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A tally of ‘religious people’ in the world

24 August 2012

IT WAS an easy headline: the world is getting less religious, or, for those who don't mind the word, religiosity is down. Last week, WIN-Gallup International released the results of its latest global poll, which asked people: "Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?" In their responses, 59 per cent described themselves as religious, 23 per cent as not religious, and 13 per cent as atheists. The reason for the headline was a comparison with 2005: nine per cent fewer now define themselves as religious.

There is a standing injunction to be salt, not to pour salt; none the less, a degree of scepticism has to be applied to these figures (setting aside respondents' feelings about the term "religious"). The poll company says that 51,927 individuals in 57 countries (not the UK) were surveyed, "covering more than 73 per cent of the world's population". This, though, is fewer than 1000 per country. The report itself acknowledges that there might be a margin of error of plus or minus three to five per cent, which would be enough to cancel out the gains or losses experienced in 21 of the 39 countries that featured in the 2005 and 2012 polls. Most glaring, the results for China (population 1.34 billion), where 47 per cent are supposedly atheists and only 14 per cent are religious, is based on an online poll of just 500 people.

This all means that only the broadest inferences can be drawn from the poll. For example, that Africa is the most religious region (89%), and East Asia the least (17%); that the United States is only marginally more religious than Western Europe (57% and 51%); that those aged under 30 are more religious than those aged 51-65 (60% and 53%); that the poorest are more religious than the richest (66% and 49%); and that the countries showing the most rapid religious decline since 2005 are: Vietnam (23%), Switzerland (21%), France (21%), South Africa (19%), and Iceland (17%).

Polls such as this continue to have a value (more, with a larger sample). They confound popular prejudice and expose anecdotal bias. The general trend here appears to be that people are increasingly willing to discard religion as a marker of their cultural and social identity. But then, tribalism was never a good reason to adhere to a religion. Having applauded political enlightenment during the Arab Spring, it would be perverse not to welcome signs that the religious establishment in some countries is losing its hold. Where there is a recorded rise in religiosity, such as in parts of the Balkans and Pakistan, it is a challenge to view this entirely positively. Conversely, it is naturally alarming that a growing proportion of the world's population, with the exception of those in Africa, appears to deny religious experience.

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