A new report from the University of Chicago has shed light on the growth of atheism in Europe.
The report from the university’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) also found that belief in God is stronger among older people than younger generations.
The findings were based on an analysis of surveys conducted in 30 countries in 1991, 1998 and 2008.
Countries with the largest atheist populations tended to be in north-west Europe or former communist states while countries with fewer atheists tended to be in the developing world, with the exception of the US, Israel and Cyprus.
Sweden, Latvia, Denmark, Britain and Norway had some of the highest proportions of atheists.
The study found that belief in God had decreased in most countries, although it added that the declines were “quite modest especially when calculated on a per annum basis”.
Nonetheless, the Czech Republic saw the biggest rise in the number of atheists between 1998 and 2008, with an increase of 18.4 percentage points. This was followed by Latvia, with 9.1 points, Britain, with 8.1 points, and Australia, with an increase of 6.4 points.
In the case of the US, it noted that although belief in God remained high, levels had eroded from what they were in the 1950s.
“If the modest, general trend away from belief in God continues uninterrupted, it will accumulate to larger proportions and the atheism that is now prominent mainly in north-west Europe and some ex-socialist states may spread more widely,” it said.
A certainty in the existence of God was found to be highest in the strongly Catholic Philippines at 84%, but lowest in Japan at just 4%.
While the atheist population in the Philippines is less than 1%, it is highest at 52% in the formerly communist East Germany - which was analysed separately from West Germany.
The Philippines is also home to the highest proportion of strong believers, at 60% of the population, whereas in East Germany, strong believers account for just 2.5% of the population.
East Germany was again lowest for the number of people described in the report as “consistent believers” - at 13% - while the Philippines was found to have the highest proportion at 94%.
When researchers assessed faith in a personal God – one who “concerns himself with every human being personally” – the figure in East Germany fell even lower to 8%.
The Czech Republic had the second highest proportion of atheists (39.9%), followed by France(23.3%), and the Netherlands (19.7%).
Not all formerly Soviet states are predominantly atheist. “Consistent atheists” accounted for just 2% of the population in Poland.
“In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularising influence of socialism,” the report said.
Britain was among the 10 countries cited in the report as showing “consistent decline in belief” over the last few decades. The other nine were Australia, Austria, East Germany, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Poland.
Britain ranked in the atheist top, with 18% of people who don’t believe in God, but it landed in the bottom ten for people who say they know God exists and “have no doubts about it”. Only 16.8% of the population agreed with this statement.
Researchers found that belief in God consistently increased with age across the 30 countries. While only 23% of those 27 and younger believed in God, this rose to over 43% in the 68-plus category.
They said: “This suggests that belief in God is especially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality occurring.”
Report points to decline in belief
Published 20 April 2012