Recently I’ve discussed some stories of atheists who once were christians and christians who once were unbelievers. Here’s some statistics on how religious belief is changing in various countries.
Studies and statistics
A University of Chicago (UoC) study found that in many western countries, church attendance is on the decline, and non-belief is increasing. But the traffic is not all one way, and there are people ‘converting’ while others are ‘deconverting’. And in many countries, the numbers of conversions are greater than those giving up faith.
The UoC study lists the difference between the ‘conversion’ and ‘deconversion’ rates (see Table 7), by subtracting the percentage of the population who have moved from belief to unbelief at some stage in their life from the percentage of the population who have moved from unbelief to belief. So, if 15% of the population have deconverted during their life, and 10% have converted, the ‘gap’ would be -5%.
Other studies give different figures, presumably because they have asked slightly different questions. Here is a summary of some recent studies:
The UoC study found that in the USA there had been a slight increase in belief, with a gap between conversions and deconversions of +1.4%. This goes against other studies, for example, a Pew Forum study found 11% of people have left their religion at some time in their lives and only 4% have moved from unbelief to belief, a ‘gap’ of -7%.
The Pew Forum study provides several other interesting insights of changing religious belief in the US:
- Many people change their religious beliefs (or lack of beliefs) more than once during their life
- While many people raised as believers give up their faith, a majority of people not raised in any particular religion later convert: “the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another”. Two thirds of these unaffiliated have some belief or spirituality, just no affiliation with any defined religion, and only one third are true unbelievers (Pew Forum).
- The study also probed reasons for changes in belief. The main reasons for deconverting were not based on truth (e.g. the perceived conflict between science and religion was not a major factor) but on factors such as believers being hypocritical and judgmental, too many rules and too little spirituality in the church, the perceived focus of religious leaders on money and power, and a reaction against the exclusiveness of religion. Many who leave remain ‘spiritual’ and are open to returning to active faith.
- Those who convert do so mostly because they enjoy attending religious services, they felt unfulfilled as non-believers or they felt specifically called by God.
- Researchers make a distinction between religious belief (adherence to a particular religion, or at least a definite belief in God) and spirituality (a much less easily defined belief or attitude). Thus the USA Pew Forum study shows that non-church spirituality (which may include non-denominational christians as well as those with less defined beliefs) is growing.
The effect of education
A US study of the effects of higher education on religious belief found that it made far less difference than expected. It was true that there was a ‘modest decline’ in supernatural belief in those who attended college, with the largest effect occurring in those who attended an elite university, but this decline generally only occurred in those whose belief was weaker to start with. There was virtually no change in “those who held faith as important, prayed frequently, and attended church on a regular basis”. The study concludes that “college does not decrease religious belief so much as it refines it”.
Another study found that less educated people in the US are twice as likely to give up church attendance than the more educated.
The UoC study found that in 15 out of 23 European countries the percentage of the population who have stopped believing in God at some time in their life typically exceeded the percentage of population who have started believing by about 5-10% of the total population. Some examples of the gap: Netherlands -14%, Spain -12.4%, France -11.3%, Norway -11%, Great Britain -10.1%, Sweden -5.5%.
In the remaining 8 European countries, conversions to belief in God were greater than to non-belief. Some examples: Russia +16%, Latvia +11.9%, Slovenia +8.5%, Portugal +0.6%.
However a study in the UK found a much narrower narrow gap between the two rates – 8.3% of the population had stopped believing and some time in life and 7.8% had started, a gap of only -0.5%.
Reseach from the University of Augsburg indicates that much of Europe has given up religious belief, but has not embraced atheism, but rather the occult – e.g. fortune-telling, clairvoyance, channeling, past life regression, card reading and horoscopes. Two other conclusions are interesting:
- While most of these occult practices have been around for millennia, they generally reached a mass market only in the past few centuries, aided by first the printing press and now the internet. (I would have thought that superstition was greater in the Middle Ages, but unless there is a difference between superstition and the occult, this apparently isn’t so.)
- The researchers suggest that people have become interested in the occult because they are looking for answers to questions which science appears unable to address, and they see the occult as not opposed to science, but complementary.
Australia and New Zealand
UoC gives deconversion-conversion rates of -12% for Australia and -4% for New Zealand. This Australian figure is more or less confirmed by data in Wikipedia and a recent survey by McCrindle Research, which showed 29% of Australians had stopped being religious and only 4% had taken up belief, a massive gap of -25%. The research shows again that disbelief tends to be a result of bad behaviour by christians rather than a questions of truth.
The rest of the world
The UoC figures are sparse for the rest of the world, but show small variations from more conversions in Israel (+2.6%) and Philippines (+0.8%) to more deconversions in Japan (-1.5%).
Overall, the number of people not affiliated with any religion is growing, as are the numbers of Muslims and Hindus (see Pew Forum and Phillip Jenkins). The number of Christians is increasing in Africa, Asia and Latin America but declining in Europe, leading to a slight decline overall, while the numbers of Buddhists and followers of ‘folk religions’ are declining significantly. But faith seems to be strengthening and becoming more conservative among many believers.
Sociologists of religion have developed theories that predict that religion would die away when people become safer and more financially secure. But this has only partly occurred, and new hypotheses are now being developed. It seems that secularisation has not led to rationalism as much as to superstition.
Thus, non-belief isn’t as persistent as was expected, and many raised in non-belief return to faith in later life, partially balancing the numbers raised religious and abandoning their faith. It seems that people, in western countries at least, are more willing and able to question and critique whatever beliefs they were taught as a child, which must surely be a good thing.
As a christian, I feel the sociologists will always get it a little wrong because they leave out a key factor – the fact that God may indeed exist and be influencing behaviour. I feel the decline in christianity is mainly due to the lapsing of those who were culturally christian rather than christian by conviction, although of course there remain those who have changed their commitment. Again, this sifting can only be a good thing, leaving the church in a less powerful position (and therefore less open to abuse of power) but more focused and committed.