No Religion Is Third-Largest World Group: Or, How Inaccurate Are Surveys On Religious Belief?

The actual headline at Reuters was “No religion” is the third-largest world group after Christians, Muslim, but my expurgated version is close enough. It’s also similar to many of the news reports based upon Pew Forums latest survey “The Global Religious Landscape.”

These being statistics about the behavior of human beings, there is always a healthy (and usually unreported) plus-or-minus, which is our subject today. Taken at face value, which many did, Pew says about 31.5% of us are Christians, 23.3% Muslims, 16.3% “Unaffiliated”, 15.0% Hindus, 7.1% Buddhists, 5.9% Folk (mainly African and Aboriginal Australian), 0.8% “Other”, and 0.2% Jewish. Nothing of terrible surprise or moment, yet somehow the 16.3% “Unaffiliateds” got the reportorial juices flowing.

Reuter’s headline was typical, as was the way they reported the number:

People with no religious affiliation make up the third-largest global group in a new study of the size of the world’s faiths, placing after Christians and Muslims and just before Hindus…

The “unaffiliated” category covers all those who profess no religion, from atheists and agnostics to people with spiritual beliefs but no link to any established faith.

Huffington Post went further and linked to a video which asked, “Is No Religion The New Religion?”

The New York Times, always leading the way, said that “Study Finds One in 6 Follows No Religion”:

[Pew] found that about one of every six people worldwide has no religious affiliation. This makes the “unaffiliated,” as the study calls them, the third-largest group worldwide, with 16 percent of the global population — about equal to Catholics…

“Something that may surprise a lot of people,” said Conrad Hackett, a primary researcher on the report, “is that the third-largest religious group, after Christians and Muslims, is the religiously unaffiliated. There may have been some guesses floating out there before, but this is the first time there are numbers based on survey data analyzed in a rigorous and scientific way.”

This was echoed at the secularist friendly Washington Post, which said in its piece “Unbelief is now the world’s third-largest ‘religion'”:

Close behind are the “nones” — those who say they have no religious affiliation or say they do not believe in God — at 1. 1 billion, or 16 percent. That means that about the same number of people who identify as Catholics worldwide say they have no religion.

Some atheist groups are rather proud of being number three (better than last!), such as these fellows who say, “Atheists now are the third largest group of people”.

Now let’s see who is where. This picture from Pew shows by color the predominant belief of each country:

Pew's Religion Map
Pew’s Religion Map

The Unaffiliateds are the grayish purple, located where? A few in Japan, more in China, and many in North Korea (by percentage). It struck me that if a white-coated surveyor where to approach a stranger in China or North Korea and asked this stranger, in “a rigorous and scientific way”, Do you believe in God? (or the like), the surveyor would get an answer, but perhaps not an entirely honest one.

Since religion is frowned up in a, yes, rigorous fashion in these countries—their more religious citizens are often invited, at government expense, to take extended holidays from which few return—the numbers are apt to be misleading, even though scientific.

We can speculate that if Pew were to have done their survey in, say, 1980, or even 1950, the number of purported “unaffiliateds” would have approached 40%, or even higher. From this evidence we can conclude that the fraction of religious has been decreasing at a remarkable rate.

Yet in the much freer Japan—after accounting for Shinto, ancestor worship, etc.—the number of Unaffiliateds was a majority. Does this mean that Japanese aren’t religious? No. Pew said that many unaffiliateds “do hold religious or spiritual beliefs.” And, when they could get them to admit it, “various surveys have found that belief in God or a higher power is shared by 7% of unaffiliated Chinese adults.” This was higher in the west: “30% of unaffiliated French adults and 68% of unaffiliated U.S. adults” still professed belief in God or “higher power” (by which they presumably did not mean the IRS).

Unaffiliated therefore means just that: those not belonging to an organization of significant size. It is only a weak measure of non-theism. Surely atheism is on the increase, particularly in the west, where it is become fashionable, especially among “elites,” to profess (actually not-profess) active non-belief.


  1. Speed

    First, as Briggs pointed out, this represents a moment in time and is interesting … for about a moment. More interesting and useful for the marketing and proselytizing types would be the trend. Up or down. Gains or losses. Successes and failures.

    Second, approximately 9.1% of the world population is aged four and under and one could make a case that these children cannot really be called “believers” in a rational and strict sense. They’re just doing what mom and dad are telling them to do. Each represents a future “sale” but for now, they’re just prospects.

  2. Sander van der Wal

    Fashionable? How about assuming that people are sincere, even though you believe they are mistaken.

  3. Rich

    Speed, the survey is not about belief but about “affiliation”. There was an adjustment done, they say, because Christian parents were apparently reluctant to describe children between birth and four as ‘Christian’ so the numbers were ‘adjusted’ to more accurately reflect affiliation as something distinct from religious belief. Note that they say, ” It does not attempt to measure the degree to which members of these groups actively practice their faiths or how religious they are.” So some of the headlines above are nonsense. I mean, good grief! This survey puts me in the same group as Dawkins and the Brights!

  4. Ken

    One nice thing about those atheists (at least those I know & know of) — as a group they seem to have the same breadth of values, conservative thru liberal, as those espousing a religious belief…with one very pleasant distinction:

    Lacking any belief in any faith, atheists cannot be and are not hypocrites about their practice of the faith they espouse.

    I have yet to meet a “Christian” (a term encompassing so many mutually-exclusive doctrinal details as to be becoming meaningless as an adjective) who talks openly & often about their faith & so forth that doesn’t, relatiely soon, demonstrate some very un-Christian behaviors.

    But then, numerous observors (e.g. H.L. Menchen, Mark Twain, etc.) noted & wrote about the fact that for all their talk, pretty much nobody really actually practices any Christian religion.

    On a lighter note, PEW & others have noted that a given society’s or social group’s religious affiliations are directly correlated with their wealth, education & intelligence (criteria by whatever measures/proxies) are essentially substitutable as they result in the same trend:

    Religion vs. affluence:

    US is the outlier:

    Wiki summary – with links:

    Of course, the Romans of some 2000 years ago were saying exactly the same thing about those strange new cultists they then dubbed “atheists” — because they refused to accept the numerous Roman gods (an indicator of treason at the time). Of course those were the earliest “Christians” — the first large population of documented “atheists” on a broad scale as the term “atheist” was originally applied.

  5. Joey H

    We can speculate that if Pew were to have done their survey in, say, 1980, or even 1950, the number of purported “unaffiliateds” would have approached 40%, or even higher. From this evidence we can conclude that the fraction of religious has been decreasing at a remarkable rate.

    Why/how can we reasonably speculate that? I’m probably missing the why because of my age/ignorance.

  6. MattS


    “Lacking any belief in any faith, atheists cannot be and are not hypocrites about their practice of the faith they espouse.”

    Then you know some very strange atheists. All the ones I know or are vocal in the media will deny espousing any faith at all which is itself hypocritical.

  7. Mike Ozanne

    As one of the godless infidels, I’d have to say the following:-
    certainly in my country (the UK), a lot of those who would, in a poll, express no religious affiliation, still follow a general cultural habit of protestant christianity. Christmas and carolling and and charitable giving, the whole shebang, are still part of my cultural heritage. Even though I’d be pretty far along Mr Dawkins Atheist scale. Most People hold common beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, without it having to be argued from first principles *every frickin time*, mostly due to religious (Christian) influence. So even in the western democracies, I’d take the figures with a pinch of salt….

  8. Gary

    Two things: 1) you just haven’t met some of the amazingly consistent Christians I have. 2) even authentic ones can fail to meet the standards of perfection. They’re not hypocrites when they admit it and try to do better.

  9. rank sophist

    I have had similar thoughts in the past. What exactly does “not affiliated” mean? Well, many things. It means atheist, agnostic, indifferent, quasi-spiritual, superstitious but unreligious, deist, philosophical theist and lapsed Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu). It includes convinced theists and non-believers as well as those with vague beliefs. I saw a NYT op-ed about the “None” demographic awhile back that confirmed my suspicion.

    In many ways, it makes perfect sense. What modernity brought about was not mass atheism (as some like to think) but just confusion and indecision. The religious have been made doubtful by modern metaphysics and/or have been tempted away from doctrine by the modern promise of “freedom”. Worse still, the places of worship themselves (particularly in the case of Christianity) have caught the modern bug. Churches of nearly every Christian denomination have become more liberal, if not in doctrine then in practice. The Anglican Church liberalized itself out of existence; Protestant denominations have become murkier and murkier with their prosperity preachers and “liberal” adherents; and even the Catholic Church, as Ed Feser has said, has gotten in on the act. Feser placed the blame on the bishops and priests who have failed to focus on Catholic doctrine, particularly in the case of contraception. (Hence the widespread use of contraceptives among Catholics.)

    As the churches become more liberal, the need for them decreases. Anyone can have vague spiritual or theistic beliefs–and if that’s all Christianity is, then why bother joining? This kind of indifference is one of the main reasons why the “not affiliated” category continues to grow.

  10. Briggs

    Sander van der Wal,

    One can be sincerely fashionable.

  11. Ken

    @ Gary, etc.

    My issue is not that many Christians are amazingly consistent, or, that authentic ones sometimes fall short of standards. The issue is blatantly obvious & so many of you are blind: A sizeable proportion of “Christian” churches espouse a belief & value system that contradicts long-standing official doctrine–essentially playing to narcissistic self-indulgence of congregants more interested in lip service & hedonism.

    Because of this the term “Christian” is almost meaningless now.

    Many churchs, commonly “mega churches” with Sunday congregations in the 100s or even 1000s espouse doctrines that are fundamentally contradictory to the original.

    Consider: This link raises a bunch of accusations; somewhere on YouTube are some videos comparing actual statements with the source material and the various contradictions are pointed out over & over.

    Consider the implications of “religious values” on government policy relative to a couple of major issues, the positions on which can make or break a candidate’s election chances:

    – Gays — ok (e.g. some Episcopal) or unacceptable (most others)
    – Abortion — not ok per doctrine but ok by practioners (Catholics are routinely cited, as a representative example, as both believing the value & acting contrary to it routinely…and…voting consistent with their behaviior not the values they espouse believing in)
    – Science — Geology/astronomy (age of the Earth) and evolution — this has profound implications for the selection of science books in many jurisdictions, and more. A classic example of Bronze-Age myths & allegory being interpreted wrongly to reach beliefs that are so unsupported by sciencific evidence as to be mind-boggling. Most evangelical faiths take a simple-minded literal view (Earth about 10,000 yrs old & no evolution); Catholics & other have absolutely no problem with a 5-ish Billion yr old Earth & evolution.

    SO, “religion” and active practice of faith leads to radically mutually-exclusive values on some contemporary themes that are very important to much of the population. No consistency there at all. The issue is that many of the churches–religions–are blatantly false.

  12. Tom

    >>As the churches become more liberal, the need for them decreases.

    This is God’s will.

  13. Ken

    The gist of a number of essays on this blog might be summed up (in part) as, ‘more religion is good’ — but that’s presented indiscriminately as if all “Christian” denominations are “good.”

    But many, and a sizeable proportion of the population, is in conflict with true doctrine of what has been associated with the term “Christian.”

    For example:

  14. Sander van der Wal


    And what about Christians in times gone by? Very few Christians nowadays believe what people used to belief. Priests stopped marying sometime during the Late Middle Ages. People believed very different things before the 4th century. Then there are the differences between the Eastern Churches and the Catholic West.

  15. Shooter


    While many religions are indeed inconsistent and borderline-insane, some have made many contributions to society. Christianity is responsible for modern science as we know it, so yes, religion and science are not truly in conflict. That said, there are always those that take it literally, such as the Young Earth Creationists, which goes against evidence done by scientists, both religious and non-religious.

    In regards to homosexuality, Judaism and Islam also condemn it, not just Christianity. The behaviour is just unhealthy and there is plenty of evidence to back up this claim. However, religion has indeed become liberal and there are those who will say being gay is “OK”, despite their texts.

    Interpretation is the cause for conflict, not the religion itself. Hence the inconsistency. Many Christians are the “love all, end all” and become liberal. In that case you are right.

    Christianity is not the only religion and there are far more violent ones out there. Many of our values are based on a Judeo-Christian system.

    You say a “sizeable amount of the population” are in conflict with the doctrine. How big is this number? Citing videos on YouTube is a little…unconvincing.

    For the case of “more religion is good”, there has to be some moderation. Overall it depends on WHO is practicing, and whether or not they are capable to contributing to society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *