Conversion & deconversion statistics

I'm an atheist

Recently I’ve discussed some stories of atheists who once were christians and christians who once were unbelievers. Here’s some statistics on how religious belief is changing in various countries.

Studies and statistics

A University of Chicago (UoC) study found that in many western countries, church attendance is on the decline, and non-belief is increasing. But the traffic is not all one way, and there are people ‘converting’ while others are ‘deconverting’. And in many countries, the numbers of conversions are greater than those giving up faith.

The UoC study lists the difference between the ‘conversion’ and ‘deconversion’ rates (see Table 7), by subtracting the percentage of the population who have moved from belief to unbelief at some stage in their life from the percentage of the population who have moved from unbelief to belief. So, if 15% of the population have deconverted during their life, and 10% have converted, the ‘gap’ would be -5%.

Other studies give different figures, presumably because they have asked slightly different questions. Here is a summary of some recent studies:

USA

The UoC study found that in the USA there had been a slight increase in belief, with a gap between conversions and deconversions of +1.4%. This goes against other studies, for example, a Pew Forum study found 11% of people have left their religion at some time in their lives and only 4% have moved from unbelief to belief, a ‘gap’ of -7%.

The Pew Forum study provides several other interesting insights of changing religious belief in the US:

  • Many people change their religious beliefs (or lack of beliefs) more than once during their life
  • While many people raised as believers give up their faith, a majority of people not raised in any particular religion later convert: “the unaffiliated have one of the lowest retention rates of any of the major religious groups, with most people who were raised unaffiliated now belonging to one religion or another”. Two thirds of these unaffiliated have some belief or spirituality, just no affiliation with any defined religion, and only one third are true unbelievers (Pew Forum).
  • The study also probed reasons for changes in belief. The main reasons for deconverting were not based on truth (e.g. the perceived conflict between science and religion was not a major factor) but on factors such as believers being hypocritical and judgmental, too many rules and too little spirituality in the church, the perceived focus of religious leaders on money and power, and a reaction against the exclusiveness of religion. Many who leave remain ‘spiritual’ and are open to returning to active faith.
  • Those who convert do so mostly because they enjoy attending religious services, they felt unfulfilled as non-believers or they felt specifically called by God.
  • Researchers make a distinction between religious belief (adherence to a particular religion, or at least a definite belief in God) and spirituality (a much less easily defined belief or attitude). Thus the USA Pew Forum study shows that non-church spirituality (which may include non-denominational christians as well as those with less defined beliefs) is growing.

The effect of education

A US study of the effects of higher education on religious belief found that it made far less difference than expected. It was true that there was a ‘modest decline’ in supernatural belief in those who attended college, with the largest effect occurring in those who attended an elite university, but this decline generally only occurred in those whose belief was weaker to start with. There was virtually no change in “those who held faith as important, prayed frequently, and attended church on a regular basis”. The study concludes that “college does not decrease religious belief so much as it refines it”.

Another study found that less educated people in the US are twice as likely to give up church attendance than the more educated.

Europe

The UoC study found that in 15 out of 23 European countries the percentage of the population who have stopped believing in God at some time in their life typically exceeded the percentage of population who have started believing by about 5-10% of the total population. Some examples of the gap: Netherlands -14%, Spain -12.4%, France -11.3%, Norway -11%, Great Britain -10.1%, Sweden -5.5%.

In the remaining 8 European countries, conversions to belief in God were greater than to non-belief. Some examples: Russia +16%, Latvia +11.9%, Slovenia +8.5%, Portugal +0.6%.

However a study in the UK found a much narrower narrow gap between the two rates – 8.3% of the population had stopped believing and some time in life and 7.8% had started, a gap of only -0.5%.

Reseach from the University of Augsburg indicates that much of Europe has given up religious belief, but has not embraced atheism, but rather the occult – e.g. fortune-telling, clairvoyance, channeling, past life regression, card reading and horoscopes. Two other conclusions are interesting:

  • While most of these occult practices have been around for millennia, they generally reached a mass market only in the past few centuries, aided by first the printing press and now the internet. (I would have thought that superstition was greater in the Middle Ages, but unless there is a difference between superstition and the occult, this apparently isn’t so.)
  • The researchers suggest that people have become interested in the occult because they are looking for answers to questions which science appears unable to address, and they see the occult as not opposed to science, but complementary.

Australia and New Zealand

UoC gives deconversion-conversion rates of -12% for Australia and -4% for New Zealand. This Australian figure is more or less confirmed by data in Wikipedia and a recent survey by McCrindle Research, which showed 29% of Australians had stopped being religious and only 4% had taken up belief, a massive gap of -25%. The research shows again that disbelief tends to be a result of bad behaviour by christians rather than a questions of truth.

The rest of the world

The UoC figures are sparse for the rest of the world, but show small variations from more conversions in Israel (+2.6%) and Philippines (+0.8%) to more deconversions in Japan (-1.5%).

Overall, the number of people not affiliated with any religion is growing, as are the numbers of Muslims and Hindus (see Pew Forum and Phillip Jenkins). The number of Christians is increasing in Africa, Asia and Latin America but declining in Europe, leading to a slight decline overall, while the numbers of Buddhists and followers of ‘folk religions’ are declining significantly. But faith seems to be strengthening and becoming more conservative among many believers.

Conclusions

Sociologists of religion have developed theories that predict that religion would die away when people become safer and more financially secure. But this has only partly occurred, and new hypotheses are now being developed. It seems that secularisation has not led to rationalism as much as to superstition.

Thus, non-belief isn’t as persistent as was expected, and many raised in non-belief return to faith in later life, partially balancing the numbers raised religious and abandoning their faith. It seems that people, in western countries at least, are more willing and able to question and critique whatever beliefs they were taught as a child, which must surely be a good thing.

As a christian, I feel the sociologists will always get it a little wrong because they leave out a key factor – the fact that God may indeed exist and be influencing behaviour. I feel the decline in christianity is mainly due to the lapsing of those who were culturally christian rather than christian by conviction, although of course there remain those who have changed their commitment. Again, this sifting can only be a good thing, leaving the church in a less powerful position (and therefore less open to abuse of power) but more focused and committed.

Photo Credit: Anosmia via Compfight cc

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17 thoughts on “Conversion & deconversion statistics

  1. thoughtsfromanamericanwoman says:

    This is interesting, but I find flaws with thinking Christianity will die away when people become financially secure, I know many devout Christians that are financially secure and are strong in their faith. And add to the fact that the current financial situation is on a down turn their theory then would see an increase as more people lose their jobs and financial security thus seeing a revival of our faith. At this point I do not see that happening but with God all things are possible.

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  2. unkleE says:

    I agree completely. Financial security is not the only human need, and people are finding that modern rationalism is not giving their lives meaning and purpose, or any sense of hope or control, hence many turn to the occult and many turn back to God. That is why I said the sociologists will never get it fully right.

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  3. Laura says:

    This is fascinating Unklee! In light of my recent series on “walking away from faith” I appreciate all these stats! About the study on the effect of higher education on belief and the conclusion that “college does not decrease religious belief so much as it refines it”. When I went away to college after high school, my beliefs were not strong actually. I was tired of the strict Christian home I’d been raised in where I felt like I had no choice and was suffocated. As I was exposed to new and anti-God views in classes (especially when I continued my studies after community college at university level), it forced me to consider the beliefs I was raised with. Instead of pushing me away from faith and towards unbelief, it ended up refining and strengthening my faith. I started with a weak faith and left with a stronger one. But I know for some it goes the other way. Like for my own brother, it took him away from faith and he has never returned. (He was at an elite university.)

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  4. unkleE says:

    Yes it is distressing to see people walk away from belief. I can understand the reasons why they doubt, but feel allowing doubts to become disbelief is not dealing correctly with the reasons why we believe. I’m sorry about your brother.

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  5. Salwan a.r says:

    What about if muslims convert to christian faith or same sex marriage or some kind of muslims appear that they are anti social character without any conversion .

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  6. Muslim by choice says:

    Interesting stats about muslims. It is just amazing that the media spends so much time on defaming muslims and Islam but stats say otherwise. The holy book of Muslims, the quran, certainly has so much truth. when i read it it really struck a chord and I cried. It has changed my life. And reading it gave me what no other religion/athiesm could.Def worth reading

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  7. westofthebluemountains says:

    Re; the link between wealth and religion.

    Can really wealthy people be “real” Christians ? I doubt it, the camel and the eye of the needle quote.

    That’s why I look at wealthy politicians who say they are Christians and I say “hypocrite”.

    What do you think ?

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  8. unkleE says:

    Well I guess I’d need to define what is a “real” christian. Is it someone who follows Jesus’ teachings perfectly? In which case he was the only real christian. Is it someone who genuinely tries to follow Jesus’ teachings? I guess, but how genuinely? Or is it someone who asks God for forgiveness for not following Jesus’ teachings well enough? Or is that a cop-out?

    So I agree that many politicians are hypocrites, but I think all of us can be hypocrites at times. At the same time, I think you are right that all of us in the rich west have compromised on some of Jesus’ teachings, and the richer and more powerful we are the more tempting it is to compromise, and probably the more we have given in to that temptation.

    So I think you have seen Jesus’ teachings correctly at this point, but I don’t think I’d single out anyone as being more hypocritical than the rest of us. I think maybe you don’t fully understand, or don’t agree with, Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness.

    How do you react to all that?

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  9. westofthebluemountains says:

    I think forgiveness is only operable if the person I wish to forgive is willing to admit they have done wrong and asks for my forgiveness.

    e.g. have you heard of a person called Creflo Dollar (can you believe that name) ?

    He makes millions preaching his version of the “Word of God” and lavishes a lot of that on himself. Should he be forgiven if he keeps doing what he is doing or should forgiveness only come when he gives away his wealth, asks for forgiveness and proceeds to live simply in the way of Jesus ?

    In any case perhaps it’s not up to me to forgive that person, maybe it’s up to the Church community in general and the members of his own church in particular to forgive him for the misrepresentation that he has deluded people with.

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  10. unkleE says:

    I think I was too brief and didn’t explain well. I was talking about God’s forgiveness.

    There is (I think) a tension in christianity between being obedient to God and living in an ethical and “godly” way, and receiving God’s forgiveness for failing to do that.I think it is a mistake to overemphasise either of those two things. But a balance between them means a “good” christian will always be someone who is both trying to be good and forgiven for not being good.

    I didn’t think your comments recognised that tension sufficiently.

    Yes I have heard of Creflo and he is of course an embarrassment. I can’t help thinking “only in America” (because they seems to be so capitalistic and so naive), but I suppose it happens elsewhere too. I have no idea how God will judge him.

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  11. Oliver Low says:

    Forgive my just posting a quote, but it seemed apposite:
    “[B]eing Christian does not mean mainly belonging to a certain culture or adhering to a certain doctrine, but rather joining one’s own life, in all its aspects, to the person of Jesus and, through Him, to the Father. For this purpose Jesus promises the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to his disciples. Owing to the Holy Spirit, to the Love that unites the Father and the Son and proceeds from them, we may all live the very life of Jesus. The Spirit, in fact, teaches us all things, that is, the single indispensable thing: to love as God loves.”
    – Pope Francis

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  12. unkleE says:

    Hi Oliver, nothing to forgive, you are welcome! And it is a good quote.

    I agree with the substance of the quote, but when sociologists do their work, they have to deal with more mundane tangibles. It is one form of reality, but Francis is talking about a different form of reality.

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  13. mickelodian says:

    Erm…. God is influencing behavior…. You mean usurping free will? Really?

    Its a real pity God didn’t cotton on to this trick before causing a global flood.

    Anyway, hope you aren’t depending on all of the terrible statistics you looked up to lead to what you know will occur and that God steps in to totally change behavior or perhaps just remove free will entirely.

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  14. unkleE says:

    Hi mate, I’m not sure how you came to this site, but welcome!

    You mean usurping free will? Really?
    Well maybe. But people can influence without usurping free will, so I guess God can. Do you believe we have free will?

    Its a real pity God didn’t cotton on to this trick before causing a global flood.
    I guess. But since I don’t think he did cause a global flood, it is academic to me. Do you believe he caused such a flood?

    Anyway, hope you aren’t depending on all of the terrible statistics you looked up to lead to what you know will occur and that God steps in to totally change behavior or perhaps just remove free will entirely.
    I don’t think I’m “depending” on any of these stats, just reporting.

    Did you want to discuss any of this, or did you just want to make the single comment? Either is fine with me. Best wishes to you.

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