Belief in God dips, but not everywhere

God is dead. We think, maybe, for some people

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Belief in God is on the wane, except that as we age, we tend to believe more. Or perhaps not.

The greatest and smallest percentages of believers in a personal God by country in 2008. (Anna Ford)

That belief is dropping worldwide was how most reports played a study put out recently by the National Opinion Research Center. The study examined three questions from three rounds (1991, 1998 and 2008) of the International Social Survey Program (ISSP). The three questions plumbed belief in God. One asked about depth of belief, with six possible answers ranging from ‘atheist’ to ‘strong belief.’ The second asked about how belief changes over a person’s life, and the last about whether there is a personal God.

The report does show a modest decline in belief in God. It also found that as people age, they become more inclined to believe in God. But a closer look at the report reveals some catches.

Small sample size

First, it covers only 30 countries, about a sixth of the world’s total. Few of them are in the developing world, where population growth is fastest. It covers no countries in Africa, one in all of Latin America (Chile) and two in Asia, Japan and the Philippines (unless you want to call Australia and New Zealand part of Asia).

Almost all of the nations in the study are historically Christian. Two exceptions: Japan, which is historically Buddhist (technically, a godless religion), and Cyprus, which has a substantial Muslim population.

The study also spans a relatively brief period. Only 18 countries were included in the first sample, from 1991. The study’s authors say nothing about the impact of the unusual amount of attention paid to atheism in the last decade.

Drift, not drop

For all that attention to unbelief, the study’s authors say belief has not so much dropped as “drifted.” People believe less in the majority of the countries surveyed, but the authors note “the declines are quite modest, especially when calculated on a per annum basis. It is only the repetition of the modest decline across measures and countries that makes the case for a general diminution in belief in God.”

A general diminution? The study doesn’t cover enough of the world or its population (no China? no India? no Brazil?) to say any such thing.

The real godless Communists

It is interesting nonetheless. The former East Germany apparently was the home of godless Communism. People who live in what was East Germany have the lowest levels (for the countries surveyed) of people who say they’ve always believed in God, at 13 percent. It has the highest number of atheists, at 52 percent. Meanwhile, only 10.3 percent of West Germans say they are atheists, while more than 54 percent say they’ve always believed in God. If you’re an East German who believes in God, you are probably old, as Der Spiegel highlighted.

As for the real godless Communists, the Russians, their country was one of three to have an unqualified increase in levels of belief, along with Slovenia, once part of communist Yugoslavia. The third country to see an increase was Israel.

Not so godless anymore. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made the sign of the cross during the funeral for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexiy II in 2008. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

The highest levels of belief in Europe were in Cyprus. The Greek Reporter  looked at how Cypriots have the study’s second lowest rate of atheism, at 1.9 percent. Sadly, Greece was not included in the study, so we can’t see if perhaps Cypriots believe so strongly because their island features significant religious competition.

The nation with the most divergent beliefs would be Japan. As the Singapore edition of The Christian Post noted, Japan had the fewest people of strong faith. But as the paper failed to note, Japan was in the lower half for atheism. No other country surveyed showed such a break.

Missing stories

That paper wasn’t the only one that seemed to miss the chance to do some important reporting. We didn’t find examples of media going out and, say, talking to some of those former East Germans who believe in God (none of whom are apparently under 27, despite reunification). Nor did we see stories from France or Norway or Sweden, all considered starkly secular, about how less than a third of those surveyed say they don’t believe in God (32 percent in Sweden, and between 24 and 25 percent in Norway and France). Who are these non-secular people we hear so little about? If we’ve missed these stories, please send them to us, in any language.

In the Philippines, less than one percent of people are atheists, versus nearly 94 percent who say they’ve always believed in God (both tops in the study). A priest wrote in his Manila Bulletin column about the study, and tried to address how the Philippines could be so devout and so corrupt.

But what is it like to be an atheist in the Philippines? Or to live in a place like Russia, where the religion is on the rise.

Here at Latitude News, we want to hear about some actual religious experience. Are you an atheist in a place where few are, or a believer where that is considered quaint?