Is belief in God dying out, in the western world at least? Some recent surveys give some answers, and some challenges for christians.
There is great variability in belief in God around the world, according to a recent survey of 24 countries. The percentage of people who definitely believe in God was 45%, varying from 93% in Indonesia to 4% in Japan. A further 6% overall believe in more than one gods, making the range of belief in God or gods 97% in Indonesia to 13% in Japan. On top of this, 30% are uncertain about belief. 18% of the people surveyed do not believe in a supreme being, ranging from 39% in France to 0% in Indonesia.
A glance at the results shows that belief in God is relatively low in many western countries, especially in western Europe – a quarter or less of people in Sweden, France, Belgium and Great Britain believe, and more than a third in these countries disbelieve. Australia and Canada have slightly higher levels of believe and lower levels of disbelief.
A European survey in 2005 gave a little more detail, and some slightly different numbers. It showed that just over half of Europeans believe there is a God, but that figure jumps to almost 80% if belief in a spirit or life force is included. Belief was highest (90-95%) in more traditional, eastern, countries such as Turkey and Romania, and lowest (16-34%) in Scandinavian and other western European counties – but again the percentages climbed (60-80%) if the broader definition was adopted. The maximum disbelief was in France (33%).
Two surveys were conducted in Australia in 2009. These showed that about two thirds believe in God or a universal spirit, with about a quarter not believing. The percentage believing in God has dropped from almost 100% a century ago.
A recent Gallup Poll in the US showed that more than 90% believe in God, although previous surveys suggest some of these might prefer the term “universal spirit”. This is marginally lower than when surveys commenced more than 6 decades ago (92% now compared to 96% then) but perhaps the more significant figure is that the number of people professing no belief has climbed from only 1% back then to 7% now. Not surprisingly, belief is lowest (84%) among the youngest age group (18-29 years old).
What should christians make of this?
The percentage of people believing in God has definitely dropped over the past century in most western countries, especially in western Europe, and the numbers of unbelievers has definitely risen. But a notable feature is the number of people believing in a less personal supernatural force or spirit, again, especially in western Europe. It suggests that people still have strong logical or emotional reasons to disbelieve in a materialist view of the world, but find the certainties of the established religions (mainly christianity in this case) more than they can believe. Whether this is because they don’t want to take on the commitment and ethics of christian faith, or because there are other barriers, we can only guess.
It reinforces to me the thought that the christian church and its dogmatic presentation of faith has become a major barrier to some people who retain an interest in spirituality. Surveys in Australia and elsewhere show that far more people believe in God and respect Jesus than actually attend church. If we could tell our story better, follow Jesus better in living lives of humble service, offer better models of christians meeting together and learn how better to address the needs of western culture, we may do better in recommending faith in Jesus. At least it’s worth a try!