How religion is winning the fight with atheism

Have faith: By 2025 China is predicted to have more Christians than the United States. © Getty

Is atheism in danger? In Britain and America more people than ever are shunning the church. But as religion booms in other regions, some think that atheism does not have a bright future.

From some perspectives, the slow death of religion looks all but inevitable. This year a report revealed that 53% of British people have no religion — the highest proportion ever. It is a similar situation in the USA. In 1992 6% of Americans had no religion. By 2014 this had jumped to 22%.

But these statistics do not tell the whole story.

Next year atheist luminaries and arch-critics of religion Richard Dawkins and Salman Rushdie were due to appear at the Global Atheist Convention in Australia. However, last week the event was cancelled due to a “lack of interest”.

Could it be that fewer people are turning to atheism? If worldwide trends are anything to go by, this may well be the case.

According to a Pew Research study, the number of atheists as a share of the world’s population is “projected to decrease”. In 2015 the proportion of people in the world “unaffiliated” to religion was 16%. But by 2060 this number will shrink to 13%.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, religious people are having more children. The study calculated that between 2010 and 2015 non-religious people had an average of 1.65 children per mother. By contrast adherents to religion had 2.45 children. A major cause of this is that devout countries in the developing world tend to have high fertility rates.

Secondly, whilst Christianity declines in the West, it is growing elsewhere. According to The Economist there are more than 80 million protestants in China. Professor of sociology at Purdue University Fenggang Yang predicts that by 2030 China’s total Christian population will exceed 247 million — making it the biggest Christian country in the world.

Nor is it only Christianity on the rise. Islam is the fastest growing religion on the planet. By 2050 the global Muslim population is forecast to grow by 73%.

So is atheism, rather than religion, under threat?

Living on a prayer

Atheism has no hope, some say. And it is not just because of global demographics. For all of human history, we have used religious stories to make sense of our place in the universe. Atheism cannot sustain itself by simply offering people emptiness. Where religion is strong it will grow. Where it is weak, believers will make a comeback.

Not so fast, others reply. These projections miss the biggest influence of all: capitalism. According to evolutionary psychologist Nigel Barber, people’s beliefs are linked to their “standard of living”. In rich countries, most citizens have enough food, shelter, and security. This means they worry less about disease and early death, and are less likely to use religion to ease their worries. As long as developing countries get richer, atheism will continue to rise.

You Decide

  1. In 100 years will more people be religious or atheist?
  2. Do you believe in God?

Activities

  1. List as many different religions as you can think of. How many could you come up with? Where do you think those religions are mainly practised?
  2. Consider this statement: “Society would be better off without religion.” Write down three arguments in favour of this opinion, and three against it. Which side would you take and why?

Some People Say...

“If there is a God, atheism must seem to Him as less of an insult than religion.”

Edmond de Goncourt

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The decline in religion in the UK and America is felt particularly strongly amongst young people. According to the National Centre for Social Research 71% of British people aged 18-24 have no religion. In America 36% of those aged 18-24 claim no religious affiliation, according to the Pew Research Center.
What do we not know?
We do not know if the global projections of increased Muslim and Christian populations by 2050 will actually come true. Between now and then many social, economic, and cultural factors may impact the uptake of religion — even in societies which are currently very devout. Equally, we do not know if rates of atheism in the West will continue to increase.

Word Watch

Report
According to the National Centre for Social Research.
22%
According to the report “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” by the Pew Research Center.
Salman Rushdie
British Indian novelist. In 1989 the Supreme Leader of Iran called for his assassination after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. The novel was highly controversial due to its unflattering depiction of the Prophet Muhammad.
13%
Whilst the proportion of atheists will decrease, their absolute number will increase from 1.17 billion in 2015 to 1.20 billion in 2060.
High fertility rates
According to the Pew Research Center, the nation with the largest Muslim population in 2010 was Indonesia. According to 2016 World Bank figures, the country’s fertility rate was 2.5 children per mother. In the same year the UK had a fertility rate of 1.8 and the USA 1.9.
73%
According to the report “The Future of World Religions,” by the Pew Research Center.