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Geography | RE | Relationships and health

Atheism on the rise as millions reject religion

According to a new survey, record numbers of people are swapping religious belief for atheism. Could we be heading toward a godless world – and what might that society look like? For almost all of human history, it has been the globe’s most powerful force. The values, politics and even conflicts of modern society can be traced back to its influence. But today, religion is in decline. That, at least, is the conclusion of a new global survey, which shows the number of committed believers has plummeted in the last decade. The results for some nations are surprisingly dramatic: in America, the number of people describing themselves as religious has dropped from 73% to 60% since 2005. At the same time, the proportion of decided atheists has jumped – from 1% to 5%. In some countries, atheism is close to being a majority belief. In China, 47% of people define themselves as atheist, and around 30% of Japanese, Czech and French people believe there is no God. Only a few nations, including Pakistan and Italy, have seen their religious communities grow. What is behind the decline? In some countries, such as Ireland, the reasons seem specific. There, the reputation of the Catholic church has been savaged by a high-profile child abuse scandal – and the number of people who say they are ‘religious’ has plummeted from 67% to 49% in the last seven years. But that’s not the whole story. Throughout history, religion has tended to fade as societies become wealthier. Modern, fast-paced cities, the story goes, are not bound together by religious observance or a local church as older communities were. Growing materialism, too, leaves little room for the charity, piety and spirituality that many religions are founded on. Science, of course, has also played a major role. Today, scientific theories like evolution explain human existence without turning to God. And the internet means that new thinking about atheism spreads quickly – even to isolated and deeply religious communities. Some, however, think the biggest reason for the surge is atheism itself. For decades, New Atheists like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins have campaigned vocally against religion, and to raise awareness of an alternative, godless worldview. If this week’s survey is anything to go by, the approach seems to have worked remarkably well. A godless world? For many people, the decline of religion is a grim prospect. Faith, they say, is the source of a shared sense of meaning and morality. As more people turn away from it, these important values risk becoming lost in a shallow and materialistic society. A godless world, they say, is one that has lost its soul. Not so, others say. Atheists, after all, find fulfilment in all sorts of things: from the company of friends to charity work. They make ethical decisions by thinking critically about their own values. People can lead moral and meaningful lives without the ancient texts of religion. KeywordsChina - A country in East Asia, home to 1.4 billion people.

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