Atheism on the rise as millions reject religion

Worshippers gather at a Baptist church in Tennessee – a state in America’s deeply religious ‘Bible Belt’ © GETTY

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.

You Decide

  1. Do you define yourself as religious?
  2. Can people be moral without religion?

Activities

  1. In class, conduct a survey on whether people consider themselves religious, atheist or undecided. Are you surprised by the results?
  2. Make a list of five positive and five negative contributions that religion has made to the world.

Some People Say...

“ ‘We would all be better off without religion.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely everyone should believe what they want?
The vast majority would agree. But sometimes, religious ideas affect the lives of non-believers. The Catholic belief that abortion is murder, for example, has shaped law in the Republic of Ireland: abortion is illegal, even for women who do not agree with the Catholic view.
Does that happen everywhere?
Not necessarily. In many countries, religion and the state are separate – an idea called secularism. In theory, that means no-one should be forced to conform to other beliefs, while practising their own religion freely.
In theory?
It’s not always that simple. Separation of church and state is enshrined in the US constitution. Religion plays such an important role, however, thatno members of the US Congress are openly atheist.

Word Watch

China
Many religions – including Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism – have been successful in China. Today, however, China’s communist government is officially atheist, and membership of the Party – which employs vast numbers of people in the country – is not open to religious people.
Child abuse scandals
In 2009, a report was published into child abuse, including sexual abuse, that took place in children’s homes around Ireland over the course of many decades. In most institutions, the abuse was described as endemic. Ireland’s Catholic Church, which ran the institutions, was heavily criticised by the report.
New Atheists
New Atheism refers to a 21st Century school of thought that argues religion should not be tolerated, but actively opposed. The movement is largely based on the thinking of four writers: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens.

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