Religious Change: The New World of Unbelief Print
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 27 December 2010 12:16

The largest and most dramatic new "faith" in the 21st century is unbelief.

In 1910, only 0.2% of human beings were either agnostic or atheist.  Today, 11.3% of the world's men and women consider themselves to be either one or the other.  778.4 million people who don’t even possess the most basic foundation of faith: the belief in some kind of God. As 2011 dawns, “unbelief” or "nonbelief" is the fourth largest "faith" in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

As I wrote in the post below, Agnosticism is defined fairly broadly by the Atlas of Global Christianity.  It includes 1) “classical’ agnostics who hold that it is impossible to know for certain whether God or any deity exists; 2) those who are uncertain about the existence of God; 3) other non-religious such as secularists and materialists.

Under the term “atheist”, the Atlas of Global Christianity includes not only those who don't believe in the possibility of a deity, but also those who actively oppose theism and organized religion.  An "evangelical" agnostic fighting against religion would qualify as an atheist by this reckoning.  Obviously there is a certain vagueness about the fine line between agnostic and atheist but together they form a formidable new global worldview and culture.

In 1910, the epicenter of both agnosticism and atheism was firmly in the west.  Agnostics were split between Europe and North America but atheists were found almost exclusively in Europe.  Today, five of the 10 nations with the largest “unbelieving” populations are in Asia (China, India, North Korea, Japan, Viet Nam) and five are in the west (US, Germany, France, Britain, Italy).

In 2010, East Asia is the UN region with the highest number of "non-believers" (agnostics and atheists together): 35.2%. "Unbelief" is the second largest faith in East Asia which includes the communist nations of China, Mongolia, and North Korea.

Western Europe (including the traditional Catholic nations of France, Germany, Austria, and Belgium) is second with 21.6% "non-believers" in its population. Three historically Protestant regions follow in the Unbelieving Top Five:  Australia and New Zealand come in third with 19.1%, northern Europe is 4th with 14.5%, and North America finishes off the top 5 with 12.3% non-believers.

Of all the continents, Africa is the least unbelieving with 0.7% agnostic/atheists followed by Latin America with 3.4%.

For our purposes and any kind of serious thinking about the new evangelization, I think it is critical that we distinguish between post-Christian non-believers and post-communist non-believers.

Agnosticism rose like a shot and peaked about 1970 in communist countries.  With the exception of North Korea, agnosticism has been dropping like a stone since.  Post-communist unbelief has shown itself to be remarkably fragile.  It has given way readily to resurgence in religious belief as the growth of Christianity in China and the revival of Orthodoxy in eastern Europe has demonstrated.

But agnosticism in western democratic societies is much older and is often rooted in disappointment at the fruit of real world Christian faith and practice.  It has growing steadily for two centuries in the west and continues to grow today.  So far, western agnosticism has shown itself remarkably resistant to a revival of historic European Christianity.

agnostic_change 1910-2010


Atheism shows a very similar pattern but even more dramatic rise and fall in post-communist countries and the same slow, steady growth in western countries.

atheist_change 1910 - 2010

Next up:  Christianity:  100 Years of Boom & Bust