Arguably the opposite of religion, atheism is a disbelief in the existence of God or any other divine being. The term "atheist" is slightly ambiguous. It is frequently applied to a wide range of spiritual stances, from people who've simply never considered the existence of a higher power to those who have thought deeply about it and passionately reject the notion that any such beings exist. However, this broad use is actually quite controversial, as there are those who argue that merely being unaware of or indifferent toward the idea of deities is instead "non-religion" or "irreligion," and that true atheism requires the individual to have considered, but dismissed the possibility that deities exist. Perhaps ironically, atheism is protected by many of the same constitutional rights that protect religion.
The breadth and variety of atheism
Atheists share a single common trait—a lack of belief in God (or gods)—but do not share a belief system, sacred scripture, or religious figurehead such as the Pope. As such, atheists hold a wide range of positions of any given idea or issue, and cannot be categorized as a particular demographic or group of people. Rather, atheists exist in countless variations across all races, ethnicities, ages, political affiliations, sexual preferences, social classes, and geographical boundaries. Because so many different beliefs can arguably be considered atheism, including agnostics (the "I don't know" category), cultural Catholics, humanists, non-religious, and more, it is difficult to accurately estimate the exact number of atheists in a given country. Perhaps the best data available came from a 2007 Cambridge University publication, which analyzed data collected in 2004.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Number of Atheists and Agnostics - Cambridge University Press (2004 data):
- China - 103,907,840 — 181,838,720
- India - 102,870,000
- Japan - 81,493,120 — 82,766,450
- Vietnam - 66,978,900
- Russia - 34,507,680 — 69,015,360
- Germany - 33,794,250 — 40,388,250
- France - 25,982,320 — 32,628,960
- United Kingdom - 18,684,010 — 26,519,240
- South Korea - 14,579,400 — 25,270,960
- Ukraine - 9,546,400
China boasts the highest population of atheists in the world by a considerable margin. Then again, China has the most people in the world as well. The results from a 2017 poll by Gallup International and the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research (WIN) can help put these numbers in perspective.
Top 10 Countries with the Highest Percentage of Atheists - WIN-Gallup 2017:
- China - 91%
- Japan - 87%
- Sweden - 78%
- Czech Republic - 76%
- United Kingdom - 73%
- Belgium - 72%
- Estonia - 72%
- Norway - 70%
- Australia - 69%
- Denmark - 68%
Approximately 68% of Chinese respondents to the WIN-Gallup poll self-identified as "convinced atheists," with another 23% claiming the "non-religious" tag and only 1% falling into the "haven't thought about it" category. Confucianism, which is one of China’s oldest philosophical systems, is notable for its lack of a belief in a deity. In fact, considering that China is home to more than 1.4 billion people, the 2004 estimate of the total number of atheists in the country may be badly outdated.
In the United States, approximately 10% of Americans identify as atheists. Although the dollar bill says, “In God We Trust,” belief in Christianity is at an all-time low. Approximately 40% of American atheists are aged 18-29, and 37% of atheists are aged 30-49. This has been attributed to an increased exposure to diverse perspectives in multicultural societies, which dilutes the dominance of any one particular worldview. Millennials and Gen Z are the most racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse generation in the US. For the full results of the WIN-Gallup poll, see the table below.