Global Study: Atheists in Decline, Only 1.8% of World Population by 2020

Michael W. Chapman | July 24, 2013 | 2:18pm EDT
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Atheist Richard Dawkins. (AP)

( – Atheism is in decline worldwide, with the number of atheists falling from 4.5% of the world’s population in 1970 to 2.0% in 2010 and projected to drop to 1.8% by 2020, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

In its report, Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020: Society, Religion, and Mission, researchers analyzed data on church membership and activities from thousands of Christian denominations and other religions worldwide, presenting that data from 1970 and 2010 for a 40-year comparison and, using that information and related demographic data to forecast the world religious makeup in 2020. (See ChristianityinitsGlobalContext(1).pdf)

The numbers show that in 1970 there were 165,500,000  atheists worldwide, about 4.5% of the global population. In 2010, the number of atheists had fallen to 136,582,200 or 2.0% of the population. If trends continue, according to the study, there will be 136,685,000 atheists in 2020, or about 1.8% of the world population.

“Projections to 2020 indicate a sustained decrease of the global share of the non-religious,” reads the study. “This is due primarily to the resurgence of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions in China, and Christianity in Eastern Europe.”

“If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a smaller portion of the world’s population in 2020 than they were in 2010,” says the study. “Although the number of atheists and agnostics continues to rise in the Western world, the current growth of a variety of religions in China in particular (where the vast majority of the non-religious live today) suggests continued future demographic growth of religion.”

Koran. (AP Photo)

“From the point of view of 1970-2010, there has been a global religious resurgence, and it seems likely to continue into the future,” reports the study.

In reference to agnostics, the data show they constituted 14.7% of the world’s population in 1970 but declined to 9.8% of the population in 2010; they are projected to fall further by 2020, to make up 8.9% of the population. (See ChristianityinitsGlobalContext(1).pdf)

Commenting on the study, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said that much of the decrease for atheists “is attributable to the demise of that atheistic genocidal wonderland called Communism: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a spike in religious affiliation, both in Russia and in Eastern Europe,” as the study documents, and “China is also in the throes of a religious revival.”

Holy Bible and cross. (AP)

Citing the data from the report, Donohue said “Russia was 38% Christian in 1970 and in 2010 the number jumped to 71%. The world’s first officially atheistic state, Albania, is now 63% Muslim and 32% Christian.”

While Christianity and Islam dominate on the world religious stage, the data show that Islam is on the rise. Christians comprised 33.2% of the world’s population in 1970, 32.8% in 2010, and are projected to be 33.3% in 2020. For Islam, Muslims comprised 15.6% of the population in 1970 and grew to 22.5% in 2010; they are projected to hit 23.9% of the world’s population in 2020.

“Two religions, Christianity and Islam, dominate religious demographics and seem poised to continue that dominance in the future,” reads the study. “In 1970 those two religions represented 48.8% of the global population, and by 2020 they will likely represent 57.2%.”

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