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Posted by on Feb. 20, 2010 at 6:43 PM
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 Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist: This is a highly disparate group and not a single religion. Although atheists are a small subset of this grouping, this category is not synonymous with atheism. People who specify atheism as their religious preference actually make up less than one-half of one percent of the population in many countries where much large numbers claim no religious preference, such as the United States (13.2% nonreligious according to ARIS study of 2001) and Australia (15% nonreligious).

Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman compiled country-by-country survey, polling and census numbers relating to atheism, agnosticism, disbelief in God and people who state they are non-religious or have no religious preference. These data were published in the chapter titled "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns" in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005). Different type of data collection methodologies using different types of questions showed a consistent pattern: In most countries only a tiny number of people (zero to a fraction of 1 percent) will answer "atheism" or "atheist" when asked an open-ended question about what their religious preference. A slightly larger number of people will answer "yes" if asked pointedly if they are an atheist. A slightly larger number than that will answer "no" when asked if they believe in any type of God, deities, or Higher Power. A slightly larger number answer "no" when asked simply if they "believe in God" (omitting wording indicating more nebulous, less anthropomorphic conceptions of divinity). Finally, a larger number of people answer "none" or "non-religious" when asked asked an open-ended queston about what their religious preference is. Although figures vary for each country, average numbers indicate that roughly half of the people who self-identify as "nonreligious" also answer "yes" when asked if they believe in God or a Higher Power.

One portion of this broad grouping includes those who are best described as "nonreligious," i.e., those who are essentially passive with regards to organized religion, generally affirming neither belief nor disbelief. They may be neither contemplative about philosophy and spirituality nor involved in a religious/faith/philosophical community. Although a certain percentage of people in many countries classify themselves as nonreligious in surveys, there are few data indicating how many of these fit the passive "nonreligious" criteria described above, versus those who actually do contemplate such matters, but simply have their own personal philosophy and no stated affiliation with an organized religion.

For the purposes of this list, this grouping also includes more proactive or well-defined philosophies such as secular humanism, atheism, agnosticism, deism, pantheism, freethought, etc., most of which can be classified as religions in the sociological sense, albeit secular religions. A minority among atheists are quite fervent in their beliefs and actively endeavor to proselytize atheism.

The "Secular/Nonreligious/etc." category is probably the most speculative estimate in this list, as this segment of society is difficult to count. The vast majority in this grouping are not aligned with any kind of membership organization. Most figures come from census and survey data, which most countries conduct only infrequently.

The highest figure we have for "Nonreligious" is 20% of the world population, or about 1.2 billion: "Over 20 percent of the world's population does not claim any allegiance to a religion. Most are agnostics. Others are atheists, who deny the existence of God." (O'Brien, Joanne & Martin Palmer. The State of Religion Atlas. Simon & Schuster: New York (1993). Pg 41.) But such a high figure is difficult to support with current country-by-country statistics, and perhaps reflects Communist-era official government statistics. Most current estimates of the world number of secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist/etc. are between 800 and 1 billion.

Estimates for atheism alone (as a primary religious preference) range from 200 to 240 million. But these come primarily from China and former Soviet Union nations (especially Russia). Prior to Communist takeovers of these regions and government attempts to eradicate religion, both places had very high levels of affiliation with organized religions (especially Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism), as well as high levels of participation in and belief in traditional local traditions such as shamanism, ancestor ceremonies, spiritism, etc. Since the fall of Communism in former Soviet nations and the relaxation of anti-religious policies in China, observed religious affiliation and activity has increased dramatically, especially in Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.

China probably does have the largest number of actual atheists of any country in the world and many Russians clearly remain atheists. But at this point, it is difficult to accurately determine how many of those classified as atheists or nonreligious during Communist-era USSR and by the current Chinese government are actually atheists according to their personal beliefs, and how many are unregistered religious adherents or participants in less-organized traditional systems that are oriented around ancestors, animism, shamanism, etc. Many people are unaware, for instance, that China has one of the largest, most active Christian communities in the world, and that in many former Soviet nations religions such as shamanism, Islam and Russian Orthodoxy remained even while official government reports announced the elimination of religion in these regions.

In the Western world, Europe is by far the place with the most self-avowed nonreligious, atheists and agnostics, with the nonreligious proportion of the population particularly high in Scandinavia. The Encyclopedia Britannica reports approximately 41 million atheists in Europe. The self-described nonreligious segment of society in Australia and New Zealand is also high, at around 15%. In Australia less than a tenth of one percent described themselves as atheists in the latest national census (1996). In the U.S. about 13.2% of the population describe themselves as nonreligious, 0.5% describe themselves as agnostic, and a smaller number describe themselves as atheist (Kosmin, ARIS/American Religious Identification Survey, City University of New York, 2001).

Zuckerman (2005) compiled numbers of people who don't believe in God, based primarily on polling and survey data, for every country in the world. He totaled the survey-based and poll-based estimates of non-believers from the top 50 countries with the highest proportion of people who do not believe in God, and added to this number the non-believers from highly populous countries (Mexico, Poland, Moldova Romania, Georgia, Uzbekistan, India, Ireland, and Chile). The remaining countries had proportionately miniscule populations of atheists/agnostics/non-believers. Zuckerman concluded, "the grand total worldwide number of atheists, agnostics, and non-believers in God is somewhere between 504,962,830 and 749,247,571. These minimum/maximum numbers are conservative estimates; were one to factor in a mere .25% of such highly populated countries as Egypt, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Burma, Tanzania, and Iran, as non-believers in God, estimates would be significantly larger. Also, these numbers are only for non-believers of God, specifically. Were one to include all 'non-religious' people in general, the numbers would nearly double... nonbelievers in God as a group come in fourth place after Christianity (2 billion), Islam (1.2 billion), and Hinduism (900 million) in terms of global ranking of commonly-held belief systems."

Zuckerman states that adding the "non-religious" segment of the world population would to his calculated maximum of 749,247,571 (about 750 million) atheists, agnostic and non-believers in God would yield a number nearly twice as large -- just under 1.5 billion. This number is not, however, the number of people who should be classified in the "Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist" category, because half of this larger number is based solely on belief in a single theological proposition (belief/non-belief in God), rather than on a person's religious affiliation/religious preference. A large proportion of people in the surveys Zuckerman combined to arrive at this total expressly are adherents of named religions (such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Chinese traditional religion, Unitarianism and Christianity). Many of these people who do not believe in God, deities, or a Higher Power are nevertheless devout adherents of their various faiths, or even clergy. They are enumerated in the list above as adherents of those faiths, and not counted among nonreligious, atheists or agnostics because their primary religious identity is not atheism or agnosticism. It should be remembered that not all strains of all religions entail belief in God, a Higher Power or deities.

It can not be said based on Zuckerman's analysis that "1.5 billion people do not believe in God." A large proportion of the people classified as "non-religious" expressly do believe in God or a Higher Power. The 750 million figure is already an attempt to estimate the total population of people who do not believe in God.

For the year 2000, David B. Barrett (Encyclopedia Britannica and World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001) classified 150,089,508 (2.5% of world's population) as atheists, and 768,158,954 people as "Nonreligious" (12.7% of the world) for a total of 918,248,462 (15.2% of the world). These calculations by Barrett include all agnostics and others in our "Secular/Nonreligious/Agnostic/Atheist" category. Our figure of 1.1 billion in this category is considerably higher, and takes into consideration Zuckerman's analysis as well. Of the people in this grouping, it is estimated that 40 to 50% have a stated traditionally "theistic" belief in God, deities or a Higher Power.

A country-by-country breakdown of statistics atheists, agnostics, people who do not believe in God, and self-described non-religious people, with figures based mostly on surveys and polling data, can be found online in the main database. A summary page shows data for the
50 countries with the most atheists.

All those who profess
religious belief are not necessarily registered members of a church or denomination, but in the U.S. the majority of professed Christians and adherents of other religions are also officially affiliated with an organization. The majority of agnostics, atheists and of course nonreligious are not members of an organization associated with their position.

It may also be noted that the estimated figures presented in this particular "Major Religions" summary list are based on self-identification. Among all groups there exists a proportion (sometimes significant and sometimes small) which are only nominal adherents. This segment may identify themselves as members of a certain religion and accept the religion as their primary philosophical system, yet not actively practice the religion in the normative sense. This segment may be thought of as being functionally nonreligious or "secularized," but this segment is not what is meant by the "nonreligious" category on this Major Religious list. Accurate estimates of the size of this group are difficult to obtain because national government censuses only ask about preferred affiliation, not about religious practice. There are data available from non-census sampling surveys that ask about practice and belief, but these are usually limited in scope to narrow questions such as church attendance, and do not entirely reveal the proportion of society which is non-attending, but nevertheless privately practicing and/or believing. In many countries (Germany is a good example) there is also segment of the population which is counted as adherents of a religion, but which do not personally profess belief in that religion. ( has some such data in its main list under "attendance" and under "poll".)

The use of the term "nonreligious" or "secular" here refers to belief or participation in systems which are not traditionally labeled "religions." Of course, in the absence of traditional religions, society exhibits the same behavioral, social and psychological phenomena associated with religious cultures, but in association with secular, political, ethnic, commercial or other systems. Marxism and Maoism, for instance, had their scriptures, authority, symbolism, liturgy, clergy, prophets, proselyting, etc. Sports, art, patriotism, music, drugs, mass media and social causes have all been observed to fulfill roles similar to religion in the lives of individuals -- capturing the imagination and serving as a source of values, beliefs and social interaction. In a broader sense, sociologists point out that there are no truly "secular societies," and that the word "nonreligious" is a misnomer. Sociologically speaking, "nonreligious" people are simply those who derive their worldview and value system primarily from alternative, secular, cultural or otherwise nonrevealed systems ("religions") rather than traditional religious systems. Like traditional religions, secular systems (such as
Communism, Platonism, Freudian psychology, Nazism, pantheism, atheism, nationalism, etc.) typically have favored spokespeople and typically claim to present a universally valid and applicable Truth. Like traditional religions, secular systems are subject to both rapid and gradual changes in popularity, modification, and extinction.

These are some of the factors which make estimating the size of the secular (nonreligious, agnostic, atheist, etc.) segment of society difficult.

Detailed statistics on atheism can be found in papers by Phil Zuckerman (
Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns) and Andrew Greeley and Wolfgang Jagodzinski (The Demand for Religion: Hard Core Atheism and "Supply Side" Theory).

by on Feb. 20, 2010 at 6:43 PM
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by Bronze Member on Feb. 20, 2010 at 6:52 PM

 Atheism is NOT a religion.

by on Feb. 20, 2010 at 6:54 PM

oh boy....^

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