The number of professed atheists in Britain increased, relatively modestly, by 8% between 1991 and 2008, as did the figure for those who had never believed in God. During the same period there was a 6% decline in people certain that God exists and also in those thinking that God concerns Himself with every human being personally.
These are some of the trends identified in a new report by Tom Smith, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at NORC (National Opinion Research Center), University of Chicago. Published on 18 April 2012, Beliefs about God across Time and Countries is available at:
The data derive from the three religion waves (1991, 1998 and 2008) of the International Social Survey Program, in which representative samples of adults were interviewed. Britain has been included in all three waves, but this is not true of all countries, with the 2008 survey presenting the fullest picture. Three different questions about belief in God were asked.
In 2008 Britain ranked seventh of 30 countries for the proportion of atheists, i.e. persons saying they did not believe in God. At 18% it was well behind the nations in first and second positions (East Germany on 52% and the Czech Republic on 40%) but a long way ahead of Chile and Cyprus (both 2%) and The Philippines (1%). Northern Ireland recorded 7%.
The proportion of ‘strong atheists’ (those who did not believe in God, and had never done so, and who strongly disagreed that there is a personal God) was lower. On this tighter criterion, Britain fell to ninth position (out of 29 nations), with 11%. Northern Ireland stood on 3%, just ahead of the Irish Republic on 2%.
At the other end of the spectrum, Britain came twenty-first, with 10%, in the league table of ‘strong believers’ in God, comprising those who were certain God exists, had always believed in God and strongly agreed that there is a personal God. Northern Ireland had 26% ‘strong believers’.
The pattern of belief in God was not unchanging, although more than half the sample in 2008 seemed to have fairly fixed views. 37% of Britons then claimed that they believed in God and always had done so, while 20% said that they did not believe in God and never had. The proportion who had never believed rose to 33% for the under-28s.
Smith’s report is fairly brief (22 pages). Those wanting to follow up the three waves in Britain can easily run their own additional analyses on the British Social Attitudes Information System website. For those wanting to interrogate the international data, a single dataset of all three religion waves can be obtained from the Economic and Social Data Service as SN 6985.
Of continuing value is Smith’s earlier (2009), and much more substantial (346 pages), Religious Change around the World, prepared for the Templeton Foundation. This abstracts a wide range of religious belief and practice data, over time, from half a dozen multinational sample surveys. This report can be found at: