Radio Freethinker

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Most Unbelieving Place on Earth? East Germany

Posted by Ethan Clow on May 17, 2012

Where in the world would you find the least religious people? If you said East Germany, you’d be right. Of course since East Germany doesn’t exist anymore, you’d be wrong but still, at least you tried.

No but seriously, apparently the geographic area of Eastern Germany is home to the least religious people in the world. This according to a new study out of the University of Chicago, by sociologist Tom Smith.

You can view the study in PDF here.

What sociologist Smith did was look at survey data on belief in God in 30 countries between 1991 and 2008. (Canada wasn’t included) What he discovered was that the citizens of the former German Democratic Republic have by far the highest rate of atheism at 52.1 percent. The Czech Republic is the most atheist currently existing country at 39.9 percent. They’re followed by the French (23.3 percent), the Dutch (19.7 percent), and the Swedes (19.3 percent). Japan is the country with the lowest percentage of people who say they “know god really exists and have no doubts about it.”  (4.3 percent.)

The most religious country in the survey was the Philippines, where 83.6 percent of people are sure God exists and only 0.7 percent are atheists. The United States, not surprisingly has only a 3 percent rate of atheism and 60.6 percent sure that God exists.

This study is based on The international Social Survey Program (ISSP) which asked three questions – do you believe in God (and ranked them on a 6 point scale) and has your believe in God changed over your life? And finally a ‘agree or disagree’ question about a personal God who cares about human life.

The ISSP Religion 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.

So this isn’t original research in that Smith devised new methods for documenting religious belief or anything like that. It’s a meta-study where he used existing information and compiled it and hypothesized on why the results came out as they did.

Another thing to consider about this study is that it doesn’t measure how secular a country is, only what the citizens in those countries believe. I think this is an important distinction. If we consider how the United States has secular wording enshrined in its founding documents we might get the assumption that it is a very secular nation, of course, as this study shows, the citizens of the United States are overwhelmingly religious.

What’s also interesting is how this data compares to what many of us have thought about previous demographics regarding religious belief. Many of assumed that the Scandinavian countries were the most atheist but Sweden is fifth on the list of general unbelief.

In general, reliable studies seem to indicated a general downward trend of worldwide religious belief, especially in the industrialized west. For example, global poll conducted by Angus Reid in 2006 found that over the past twenty or so years, religious belief has become less important, especially for Canadians and Europeans.

Sweden is interesting because religion there functions a fair bit differently than we might expect. A Gallop poll in 2009 found that only 17% of Swedes consider religion an important aspect of their lives. Despite the fact that about 70% of the population of Sweden are members of the Church of Sweden. What this would imply is that religious membership serves more as a cultural or even community service and seems to have less effect on the decisions people make.

Given the difference in polls and surveys (Phil Zuckerman writes that some figures range from 17% to 85% of Swedes might be atheists) we can probably assume some general things about religious belief for the Swedes, and since the new study by Smith doesn’t include new research we will have to take those numbers with some skepticism as its apparent that any of these figures are estimations and subject to change.

One thing that we should be curious about is why is Eastern Germany so full of atheists? One could make the argument that it’s the combined influence of National Socialism and Communist control over the area for the 60 or so years from the 30’s to the 80’s. Arguably, this is a good answer. When you combine the wartime horrors by the National Socialists (some of the worst which occurred in Eastern Europe) it could explain why a pessimism for religion fostered. And then when you add the Communist repression of religion to the mix, it actually makes perfect sense.

But researchers also suggest that many Slavic and non-Orthodox communities present in the area since the Middle Ages were nonreligious; that the secularization movements during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) were particularly strong in the states of Thuringia and Saxony; that the resistance of most DDR dissidents to the church was not seen, unlike the way it was perceived in Catholic Poland, as specifically religiously motivated.

Meaning, the people who have lived there for thousands of years were never fully converted. Or at least, we might say never drank the kool-aid.

Another potential explanation would be the historic tug of war Catholicism and Protestantism had over Germany. To this day the country is fairly evenly split down Catholic and Protestant lines. During the Reformation, Protestantism appealed to many of the local authority figures as a way to steal power from the Catholic Church and centralize their own power base. While this process didn’t exactly help the secular humanism angle, it did in a way help by breaking down the imperial nature of Catholicism.

By having a religion that was essentially localized to your community and nation and not beholden to a Pope in a far off place, people were able to take a more direct and active role in religion. One of the first steps in moving towards secularism is breaking that spell of subservience to a higher power. Certainly the Reformation broke that spell in relation to the subservience to Rome and the Pope.

And let’s not forget the devastation of the wars of religion that erupted because of the Reformation. Having three decades of warfare can sour you on belief in God when everywhere you look someone is waiting to kill you for not believing in their version of God.



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