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China and Europe stand out on world map of atheism

Faith is in retreat, atheism is on the march. But only in China does a majority positively state they don’t believe in God.

There are surprising levels of atheism and 'non-religiosity' in countries where you'd least expect it

Never mind whether you regularly visit a place of worship: do you consider yourself a religious person? Yes, said 62% of 60,000 people across 68 countries polled by WIN/Gallup for a survey published in 2017. Back in 2005, the score for that answer was 77%.


Minus 15 percentage points in just 12 years – that’s a fairly steep decline. Does that mean that atheism is gaining ground worldwide? Yes, but not by as much as these figures seem to suggest, for three reasons.

Firstly, because there’s a large and growing middle between those who positively believe in God and those who positively don’t. In 2005, just 5% of those surveyed in 2005 considered themselves 'convinced atheists' – the remaining 18% were non-religious or 'don’t knows'. In 2017, the fish-nor-fowl brigade had grown to 30%. ‘Convinced atheists’ had increased as well, but only to 9%.

Secondly, because our beliefs are not necessarily coherent. People may believe in aspects of religion even if they don’t consider themselves religious (and vice versa). As other results from the survey show, a higher percentage than those who say they’re religious believe in a soul (74%) and God (71%). Inversely, a lower percentage believe in things that many theologians would say are essential to religion, such as heaven (56%), hell (49%) and life after death (54%).

And thirdly, the battle between God and his Absence for a share of mankind’s mental space is not just a linear retreat of divinity before materialism. A 2012 WIN/Gallup poll showed a lower share of religiosity (59%) and a higher share of atheism (13%) than the more recent one.

While most of us consider our beliefs (or lack thereof) a highly personal matter, what the successive WIN/Gallup polls also clearly show is that a number of external factors predict whether or not we believe in a Supreme Being.

Age, income and education level play a role. Beliefs diminish as people earn more and/or have received a higher education. Curiously, they also fade as people get older: the most recent survey compares 18-24-year-olds to over-65s, and consistently finds gaps in the belief in God (74% vs. 67%), life after death (60% vs. 45%), the soul (78% vs. 68%), hell (57% vs. 35%) and heaven (64% vs. 46%).

As these maps of atheism around the world show, geography also is a factor. For cultural, social and/or political reasons, some countries have a much higher degree of atheism. Europe is a regional hotbed, but even here, direct neighbours may be at great variance.

The most godless country in the world, however, is China. According to the survey, fully 67% of respondents in China considered themselves 'convinced atheists' – more than double the percentage in the world’s second-most atheistic country, Japan (29%). South Korea, at #5 in the ranking (with 23%) is another East Asian centre of atheism; but 18 of the other 20 leading countries are in Europe.

Slovenia (28%) leads the European league table, followed by the Czech Republic (25%), France and Belgium (both 21%). Then there’s Sweden (18%), Iceland (17%), Spain (16%), Germany and Denmark (both 14%) and the UK (11%). Norway, Austria and Estonia all have 10% committed atheists, while Latvia, Ireland, Portugal and Albania are at 9%. Italy, home of the Catholic Church, has 8%.

The only non-European countries this high up in the list are Australia (13%) and Canada (10%). At the same time, Europe is home to some of the least atheistic countries in the world (or at least in this survey): Bosnia, Macedonia and Poland only have 1% atheists, Bulgaria and Romania just 3%.

Outside the developed world, there are some surprisingly high scores, for example for DR Congo, with 8% atheists (the only three other African countries on the list, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria, score 0%).

Mexico is another regional champion, its 8% atheists outperforming all the other Latin American countries marked on this map (all scoring 2-3%). The darker-coloured patch just north of Brazil is French Guyana, which is counted as part of France.

And what about the U.S.? America scores 7%, which is near the median, and in the company of Greece and Russia. Americans are only slightly less atheistic than Israelis, Finns and Mongolians (all 8%), and slightly more so than Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Vietnamese (all 6%).

If, as the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes, then there must be plenty of foxholes in Iraq, Azerbaijan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea – all countries with 0% atheists.

There’s just a little more room for unbelief in Pakistan and Thailand (both 1%), and Lebanon, India and Armenia (all 2%). The scores in fairly secular Argentina and Serbia are still fairly low (4%), but 1 in 25 inhabitants of the Islamic Republic of Iran also consider themselves a ‘convinced atheist’.

The relatively low scores for atheism don’t necessarily mean that religion has an unassailable position - far from it. Many places have very high scores of 'non-religious' people. However, that category is broad enough to encompass both believers who think of themselves as non-fundamentalist, non-believers who feel the need to obfuscate their disbelief, and anyone in between.

It’s no surprise that highly secularised societies such as Sweden (55%) and Australia, Estonia and Norway (all 50%) score near the top. A somewhat bigger surprise is that they’re all overtaken by Vietnam (57%) and Azerbaijan (64%). Britain (58%) is in second place worldwide.

As with the atheism ranking, most high scores are achieved in Europe (leaving little room for the explicitly faithful): Ireland, Finland, Denmark and the Czech Republic all score 47% (as does Canada). They’re followed by Germany (46%), Belgium, Austria and Latvia (43%) and Spain (41%).

However, just 5 out of the 10 countries with scores in the thirties are European: Bulgaria and Ukraine (both 36%), Lithuania (34%), Iceland (32%) and Albania (30%). The others are South Korea (37%) and – perhaps surprisingly – Iraq (34%), ahead of the U.S. (32%), Japan (31%) and Indonesia (30%).

That puts the non-religious share of Iraq and Indonesia, both perceived as strongly Muslim nations, ahead of those of more secular countries such as France and Portugal (29%), Mexico (28%) and Slovenia (25%), and both Russia and China (23%).

The non-religious in Africa can be counted in the single digits: 9% in the DR Congo, 6% in Ivory Coast, 2% in Nigeria and 1% in Ghana. There are also some single-digit countries in Europe, notably Kosovo (3%), Romania (6%) and Poland (9%). Non-religiosity also scores low in India (3%) and Pakistan (5%), Paraguay (7%) and the Philippines (9%).

There’s a bit more societal room for those not committed to the extremes of faith or doubt in Macedonia and Panama (both 10%), Colombia (11%) and Turkey (12%), Greece and Brazil (both 15%), and Ecuador, Argentina and even Iran (all 16%). Serbia (17%), Italy (18%) and Bangladesh (19%) have similar levels of non-religiosity. As do Peru (20%), Mongolia and Bosnia (both 20%).

Aggregating all scores, the WIN/Gallup poll found that the least religious countries were China, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the UK, in that order. Most religious: Thailand, Nigeria, Kosovo and India.

As mentioned, being religious and believing in God are not entirely the same (at least from a statistical point of view). In five countries, fully 100% of respondents expressed their belief in God: Azerbaijan, Ghana, Indonesia, Kosovo and Nigeria.

And the various Scandinavian state churches report membership of between 60% and 85% of their national populations, while most Danes, Norwegians and Swedes consider themselves to be non-religious or full-blown atheists.

Clickable maps found here at Indy100 by The Independent. Graphic treatment by Ruland Kolen.

 Strange Maps #933

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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