Atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe

The Overstated Collapse of American Christianity

Atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe
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Fifty years ago, many observers of American religion assumed that secularization would gradually wash traditional Christianity away.

Twenty years ago, Christianity looked surprisingly resilient, and so the smart thinking changed: Maybe there was an American exception to secularizing trends, or maybe a secularized Europe was the exception and the modernity-equals-secularization thesis was altogether wrong.

Now the wheel has turned again, and the new consensus is that secularization was actually just delayed, and with the swift 21st-century collapse of Christian affiliation, a more European destination for American religiosity has belatedly arrived. “In U.S.

, Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace” ran the headline on a new Pew Research Center survey of American religion this month, summing up a consensus shared by pessimistic religious conservatives, eager anticlericalists and the regretfully unbelieving sort of journalist who suspects that we may miss organized religion when it’s gone.

The trends that have inspired this perspective are real, but the swings in the consensus over a relatively short period should inspire caution in interpretation.

One important qualifier, appropriate to the week of Halloween, is that the decline of Christian institutions and the weakening of Christian affiliation may be clearing space for post-Christian spiritualities — pantheist, gnostic, syncretist, pagan — rather than a New Atheist sort of godlessness.

(The fact that this newspaper, occasionally stereotyped as secular and liberal, is proclaiming “peak witch” while The New Yorker gives friendly treatment to millennial astrology, is suggestive of just how un-secular the American future might become.)

But the post-Christian possibilities aren’t the only reason to qualify a narrative of secularization. Here are three points more specific to American Christianity that should be considered alongside the stark declinist story in the Pew data.

The Pew survey shows a definite decline in weekly churchgoing, alongside the growing disaffiliation of people who once would have been loosely attached to churches and denominations — cultural Catholics, Christmas-and-Easter Methodists, Jack Mormons and the .

But recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 — a smaller drop than the big decline in affiliation reported by Pew.

And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s — and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

The relative stability of the Gallup data fits with analysis offered by the sociologists Landon Schnabel and Sean Bock in a 2017 paper, “The Persistent and Exceptional Intensity of American Religion.

” Drawing on the General Social Survey, they argued that the recent decline of institutional religion is entirely a function of the formerly weakly affiliated ceasing to identify with religious bodies entirely; for the strongly affiliated (just over a third of the American population), the trend between 1990 and the present is a flat line, their numbers neither growing nor collapsing but holding steady across an era of supposedly dramatic religious change.

That resilience should not be entirely comforting for Christian churches, since both their everyday work and their cultural influence depends on reaching beyond their core adherents, and inspiring a mix of sympathy and interest among people who aren’t at worship every week.

Indeed, combining an enduring core of belief with a general falling-away could make the Christian position permanently embattled, tempting the pious to paranoia and misguided alliances while the wider culture becomes more anticlerical, more 19th-century secular liberalism in its desire to batter down the redoubts of traditional belief.

But for now that resilience also puts some limits on how successfully anti-Christian policies can be pursued, how easily religious conservatism can be marginalized within the conservative coalition (not easily) and how completely the liberal coalition can be secularized — not completely at all, so long as its base remains heavily African-American and Hispanic. (The tragic racial polarization of American Christianity, in this sense, may have one positive effect: preventing a complete polarization of our politics between Christian and post-Christian coalitions.)

The possible resilience of piety and zeal connects to the second qualifier in the story of decline …

Measured by religious affiliation, yes, the millennial generation is the most secular in modern American history. Measured by religious attendance, they are the least churched of American adults. That much of the “secular young people” story is true.

But religious attendance ebbs and then flows across the life cycle, falling when you leave home and then increasing with child rearing and with the encroachment of mortality.

And when the political scientist Ryan Burge recently compared weekly church attendance among today’s 20-somethings to weekly attendance among 20-somethings in the 1990s, he actually found a tiny increase: Church attendance has been falling among the middle-aged and early-elderly cohorts, but the typical millennial or Gen Z American is slightly more ly to be a weekly churchgoer than a Generation-Xer circa 1995.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

So any recent secularization may reflect the aging-and-dying of the more pious Silent Generation, and their replacement in the 60- to 70-year-old cohort by boomers, as much as it reflects the sudden de-Christianization of the young.

In which case the “shock” of de-Christianization in the 1960s and 1970s, the years of boomer young adulthood, is arguably still more important to our present situation than the millennial “aftershock.” Boomers kept identifying with the churches they had drifted from, while their millennial children dropped the residual identification.

But it was the boomer embrace of religious individualism that really determined the country’s spiritual trajectory, not some unique millennial apostasy.

Finally, the third qualifier …

This is not how the story of American religion since the 1960s is often told, because in terms of raw numbers of adherents the biggest post-1960s collapse clearly belongs to Mainline Protestantism, with evangelical Christianity and Catholicism looking similarly stable.

But divide American Christianity along Catholic-Protestant lines, rather than into a Mainline-Evangelical-Catholic troika, and you can tell a different story — where evangelicalism gained at the Mainline churches’ expense, keeping the broader Protestant position constant, while Catholicism was saved from a Mainline-style decline only by Hispanic immigration.

The collapse of Catholic mass attendance after the Second Vatican Council — the subject of a fascinating new book, “Mass Exodus,” by the British theologian and sociologist Stephen Bullivant — was more dramatic than any general Protestant development.

The subsequent Catholic ratio of deconversions to conversions, of ex-Catholics to new ones, is a grim indicator for the church — worse than the Mainline by far, visible among Hispanic Catholics as well as whites.

And after a long period of immigrant-supported stabilization, in the current “aftershock” it’s mostly Catholic mass attendance that’s been falling, even as Protestant church attendance bobs up.

So if you were inclined to extrapolate forward from American Christianity’s current situation, you might predict that the future of de-Christianization, its progress or reversal, will be shaped above all by what sort of Catholicism emerges from the church’s current controversies: from the agony of the sex-abuse scandal, from the revival of the liberal-Catholic program under Pope Francis and the embattlement of conservative Catholicism, from the theological and generational polarizations in the church.

Some of my fellow Catholic scribblers, confronting Western liberalism’s post-Christian drift, to quote Alexis de Tocqueville’s prophecy that “our descendants will tend more and more to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely, others going into the Roman Church.” Whether true or false for the long term, that prediction does not really describe America in 2019, where evangelical Protestantism looks a stronger alternative to secularism than the church of Joe Biden, Pope Francis and myself.

But if you tweaked the Tocqueville line slightly it would make a better fit: Exactly how our descendants divide, and exactly how many Americans leave Christianity entirely, will depend above all on what happens in the Church of Rome.

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Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians

Atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe

“That was a surprise,” Neha Sahgal, the lead researcher on the study, told me. “That’s the comparison that’s fascinating to me.” She highlighted the fact that whereas only 23 percent of European Christians say they believe in God with absolute certainty, 27 percent of American nones say this.

America is a country so suffused with faith that religious attributes abound even among the secular.

Consider the rise of “atheist churches,” which cater to Americans who have lost faith in supernatural deities but still crave community, enjoy singing with others, and want to think deeply about morality. It’s religion, minus all the God stuff.

This is a phenomenon spreading across the country, from the Seattle Atheist Church to the North Texas Church of Freethought. The Oasis Network, which brings together non-believers to sing and learn every Sunday morning, has affiliates in nine U.S. cities.

Last month, almost 1,000 people streamed into a church in San Francisco for an unprecedented event billed as “Beyoncé Mass.” Most were people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Many were secular.

They used Queen Bey’s songs, which are replete with religious symbolism, as the basis for a communal celebration—one that had all the trappings of a religious service.

That seemed completely fitting to some, including one reverend who said, “Beyoncé is a better theologian than many of the pastors and priests in our church today.”

The Catholic-themed Met Gala earlier this month was another instance of religion commingling with secular American culture. Fashion’s biggest night of the year saw celebrities sweeping down the red carpet dressed in papal tiaras, halos, angel wings, and countless crucifixes.

These outfits, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accompanying exhibition, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” drew the ire of some Christians. But it’s notable that so many celebrities, not to mention average Americans, embraced the theme with gusto.

It’s easier to imagine this happening in America than in, say, staunchly secular France.

Rihanna shows off her pope-inspired ensemble at the Met Gala (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters)

The Pew survey found that although most Western Europeans still identify as Christians, for many of them, Christianity is a cultural or ethnic identity rather than a religious one.

Sahgal calls them “post-Christian Christians,” though that label may be a bit misleading: The tendency to conceptualize Christianity as an ethnic marker is at least as old as the Crusades, when non-Christian North Africans and Middle Easterners were imagined as “others” relative to white, Christian Europeans. The survey also found that 11 percent of Western Europeans now call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

“I hypothesize that being ‘spiritual’ may be a transitional position between being Christian and being non-religious,” said Linda Woodhead, a professor of politics, philosophy, and religion at Lancaster University in the U.K. “Spirituality provides an opportunity for people to maintain what they about Christianity without the bits they don’t .”

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What is each country’s second-largest religious group?

Atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe

Religiously unaffiliated people – sometimes called the “nones” – account for 16% of the world’s population, and they make up the largest “religious group” in seven countries and territories. Perhaps more remarkably, they also are the second-largest group in roughly half (48%) of the world’s nations.

Indeed, while either Christians or Muslims make up the largest religious group in nine-in-ten nations around the globe, “nones” rank second in size in most of the Americas and Europe, as well as in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Nones” are a diverse collection of people, including atheists and agnostics, as well as those who have a mix of religious beliefs and practices but do not identify with a particular faith. While the “nones” are not a religion per se, they are broadly categorized as such because, regardless of their beliefs, they don’t identify with a religious group.

Of the 112 countries and territories in which the unaffiliated rank second, Christians are the largest religion in 106. In many of these nations, including the U.S. and most of Western Europe, “nones” are a substantial minority. They make up a quarter or more of the population in the United Kingdom and Germany, for example.

Christians are the second-largest religious group in 43 countries – including in much of predominantly Muslim North Africa and the Middle East – although in many of these states, such as Saudi Arabia and Libya, less than 5% of inhabitants are Christian.

Indeed, in many countries, the largest group is far larger than the second-largest group. Across all countries and territories in the world, the median share of the country population in the largest religious group is 88%, whereas the median share in the second-largest group is 9%.

Three-quarters of the world’s people live as part of the largest religious group in their country, while 16% are part of the second-biggest group.

Muslims are the second-largest group in 30 countries. Islam ranks second to Christianity in many African countries, particularly in the sub-Saharan belt of nations that run across the continent.

Many of these countries, such as Nigeria and Ethiopia, are situated between the predominantly Muslim Maghreb of North Africa and the more solidly Christian countries in the southern part of the continent.

Islam also is the second-largest religion in India, after Hinduism.

Adherents of folk religions are the largest religious group in just three countries (Macau, Taiwan and Vietnam), but they are the second-largest group in 23 nations, including China (where “nones” are the biggest group).

Hindus, meanwhile, make up the second-largest group in 12 countries, perhaps most notably Pakistan. Buddhists are the second-largest group in seven countries (including Japan).

Jews are not the second-largest religious group in any nation.

Note: This analysis is the eight religious categories used in “The Future of World Religions” report: Christians, Muslims, the religiously unaffiliated, Hindus, Buddhists, adherents of folk religions, Jews and followers of other religions. These results would vary if subgroups within these categories were classified as separate religions.

Country and regional religious composition data, along with future composition projections, are available in sortable tables. You can also download a list (Excel file) of the largest and second-largest religious groups in each country. Additional data on country-level religious demography is available at the Global Religious Futures website.


Religiously UnaffiliatedReligious Affiliation


Atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe

Atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe

A recent global survey conducted by National Geographic shows that the worlds fastest growing religion is not Islam or Christianity, but no religion at all – atheism.

The study comes in conjunction with Nat. Geo’s new television series “The Story of God” starring Morgan Freeman which travels the world chronicling religious beliefs practiced by different cultures.

With the global headlines dominated by the Islamic State, Islamic immigration throughout Europe/Africa and recent religious freedom laws passed in the United States, to the untrained eye it would appear that religion is as strong as ever – but you would be mistaken. In fact just the opposite is occurring and the age old paradigm of piety is quickly shifting.

The study refers to atheists as “religious nones” or people who do not follow or identify with any religion. According to the results, atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe.

In the United States alone approximately 22.8% of the population now identifies as atheist, up 6.7% from 2007. Furthermore, U.S. atheists now represent a larger portion of the population than Catholics, Protestants, and all other followers of non Christian faiths – such as Islam and Buddhism.

This was not the case only a decade ago.

The study finds that France, New Zealand and the Netherlands are world leaders in secularism (the belief that people should be free from religious teachings) and these countries will soon have a higher population of atheists than any other religious affiliation.

If the statistics continue to trend in the current direction, the study finds the United Kingdom and Australia will soon be joining these countries. As it stands presently, Australia and the UK are already on the brink of losing their Christian majorities.

With the exception of Buddhism, China rounds out the list of world leaders hosting secular beliefs.

On the other side of the spectrum, no where on Earth is religion growing faster than it is in Sub-Sahara Africa.

This portion of the world is simultaneously experiencing the highest levels birth rates and when you forecast the long term population boom expected from this region over the next 25 years, the research indicates the number of religious people coming this region may be enough to overtake the number of atheists produced around the world over the same period.

As for individual religious beliefs, Islam is significantly on the rise comparatively to any other religion, so much so that by the year 2050 Islam is anticipated to surpass Christianity as the worlds most popular religion.

Lastly the study finds that the millennial generation is leading the charge towards atheism, finding that the largest demographic of non-religious affiliated people on Earth is comprised of this generation.

Extending the timeline outwards, approximately 11% of people are said to have been raised in secular, non-religious affiliated homes since 1970. The study also notes that a higher percentage of black people identify as religious comparatively to white people by a large margin – approximately 78% of all atheists are found to be white.

As for gender, generally speaking females tend to be much more religious then males – approximately 68% of atheists are male.

The study also claims that there is direct correlation between religion and poverty levels. Essentially the poorer a country or community, the higher the population of religious people we find there.

Those who come from wealth or privilege are statistically less ly to hold religious beliefs. Additionally the study finds that there is direct correlation between education and religion.

The higher the level of educated someone obtains, the less ly they are to hold devout religious beliefs.

Source: National Geographic

This article (New Survey: Worlds Fastest Growing Religion? No Religion) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article using a creative commons license with attribution to the author and AnonHQ.

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This is the best (and simplest) world map of religions

Atheism is now the second largest religious affiliation in North America and the majority of Europe

  • At a glance, this map shows boththe size and distribution of world religions.
  • See how religions mix at bothnational and regional level.
  • There's one country in the Americaswithout a Christian majority – which?

Credit: Carrie Osgood

A picture says more than a thousand words, and that goes for this world map as well. This map conveys not just the size but also the distribution of world religions, at both a global and national level.

Strictly speaking it's an infographic rather than a map, but you get the idea. The circles represent countries, their varying sizes reflect population sizes, and the slices in each circle indicate religious affiliation.

The result is both panoramic and detailed. In other words, this is the best, simplest map of world religions ever. Some quick takeaways:

  • Christianity (blue) dominates in the Americas, Europe and the southern half of Africa.
  • Islam (green) is the top religion in a string of countries from northern Africa through the Middle East to Indonesia.
  • India stands out as a huge Hindu bloc (dark orange).
  • Buddhism (light orange) is the majority religion in South East Asia and Japan
  • China is the country with the world's largest 'atheist/agnostic' population (grey) as well as worshippers of 'other' religions (yellow).

Which is the least Christian country in the Americas? The answer may surprise you.

Credit: Carrie Osgood

But the map – figures from the World Religion Database (behind a paywall) – also allows for some more detailed observations.

  • Yes, the United States is majority Christian, but the atheist/agnostic share of its population alone is bigger than the total population of most other countries, in the Americas and elsewhere. Uruguay has the highest share of atheists/agnostics in the Americas. Other countries with a lot of 'grey' in their pies include Canada, Cuba, Argentina and Chile.
  • All belief systems represented on the scale below are present in the US and Canada. Most other countries in the Americas are more mono-religiously Christian, with 'other' (often syncretic folk religions such as Candomblé in Brazil or Santería in Cuba) the only main alternative.
  • Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago are the only American nations with significant shares of Hindus, as well as the largest share of Muslim populations – and consequently have the lowest share of Christians in the Americas (just under half in the case of Suriname).

Close neighbors India, Bangladesh and Myanmar each have a different majority religion.

Credit: Carrie Osgood

  • Because countries are sized for population rather than area, some are much bigger or smaller than you'd expect – with some interesting results: There are more Christians in Muslim-majority Indonesia than there are in mainly Christian Australia, for example.
  • Hindus are a minority everywhere outside India, except in Nepal.
  • North Korea is shown as three-quarters atheist/agnostic, but this is debatable, on two counts. In what is often referred to as the last Stalinist state on Earth, religious adherence is probably underreported. And the state-sponsored ideology of 'Juche', although in essence materialism, makes some supernatural claims. For instance: despite having died in 1994, Kim Il-sung was declared 'president for eternity' in 1998.

Of course, clarity comes at the cost of detail. The map bands together various Christian and Islamic schools of thought that don't necessarily accept each other as 'true believers'. It includes Judaism (only 15 million adherents, but the older sibling of the two largest religious groups) yet groups Sikhism (27 million) and various other more numerous faiths in with 'others'. And it doesn't make the distinction between atheism (“There is no god”) with agnosticism (“There may or may not be a god, we just don't know”) *.

And then there's the whole minefield of nuance between those who practice a religion (but may do so social coercion rather than personally held belief), and those who believe in something (but don't participate in the rituals of any particular faith). To be fair, that requires more nuance than even a great map this can probably provide.

This map found here at map infographic designer Carrie Osgood's page. Information 2010 figures for religious affiliation.

Strange Maps #967

Got a strange map? Let me know at

*: Definitions matter, but definitions vary. The ones above, equating 'atheism' with a rejection of the belief in god and 'agnosticism' as the mere doubting of his existence, may be common, but not necessarily precise.

Merriam-Webster defines atheism as “a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods”. Many in the atheist community subscribe to this definition, which avoids any specific claims to truth (such as “there is no god”).

As one reader clarifies, the difference between 'knowing' there is no god and 'not knowing' there is no god can be expressed by the adjectives 'gnostic' and 'agnostic' (both from the Greek root 'gnosis', i.e.

'knowledge'): “A gnostic atheist is making a truth claim that there is no god and does not believe in a god; an agnostic atheist says there is no proof either way and does not believe in a god.

They are both atheists because they both hold the position that they don't believe in any god(s).”

Another reader offers a slightly different take: “The misunderstanding of what the word ('atheist') means to people who actively call themselves (thus) is at the root of a lot of the arguments between believers and non-believers.

'Agnosticism' is the opposite of 'gnosticism', the knowledge of the existence of gods. Most atheists are agnostics, I myself would say I'm an agnostic atheist.

As opposed to most believers who would be either gnostic theists or agnostic theists.”