Why atheism is surging around the world

For Professor Owen C. Thomas, a former physicist and current president of the American Theological Society, atheism is experiencing what he refers to as a global ‘surge’. In other words, all over the world, fewer and fewer people are thinking of themselves as religious.

Millions now say that not only is there no God, divine plan or afterlife but that secularism, humanism and science must replace organized religion. The question we need to ask is whether or not we should embrace this growing phenomenon.

“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says sociology professor Phil Zuckerman.

While many atheists, freethinkers and secular humanists see victory on the horizon there are still many countries around the world where being an atheist not only means your ostracization from your family or community but can actually get you killed.

The Hajj Pilgramage / en.wikipedia.org

The Hajj Pilgramage / en.wikipedia.org

In countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, the UAE and Yemen, atheism is actually a capital offence. In other Islamic societies, such as Indonesia or Bangladesh, although apostasy or disbelief in God is not a capital offence, public expressions of atheism can still get you killed.

Ahmed Rajib Haider, for example, a Bangladeshi atheist blogger, was hacked to death in the winter of 2013 by machete-wielding fanatics of the Jamaat-e-Islami in the city of Mirpur, Dhaka. In 2015, Dr. Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Bijoy Das and Niloy Chatterjee, an organizer for the Science and Rationalists’ Association of India, met similar fates.

The Peoples Republic of China is an interesting example. There, the Chinese government is officially atheist, while the government recognizes and allows for some religious activity in the country, if the government believes that your religious beliefs in any way threaten or are perceived to threaten the CCP (Communist Party of China) you could be detained, put on trial or even executed.

In the case of the United States, the only Western country where the Christian religion (and religion in general) remains strong, atheism is incredibly unpopular in many U.S. states. Despite what the popular media say, atheists in America face social exclusion, ostracization and estrangement from their families and communities. Moreover, according to a recent Gallup poll, the one person that American voters would be the least likely to vote for as a presidential candidate is an atheist.

Buddhist monks / www.huffingtonpost.com

Buddhist monks / www.huffingtonpost.com

However, for countries such as Japan, South Korea, the UK, the Netherlands, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Uruguay and Canada, religion is struggling to stay alive. Thousands of churches have closed their doors and people in general feel that religion is simply not needed. But its not only in these countries where atheism and secular humanism are overtaking religion. The trend is worldwide – even in societies where atheism is punishable by death or means your exclusion or ostracization.

According to another Gallup poll which surveyed 50,000 people from 57 countries, the number of individuals identifying as religious between 2005 and 2011 fell from 77 per cent to 68 per cent and those identifying as atheists or nonbelievers rose by 3 per cent. The polling data indicates that as much as 15 per cent, perhaps more, of the world’s population subscribes to some form of atheism.

The question that many scholars, public intellectuals and other writers have been trying to wrestle with is why exactly is religion on the decline? Do people simply feel that religion no longer supplies the answers to our most important questions? Have we outgrown religion in other words? According to Christopher Hitchens, the leader of the New Atheist movement prior to his untimely death in 2011, said much to this effect in his 2007 book god is not Great:

“Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody — not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion.”

Vitruvian Man / sondermag.wordpress.com

Vitruvian Man / sondermag.wordpress.com

In other words, the progression of science, for many people, has rendered religion unnecessary. We no longer turn to the priest, the rabbi or the mullah when we want to investigate the mysteries of the cosmos — we turn to physicists. We no longer seek out religion to understand how we got here as a species — we turn to the biologist. Even on questions of morality, how we ought to behave or solving our own personal dilemmas, we turn to the philosopher, the psychologist or the neuroscientist.

We want evidence, logic and reasoned argument. Appeals to faith, holy writ and prayer, new atheists argue, are losing ground because they simply are from a bygone era when we didn’t know any better. Despite the popularity of the new atheists, however, some scholars see other factors behind this growing phenomenon.

According to Zuckerman, the comforts of a materially wealthy society, technological progress and an increasingly educated public (especially among women), have just as much to do with the decline of religion as does the advance of science.

Societies that have become economically and politically stable, where women have a reasonable degree of control over their reproductive rights, have equal access to education, and where the free market guarantees a high living standard, tend to be societies where religion is weakest, if not in terminal decline.

There is still a great amount of debate and uncertainty over what factors explain or account for religion’s precipitous decline, but Zuckerman believes that the more secure and stable a country is the less likely are its citizens to find religion appealing. But does any of this mean that religion will one day disappear from the Earth? While we can’t make predictions of that sort, one writer believes that the trend will actually reverse in a generation.

Ukrainian priest / blogs.ft.com

Ukrainian priest / blogs.ft.com

According to Jonathan Sacks, a British rabbi, philosopher and scholar of Judaism, the rise of atheism and non-belief is only temporary phenomenon. His argument rests largely on the fact that religious people tend to have many more children than do parents who are atheist or secular. “The world will be more religious a generation from now, not less,” said Sacks. ‘The more religious people are, the more children they have. The more secular they are, the fewer children they have … the religious will inherit the Earth.

Many people point to the Mormons in the United States as an example of how the fertility rates between secular and non-secular parents plays out in the real world. Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, only account for around .04 per cent of the entire population of the United States but their


rapid population growth is being felt in everything from the economy to presidential elections.

Whatever the political, social or economic factors might be, the important question that nonbelievers have to ask themselves is this: if religion is in terminal decline and we truly are heading towards a world where organized religion will disappear from human activity, what will take its place? Something will overtake religion, the question is what? Atheists are often accused by theologians and people of faith of having no idea or any real conception of what it is that we truly desire to take the place of religion.

We know we are fighting for a society organized around the principles of science; where reason, logic and producing evidence for the claims we make form the very foundations of how we go about understanding the world; a world where people are free to think for themselves and can live however they wish, but when it comes to apparently real human needs, we are told we have no good answers.

What about human suffering? What about the need for community and the feeling to belong to something that is bigger and grander than one’s self? What can the atheist do for the person whose afraid of the dark and whose afraid to die? What kind of consolation or hope can the atheist or the secular humanist give for such people?

Eastern Orthodox / fatherdavidbirdosb.blogspot.com

Eastern Orthodox / fatherdavidbirdosb.blogspot.com

In short, for some believers, atheism and secular humanism simply do not have the answers for our most important or pressing questions as human beings. But this begs the question, are these still our most important and pressing needs? The religious tell us this but as with much of what they claim there is very little evidence to actually back it up. Such arguments are assumed to be true. When we look at these statistics and we see religion on the decline around the world, it would appear that community, regulating human behaviour and the need for consolation may not be as important as they once were.

Perhaps such goods were needed when we didn’t have the kind of communications technologies that we have today, such as the Internet. Maybe our need for community and strict standards of moral behaviour is declining because technology has fundamentally changed how we interact with one another. Perhaps our need for consolation and reassurance has lessened because people have the tools to actually understand how the world and the cosmos function.

However, even if these goods were needed more than ever before, even if they are necessary for us to flourish, why would we seek out religion when we have better and altogether more reliable means for figuring them out? While I can’t say for sure what will take the place of religion, if that point ever comes, I think the new atheists have a point: humanity is slowly outgrowing its need of religion.

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14 thoughts on “Why atheism is surging around the world

  1. The internet is more likely the cause of the surge in atheism. Religions rely on keeping their flock away from information. The trend is irreversible now, unless the internet collapses.

    Religion relies upon people not hearing rebuttals of religious claims. Exposure to contradictory facts is the biggest cause of decline of religion. The internet is the perfect means of sharing arguments against religion with believers. Atheists have all the facts and logic on their side. The internet is searchable for both facts and logic tools and it’s private and personal, no one needs to know that you are asking questions. Questioning the preacher or bringing up doubts in church isn’t going to lead anywhere but being shamed into silence. It’s the no-shaming unlimited access to information that’s causing the decline.

    • I agree. I’m not so certain there is a “surge of atheism” as there is now a means for atheists to connect with each other.

  2. Were I not so disdainful of the quote’s source, I might be tempted to quip that “the truth shall set ye free”.

    Bottom line: mankind is growing up. The gods that served as placeholders for the gaps in our knowledge are no longer needed. Zeus is not required to hurl our thunderbolts, nor Vulcan to spew lava.

    Nor Yahweh, for anything else whatsoever…

  3. Riley Hartwell Inks January 20, 2016 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Love the article

    *Sentence error:
    When we look at these statistics and we see religion on the decline around the world, it would appear that community, regulating human behaviour and the need for consolation may not be as important or as necessary as they once were.

  4. I see assertions of atheism either increasing or decreasing varying widely in the capitalist press. As stated in another post, free access to information through the internet is likely contributing to certain individual ability to atheism. The topical influence of the internet however, must be considered in relationship to far older causality that established religion in the first place. Of course, such causality is properly addressed through reductionism to evolutionary biology. For example, evolutionary biology has identified the ubiquitous nature of human tribalism. Specifically, that the same institutions are generated within every example of tribalism, throughout history. These institutions begin with forms of militarism and religion to produce the ubiquitous church-state. They include forms of politics, economics, and culture. The full study of tribalism is too complex for this format. Nevertheless, evolutionary biology identifies that religion is used to bind tribes in unity, and that all religion can be radicalized to facilitate national exceptionalism, demonize enemies, and embolden military action. In addition, no religion or faith-based reasoning can withstand the scrutiny of science: religion is illogical, easily exploitable, and causes physical damage. The falsehood and damage of religion, including the ubiquitous church-state, needs to be understood through reductionism to evolutionary biology first, and then we might be able to re-engineer the human condition to produce social and environmental sustainability.

  5. Religion is and always has been about physical and mental control of the sheeple by those who want to exert power over them. It started as Sun-worshippers (just like Islam continues today, bowing down to it’s heat and nurturing life giving rays!). The”Light” is Good and the “Dark” is Evil (a reason racial hate still continues also!). The FACT of the matter is that Planet Earth is a tiny little rock, which is a Recycling Machine at best. We, and all living things are born to die and our remains decay and get reused again, just like every single drop of rain that ever fell from the sky. So, if you want to worship anyone or thing, worship the Sun and Mother Nature. Look after the Earth and everything in it and your life will not have been a waste of time. More people have died because or due to religion than any other reason in the history of mankind. FACT! Wishing you all a happy and peaceful life always :-D

  6. iyomRXk5spev In actuality, there is no such thing as an actual
    “atheist” : noun a person who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.

    The best that anyone can be is an
    agnostic : noun a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena.

    If you doubt this, take the following litmus test.

    Take out a sheet of paper.

    Now draw a large circle on it. This circle represents ALL the knowledge in the universe, both known and unknown.

    Now draw another circle inside the first one that will represent the total sum of your personal knowledge. Invariably, this circle will be MUCH smaller that the first. Ipso Facto, the total sum of your personal knowledge is so infinitesimal compared to the total knowledge in the universe the best you can be is an agnostic, one who admits that they just don’t know. For one to expound on the non existence of God is only done out of pure arrogance, not known fact.

    • @estevan, I think you’re a little confused about the definition of atheist or agnostic. An atheist is someone who does not belief in a supernatural power. A theist is the opposite of an atheist.

      An agnostic is essentially open to the idea that they might be wrong. If adequate proof could be provided for something contrary to their beliefs, they could be persuaded to change their mind. There are gnostic christians, agnostic christians, gnostic atheists, agnostic atheists.

      You say that because someone cannot know EVERYTHING, they can not know for certain that there is no god. You assert that there are no gnostic atheists. However, I profess to be one. If I was presented with any sort of evidence of the supernatural, I would be inclined to call bullshit on it and attempt to observe it, but I would never at any point concede its workings to magic. That makes me a gnostic.

      How do we define god? The Christian God? Zeus? Odin? There is no evidence to suggest any one of these gods is any more likely than any other god. Christopher Hitchens once said “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” There’s no reason to believe in the Christian god any more than there is reason to believe in unicorns, leprechauns, or anything else supernatural. The Christian god is way too man-like to be anything other than a creation of man’s imagination.

      So, let’s loosen the definition of God. Let’s say it’s “something supernatural”. And let’s define something supernatural as something that can not be observed or measured or predicted by scientific means (for if it could be any of those things, we could study it and the mechanism by which it works, and thus it wouldn’t be supernatural anymore). As someone who has seen what science is capable of, and what the human mind is capable of imagining, I see no reason to believe that anything supernatural exists anywhere in the universe. And again, that which can be asserted without evidence can be similarly dismissed.

    • Well then, we should just remove the word atheist (and theist) from the dictionary. They don’t actually exist!! Not! Does it make you feel better to think no one can possibly not believe something. I’m beginning to think theists really believe this nonsense.

  7. Actually all humans are atheist for a while since their birth until the indoctrination of the parents takes root to whichever flavor of religion they belong to. A common mistake is trying to separate religion from culture. Religion is a cultural inheritance, and with the spread of modern civilization more and more people evolve into a more modern culture which do not need religion. It is as simple as that. There is also negative bias installed into young ones towards people who do not form part of their religion/culture and with the advances made in IT many now realize that those people which was damned by their religion ain’t so bad or different anyway. People are waking up to the reality of religion and it’s negative impact on society.

  8. I am an atheist because I can’t believe in gods specially the Christian one which claims its one is a three in one type of which one was a a human.
    I am anti patriarchal religion because of its dire effects and influence on women, its attitudes on sexuality, its anti democratic nature in politics whereby religious politicians obey a supernatural powers etc.
    I too believe that the need for religious beliefs in gods/afterlife is based in primitive times and has been superseded by knowledge and that religious belief will continue to decline but that atheism pers se only defines the non belief in deities. As I am a humanist celebrant who was brought up in Ireland I usually describe myself as a practicing atheist and like to mention that I had the privilege of conducting the funeral service for the much admired comedian Dave Allen.

  9. There have always been more atheists than were willing to admit being atheist. As oppressive as religion is to its adherents, it is even more so to “non-believers.” I know someone whose family severed all relationship because he refused to pretend to believe in the family’s religion and attend services with them. Where, exactly, is all of the “morality” and “goodness” that religion tries to claim as its sole purview?

    Why does anything have to “replace religion?” Like a vestigial pinky finger, it only serves as a way to control people unwilling to think for themselves and be responsible for their own lives. If it were a harmless activity, it would be unworthy of attention at all. The fact is, too much violence and hatred in the world has been | is sourced by religion and|or religious prejudice.

    Religion has outlived its usefulness, except to those charlatans who still benefit from “tithing,” or “offerings” – too often from those who cannot truly afford to do so – not to mention the folly of religions still maintaining tax exempt status.

    Think for yourself!!!!

  10. As to Rabbi Sachs assertion that religious procreate at a rate higher than atheists, I would have to agree. The most virulent strains of viruses which threaten mankind are continually trying to replicate themselves.

  11. Even if religious people have more children than atheists, this does not guarantee that their numbers will increase. For example, if believers have on average three children while unbelievers have two or less, the number of believers will not increase if two out of three of the children of believers give up their faith.

    At the moment, religion seems to have a death wish. What with the horrors committed by islamic extremists, the scandal of sexual abuse in religious institutions and the situation in Israel/Palestine it is little wonder that people are turned off religion.

    People used to look up to religious leaders who stood up for human rights. That seems to be happening less and less today.

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