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Why Nations Are Becoming More Secular

Jens is in his late sixties. He lives in a cozy house on a quiet street in a mid-sized city on the east coast of Jutland, Denmark. He’s many things: a widower, a lover of art and music, a retired radio journalist and social worker, a father, and an atheist.

As for that last part of his identity—the utter lack of any belief in a God—it isn’t all that important to him. Being secular in contemporary Denmark, one of the least pious nations in the world, is simply no big deal. But when I came to his house one sunny, cold morning to interview him for my research, he took the time to actively ponder his lack of religiosity and reflect about how distinct his naturalistic worldview is from that of his forbearers. As he explained, his four grandparents were all “real believers.” What about his parents? Yes, they were religious, too, “but less so.” And as for Jens’s siblings: “my younger brother is a very hard atheist, and my sister and my elder brother are more agnostics.”

In short: Jens’ grandparents were deeply faithful, his folks were religious—but much less so than the grandparents— and today, he and his three siblings are all non-believers. This generational decline of religiosity in Jens’ family is nothing remarkable in Scandinavia today.1 It is, in fact, the norm. Every single indicator of religion in Denmark has plummeted over the course of the last century, from church attendance, baptisms, and confirmations to belief in God, belief in heaven and hell, and belief in the literal truth of the Bible.

This historical process, whereby religion weakens and fades in society, is known as secularization.


The early founders of sociology—Europeans such as Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber—could sense religion’s impending demise, at least within their own corner of the world. They spoke of a growing “disenchantment” within modern society and the dying away of old gods. However, they didn’t have much in the way of data to support their predictions. Today, we have data aplenty, and what they reveal is unambiguous, and in some instances quite precipitous, decline of religion throughout not only Europe, but much of the wider world.

To measure and illustrate religious decline, you need two things: (1) clear indicators of religiosity that can be measured, and (2) longitudinal data that reveal trends over time. In my latest book, Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, co-authored with Dr. Isabella Kasselstrand and Dr. Ryan Cragun, both are provided. For measures of religious decline, we focus on the “three Bs:” belief, behavior, and belonging. That is: belief in supernatural entities (God, for example); behavior in terms of religious activities such as praying, going to church, baptizing, etc.; and belonging in terms of basic self-identification, that is, seeing oneself as a Catholic, Lutheran, Muslim, and so forth, or just simply being a member of a religious congregation or community. For longitudinal data, we draw on numerous national and international surveys going back many decades, which allow us to chart observable trends over time. Nearly all of them point in the same direction—downwards.

North America

Belief in God in the U.S. is at an all-time low:2 back in the 1940s, 96 percent of Americans believed in God, while today it is down to 81 percent; more interestingly, the percentage of Americans who strongly believe in God without any doubt has fallen from 62 percent in 1990 to 50 percent3 today. Church membership is also at an all-time low:4 in the 1940s 75 percent of Americans were members of a church, but today it is down to 47 percent. Finally, more Americans than ever do not identify5 as having any religion at all: nearly 30 percent.

In Canada, religious identification is also at an alltime low: In the 1960s, 50 percent of Canadians reported attending church on a weekly basis; by 2015, that was down to 10 percent;6 in the 1970s, only four percent of Canadians said that they had no religion, but today, that is up to 29 percent;7 In 1985, 84 percent of Canadians said they believed in God; that number had dropped to 59 percent8 in 2020.

Latin America

Although much more religious than their neighbors to the North, Latin Americans have still exhibited notable signs of secularization9 in recent decades. Consider the example of Chile: In 1998, only five percent of Chileans did not identify with any religion, while today it is up to 22 percent; In 1998, 91 percent said they believed in God and 75 percent in life after death, but in 2018 those percentages had slipped down to 87 percent and 68 percent, respectively; in 1990, 20 percent said that they were “not a religious person,” but that was up to 42 percent in 2018.10 Rates of secularity are even higher in Uruguay,11 the most secularized nation in Latin America. Even very devout nations such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Brazil, have seen an uptick in secularity: back in 1996, less than two percent of the population of each country identified as nonreligious, but today it has increased to 15 percent, 14 percent, and 12 percent, respectively.12


In Australia, back in the 1960s, less than one percent of the population claimed to have no religion, but today that is up to an all-time high of almost 40 percent;13 In 2003, 73 percent of people said that they held religious beliefs, but that was down to an all-time low of 53 percent14 as of 2020. In 1950, 44 percent of Australians attended religious services on a regular basis, but by 2016, only 16 percent15 of Australians were regular church attenders. In New Zealand, the percent of the population with no religion (49 percent) is—for the first time ever—higher16 than the percentage who identify as Christian (37 percent).


Rates of religious decline have been the most dramatic in Europe. As The Guardian17 reported in 2018, European nations today are best described as “post-Christian,” with a majority of young adults in twelve nations having no religious faith; the Czech Republic stands out, where a whopping 66 percent18 don’t believe in God, a historical high.

In Norway, not only are church membership and church attendance rates at all-time lows, but so too is theism: In 1991, 10 percent did not believe in God and 12 percent did not know if there was a God; by 2018, these figures had increased to 26 percent and 19 percent, respectively.19 Even more dramatic rates of rising secularity are found in Sweden and Denmark,20 where God belief, Jesus belief, baptism, belief in heaven and hell, church attendance, church membership, teen confirmation, frequency of prayer, Bible study, and every single other indicator of religiosity are at all-time lows.

In Britain, while 77 percent of adults believed in God back in 1967, that was down to 32 percent as of 2015; simultaneously, while 10 percent of British adults described themselves as “confident atheists” back in 1998, that figure was up to 26 percent in 2018.21 Similar indicators of religiosity, including those of belief, behavior, and belonging, are at all-time historic lows in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Switzerland.22

Things are even most interesting when looking at those Catholic European nations that seem to resist secularization. Take Ireland: In 2002, 65 percent attended weekly Mass, but that is down to 34 percent today; In 2002, four percent said they had “no religion,” but that is up to 32 percent today—with a whopping 54 percent of people between the ages of 16 and 29 being nonreligious.23 In Poland, those who maintain a religious faith went from 94 percent in 1992 down to 87 percent today; 70 percent attended church weekly back in 1992, but that is down to 43 percent today, and the percentage of Poles who are “nonpracticing” grew from nine percent in 1992 and is up to 24 percent today; in 2015, 15 percent of 18-to 24-year-olds were non-believers, that has almost doubled up to 28.6 percent today.24


It is tough to measure religiosity in the most populace nation on Earth, China, for two key reasons. First, like most of Asia, religion has been constructed and conceived much differently there than it has in the West, so typical Western measures of religiosity such as “church attendance,” “frequency of prayer” or “belief in God” don’t work. Secondly, China is a Communist Party dictatorship that is officially atheist, and religion is highly regulated and repressed, which means that Chinese people have a vested interest in keeping their true religious feelings hidden, especially if that would jeopardize their education, career, liberty, or life. Thus, while most surveys show that a majority of Chinese people are non-religious today—with many being explicit atheists—we can’t be sure if this reported high degree of secularity is accurate, or just how it has changed over time.25

However, many other Asian nations, with the notable exception of still strongly religious India, show unambiguous degrees of secularization. For example, in Japan, back in 1947, 71 percent of adults said that they held religious beliefs; that had dropped down to 23 percent by 2005.26 In South Korea, back in 1982, 47 percent said they had “no religion” and 31 percent defined themselves as “atheist” specifically, but those percentages had risen to 64 percent and 55 percent in 2018, respectively; the percentage of South Koreans who believe in the supernatural powers of deceased ancestors has also gone down, from 45 percent in 1940 to 18 percent today.27

Africa and Arabia

People in Africa and the Arab-speaking world are generally quite religious, and secularization is not evident in these parts world, save for a few indications here and there: back in 2013, 10 percent of Libyans and 13 percent of Tunisians said that they had no religion, but by 2019, those percentages had increased to 25 percent and 30 percent, respectively.28 Additionally, younger Arab adults are less religious than older adults. The percentage of 15-to-29 year-olds who claim to be religious is 42 percent in Iraq, 36 percent in Egypt, 33 percent in Yemen, 32 percent in Sudan, 28 percent in Palestine, 24 percent in Morocco, 23 percent in Lebanon, 22 percent in Jordan, and 15 percent in Algeria.29 And in sub-Saharan Africa, in the last twenty years, people in Ghana and Rwanda have ever so slightly decreased their weekly church attendance.30 Given the extensive poverty and existential insecurity that continue to plague Africa and much of the Arab-speaking world, it makes sense that religion remains strong there.

However, in most Western societies—and in many throughout the East—secularization is occurring,31 and mightily so. The wide variety of countries that have seen a decline in belief in God over the previous several decades is notable: Sweden, South Korea, the Netherlands, Estonia, Norway, Great Britain, Denmark, Hong Kong, France, Japan, New Zealand, Finland, Australia, Germany, Iceland, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Luxembourg, Austria, the United States, India, Uruguay, Singapore, Italy, Chile, Canada, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Poland, Malaysia, Turkey, Colombia, and Indonesia all experienced declines of at least 2.5 percentage points; countries with a decrease of more than 20 percentage points include the Netherlands, Norway, Australia, Belgium, Sweden, Great Britain, Spain, New Zealand, the United States, Iceland, and South Korea. In some of these countries, the drop was truly dramatic: belief in God in Sweden declined from 60 percent in 1982 down to 36 percent in 2017; in Belgium, from 87 percent down to 61 percent in 2009. And more than half of the surveyed countries in the international data have seen regular religious attendance diminish over the past several decades, and many countries in Europe, North America, Latin America, and Asia have seen a drop in people belonging to or identifying with a religion over this same period.

Explaining Secularization

Why does secularization occur? And why in some countries so dramatically, while not at all in others? There are at least five factors at work.

First: the overall transition from a traditional, rural, non-industrial way of life to a contemporary, urban, industrial (or post-industrial) way of life. This modernization process leads to greater differentiation in society, such as the separation of religion from various aspects of societies, institutions, or individuals, as well as the increased rationalization of society—the ordering of society based on technological efficiency, bureaucratic impersonality, and scientific and empirical evidence—both of which result in varying degrees of secularization.

Second: existential security. When people in a given society live in a state of fear, hunger, and overall precariousness, they tend to be more religious. Conversely, when people live in a society characterized by stability, safety, and overall well-being, they tend to be less religious. As extensive data32 provided by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris show, those nations that have strong economies, excellent social welfare programs, affordable housing, heavily tax-subsidized healthcare and education, democratic government, and low levels of corruption and crime, are among the most secularized—while those nations that lack such indicators of progress are the least secularized.

Third: religious pluralism. As sociologist Peter Berger explained,33 when there is one dominant religion maintaining a hegemonic monopoly over a given society, religion tends to be strong. However, when there are multiple religions existing side by side within society, overall religiosity of the population tends to weaken. This happens for many reasons, but the main one is this: in the religious monopoly situation—imagine, for example, a Portuguese island where everyone is Catholic— religion enjoys a taken-for-granted status, providing people with an uncontested religious worldview. By contrast, in a society where there are many different and distinct religions existing in the same geographical space, each maintaining that they have the ultimate truth while others are wrong, it creates an undermining “crisis of credibility” for all of them. It’s challenging to maintain an exclusive religious worldview, believing that you possess the one true faith and everyone else is wrong, when you live in a metropolitan environment with close friends, relatives, in-laws, and colleagues who hold different religious or even nonreligious worldviews.

Fourth: women working in the paid labor force. In societies where women are mostly sequestered into roles of unpaid domestic labor, religion tends to stay strong. However, as historian Callum Brown34 documents, those societies with high rates of women in the paid labor force tend to secularize. This occurs for various reasons, such as the fact that women, as mothers, tend to take on the role of socializing children into religion and keeping religious life afloat at home, but when women work outside of the home, they often don’t have the energy, time, or drive to keep it up, and fathers rarely take up the slack. Also, when women are paid for their labor, they experience increased autonomy and agency and thus have less of a need to rely on religious explanations or religious community support.

Fifth: education, literacy, and access to and use of the internet. It has long been established that as more people in a given society become better educated,35 and as a larger proportion of the population is able to read, religion tends to diminish. More recently, communications professors Greg Armfield and Lance Holbert have shown the degree to which internet access and use are corrosive36 to religion; by providing information that debunks religious claims, creating social networks and communities for budding skeptics and apostates, and by simply offering all that the internet provides, the world wide web undermines the overall social privilege and potency of religion.

When all five factors coincide, secularization is most acute. On top of such large-scale secularizing forces, however, there are always unique and idiosyncratic nation-specific causes, as well. For example, the public exposure of numerous scandals, crimes, abuses, rapes, and murders within the Catholic church in Ireland37 has led to a sharp increase of distinctly anti-religious secularity there. In the U.S.,38 the ever-intimate marriage between conservative, right-wing Republicans and Evangelical Christians has caused many mainline religious Americans to disaffiliate. In Iran,39 the marked growth of secularism among the younger generations is often a reaction against the despotic policies of the reigning Islamic dictatorship.


Is secularization inevitable? No. If certain societies experience marked decreases in existential security— heightened poverty, political instability, climate crises, and so forth—we can expect religion to strengthen. Additionally, birth rates are key: religious people tend to have many more children than secular people, and highly religious societies tend to have much higher overall birthrates40 than highly secular societies. It is possible that the abundance of religious births could override current secularizing trends.

As of right now, however, secularization is stronger than it has ever been—and it is gaining momentum throughout much of the world. In most modern societies, people are demonstrably less religious than their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were in the past. And for the first time in recorded history, we now have numerous societies— such as Scotland, Estonia, the Netherlands, Japan, Scandinavia, the Czech Republic, South Korea, France, Hungary, and Australia—wherein non-religious people outnumber religious people.

Whether we are talking about religious faith and belief, participation and behavior, or identification and belonging, the best available data show that, aside from the noted exceptions of the poorest, least stable nations, religiosity is receding, and more so than ever before. END

About the Author

Phil Zuckerman is Associate Dean at Pitzer College, Professor of Sociology, and the founding chair of the nation’s first Secular Studies Department. He is also the Executive Director of Humanist Global Charity, and the author of many books, including Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society (NYU Press, 2023) and What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life (Counterpoint, 2019).

  10. Kasselstrand, I., Zuckerman, P., & Cragun, R. (2023). Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society. New York University Press.
  19. Kasselstrand, I., Zuckerman, P., & Cragun, R. (2023).
  20. Zuckerman, P. (2020). Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment. New York University Press.
  21. Kasselstrand, I., Zuckerman, P., & Cragun, R. (2023).
  22. Bruce, S. (2013). Secularization. Oxford University Press.
  25. Zuckerman, P,. Galen, L., & Pasquale, F. (2016). The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies. Oxford University Press.
  26. Reader, I. (2012). Secularisation, R.I.P.? Nonsense! The ‘Rush Hour Away from the Gods’ and the Decline of Religion in Contemporary Japan. Journal of Religion in Japan 1(1): 7–36; see also Ishii, K. (2007). Dētabukku: Gendai nihon no shūkyō. Shinyōsha.
  27. Kasselstrand, I., Zuckerman, P., & Cragun, R. (2023).
  30. Kasselstrand, I., Zuckerman, P., & Cragun, R. (2023).
  32. Norris, P. & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge University Press.
  33. Berger, P.L. (1990). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Anchor.
  34. Brown, C.G. (2009). The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization, 1800–2000. Routledge.
  38. Campbell, D.E., Layman, G.C., & Green, J.C. (2020). Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics. Cambridge Unviersity Press.

This article was published on February 4, 2023.

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