Although China's society has deep religious traditions, decades of Communist rule have installed a widespread atheistic materialism that still surprises many visitors.
Sweden's top spot among the world's least religious nations is astonishing, as well. The Scandinavian country has increasingly become more secular in recent years and observers have noticed a disconnect between the popularity of religious traditions such as Christmas or Easter and true religious commitment.
Only eight percent of all Swedes regularly attend religious services, according to the Swedish government. Its Web site provides further explanations why the nation is much less religious than its neighbors.
With its high numbers of atheist citizens, China and Hong Kong appear to be outliers in Asia. Western Europe and Oceania are the only regions where about 50 percent of the population or more either consider themselves to be atheists or not religious, as well.
In Western Europe, the U.K. and the Netherlands top the ranking, followed by Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Austria. In France, about half of the population is not religious or atheist — despite the fact that it is generally considered to be the birthplace of Western secularism.
With 65 percent, Israel has surprisingly many citizens who consider themselves not religious or to be atheists. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, atheism is deeply entrenched in the country's society. Many Jews furthermore practice some religious acts, but consider themselves as secular. In the West Bank and Gaza, only 19 percent of all respondents said that they were not religious.
The study also sheds light at other differences in religious habits that are unrelated to national borders. The survey's authors found that people younger than 34 tend to be more religious than older respondents. This is particularly surprising from a U.S. perspective where an increasing number of younger citizens do not identify with any religion at all — contrary to older Americans.
The researchers also examined other variables apart from age. "Those without what is considered an education are the most religious but religious people are a majority in all educational levels," they concluded.
According to their analysis, education plays a smaller role in determining the religiousness of an individual than income. "Among those with a medium high and high income less than 50 percent say they are religious, against 70 percent of those with low, medium low and medium income."
This observation reflects an earlier study by the Pew Research Center which found that a country's level of religiosity tracks closely with a nation’s GDP per capita. In other words: Richer countries also tend to be less religious than poorer nations. The only outliers of this observation were China and the United States.
This list of the world's least religious nations does not indicate a decline of belief. Worldwide, six out of 10 people say that they are religious. Most believers can be found in Africa and the Middle East where eight out of 10 people would consider themselves to be religious, followed by Eastern Europe, America and Asia.
"With the trend of an increasingly religious youth globally, we can assume that the number of people who consider themselves religious will only continue to increase," Jean-Marc Leger, president of Win/Gallup International, was quoted as saying by the British Guardian newspaper.
Among the 65 countries surveyed by Gallup International, Thailand led the list of the most religious nations with 94 percent of the population considering itself to be religious. Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia and Morocco followed Thailand in the ranking.
You can view the full survey here.
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