Saturday, May 09, 2009
Julian Sanchez has a post up, A "God-Shaped-Hole" Shaped Hole. He notes:
Which brings us around to the core problem with Stuttaford's claim. As James Joyner observes, it's a little doubtful whether the need to worship deities can really be an ineradicable, hardwired human trait when polls show that in much of Western Europe, the proportion of the population describing itself as atheist or agnostic approaches or exceeds the 50 percent mark.
This is a common perception, but I'm pretty sure it is also wrong. Sam Harris has described Sweden as an atheist society, while an American sociologist has written of Denmark as a society without God. I think the issue here is that the relative reference frame of the United States distorts the perceptions of American thinkers (combined with the sort of Europeans that they might meet at conferences or at the jobs expats land in abroad). Yes, the proportion of atheists in Scandinavia is on the order of 1 magnitude greater than the United States, but at less than 5% of the population in the United States that is still less than 50% of the population. Below the fold I've put data I gathered from The World Values (limiting to surveys performed from 1995 onward, because of the reality that East European nations exhibited a spike in God belief after the fall of Communism), the Eurobarometer 2005 and a BBC sponsored survey.
I'm pretty sure that the WVS result for Germany is screwed up by some problems with how they weighted the "East German" and "West German" results. There are also certainly some issues with how the question was worded (most surveys show fewer self-described atheists than those who agree with an atheist position in relation to God), as well as the problem of representativeness (it looks to me that for Third World countries like India the WVS is skewed toward a higher SES judging by the levels of education). But you get the picture. Europe and East Asia, unlike the United States, South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America, have a great number of "unaffiliated theists." This shouldn't be too surprising to Americans, the proportion of atheists & agnostics among those with "No Religion" has remained constant for a generation from what I know, at around 25%.
Update: Because of questions in the comments I thought I would add the "fifth wave" WVS results from 2005-2008, which had a question which allowed people to sort themselves into "religious person," "not a religious person" and "atheist." Since people tend to avoid the term atheist this is a lowballing of the proportion who don't believe in God. But, because of cross-cultural differences in what it means to be a "religious person," that proportion might also be somewhat deceptive and an underestimate of those who are somehow affiliated with a religious denomination.