The actual headline at Reuters was “No religion” is the third-largest world group after Christians, Muslim, but my expurgated version is close enough. It’s also similar to many of the news reports based upon Pew Forums latest survey “The Global Religious Landscape.”
These being statistics about the behavior of human beings, there is always a healthy (and usually unreported) plus-or-minus, which is our subject today. Taken at face value, which many did, Pew says about 31.5% of us are Christians, 23.3% Muslims, 16.3% “Unaffiliated”, 15.0% Hindus, 7.1% Buddhists, 5.9% Folk (mainly African and Aboriginal Australian), 0.8% “Other”, and 0.2% Jewish. Nothing of terrible surprise or moment, yet somehow the 16.3% “Unaffiliateds” got the reportorial juices flowing.
Reuter’s headline was typical, as was the way they reported the number:
People with no religious affiliation make up the third-largest global group in a new study of the size of the world’s faiths, placing after Christians and Muslims and just before Hindus…
The “unaffiliated” category covers all those who profess no religion, from atheists and agnostics to people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith.
Huffington Post went further and linked to a video which asked, “Is No Religion The New Religion?”
The New York Times, always leading the way, said that “Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion”:
[Pew] found that about one of every six people worldwide has no religious affiliation. This makes the “unaffiliated,” as the study calls them, the third-largest group worldwide, with 16 percent of the global population — about equal to Catholics…
“Something that may surprise a lot of people,” said Conrad Hackett, a primary researcher on the report, “is that the third-largest religious group, after Christians and Muslims, is the religiously unaffiliated. There may have been some guesses floating out there before, but this is the first time there are numbers based on survey data analyzed in a rigorous and scientific way.”
This was echoed at the secularist friendly Washington Post, which said in its piece “Unbelief is now the world’s third-largest ‘religion’”:
Close behind are the “nones” — those who say they have no religious affiliation or say they do not believe in God — at 1. 1 billion, or 16 percent. That means that about the same number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide say they have no religion.
Some atheist groups are rather proud of being number three (better than last!), such as these fellows who say, “Atheists now are the third largest group of people”.
Now let’s see who is where. This picture from Pew shows by color the predominant belief of each country:
The Unaffiliateds are the grayish purple, located where? A few in Japan, more in China, and many in North Korea (by percentage). It struck me that if a white-coated surveyor where to approach a stranger in China or North Korea and asked this stranger, in “a rigorous and scientific way”, Do you believe in God? (or the like), the surveyor would get an answer, but perhaps not an entirely honest one.
Since religion is frowned up in a, yes, rigorous fashion in these countries—their more religious citizens are often invited, at government expense, to take extended holidays from which few return—the numbers are apt to be misleading, even though scientific.
We can speculate that if Pew were to have done their survey in, say, 1980, or even 1950, the number of purported “unaffiliateds” would have approached 40%, or even higher. From this evidence we can conclude that the fraction of religious has been decreasing at a remarkable rate.
Yet in the much freer Japan—after accounting for Shinto, ancestor worship, etc.—the number of Unaffiliateds was a majority. Does this mean that Japanese aren’t religious? No. Pew said that many unaffiliateds “do hold religious or spiritual beliefs.” And, when they could get them to admit it, “various surveys have found that belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7% of unaffiliated Chinese adults.” This was higher in the west: “30% of unaffiliated French adults and 68% of unaffiliated U.S. adults” still professed belief in God or “higher power” (by which they presumably did not mean the IRS).
Unaffiliated therefore means just that: those not belonging to an organization of significant size. It is only a weak measure of non-theism. Surely atheism is on the increase, particularly in the west, where it is become fashionable, especially among “elites,” to profess (actually not-profess) active non-belief.