The surveys found:
Atheism is strongest in northwest European countries such as Scandinavia and the former Soviet states (except for Poland). The former East Germany had the highest rate of people who said they never believed in God (59 percent); in comparison, 4 percent of Americans had that response.
The country with the strongest belief is the Philippines, where 94 percent of those surveyed said they always had believed in God. In the United States, that response came from 81 percent of the people surveyed.
Although by most measures, belief in God is gradually declining worldwide, it is increasing in Russia, Slovenia and Israel. In Russia, comparing the difference between those who believe in God but hadn’t previously, and those who don’t believe in God but used to, researchers found a 16 percent change in favor of belief.
Take advantage of the slow news night and spend time with the data (PDF), paying special attention to how belief has fared in former Soviet bloc countries compared to their European neighbors. (The tables on “Changes in Belief in God” on page 16 and “% Never Believed” on page 18 are especially juicy.) Among young adults who say they’ve never believed, the spread between what was once East Germany and what was once West Germany is more than 50 points. In the Czech Republic too, adults under 28 who’ve never believed is close to 70 percent. Proof positive that communism succeeded in destroying religious faith wherever it found it? Not quite: In Poland, just 3.5 percent of young adults say they’ve never believed. Among Poles over the age of 68, who lived through the Soviet era, the percentage of disbelievers is … 0.0. That’s a testament, I assume, to Poland’s Catholicism and, perhaps, the cultural influence of John Paul II, but it’s confounding to me that the descendants of people who suffered under communism are actually more atheistic — sometimes considerably so — than those who actually had to endure Soviet anti-religious propaganda and reprogramming. In the Czech Republic, for instance, there’s a nearly 50-point gap between young adults and seniors among those who say they’ve never believed. (It’s not universally true that younger generations believe less than older ones do, either. Older people in Israel, interestingly, are more likely than young adults to say they’ve never believed. Whether that’s an aftereffect of having lived through the Holocaust or proof of a religious revival in Israel, or both, I’m not sure.)
Adding to the mystery here: The country that experienced the biggest growth percentagewise in belief in God was — wait for it — Russia. In Russia, just 5.9 percent of young adults say they’ve never believed compared to 17.7 percent of those aged 58-67 who say so. Why are former Soviet countries like East Germany and the Czech Republic seeing faith collapse in younger generations whereas the former Soviet Union itself is seeing faith come back? I have no idea. Again, as with Poland, I assume it has to do with the Russian Orthodox church being more deeply embedded culturally than any church was in East Germany, but then that doesn’t answer the question of why there’d be such a huge gap in nonbelief between East and West Germany. You would think they’d be similar enough culturally that you’d see some effect from communism but not a gigantic difference. Instead — gigantic difference.
One big takeaway from the results: If you’re looking to stave off godlessness, Catholicism and the Orthodox faiths seem like much better bets than Protestantism. It’s not universally true that Catholic countries are immune — lots of nonbelievers in France — but it looks like a decent rule of thumb. Second look at rigid institutional hierarchies as critical to sustaining belief?