It also depends on how you define the term. An atheist believes there is no God. But many people who are not traditionally religious believe in a higher power or a spiritual force of some type. If we extend the definition to those who have no opinion, who lack belief, or who have no religion, the number is obviously much higher.
A 2005 survey published in the Encyclopædia Britannica found that the non-religious made up about 11.9 percent of the world’s population, and atheists about 2.3 percent. It’s reasonable to suppose that there is a gray area between these two groups with some non-religious people claiming to be atheists and vice versa.
Further, in some cultures, such as in Russia and Scandinavia, it is considered impolite to be “aggressive” in sharing your inner thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Those surveyed might tend to shun the question by simply claiming no religion.
Atheists often like to point out that in these countries, which they consider to be much more civilized and advanced than the rest of the world, the number of atheists is thought by some to be more than half of the population. These are mainly northern European countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, France, Estonia and Germany.
A few Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan are cited too, however, the religions of Buddhism and Shintoism do not worship God or gods, so those surveyed cannot be compared culturally to the atheists in the west. The same is true with communist countries such as Russia and Vietnam where atheism was enforced even to the point of imprisonment and death. So it’s even more surprising that Cuba and China, which are among the worst offenders in persecuting believers, have only a 7 and 8 percent atheist population respectively.
Europe is an anomaly though with its high atheist population. I’ve often wondered why northern Europe is so Godless. I suspect there is a factor that most people don’t realize: government enforced tithing.
In many European countries, there is a national church and the tithe is essentially another tax. There is a clause in the law that allows people who are not members of the national church to opt out. If you were born in the country, whether you were baptized or not, the government counts you as a national church member. Unless you declare yourself to be a member of another religious group not supported by the government or a non-member, this is another socialist tax levied on your income. Lutheran Church members in Germany, for instance, have the ability to opt out by literally declaring themselves to be apostate.
So in fact, the world atheist population numbers are skewed as the result of a tax dodge.
If we look at Sweden for example, there are surveys stating that atheists make-up 85 percent of the population. I’ve found that unbelievable, and perhaps there is one reason to think it’s not really true. According to the Wikipedia entry on the tithe:
Until the year 2000, Sweden had a mandatory church tax to be paid if one did belong to the Church of Sweden which had been funneling about $500 million annually to the church. Because of change in legislation, the tax was withdrawn in year 2000. However, the Swedish government has agreed to continue collecting from individual taxpayers the annual payment that has always gone to the church. But now the tax will be an optional checkoff box on the tax return.
In most of these European countries with a high atheist population, there is a state Church and tithing is compulsory. Anyone who wants to stop paying tithes has to declare in writing, in a local court or registry, that they are leaving the Church. They are then crossed off the Church registers and can no longer receive the sacraments. The tithe is less than the biblical ten percent in each of these countries varying between 1 to 9 percent.
When we contrast that with the United States, we see that there has never been a compulsory tithe. In contrast, churches here thrive in comparison to Europe. In addition, the tithe is tax-exempt and income tax deductible. It could be argued that socialism and civil government enforced tithing weakens the people’s faith; while voluntary giving strengthens it.
Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.
- Luke 6:28