Belief in God

Hans Rollmann
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Survey finds wide variation across the Globe

In my last column, I focused on the new president of the Federal Republic of Germany, Joachim Gauck, who was a pastor and human rights advocate in the former East Germany.

In November 2009, I also wrote about the importance of churches in effecting peaceful change in that communist country.

Although Protestant churches provided important forums for protest which eventually brought down the Berlin Wall, 40 years of totalitarian rule and indoctrination, and an ever-present atheist ideology, still affect the present.

It is the former East Germany that, according to the newly released study by University of Chicago sociologist Tom W. Smith, ranks as the most godless among 30 countries surveyed worldwide during the past two decades.

In some former communist countries, such as Russia and Slovenia, belief in God has been growing consistently while it declined in Poland as it did in a number of western countries, such as Australia, Austria, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and Norway.

Unfortunately, Canada is not among the countries for which the study furnishes any data. We do know, however, from the 2004 survey by Doreen Westera and her colleagues Lorna Bennett and Doreen Dawe from MUN's School of Nursing, that belief in the existence of God among Newfoundland teenagers declined by 11 per cent from 1990 to 2002.

The number of young believers in Newfoundland, at 74 per cent, roughly coincide with the national average of 73 per cent.

The number of youth who "felt" the presence of God decreased in our province from 35 to 28 per cent and thus dropped well below the national average, which stood at 36 per cent when the survey was published.

Atheist leader

If we compare East Germany with its former ideological and political competitor West Germany, the differences are striking.

East Germany, the atheist world leader with 52.1 per cent, contrasts significantly with West Germany's 10.3 per cent of people who do not believe in God. Yet belief in God does not necessarily mean a relationship with a personal God. Only 8.2 per cent of East Germans believe in a "personal God," as compared with 32 per cent of West Germans.

The global leader in believing in a personal God is the Philippines, with 91.9 per cent, followed by Chile (71.8), the United States (67.5), and Israel (66.5). Even two former politically communist countries, Poland (59.6) and Slovakia (51.0), made it into the more than 50 per cent category, with Russia trailing at a still respectable and growing 40.8.

Smith's study observes that, in the developing world, countries with a Catholic presence represent the most formidable bulwark against atheism.

Smith also finds that Poland's Catholicism "trumps the secularizing influence of socialism."

Countries with a high percentage of atheists in the study are found especially among former socialist states and the secular societies of northwest Europe.

Other factors identified as encouraging belief in God may be religious conflict (Israel, Cyprus and Northern Ireland) or competition (United States).

Even if one credits a long-standing and strong pre-war secular mindset for some of the anti-religious beliefs found in East Germany, it appears that the communist ideologues were effective beyond their own demise in diminishing a belief in God - although not quite as successful as the palpable religious silence that pervades Suzanne Collin's literary dystopian society of Panem, now also the stage for the cinematic success of "The Hunger Games," about which I hope to write in a future column.

Age factor

The study also finds that belief in God consistently increases with advancing age, especially among people 58 years and older. For Smith, such age-related growth is possibly a "response to the increasing anticipation of mortality." In an earlier study, he had noted that church attendance was dependent on aging and "life-cycle effects."

Great variation

Overall, two points stand out in the study.

The modest decrease of believers in most countries makes, in the words of Smith, "the case for a general diminution in belief in God." If such a trend continues, "it will accumulate to larger proportions and the atheism that is now prominent mainly in northwest Europe and some ex-socialist states may spread more widely."

On the other hand, if the countries that counter such a trend with their consistent increases (Russia, Slovenia, Israel) are any indication of the future, belief in God could experience "more of a general rebound perhaps in response to a growth in 'existential insecurity,' from a nationalistic, in-group growth in religious identity (e.g. Arab, Islamic movements, Hindu nationalism, etc.), or from some other societal impetus."

The second point made clear in the study is that an "enormous variation" exists "across countries in the level of believers, atheists and intermediate groups," which will likely continue.

Smith's paper is available in its entirety on the NORC website at

Hans Rollmann is a professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by email:

Regular services (Listed times are for Sundays, unless otherwise noted)

Organizations: University of Chicago, School of Nursing, NORC

Geographic location: East Germany, Russia, Poland Slovenia Federal Republic of Germany Northern Ireland Newfoundland Berlin Wall Israel West Germany Australia Austria Great Britain Ireland Netherlands New Zealand Norway Canada United States Europe Philippines Chile Slovakia Cyprus

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