What we are interested in here is the religiosity of the religiously unaffiliated. This leads us to inquire concerning the religious views held by those who are not attached to formal religious and religious institutions. We will also note some limitations and areas of future exploration concerning the category of the “religiously unaffiliated.”
Who are the Religiously Unaffiliated?
The “religiously unaffiliated” number around 1.1 billion worldwide and makeup sixteen percent (16%) of the global population . This group includes several subgroups: atheists, agnostics, and people who do not identify with any particular religion. Sixty-two percent (62%) of the religiously unaffiliated live in China, followed by Japan (6%), the United States (5%), Vietnam (2%), and Russia (2%). There are six countries where the religiously unaffiliated make up a majority of the population: the Czech Republic (76%), North Korea (71%), Estonia (60%), Japan (57%), Hong Kong (56%), and China (52%).
We expect the unaffiliated demographic to grow in Western countries, notably in the United States and Western Europe. For example, in the United States, sixteen-point-four percent (16.4%) of the population was unaffiliated in 2010. Two years later this number grew to nineteen-point-six percent (19.6%) . In Europe, we expect the unaffiliated population to grow from twelve percent (12%) in 2010 to thirteen (13%) in 2050.
Moreover, the unaffiliated demographic is actually expected to decline in the share of the global population. Although this demographic is expected to grow in absolute number from 1.17 billion in 2015 to 1.20 billion in 2060, its increase will coincide with the growth of many religions. This will mean that thirteen percent (13%) of the world’s population in 2060 will be religiously unaffiliated, down from sixteen percent (16%) in 2015 .
The Religiosity of the Religiously Unaffiliated
But what of the religiosity of the religiously unaffiliated? As the statistical evidence indicates, many of the religiously unaffiliated are in some sense religious, as several researchers have noted .
For example, belief in God or a higher power stands at thirty percent (30%) of French unaffiliated. The majority (90%) of religiously unaffiliated Black Americans believe in God with forty-one percent (41%) believing in the God of the Bible, or another higher power (52%), and about half pray regularly, although few attend religious services . Only two percent (2%) identify as agnostic and one percent (1%) as atheist. The majority of American unaffiliated adults (61%) believe in God and fifty-three percent (53%) in a personal God . Notably, the sixty-one percent (61%) stat is a decrease from the seventy percent (70%) in 2007. Thirty-one percent (31%) of the religiously unaffiliated say God is an impersonal force and a quarter say God is best viewed as a person. A third say God does not exist.
In China, seven percent (7%) of unaffiliated adults believe in God or a higher power. A more significant forty-four percent (44%) of the Chinese unaffiliated say they have worshiped at a graveside or tomb in the past year . Thirty-seven percent (37%) believe in heaven and twenty-seven percent (27%) in hell. Twenty-one percent (21%) believe the Bible is the Word of God .
In Canada, in 2000, forty percent (40%) of unaffiliated individuals in the country claimed to believe in God, and in 2005 thirty-five percent (35%) believed in some form of life after death . In 2000, nineteen percent (19%) said they had experienced God’s presence, and thirteen percent (13%) said they prayed weekly.
The religiosity or irreligiosity of the Czech Republic makes for an interesting study. The Czech Republic is one of the most secular countries in the world based on statistics.
The majority of the population is religiously unaffiliated and does not believe in God . Seventy-two percent (72%) of Czechs do not identify with a religious group and forty-six percent (46%) describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” Twenty-five percent (25%) describe themselves as atheist. Sixty-six percent (66%) of Czechs say they do not believe in God, compared with twenty-nine percent (29%) who do.
But here we find the relevance of subjective religiosity. Although a majority of Czech’s say they do not believe in God, sixty-five percent (65%) believe in at least one of nine religious concepts (God, the soul, fate, miracles, heaven, magic/sorcery/witchcraft, reincarnation, the evil eye, and hell) . Forty-four percent (44%) believe in the soul, forty-three percent (43%) in fate, thirty-seven percent (37%) in miracles, twenty-seven percent (27%) in heaven, twenty-four percent (24%) in magic/sorcery/witchcraft, twenty-three percent (23%) in reincarnation, twenty-one percent (21%) in the evil eye, and nineteen percent (19%) in hell.
As the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark argues, it is mistaken to think a country is “secular” based on its lack of church attendance or affiliation . As the statistics in the Czech Republic show, it is difficult to argue that it is secular in terms of belief when a significant number still hold to religious concepts. The sociologist Dana Hamplová noted this relevant point,
“[T]he idea that Czechs are almost completely indifferent to any religion is not accurate. The apparent lack of interest in traditional forms of Christianity is accompanied by the massive popularity of what sociologists call “invisible” or “alternative” religion and what could be best described as a belief in magic. Czechs may not be very enthusiastic churchgoers but many of them easily accept the idea that fortune-tellers can predict the future, lucky charms bring good fortune or that the stars might influence their lives. While the numbers of evangelicals are still small and we can debate the real importance of their expansion, the substantial popularity of magic and superstition cannot be pushed aside as trivial. The growth of the evangelicalism, then, and persistence of an interest in the supernatural both suggest that, under the secular surface, many Czechs hunger after something beyond their everyday material world” .
Significance and Implications
Scholars have noted some important areas of discussion.
First, we should note some limitations on current statistical data on the unaffiliated and of future religiosity. The future of religions is difficult to predict and it is uncertain how the likes of education, urbanization, political governance, and economic development might influence religiosity and religious identity in the future. As Conrad Hackett et al. write, “many developments could alter current patterns, including political and environmental crises or other shocks that might influence religious identity” . In most cases, our knowledge of future religiosity is impoverished because we cannot necessarily predict crises and circumstances that may influence religious identity in years to come.
We must also note that the religiously unaffiliated demographic is itself broad. In this group of atheists, agnostics, and those who describe themselves as “nothing in particular,” there is great diversity. There are distinct philosophical differences among people claiming to be atheist, agnostic, and those who report traditional religious beliefs while being disenfranchised from organized religion . According to sociologist Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme,
“There is some empirical evidence in the US and Europe supporting the fact that unaffiliated individuals do not form one homogenous secular group. Rather, they can be classified into different categories according to their levels of personal religiosity and anti-religious sentiment: believing without belonging (or unchurched believers), liminal nones (change from being unaffiliated to affiliated and back again), as well as active or ordinary atheists and agnostics… being unaffiliated in Northern Ireland still has strong political connotations, whereas for many Nordic and Catholic countries it refers more to distancing oneself from a specific institution which still has strong ties to the State. In the US, being unaffiliated may be considered more a matter of consumer choice in a religious market, or a reaction to the Religious Right” .
Moreover, changes in religious identity can have important consequences for individuals and societies. The affiliated and unaffiliated vary in several areas including patterns of family formation, educational attainment, civic engagement, health outcomes , and science knowledge and attitudes . Changes in the unaffiliated share of populations could influence political elections as well as how science and religion are taught in schools. Further, the divergence in religious affiliation between regions could make communication across cultures more difficult and heighten geopolitical tensions as the unaffiliated and affiliated struggle to understand one another’s worldview.
Some areas open themselves up to exploration. Historically, it has been younger persons, persons without children, and persons with higher levels of education and a more liberal political stance who are more likely to claim no religion. Why is this the case? What is it with higher levels of education that makes one more likely to claim no religious affiliation? Questions such as this invite further inquiry into religious identity in the West.
1. Pew Research Center. 2012. Religiously Unaffiliated. Available.
2. Pew Research Center. 2012. Ibid.
3. Lipka, Michael., and McClendon, David. 2017. Why people with no religion are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population. Available.
4. Hout, Michael., and Fischer, Claude. 2002. “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations.” American Sociological Review 67(2):165-190; Baker, Joseph., and Smith, Buster. 2009. “The Nones: Social Characteristics of the Religiously.” Social Forces 87(3):1251-1263; Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2015. “How Unreligious are the Religious “Nones”? Religious Dynamics of the Unaffiliated in Canada.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 40(4):477-500.
5. Pew Research Center. 2021. Faith Among Black Americans. Available; Cox, Kiana. 2021. Nine-in-ten Black ‘nones’ believe in God, but fewer pray or attend services. Available.
6. Pew Research Center. 2015. Chapter 1: Importance of Religion and Religious Beliefs. Available.
7. Pew Research Center. 2012. Ibid.
8. Pew Research Center. 2015. Ibid.
9. Bibby, Reginald W. 2002. Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing; Bibby, Reginald W. 2011. Beyond The Gods & Back: Religion’s Demise and Rise and Why It Matters. Lethbridge: Project Canada Books.
10. Jo Starr, Kelsey. 2019. Once the same nation, the Czech Republic and Slovakia look very different religiously. Available.
11. Evans, Jonathan. 2017. Unlike their Central and Eastern European neighbors, most Czechs don’t believe in God. Available.
12. Stark, Rodney. 1999. “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 60(3):249-273.
13. Hamplová, Dana. 2010. Are Czechs the least religious of all? Available.
14. Hackett, Conrad., Stonawski, Marcin., Potančoková, Michaela., Grim, Brian J., and Skirbekk, Vegard. 2015. “The future size of religiously affiliated and unaffiliated populations.” Demographic Research 32(7):829-842.
15. Baker, Joseph., and Smith, Buster. 2009. Ibid. p. 1260.
16. Wilkins-Laflamme, Sarah. 2015. Ibid. p. 480.
17. Zuckerman, Phil. 2009. “Atheism, secularity, and well-being: How the findings of social science counter negative stereotypes and assumptions.” Sociology Compass 3(6):949-971; Ellison, Christopher G., and Hummer, Robert A. 2010. Religion, families and health: Population-based research in the United States. New Brunswick: Rutger University Press; Pew Research Center. 2012. “Nones” on the Rise: New Report Finds One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Available.
18. Sherkat, Darren. 2011. “Religion and scientific literacy in the United States.” Social Science Quarterly 92(5):1134-1150.