The Boring Company plans to offer free rides in its prototype tunnel in Hawthorne, California in December.

Image: Getty Images/Claudia Soraya
Technology & Innovation
  • The prototype tunnel is about 2 miles long and contains electric skates that travel at top speeds of around 150 mph.
  • This is the first tunnel from the company that will be open to the public.
  • If successful, the prototype could help the company receive regulatory approval for much bigger projects in L.A. and beyond.
Keep reading Show less