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Belief in God Strongest in U.S., Israel, and Catholic Countries

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A new report about the depth of people’s belief in God reveals vast differences among nations, ranging from 94 percent of people in the Philippines who said they always believed in God, compared to only 13 percent of people in the former East Germany. Yet the surveys found one constant—belief in God is higher among older people, regardless of where they live.

The studies covered 18 countries in”1991 (counting East and West Germany and Northern Ireland and Great Britain separately), 33 countries in 1998, and 42 countries in 2008.

The international Social Survey Program (ISSP) has asked three questions focusing on belief in God. The first covers six levels of belief which can be characterized as 1) atheists, 2) agnostics, 3) deists, 4) waivers, 5) weak believers, and 6) strong believers. The second question asks about changes in belief in God over the life course and consists of consistent atheists, current atheists – but former believers, current believers – but former atheists, and consistent believers. The third question is an agree/disagree item asking about belief in a personal God (i.e. “a God who concerns himself with every human being personally”).

Some of the more interesting finding from the survey include:

• Atheism ranges from 52% in the former East Germany to less than 1% in the Philippines.

• The spread between what was formerly East Germany and what was once West Germany is more than 40 points (52.1% vs. 10.3 who do not believe in God).

• Countries with high atheism (and low strong belief) tend to be ex-Socialist states and countries in northwest Europe. (In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism.)

• Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus.

• Only four countries—Poland, Israel, Chile, and the Philippines—have higher rates of belief in God.

• There is evidence that religious competition and/or religious conflict may stimulate higher belief. Belief is high in Israel, a country which has a sharp conflict between Judaism and Islam; in Cyprus which in divided along religious and ethnic lines into Greek/Orthodox and Turkish/Muslim entities; and in Northern Ireland which is split between Protestant and Catholic communities and shows much higher belief levels than the rest of the United Kingdom.

• In the United States there is relatively little overt religious conflict, but intense religious competition across both major religions and denominations within Christianity.

• The one country that shows a low association between the level of atheism and strong belief is Japan. Japan ranked lowest on strong belief, but also in the lower half on atheism. Japan is distinctive among countries in having the largest number of people (32%) in the middle categories of believing sometimes and the agnostic, not knowing response.

• For 1998 to 2008, atheists grew in 23 of 30 countries for an average gain of 2.3 points. Conversely, certain belief in God declined in 14 of 18 countries from 1991 to 2008 with an average decrease of 2.4 points and from 1998 to 2008 loses occurred in 24 of 30 countries for a similar average decline of 2.4 points.

• From 1991 to 2008, Israel, Russia, and Slovenia showed consistent movement towards greater belief (i.e. less atheists, less people never having believed in God, and more agreeing that there is a personal God). Five countries had a mixed pattern with some measures moving towards and some away from belief (West Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Philippines, and the United States).

• Ten countries showed consistent decline in belief (Australia, Austria, East Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, and Poland). For 1998 to 2008 five countries (West Germany, Israel, Japan, Russia, and Slovenia) showed consistent growth in belief. Nine countries (Denmark, East Germany, Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States) had a mixed pattern with movement (mostly small) in opposite directions.

• Looking at the differences across adjoining age groups shows that the largest increases were most often between the 58-67 year olds and those 68+. 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.

• Belief in God has decreased in most countries, but the declines are quite modest especially when calculated on a per annum basis. It is only the repetition of the modest declines across measures and countries that makes the case for a general diminution in belief in God.

(Via: Hot Air)

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • RogerMcKinney

    Very interesting! The increasing belief in God among older people agrees with a personal observation. Most people become atheists in their teens, often as young as 15, and long before they have the knowledge or intellect to really assess the situation. By the time they hit 60 they realize how rash they were. They have put enough distance from the decision that they can look at the issue more rationally. 

    • James

      I think that the matter is more than just a factor of age. In many countries by now, the state has almost a complete monopoly over education. At times, in fact, the education is actually hostile to traditional religion either by an unbalanced presentation of things or by failing to provide the students with a reasonable answer to questions, as for example, Darwin, the inquisition, etc. Moreover, all of this bombardment of inaccurate knowlege is often reinforced by the media who are equally ignorant and often unbalanced in their approach. In short, there is by no means a level playing field or an informed choice by young people.

      • Roger McKinney


        James, I didn’t mean that the only factor was age. Yes, we
        need to do a better job of apologetics, but at the same time Paul says in
        Romans 1 that there is enough evidence already for anyone who cares about the
        truth. My point was that some kids are arrogant, strong-willed and rebellious.
        Knowing the truth (as Paul wrote) they stubbornly rebel against it. As people
        age, the school of hard knocks tempers that rebellion in some and they realize
        how rash their young decision was. That partly explains why there is an
        improvement in older people believing in God. Or it could simply be that all
        the atheists died.

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  • Sue

    James has a good point.  It would be interesting to see if the current teen/twenties populations sees a similar increase in belief in God when they hit their 60’s.

    Interestingly, I was just talking with a friend after Mass yesterday about her work in a (public) hospital, and the fact that Japan is way behind Western countries in the area of emotional care for terminally ill patients (I live in Japan).  It is very difficult to care for that kind of need in a religious vacuum!  We were noting the very things that showed up in the results of this study.  I have never met a Japanese atheist.  Most people believe in an afterlife, yet they do not like to talk about anything more specific than that – particularly if Christianity is involved in the discussion.