Globalized data shows hardliners on all sides losing, and points
to emergence of open-minded pro-science, pro-spiritual outlook
THE WORLD IS TURNING ATHEIST, the media tells us. Europe is already dominated by non-believers and plummeting church attendance figures elsewhere indicate that religion itself could disappear within a generation. Christianity is shrinking fast, extremism has soured Islam, and the fastest growing belief-system is to have no beliefs, which could lead to the world becoming a peaceful, atheist utopia. So says conventional wisdom in some quarters.1
Are there figures to back this up? Actually, no. Indeed, a close examination of empirical data about world-views tells a story that is different in almost every way—and especially in regard to humanity’s next chapter.
Atheism as a belief system has peaked and its share of humanity is shrinking, demographic studies indicate. Win/Gallup’s 2012 global poll on religion and atheism put atheists at 13%, while its 2015 poll saw that category fall to 11%. Other figures suggest the changes have deep, broad roots.
EVOLVING BELIEFS (picture by Gordon Brown, Creative Commons license 2.0)
There appear to be at least three reasons for the shrinkage.
First, a community’s possession of atheistic world-views—for whatever reason—correlates with low or negative birth rates. The most significant examples are East Asian and European countries, which are at “below replacement” rates of birth, shrinking at speed.
Second, “forced” atheism has been disappearing steadily over the past 40 years and we see a corresponding surge of people towards spiritual clusters. In percentage terms, 1970 may be considered the high point for global atheism and agnosticism. As communism weakened, and eventually collapsed in 1989, there was a significant resurgence of religious belief (see chart below). The same thing is now happening in China.
Third, the surge of popularity for a novel type of “evangelical atheism” which began about a decade ago appears to be losing some of its steam. The movement’s celebrity leaders have fallen out of the bestseller lists, and are often now criticized by their former cheerleaders in newspaper columns. After a high-publicity start in 2013, Sunday Assemblies have plummeted out of the limelight and growth has been glacial.
And the near future? The latest global data also shows that young people, classified as those under 34, tend to be measurably more religious (66%) than older ones (60%). “With the trend of an increasingly religious youth globally, we can assume that the number of people who consider themselves religious will only continue to increase,” said Jean-Marc Leger, President of WIN/Gallup International Association.
"NOT SO MUCH RELIGIOUS, BUT SPIRITUAL"
As atheistic countries shrink, religious regions globally are growing: Asia and Africa now make up three out of four members of humanity. Yet there are numerous signs that they are not following the old-fashioned, “walled compounds” model of religion, but a different stance in which adherents often avoid even the word “religion” (they prefer to talk of being “spiritual”). These individuals are flexible in terms of meeting places (often gathering in homes and coffee shops instead of conventional places of worship), and are far more likely to focus on what humanity shares rather than what sets people apart (all the major world view groups now have active interfaith organizations and science-focused offshoots). Revered texts are not seen as “inerrant” law books but as historical documents containing statements that must be seen as “context-specific”, even by devout believers.
Why is there such a contrast between the popular media story of rising atheism and the actual facts on the ground of popular spirituality? (We define spirituality not as simply feeling awe when looking at the stars, but in the classic sense of the inner person having some kind of primacy over outer reality.) There are many reasons for the confusion, but the biggest one is the Western-centric model used by most media-savvy research organizations, plus the related attitudes of the international press. In truth, the statistics of global belief make no sense unless they are examined from a global perspective, in particular, bringing in data and world-views from Asia, the most populous part of the planet.
But first, the numbers. Atheism is growing and church attendance falling, the media has been saying for years, quoting regular research findings. “Atheism is on the rise around the world,” said a BBC news report on 19 December 2014, one of dozens of similar reports.
At the same time, we also find solid statistics that the world’s popular belief systems appear to be growing steadily. Looking at various measures, it appears that Christianity adds about 25 million people a year, giving it a 1.56% growth rate. Islam has been growing at 1.5% to 1.84% but from a smaller base, adding 22 million people a year.2
That’s in terms of absolute numbers. A more scientific question to ask is: are religious populations growing in proportion to the rest of the world population? The answer appears again to be yes. If we blend in figures from the smaller faiths, we find that organized spiritual groups are growing on average at 1.2% a year, while world population growth is about 1.1% a year.3 So religions are growing in absolute and proportional terms, with Islam and Christianity expanding faster than the others.
GROWING NUMBERS, GROWING IDEAS
So how can atheism and religion both be growing? We need to consider people changing their ideas or evolving their belief systems. Such factors are notoriously difficult to measure but will give us a richer image of what is happening. How do we get such facts?
The newspaper reports about shrinking churches tend to come from surveys undertaken by respected research firms headquartered in the Western world, such as WIN/Gallup, the Pew Research Center and others. In general, the surveys show a dramatic contrast between two sides, indicating that some 63% to 84% of the world’s population is religious, while the remaining 27% to 18% isn’t4.
Whichever surveys we go with, we have a pretty clear dichotomy to start with, right? But in fact, we don’t. And that’s where this strange and winding journey really begins.
ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION
There’s one huge problem with the statistics favored by the media. They are based on answers to questions which are, at heart, binary: are you a religious person or an atheist? Even in the surveys which allow you to be in-between or neither, those two points are presented as contrasts: and that’s where the major problem lies.
A system in which “religious” and “atheist” are presented as opposites may make sense in 2015 in a pub debate in London or a panel discussion in the United States. But it makes none at all in Asia. The most popular codes of belief in the region lead people to be atheists as a key part of being religious. (We will define “atheist” in the most popular way, as “people who don’t believe in God”5.)
In Asia, we find Buddhists, Taoists, Jainists and Confucians, all representing huge numbers of people, showing up for gatherings to mark World Religion Day—yet ALL these would be counted as atheists under many systems of analysis. For members of groups which follow these world-views, there is no supreme being who goes under names such as God, Allah, or the Force. Some have no deities at all, and are clearly atheistic in tone. Yet are these individuals religious? Look at the Jainist in his robes and beads, or the Confucian, enthusiastically joining in with the group prayer at a World Religion Day meeting, and most people would say: yes, definitely. (The major schools of Hinduism also include groups who specifically consider themselves atheistic, as a key belief of their religious practice.)
Furthermore, much of the analysis for this paper was done in Hong Kong, China: a city and region where large numbers of residents classified as atheist have a very, very long list of what many people would describe as “superstitions” or examples of “magical thinking”, while people listed as religious preach regularly about the harmfulness of superstition.
Also, the researchers live in the (claimed) missile range of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who runs a regime and community that is a textbook example of all that is quoted as being bad about religion—except he and it are atheist.
The situation in East Asia is the direct opposite of what the Western-designed binary model would lead us to believe should be the case.
LARGEST PART OF THE HUMAN WORLD
Does it matter that one region of the world produces facts which make complete nonsense of the statistics? Actually, yes. There are more individuals in Asia than all the other regions on the planet put together. The people of Asia make up more than 60% of the world’s population6. If we ignore or fudge the data in this region, our global figures are by no measure global figures, but minority ones. This is not just a case of ignoring nuances, but a case of “A equals B” being read as “A equals not B”.
What do we do about this? Clearly, we must look at factors that make up people’s entire world-views as the only way to avoid smashing round pegs into square holes and creating artificial dichotomies. We can also re-examine the available data, and see what we can learn from it by taking a global perspective rather than a Western one. After all, the figures come from expert survey firms with good reputations, and—crucially—we can now compare them with the many additional surveys done within Asia itself.
THE MYSTERY OF THE “NONS”
Clues to solving the mystery can be found by looking at the “nons”. While the majority of researchers agree that at least 16% of the world’s population is non-religious, the number of people who actually call themselves atheists remains a curiously small separate group—at between 2% and 8%, in most surveys, 11% in the WIN/Gallup poll quoted above. (Non-religious people and atheists are usually counted separately.)
Let’s leave this small group of atheists aside for a moment, and look at the “in-betweens”. Who are the “non-religious”, if they are not comfortably to declare themselves as atheists? Are they agnostics, in the sense of people who don’t know or believe you can’t know whether a universal mind exists? They could be, although the most common term for them in the surveys is “unaffiliated”.
They seem to be a rather uniform group in size across different polls. Taking a big picture view of all the surveys, we see we always have a very large number of religious people (59% to 84%, so let’s think of it as about 70%), a smaller but still sizeable number of “nons” (averaging 20%), and a much smaller number of atheists (in single digits or low double digits, so let’s call it 10% to 15%).
The proportions we see in these global figures are roughly reflected in certain country-specific polls, although some have markedly fewer atheists. Some countries organize their census data so as to have none at all (in the Egyptian census, “atheist” is not presented as a belief choice). A less unreasonable example would be the US, where an ARIS report of beliefs in 2008 said 85% of people were religious, while 15% claimed to have no religion.7 Of that 15%, only 0.9% said they were agnostic and 0.7% atheist. So the US believers are believers, and the vast majority of the “nons”, 13% of the 15%, are also convinced believers in something—but what? We’ll hold that question for a while, too. Other surveys, such as the aforementioned BBC one in 2004, put the number of US atheists higher, but rarely does the figure surmount 13%.
The indication is that the vast majority of the planet’s people, the religious and the nons, believe in something non-material as a key part of their world-view.
In all the surveys, the number of atheists is relatively small, perhaps surprisingly so, considering their enormous prominence in media debates and on the internet, where they often feel like the majority. (This may be partly due to a confusion between atheism and secularism, which are not the same thing: people often forget that the separation of church and state, and the spread of secularism were historical movements led by Christians, not atheists.)
When we take a closer look, we find puzzling data that shrinks that small number of atheists further. In one of the most comprehensive US surveys, 38% of atheists and agnostics went on to say that they DID believe in a higher consciousness. And 14% of people who identified themselves as atheists added that they believed specifically in God or a universal spirit. That percentage included 5% who said they were “absolutely certain” that God or a universal spirit existed.8
Confused? Hold on, we’re just getting started. Of the atheists, “a quarter (26%) say they think of themselves as spiritual people, and 3% consider themselves religious people,” says Michael Lipka of the Pew Research Centre. So a proportion of people listed as atheists are religious people who are more sure of a deity’s existence than some of the people listed as believers! A further puzzle: In that US survey, more people (7%) say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit than say they are atheist (2.4%). So some people listed as believers are also non-believers.
Many media outlets repeatedly group the nons with the atheists to justify headlines on the rise of atheism. This is clearly unsafe. The one thing we know for sure about the unaffiliated is that they have chosen not to tick the box that identifies them as atheists. Other journalists choose to use the word “irreligious”, although this is misleading: the word does not have the same meaning or associations as “unaffiliated”. The Pew Forum’s 2007 US Religious Landscape Survey revealed that 42% of the unaffiliated pray at least once a month, and 41% considered religion to be somewhat or very important in their lives. Those are not small percentages.
It’s clear that to many people, the concepts of atheism and non-belief in God come across as only tangentially connected, if related at all. It is very hard to escape the conclusion that the non-binary, non-opposite system that applies to Asia also applies to the Western world. If you position religion and atheism as opposites, you’re asking the wrong questions. Humanity’s chosen world views are far more complex than the summaries in popular media indicate.
Similar puzzles appear in other well-studied communities. The UK is often painted as an irreligious place, and visitors can see shuttered churches in big cities. Various sociological studies indicate that between 30% and 40% of British people do not believe in God. Yet in a major survey, only 8% identify themselves as “convinced atheists”—again, it appears that in the UK, “not believing in God” and “being an atheist” are not considered the same thing.9 For the majority of people, “not believing in God” actually appears to mean “not believing in God the way grandma does”.
Look at other questions in that country and things blur further. Three out of four adults (77%) and three fifths (61%) of self-declared non-religious people in the UK said they believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means”. In other words, the majority of people find the narrow materialistic interpretation of some scientists unappealing. (We are using the word “materialistic” in the scientific sense of holding a belief that reality is entirely explicable in material terms of physics and chemistry).
The statistics specifically of the beliefs of UK atheists found that nearly one in four (23%) believe in the human soul, and 15% in life after death. Fourteen per cent believe in reincarnation. Whoever these atheists are, they are not Richard Dawkins.
ENTER THE EUROZONE
Crunch more data and glaring contradictions multiply at high speed. When we move our strictly-by-the-numbers probe across the rest of Europe, we find it is not the atheistic continent it is painted to be. Surveys across the 27 member countries indicate that 77% of people believe in a God-like higher consciousness.10 Only 20% of people said they did not believe in God or any type of over-arching spirit. And again we see the definition gap: alongside these figures, we get a separate number which tells us that only 7% of Europeans said they were atheists.
Not believing in God does not make you an atheist, the public keeps telling us, not just all over Asia (where it’s obvious), but in many places, including Europe. It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the word “atheist” is regularly understood to mean “not an active churchgoer”, “not a member of a specific congregation”, or have other similar meanings.
(History-lovers will be reminded of the ancient Roman word for Christian, which was “atheist”. Early Christian leader Justin Martyr happily embraced the term, because he felt that there was a world of difference between the multiple deity ideas of the Romans and the concept of the one great underlying mind that his people had. Justin had surprisingly modern attitudes for a man born circa 100 AD.)
A PASSAGE ON INDIA
What about the numbers we find in the rest of the world? India, it is often said, has a long tradition of supporting atheism, as the birthplace of Jainism and Buddhism, both of which are thriving Supreme Being-free traditions more than two millennia old. Are Indian results different?
The most widely cited results are those from the WIN/Gallup Global Index of Religion and Atheism (the uncomfortably binary nature of which is indicated in its title). This tells us that 81% of Indians identified themselves as “religious”. And what of the remaining 19%? By now, you can guess the pattern. The remaining groups were “not religious” at 13% and “convinced atheists” at just 3%.11 So even if we take a largely “either/or” view of the issue, the intriguing middle group is as strongly present in India as it is in the West.
If we take a more nuanced view—recognizing that many Indians are fundamentally atheistic AND religious at the same time, the world’s middle group (i.e., those who are not specifically atheist nor theist) becomes immeasurably larger. There are a lot of people in India! And it isn’t just Buddhism and Jainism that we are talking about. We can also consider the fact that Hindu philosophy has different schools, and some do not include the concept of any type of monotheistic Almighty God or similar supreme power. Some ancient Hindu traditions, such as the Carvaka school, produce views which are atheistic and materialistic in ways which are remarkably similar to those in modern schools of atheism. Many people in what will soon be the world’s most populous country are technically atheists, yet that doesn’t clash with the fact that in the Indian government census of 2001, the number of people listed as religious was 99.9%, against 0.1% “religion not stated”.
HUGE ATHEIST KINGDOM, OR IS IT?
In China, it’s hard to get at the facts, not because they are so few of them, but because there are so many, and they contradict each other. It’s generally assumed that most of the population does not belong to any religion, which is not surprising, given the Chinese communist party’s origins in the strictest forms of Marxist secular humanism, and the resultant hostility to organized worship. Party members are not allowed to join a faith. The WIN/Gallop 2015 poll suggested that 61% of people in China claim to be convinced atheists. Next highest was Hong Kong (34% atheist) and Japan (31% atheist).
Or could this be another case in which the “tick one box ” nature of typical surveys fails to capture complex attitudes? If we turn to more subtle surveys of beliefs by scholars actually based in China and its special administrative region Hong Kong, tests which include detailed questions about ancestor worship and folk-religious practices, we end up with very different figures.
In 2012, researchers in China did a survey of 25 provinces on this basis12, and it indicated that while 90% claimed to belong to no religion, only 6.3% were definable as non-religious, in the sense of people who did not build regular acts of spiritual worship into their lives. Chinese people tend to be classified as non-religious, while clearly this is not the case. An academic study in 2010 concluded that there were 436 million followers of “Chinese folk religion” in China, making it a significantly large group of believers. (Compare the number of Jewish people in the world, which is about 16.5 million.) The various Chinese surveys produce a strong indication that numerous people exist who simultaneously claim to disbelieve in any form of formal faith system while sticking rigidly to schedules of folk-religion and ancestor worship.
Hong Kong is said to be 34% atheist by the poll quoted above and about half “non-religious” by official government measures. But when we look closely at local polls, we find a different, non-binary story. Much of the population is aligned to spiritual organizations (21% Buddhist, 14% Taoist and 12% Christian, adding up to 47%), but it is the ones who are “not religious” who are most strongly associated with traditional Chinese beliefs, such as the burning of spirit money and other folk-religion practices. The city’s population has a surprisingly rich and widespread spiritual life.
LOOKING AT OUTLIERS
What about the “poster-boy” countries for atheism that many of us have all read about? Isn’t Sweden a majority atheist country? And weren’t there big headlines about Australians being 70% atheist? And isn’t the same true for some place in Europe, like Estonia or something?
The answer is: Yes, the popular media do print headlines like this regularly. One of the most widely-quoted surveys on this topic was a Gallup poll which produced outliers, particularly in regard to Australia13. It posed an unusually broad key question: “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” Note the word “daily”. With the question set like this, people could only truthfully answer “yes” if they did something religious every day. Thus it appears possible that folk who went to church or temple every weekend of their lives could end up listed in figures which commentators could take to mean “atheist”. As for Sweden and Estonia, we’ll travel thence shortly.
Other survey data oft quoted in newspapers and on the internet comes from Phil Zuckerman14, who is an academic, but is also a pro-secular activist.
DEALING WITH THE ANOMALIES
A simple way to help deal with the anomalies is to fix the critical problems inherent in the terminology. To take a leaf from the books of psychology and the social sciences, we can remove unhelpful terms such as “religion” and “atheism”, used as false opposites, and replace them with “world-views”, defining the term as referring to an individual’s understanding of reality, incorporating both physical and non-tangible aspects. This gives us more scientific, analytical tools to solve the myriad problems in the data above, and equips us with a system that can cope with people who have a mixed view of reality, from Confucianists to quantum physics theorists.
What exactly do we mean by world-view? This can perhaps be best explained using a narrative analogy. Imagine two people: Subject A is an Anglican Church minister and Subject B is a Hindu software engineer. We lazily label both “religious”. Yet a scientific study of the data points which make up their world-views might reveal they have, perhaps, only 1,875 overlapping beliefs in the, say, 3,000 data points we might specify as making up their world views.
At the same time, Subject C, a Parisian economics teacher, tells us he is an atheist. But a scientific study of the data points in his world-view reveals he has identical views to Subject A except for perhaps one single point (“Does a personal God exist?”). Thus instead of A and B being alike, we find that A and C are virtually twin souls, despite one being a church minister and the other an atheist.
By considering world-views instead of the “religious or atheist” false dichotomy, we can cope with the levels of complexity in the real world—and the simplification problems that beset the data above disappear. No longer does the Communist Party official performing ancestor worship rites cause our research to stop making sense. He doesn’t believe in Christianity’s God (he is not allowed to), but heaven and the unseen world are very real to him. He is an atheist, a Confucian, a secular humanist, and deeply religious. He has a complex world-view, as indeed do people everywhere.
THE LAWS OF NATURE
A related side-point: One of the world’s most respected theoretical physicists, Lee Smolin, has argued convincingly that anybody who believes in the laws of physics is displaying religious thinking.15 That person is assuming that over-arching principles exist over and above the world of facts explicable by materialist explanations of science. We “modern” people are happy to say that the entire universe erupted out of a miniscule disturbance in quantum foam but we ignore the fact that no one can tell us how to imprint the laws of physics on a quantum particle. Indeed, the very words used in discussions of the laws of nature, such as “fundamental” and “absolute” are identical to those used in philosophical debates about divinity, pantheism and the like. (Ironically, one popular scientist who argues that the laws of physics should not be seen as fundamental and unchanging, Rupert Sheldrake, has been criticized as being too sympathetic to religious ideas.)16
MANY NUMBERS, ONE STORY
The story so far: interestingly similar data is appearing in surveys to describe world-views in very different regions of the world, and these appear to tell a tale about a large and expanding group with “middle” views, views which are not religious or atheist as defined in surveys organized by Western market research organizations. Let’s go for more numbers.
There is widespread agreement that significant numbers of people are peeling themselves away from traditional belief groups, which explain the reports about drops in church attendance, particularly in North America and Europe. Recent data suggests that while most Americans still consider themselves religious, only about 37% to 40% of US citizens are regular churchgoers. In the UK, numbers of churchgoers are estimated to have fallen to 6% to 10% of the population.17
But the fact that the number of self-described atheists is still small suggests that these “church backsliders”, in general, are not becoming atheistic. The majority of them are forming a third group: they are joining a middle-ground cluster which is arguably humanity’s fastest growing world view group.
For reasons of inoffensiveness, let’s call this cluster of people “the middle grounders”. This group is clearly in expansion mode, and looking at the figures, may be growing faster than any other high profile world-view cluster, including Islam, Christianity and atheism. Pro-secularists often claim ownership of the “nons” group to bolster their arguments about the collapse of theistic beliefs—but, as mentioned above, this is an unsafe assumption. (Nor should they be added to the “regular churchgoers” category.)
Who exactly are these people? It appears safe to assume that members of this group will range from people we might define as “new agers”, to people who have drifted away from traditional religion, but have not drifted particularly far. People who travel frequently or have a wide range of contacts probably meet members of this group on a daily basis. This researcher has a Facebook post in front of him in which a friend writes: “Don't believe in God, but I am praying to the universe today.”
A CURIOUSLY LARGE SMALL GROUP
How big is the middle grounders group? Is it just the “nons”, the 16% to 36% who define themselves as “non-religious” or “none of the above” in global surveys of world views? Now here’s where it gets interesting. When we look at detailed findings of world-views, it appears that we may have to add to this group a number of people we list on the religious side—and perhaps a very large number.
For example, going back to the details of the survey of world-views in the “atheistic” 27 European Community countries, we see that 77% are believers in a higher consciousness. Of these, we find that 51% of people “believe in God”, while 26% believe in some sort of force or great spirit.18 Clearly, a large proportion of spiritual people are not conventional believers, but are modern “in-betweenies”.
So another element of our emerging hypothesis could be to say that an unknown proportion of people who are listed as believers may actually also be middle grounders. To see whether this might be true, we need more numbers.
LIGHT DAWNS IN EASTERN EUROPE
Let’s start our search in the most unlikely place. Outside East Asia, the three countries often listed as the least religious in the world, the places where (the media tells us) atheists dominate, are Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
In support of this assertion, we usually find the Eurobarometer Poll 2010 quoted, which shows that only 18% of people in Sweden and Estonia believe in God, and only 16% of people in the Czech Republic have that particular belief. That seems clear enough. These are atheist countries, right?
But no. That same poll also asked respondents whether they believe in some sort of ultimate force or great spirit. “Yes” answers came from 44% in the Czech Republic, 45% in Sweden and 50% in Estonia.
So then we do the math: the number of citizens who believe in the existence of some sort of deity-like presence, called God or The Force or something else, is actually 60% in Estonia, 63% in Sweden, and 68% in Estonia, according to the exact same survey. They are certainly not all churchgoers. But contrary to conventional wisdom, in all three countries, atheists were a minority, and the dominant groups were the middle grounders – people whose beliefs are hard to define except for one thing: they don’t think of themselves as atheists.
TIME FOR A RE-THINK (picture from Pixabay, public domain, CC license 2.0)
Broad-ranging reviews of data indicate that even the most solid-seeming traditional religions may be quietly full of middle-grounders, who may even be a majority.
For example, our default assumption may be that Jews are Jewish people belonging to the Jewish faith. We would be wrong. One study of their world-views found that 50% of Jewish people in America admitted to doubts about the existence of God, suggesting one in two are middle grounders or atheists19. The 2012 WIN/Gallup poll found even starker contrasts. Researchers concluded that only 38% of the Jewish population worldwide considered itself religious, while 54% saw itself as non-religious. (And just 2% categorized itself as atheist.)
In other words, it appears that the MAJORITY of Jewish people worldwide should be classified not in the “religious” section of our demographic charts, but in the middle grounders section, people with flexible, shifting, or hard-to-define beliefs.
TRANSFORMATION OF CHRISTIANITY
A similar change appears to have taken place in Christianity, with progressive, liberal Christians drifting away from the hardline values of older generations. In recent decades, it is generally accepted that the faith has been swept by a quiet wave of universalism, in which belief in a literal version of “hell” for non-Christians, has been replaced by a respectful, non-judgmental view of people of other faiths. It is difficult to estimate how many Christians have moved to this position, since the broad, flexible nature of Christianity means that in any individual congregation there may be members from the full spectrum of belief, from conservative to liberal to atheistic.
But what we can say is that Christian movements with very modern views are much in evidence and in growth mode. For example, members of a US movement called Progressive Christianity emphasize their passion for ecology and science (and particularly Big Bang cosmological evolution, a theory which of course came from a church minister, George LeMaitre). Many members of this group are supportive of gay rights. In Europe, Australia, China and other places, we find fast-growing non-standard groups meeting outside traditional church services: consider the creation of huge networks of house churches, the “Messy Church” movement, the “Fresh Expressions” group of the UK (which meets in offbeat areas such as skateboard parks) and so on. At several locations these groups are growing faster than traditional churches are shrinking.
This appears to be a move by mainstream Christians into the middle ground, or at least positions characterized by generosity and openness of view. Again, we cannot rely on anecdotal evidence but need to look for empirical data.
A 2013 survey on religion and politics in the United States from the Public Religion Research Institute gives us some figures to work with, at least for that country.20 With each generation, the popularity of religious conservatism has clearly declined as people move towards a liberal or progressive attitude, it says. The study indicates that 47% of the generation aged 66 to 88 are religious conservatives. Only 34% of Baby Boomers feel the same. The number for Gen Xers is 23%. And Millennials? Only 17% are conservatives.20 In other words, the majority of US Christians appears to be already moving into the middle ground. They are people who are likely to love orthodox science and spend time fighting for the rights of their gay friends.
In the UK, a movement called Christian Atheists, centred around Oxford, quickly grew into from nothing into a solid movement with several books explaining the details of their faith.21 A similar but separate movement, called Sea of Faith, is reported to have hundreds of members, including up to 50 church ministers.22
A poll released in Canada in 2011 indicated that 53% of respondents said they believe in God. “Interestingly, 28% of those identified as Protestants, 33% of Catholics, and 23% of those who attend weekly religious services do not,” the National Post reported. So the list of people who are churchgoers includes many with religious views which are non-standard to say the least. Walled-off Christianity has been replaced by an open-door version of the faith.
There was also a significant difference between the number of Canadian people who believed in heaven and those who believed in hell, a clear marker that universalism has quietly spread. The survey said that 89% of Canadians were “completely comfortable” with being in the company of individuals with beliefs different to theirs, the defining characteristic of universalists.23
While it is natural to assume that a Christian universalist outlook can be found mainly in the intellectual, non-fundamentalist branches of that faith, there is growing evidence that it also is growing rapidly in mainstream evangelical Christianity. Arguably the best known evangelical leader in the world is Rob Bell, named by Time magazine in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In a 2011 bestseller, he held up Christian universalism as something all Christians should “long for”.24
What about Islam? News reports so often focus on the fact that Muslims are not allowed to convert to other beliefs that one could be forgiven for assuming that all of them must be religious in the most hardline sense. And there have been stories about Muslims in some countries who expressed support for atheism and were jailed.25 But on reviewing reports of actual practices, it appears that in most places, the non-conversion rule is so rarely applied that when action is taken on it, the story makes headlines. One in four human beings is Muslim, and they do not appear to be the “separate” people that conventional Western wisdom paints them to be.
In this paper, our aim has been to use empirical data at every point. But here we fail. It’s hard to find solid figures for what people in Muslim countries actually believe, compared to what their governments want us to think they believe. In the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, citizens are only allowed to have one of six official faiths. The country may have as many “nons” as other countries, but we would never know. Our suspicion is that when governments (or clerics) try to force their citizens into hardline positions, what they actually do is push them towards the middle ground. There are certainly discussions taking place within Islam about the taking of a tolerant, universalist attitude, as is evidence by the existence of academic papers and on-line discussions of the subject. Furthermore, we’ve all met Muslims with extremely modern, sophisticated views.
But what figures we do have for followers of Islam indicate that that groups falls in line with other groups. The 2012 WIN/Gallop poll found that 74% of Muslims consider themselves religious, 20% do not consider themselves religious and 3% said they were atheists. Even if we just go with these figures, the indication is that the middle ground exists there in numbers almost identical to those in the rest of the world.
Furthermore, there is evidence that a liberal universalist attitude is present within groups of Islamic religious practitioners. It can be seen, as mentioned above, in academic discourse.26 Long before “ISIS” was associated with a murderous group in the Middle East, it was the acronym for the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society. Another example: a Muslim-originated faith group called Subud (originally from Java, Indonesia) has branches all over the world—and is entirely universalistic, with Muslims and people of other faiths engaging in joint acts of spiritual transcendence twice a week.26
HUMANITY’S GEOGRAPHICAL HEART
As mentioned at the start of this paper, most of the world’s population lives in Asia. What’s the situation with middle-grounders there?
We have already noted that several of the major cultural groups in India, from Buddhism to Jainism to schools of Hinduism, do not have the concept of a monotheistic God that we find in most other world views considered spiritual. Many have no gods. Does this make them non-religious or atheistic in the Western sense of the words? Clearly not. The festivals of these groups feel very religious indeed, with rituals, ceremonies, high priests, and the acknowledgement of the existence of other dimensions. They have complex world views. For example, Jainists are atheists who believe that 63 “illustrious persons” have appeared on earth, and include chakravatins, who are “lords of the material realm” and have golden skin.
A further illustration can be found in a reference to North Korea. Amusingly, during the writing of this paper, an atheist zealot group sent us a meme showing how ridiculous people’s religious beliefs were, using an image showing outrageous supernatural claims made by the country’s leaders, and apparently accepted by the highly gullible population. The distributors of the meme seemed to think they were doing what they normally do, poking fun at religious people, while being unaware that they were discussing an atheist leader in an atheist society.
Which leads us to an observation. It could be argued that members of most Asian world-views have always been in the middle ground. They have never fitted into the “religious or atheist?” dichotomy pushed by Western pollsters. Both Hinduism (1 billion people) and Buddhism (490 million people) in practice leave copious amounts of space for people to hover flexibly between a more austere, religious style and a more liberal, secular style of practice, to have a belief in an ultimate deity or a belief that no ultimate deity exists. The same flexibility can be seen in Taoism, Zen practices and the world views which are dominant in ostensibly atheist East Asia.
COMING FROM LEFT FIELD
There is yet another area in which we see very large numbers of people moving towards the middle ground, the part that is neither traditional religion nor atheism—although they are approaching from a different direction. China has officially been atheist for more than six decades. But changes are afoot.
As recently as 1997, the number of Christians in China was calculated at being less than 20 million. The Chinese government estimates the number of Christians today at about 90 million (which upsets them, since membership of the Chinese community party is only 87 million).27 (Other surveys indicate it is already well above 100 million.) This rate of growth is astonishing by any measure. One forecast for 2030 is 250 million28. Given their starting point, in a strictly atheist society, it is hard to picture these new Christians adopting the full panoply of elements which go with the most conservative branches of US Christianity. They are more likely to reach the middle ground and stop somewhere along the path, with plenty of unique elements of their own.
One final example: the growth of Christianity in Africa, with a full range of beliefs, from conservative to liberal, is well documented.
OPENING THE MIND (Picture by Hartwig HKD Flickr, Creative Commons license 2.0)
THE GREAT CONVERGENCE
“The great convergence has begun,” says Scott Lawson, a former church pastor who now works with a trade-aid organization in Asia. “People everywhere are focusing on what we share, not what divides us.”29
It’s not just individuals who are moving to the middle ground, but organizations too. Major charities, such as Save the Children and Oxfam, started as Christian organizations, but have quietly excised references to religion in their articles of association. The International Red Cross adopted its name and symbol from a famous group of Roman Catholic volunteer healthcare workers, but don’t feel the need to mention this in their paperwork. Groups such as these are still motivated by the same strong humanist convictions they started with, but see the advantages of removing any elements that could be interpreted as walls.
Yet we should ask ourselves, is it right to think of people involved in this convergence as anything like a united group? To answer that, we’d have to know exactly what they are thinking. The simplistic nature of the surveys which have taken place make that difficult.
The present researchers, having pored over documents around this area of study for some months, can offer some general conclusions.
Middle-grounders are a group made up of various elements. Some are not members of a specific church or temple, but are also not atheist. Others have a background that may be thought to be religious, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, but which they consider largely cultural. Still others have a religious background, but choose to interpret their faith in a modern, liberal way.
The over-riding characteristic of the middle grounders is that they have genuine respect for those with other world-views. Whereas both religious fundamentalists and people in “pro-skeptic” groups take a harsh, inflexible view that other people’s beliefs are simply wrong, evil or poisonous to society, middle-grounders are by definition open-minded and tolerant. For example, the US movement called Progressive Christians has “respect for other religions” built into its charter30, and attendance is encouraged from seekers, skeptics and agnostics—who are not preached at, but encouraged to share their views.
“The middle ground rocks,” a Muslim who does a lot of charity work tells a researcher. She tells the story of a group of Muslims who took over a church soup kitchen on Christmas Day, so that the Christian volunteers could take a break. In turn, the Christian volunteers signed up to work at a Muslim charity when the Islamic Eid holiday came around.31
THE PLACE OF SCIENCE
One of the most interesting areas of study (and perhaps least researched) is the attitude of the converging middle group towards science. Middle grounders with an intellectual bent evidently love science as much as they love spirituality. In 2014 in the US, representatives of 551 church congregations met for an “evolution weekend” to celebrate hard science32. In India, scientists successfully launch rockets to Mars and give puja (blessings) for their success.33
Judging by the literature, the science establishment is increasingly non-hostile to views of reality that are not narrowly materialistic. These days, many scientists and science writers, whether atheist or otherwise, appear to have taken to heart Einstein’s dictum that: “All physics is metaphysics.”34 The ultimate non-reality of the physical world around us, the existence of unseen dimensions, the questions that generate discussion of the cosmological anthropic principle—these are all areas of lively, open discussion. While the science community remains as allergic as ever to anything that smacks of “pseudoscience”, we are honest enough to admit that there are numerous aspects of quantum theory that appear to move beyond that which can be explained by purely physical factors (such as the measurement problem, action at a distance, entanglement and so on). Since the confirmation of Bell’s Inequality, there is no doubt there exists a mysterious extra dimension outside our concept of time and space.
Consciousness is another area of open-mindedness, where many scientists say the you-are-your-brain hypothesis required by strict materialism feels inadequate. And there is very little gap between popular scientific hypotheses such as simulationism (the “we live in the matrix” concept)35, or the “alien intelligence designed this universe” discussion36 and ideas of the possible existence of some sort of higher consciousness.
In other words, today we all agree that the story of the development of the universe and organic life reads like an astonishing piece of science fiction. There’s simply no good reason to say that Sir Isaac Newton’s understanding of reality (he believed that the indications showed that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it God) is “wrong”, while the version offered by a respected modern science writer like John Gribbin36 (he says that the indications are that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it alien intelligence) is allowable.
They do not substantially contradict each other. Indeed, they are not even different.
Some of the world’s most respected scientists, including top astrophysicist Martin Rees, president emeritus of the Royal Society, have led the way to more openness in cosmological discussions. Like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, he promotes non-hostility to spiritual practices. The concept that “matter is made of ideas” comes from discussions in quantum physics rooted in the work of Werner Heisenberg, but could easily come from the spiritual world-view of progressive Christians in New York or Hindu programmers in Chennai. Other scientists who have championed a non-hostile view towards organized spiritual groups include cosmologists John D. Barrow, Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson.
CONCLUSION: THE POST-ATHEIST WORLD
After reviewing a large amount of data on this subject, what can we say about humanity’s main world-views, now and in the future? It’s almost inevitable that the media will continue to take a Western-centric stance and report that atheism is growing and people are falling away from churches. Pollsters will continue to ask people if they are religious or atheist, as if the two terms were opposites, and will continue to get answers that do not bear close examination.
But while the rise of atheism has certainly been a key theme in the development of human culture in the West over the past half-century, the view that atheism will sweep the globe to produce a non-believing utopia is extremely unlikely. The shrinking of the skeptical share of humanity is inevitable, as Welsh geneticist Steve Jones has stated37. The data gives us no reason to believe otherwise than that atheism will continue to be profoundly less popular than a more solidly middle view, characterized by an open spiritual stance combined with a growing respect for the beliefs of others. (This generosity of attitude appears to chime in with other analyses of sociological trends, such as the fall in societal violence described in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.)
As described above, the data suggests that the global proportion of atheists will fall, while the number of pro-spiritual, pro-science middle group will grow, its numbers boosted by a center-ward drift from both sides. They will come from extremely large religious groups which are moving at high speed away from hardline attitudes to liberal ones, and from ostensibly atheist groups such as the fifth of the world’s population which is China, re-opening up to a wider range of spiritual practices. This can be seen as a global convergence.
NAMING THE CENTER
How should we refer to the central group? Above, we have used terms such as “middle-grounders” and “convergence”.
However, it could be argued that this group already has a name, as mentioned earlier. Christians use the word “universalism”, a name and concept with a long history, to refer to the liberal belief that God ultimately draws all people to himself, not just those who subscribe to a specific set of doctrines. (They quote many Bible verses to back this view, including the words of Jesus as quoted in The Gospel of John 12:32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”) Some historians suggest that the early church took a universalist view for several centuries, from Christ’s death to the fifth or sixth centuries. The modern growth of the current brand of universalism indicates that it is already widespread as a generally accepted mode of belief. Since the chief characteristic of universalism is respect for other world-views, it is already being used to refer to open-minded beliefs in a wider context.
Furthermore, by coincidence or subconscious design, many of the groups we have been calling the “nons”, people who don’t belong to either a religious or atheist world-view cluster, frequently use the term “The Universe” to describe their view of God. While we may associate this use of the word with new age trends, the idea of identifying God and the Universe is very ancient. Pantheism underlies much of the thinking in Hinduism, and Einstein declared himself a follower of Baruch Spinoza, a 17th century philosopher identified with the spread of pantheism in the West. (In Spinozan thought, The Universe or nature is God, but God is more than nature.)
In science, too, we talk about universalistic concepts with similar terms. Most famously, we have Charles Darwin’s views on religion as a receptacle of ideas that enabled man to live on a higher moral plane. Darwin noted that while tribes of “savages” did exist with no notion of a specific God or gods, a spiritual view of life was “universal”. He wrote that the God of Western religion was not found in remote climes; “If, however, we include under the term ‘religion’ the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different: for this belief seems to be universal with the less civilized races.”38
This may ultimately imply that humanity itself has a deep need to believe that reality has an extra dimension to it. As in so many things, Darwin appears to have got to this idea before the rest of us. Influenced by his friend, social evolutionist Herbert Spencer, Darwin wrote in 1870 that man was “led through dreams, shadows, and other causes, to look at himself as a double essence, corporeal and spiritual”.38
Although Darwin lost the simple, literal faith that he had in his youth, he later chose to raise his children as universalists (his wife was a Unitarian), sending them to church on Sundays. In his final years, he offered the use of his reading room for Christian gatherings.
SUMMARY AND FINAL THOUGHT
Atheism as a proportion of humanity’s belief systems appears to have peaked, while spiritual groups are undergoing convergence, as shown by a review of world-view data which includes a more nuanced examination of belief statistics from Asia, the world’s most populous region. Humanity is entering a post-atheist era featuring a global convergence of people with an open-minded, pro-science, pro-spiritual outlook.
Media suggestions that humanity is turning into an atheist utopia are unfounded. Such beliefs appear to come from an unhelpful understanding of spiritual beliefs as religious at one end and atheistic at the other. A form of universalism, defined as an inclusive spirituality in which all world-views, including skepticism, are respected, may already be the largest cluster.
Poet W. H. Auden would be pleased with the spread of openness and tolerance. Talking of humanity as a whole, he said: “We must love one another or die.”
But in terms of acknowledging the move to converge on what we share rather than what divides us, perhaps a quote variously attributed to Ferenc David, a Unitarian minister, and John Wesley, a Christian preacher, is more appropriate: “We need not think alike to love alike.”
A NOTE ON THE AUTHOR’S STANCE: The lead researcher on this project has mixed influences. He lives in a culture generally classified as highly atheistic and works with atheist friends and colleagues, but had a Muslim father and a Buddhist mother and has a Christian wife. He finds much to like in all major belief systems, especially science.
1) For an example of atheistic triumphalism, consider this quote from Salon, a web-based magazine: “Like a fresh-baked loaf of sanity resting on the window of human possibility, atheism is on the rise in the United States.”
2) Most authorities indicate there are about 2.3 billion Christians, or about 33% of the world’s population.
Islam is at least 23.4% of the world’s population and growing steadily, too. By the time you read this, it will almost certainly be 25% of mankind.
3) The estimated annual growth rate of the world’s population peaked in the 1960s but has fallen to about 1.1%, according to the US Census Department
See the CIA Factbook (and many other sources) for updated data:
4) There are many surveys to choose from. The PDF at the following link summarizes the findings of the WIN-Gallup international survey of 2012, giving 59% as religious and 13% as atheist.
A 2004 survey by the BBC indicated that 8% of the world's population was atheist. Other studies put the number lower, so we can say it appears that atheists number 2% to 8% in general. Religiously undeclared individuals tend to be numbered at 10% to 20%.
News summary of the BBC survey: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/3518375.stm
5) We use “God” with a capital letter to indicate the proper noun used for the supreme being or universal mind in monotheistic traditions, as this reflects the usage by the vast majority of humanity, and “god” with a lowercase initial to specify individual deities in systems with multiple gods, such as branches of Hinduism.
6) “Asia is the most populous continent, with its 4.3 billion inhabitants accounting for 60% of the world population.” Again, there are many sources, but the quote comes from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population#Population_by_region
7) ARIS report 2008 is available as a PDF on to read online here: http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/publications/2008-2/aris-2008-summary-report/
8) The confusion about atheists who believe in God is most clearly expressed in this Pew Forum news report: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/10/23/5-facts-about-atheists/
9) The 2004 survey by the BBC said that 44% of the British do not believe in God. A 2003 survey by Andrew Greely said that 31% did not believe in God, but only 10% identify themselves as atheists. Researcher Phil Zuckerman has details for UK (and other countries) in this report:
The intriguing data crash in the UK is well summed up by this document, which indicates that most British people simultaneously think British society is a) Christian and b) non-religious.
10) For European figures, the chart in Wikipedia sums it up clearly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism
For more detailed information, here is the link to the original Eurobarometer poll as a pDF: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_393_en.pdf
11) We used the India figures which can be seen in the PDF of the survey here: http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf
12) In 2012, the Chinese Family Panel Studies Institute polled individuals in 25 provinces, focusing on Han majority areas. They found that 90% of the population declared itself as not belonging to any religion—but at the same time, only 6.3% appear to be actual atheists: all the others admitted to worshipping gods or ancestors.
The PDF of the findings is here, but is in the Chinese language: http://iwr.cass.cn/zjwh/201403/W020140303370398758556.pdf
13) The answers to this 2009 Gallop poll are summarized here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Importance_of_religion_by_country
14) Phil Zuckerman http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Zuckerman
15) Lee Smolin :
16) Sheldrake writes about the habits of nature in several books, and in press interviews such as this one: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/feb/05/rupert-sheldrake-interview-science-delusion
17) There are numerous surveys which contradict each other, although few people doubt the basic theme that church attendance in Western nations is shrinking, while attendance in Asia and Africa is rising. A 2013 poll by the Pew Research Center found 37% of Americans attended church on a weekly basis every week.
18) For European figures, the chart in Wikipedia, mentioned before, sums it up clearly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_atheism
For more detailed information, here is the link (also provided above) to the original Eurobarometer poll as a PDF: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_393_en.pdf
19) Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in a book called American Grace, indicate that half of all American Jews have doubts that God exists.
In Israel, according to Wikipedia, “The 2009 Avi-Chai study found 77% of Israeli Jews believe in a ‘higher power’, while 46% define themselves as secular, of which 8% define themselves as ‘anti-religious’.”
20) The PRRI figures can be found here: http://publicreligion.org/newsroom/2013/07/news-release-1-in-5-americans-are-religious-progressives/
21) This movement started when a church minister said from the pulpit that there were people who were committed Christians but were simultaneously atheists—and was approached afterwards by several members of the congregation who said that he had been talking about them.
22) The Sea of Faith group has a website here: http://www.sofn.org.uk
23) The Canadian poll is summarized in this press release: http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5328
24) There are many sources of information for Rob Bell, and discussions of whether he himself is or is not a universalist, or whether he simply recommends such a step, without admitting to having taken it himself. Here’s an example: http://www.redletterchristians.org/love-wins-rob-bell-and-the-new-calvinists/
25) The link below leads to an Economist article about atheism in Islam: http://www.economist.com/news/international/21567059-ex-muslim-atheists-are-becoming-more-outspoken-tolerance-still-rare-no-god-not
26) Mura, Andrea (2014). "The Inclusive Dynamics of Islamic Universalism: From the Vantage Point of Sayyid Qutb’s Critical Philosophy". Comparative Philosophy 5 (1): 29–54.
You can find out more about Subud from this website: http://www.subud.org
27) There are many sources discussing the numbers, which are hard to pin down, but are definitely very large. Consider the following discussion: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2014/dec/26/like-romans-chinese-threatened-real-christmas
28) This discussion gives estimates of future growth: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html
29) This quote comes from an interview the researchers did with Scott Lawson of SOW Asia, a Hong Kong-based NGO.
30) Learn from their website at: http://progressivechristianity.org
31) This anecdote comes from a private discussion with a researcher. However, examples of Muslims helping at Christian soup kitchens at Christmas can be found in the press: http://www.onislam.net/english/news/americas/481175-us-muslims-serve-hundreds-of-xmas-meals.html
32) Look at this website for example of science-loving Christians: http://evolutionarychristianity.com/blog/welcome/
33) The head of the space program has a spiritual outlook, as reported here: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Isro-chief-seeks-divine-help-for-Mars-mission/articleshow/25238936.cms
34) Einstein’s famous quote, “All physics is metaphysics”, was uttered in a letter to Arnold Sommerfeld. This link leads to the actual quote in the relevant book:
35) Here is Nick Bostrom’s website discussing the issue of whether we live in a simulation: http://www.simulation-argument.com
36) The view that the data suggests that alien intelligences must have been involved in the creation of the universe is beautifully explained here: http://www.amazon.com/In-Search-Multiverse-John-Gribbin-ebook/dp/B002RI92MA
37) Jones’ view that skeptics might even “die out” is neatly summarized here:
38) These Darwin quotes are from chapter 4 of The Descent of Man. The line about giving his rooms over to the use of the church are in his collected letters for 1881.