Is Atheism Growing at the Expense of Theism?

Is Atheism Growing at the Expense of Theism?

Dr. Craig checks out two surveys concerning God-belief around the world as well as the growth of Secular Student Alliance on campuses.


Transcript Is Atheism Growing at the Expense of Theism?

Kevin Harris: Okay, I realize that was a little over the top. I'm Kevin Harris, welcome to the Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. Some interesting statistics are coming out, some interesting surveys, and we're going to take a look at that today. Not long ago I was in the studio with Dr. Craig and we looked at a couple of these surveys.

We have found some statistics that peaked our interest, Dr. Craig. “Is atheism increasing at the expense of theism?” and it's from a blog called Science and Religion Today. When you look at these charts you see some conflicting data, it seems. The International Social Survey Program has conducted and been conducting these religious surveys throughout the years. They've just released their 2008 results. The one prior to this one was in 1998 and so we have some comparative data. Look at this, it begins with Great Britain, Dr. Craig: rise in atheism, percentage who don't believe in God – now that may not be atheism, it could be just general non-theism – 9.6 in 1998 and 17.7 in 2008. Theism overall has dropped in Great Britain from 46.2 to 36 percent. Austria is next mentioned: 6.8 and then a growth to 9.3 percentage who don't believe in God. Many of these countries you visited here recently. Any of these leap out at you?

Dr. Craig: Well, the whole thing leaps out at me in that the survey was conducted among predominately Western European countries, and it's no news that secularism is increasing in Western Europe. This is something that we've been decrying for years. So this survey focuses on European countries, and there is no mention of countries in Africa, by and large in Asia, except for Russia, or Latin America. So the increase in atheism that he's talking about here is predominantly and almost exclusively a Western European phenomena, which is not news. It's sad, it's troubling, we need to be very concerned about it, but it's not new. We all knew that secularism is increasing in Western Europe.

A couple of the things that I was astonished to see, though, that did encourage me, if these statistics are right, would be that in Germany atheism is declining. That astonishes me. And it's not just because of the East. You might think, well, coming out from under Marxism there would be a rise of religious belief. But it says in West Germany in 1998 12.1 percent of the population did not believe in God, and in 2008 that was down to 10.5 percent in former West Germany. In the former East Germany it went from 54 percent not believing in God – that's where you see the dominance of Marxism in East Germany – and it declined only to 53 percent, so about even in the East. But overall in Germany atheism is declining.

Kevin Harris: Well, look at this: Germany West: 41.3 population is theist, and that jumped to 48.1. So an increase there in theism.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's very significant. And then you see Japan is listed, and this surprised me: Japan in 1998 was 10.6 percent of the population does not believe in God – and Japan is of course a Shintoistic country, it's not a country that has a Christian or theistic culture – and yet the percentage of the population in Japan that does not believe in God declined from 10.6 percent in 1998 to 8.7 percent in 2008. So in Japan, as well, theism is on the rise, which is really a welcomed development.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, 13.2 percent to 16.4 percent increase in belief in God.

Dr. Craig: In belief in God. And then notice the United States. In the United States the percentage that did not believe in God according to this survey was 3.2 percent in 1998 and in 2008 that had declined to 2.8 percent. Well, that's sure not the message you hear on the internet today, is it? I mean in the world's greatest industrial democracies – the United States, Germany, and Japan – theism is on the rise and atheism is on the decline. That is astonishing news that I wouldn’t have expected, even though in the rest of Western Europe in general you see a rise in secularism and in the lack of belief in God.[1]

Kevin Harris: Just look at Great Britain, though, Bill.

Dr. Craig: Yes, they're in trouble.

Kevin Harris: I mean, that just leads the pack. And the belief in God from 1998: 46.2 percent believe in God fell to 36 percent in 2008. So that's being heralded there as significant according to this blogger.

Dr. Craig: It is significant. I mean, it's very, very troublesome what's happening in the UK. In fact, the only way we were told that the Church in the UK is managing to survive is because of the tremendous immigrant population of Christians from Africa and Asia who are ardent believers and are attending the church services in England. And when we were at All Souls last October in Central London, John Stott's former church, it was amazing. I think 40 percent of the attendees that morning were black, it was black Africans and others that were filling out the church. So Great Britain has to be very, very thankful for it's immigrant Christians or these statistics would be even worse.

Kevin Harris: I wonder if it would help if they would eliminate the state church.

Dr. Craig: That's a huge debate. We were just in Norway and they are doing that in Norway. Norway is now breaking the link between the Lutheran church and the state, so that the church will be disestablished. And it will be very interesting to see whether this is good for the church or bad for the church. It's going to lose state support, financially, but on the other hand, if the lesson of the United States teaches us anything it is that an independent church is the church that will thrive and grow and be healthy, rather than one that uses the state as a crutch.

One other bright spot on this survey is Russia. In 1998 19.7 percent of the Russian population did not believe in God. That declined to only 6.1 percent in 2008. So in the aftermath of the collapse of the iron curtain and the collapse of Marxism in the Soviet Union, theism continues to be on the rise in Russia. And although this author of the blog you cite tries to dismiss this, I think he simply doesn't understand that Russian Orthodoxy is in the soul of the Russian people. The Russian Orthodox church is the mother of Russia, and they are deeply, I think, wedded to the Russian Orthodox faith. And so you continue to see in two decades after the collapse of atheistic Marxism in that country that theism is continuing to rise and atheism or non-belief in God continues to fall.

Kevin Harris: That is good news. I mean Russia was always considered the atheist capital of the world. I mean, that's where Madalyn Murray O'Hair wanted to move to to get out of the United States.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and this survey says nothing about China, which is the other great Marxist atheist country in the world. And I think we all know about the surging church growth that is taking place in China today as well. So I don't want to minimize these statistics that are negative. I think we do need to be alarmed. I don't want to diminish people's sense of alarm, sense of concern. Europe is in deep trouble, and I think it needs to have a revival of Christian faith there, and many of us are working toward that end. I believe that a robust natural theology and Christian apologetics will be part of the antidote to the decline of the church in Europe and to help to reverse these trends..

Kevin Harris: Absolutely. This other chart kind of lists where this author thinks that the survey shows where atheism is most dominant. Now some of these you kind of have to parse a little bit and understand what they mean. And it lists Japan at the top of the list as the most non-theistic country, followed by Sweden, France, Denmark, Belgium, and then Great Britain. Now, what would account for – and by the way, the United States at the very bottom as the least atheistic country in the world, according to this chart – what do you make of Japan with that Shinto society?

Dr. Craig: Exactly, it's not culturally theistic. It's no surprise that a country like Japan would not have a large theistic population. But what I'm so encouraged about is that the trend is in the direction of theism there. That is wonderful news because Christian missionaries have labored for centuries in Japan trying to work for a breakthrough, and many people are praying and working for the evangelization of Japan today, and it would be wonderful to see that trend continued toward increasing belief in God there.[2]

Kevin Harris: Along those same lines a friend of mine sent me a link to a blog that says that the Secular Student Alliance, which is kind of the atheistic/agnostic answer to Campus Crusade for Christ, is, “creaming Campus Crusade,” that the growth of Secular Student Alliance on college campuses is growing, and the same cannot be said for Campus Crusade for Christ.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. On that website they indicated that Crusade has stalled out, it was almost as though it were dead in the water, whereas these secular student groups are growing at enormous rates. And when I looked at the chart that they refereed to it was very evident to me that there was a typo in the chart posted by Campus Crusade about the number of groups that exist on various campuses in the United States. And so I contacted Mark Gauthier, who is the head of the US Campus Ministries with Campus Crusade, and he sent me back some statistics which show that in fact the Secular Student Alliance website had utterly distorted the situation, and that in fact the truth was quite different. What he pointed out to me is that in 2007 there were around 1,400 Campus Crusade movements or groups. In 2009-2010 that grew to 1,636 campus movements. And in 2010-2011 school year, the most recent year, they've grown to 1,742 campus groups. So in fact they are continuing to increase every year in the number of campus groups on university and college campuses.

They also reported that during the past school year they had more than one million exposures to the Gospel. What that means is that there were more than one million complete sharing of The Four Spiritual Laws or Knowing God Personally booklet with students. And as a result there were 127,000 responses to place faith in Christ and become a Christian. So they say that they are seeing a response rate that continues to increase every year. Apparently the number of decisions for Christ grew from 115,000 plus to 127,000 plus. So students are continuing in increasing numbers to come to faith in Christ, the movement continues to grow in terms of involvement of students and in terms of the number of student movements.

So in fact this claim of the Secular Student Alliance that Crusade has stalled out was just completely inaccurate. And I notice now that they've corrected this on their secular website. They have been informed that these statistics were wrong that they were citing, but they are still trying to put the same spin on the situation. They say that the Secular Student Alliance groups grew by 116 percent, whereas the Campus Crusade groups grew by only 16 percent, and so they are really outstripping the Campus Crusade groups. Well, these percentages in growth, Kevin, depend on what your base is, what you start with. In fact the secular student groups grew from 119 groups to 258 groups, so, wow, huge increase, because you start so small. Whereas Crusade grew from nearly 1500 groups to well over 1700 groups – many, many more – though as you have a larger base, of course, the percentage of growth will be a smaller percent of that huge base. So in fact I think all of this crowing about the unstoppability of the secular students groups is quite unjustified.

Though, once again, I do not want to diminish people's concern about the activities of secular student groups, and the growth of secularism on our campuses. This is a concern that needs to be addressed, and we need to be very, very worried, I think, about this. Even if their claims are overblown, the fact is that there are organized atheistic groups who's aim is to evangelize their university campuses for atheism or non-theism, and we need to be prepared to dialogue with such groups and support those who are involved in campus evangelism for the cause of Christ.[3]



[1] 5:05

[2] 10:10

[3] Total Running Time: 15:29 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)