Pew Research Center, a non-partisan group, conducted the study in 230 countries in 2012. In their no-spin summary of results, they write:
Worldwide, more than eight-in-ten people identify with a religious group. A comprehensive demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates that there are 5.8 billion religiously affiliated adults and children around the globe, representing 84% of the 2010 world population of 6.9 billion.
The liberal spin ran with the headline:
‘No Religion’ Is World’s Third-Largest Religious Group After Christians, Muslims According To Pew Study — HuffingtonPost
And the conservative Washington Times spin emphasized that the largest group is Christian and the largest Christian nation is the United States. They gave a breakdown:
• 2.2 billion Christians (32 percent of the world’s population).
• 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent).
• 1 billion Hindus (15 percent.
• 500 million Buddhists (7 percent).
• 400 million people (6 percent) practicing various folk or traditional religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, American Indian religions and Australian aboriginal religions.
For an issue that, interpreted within one’s own political lens, is supposedly unimportant to lots of people, quite a lot of people spend a lot of time cherry picking the numbers to sell a particular interpretation to others. PlanetAtheism (with an obvious agenda) published this chart:
For the major religions in the US, it is accurate. But when it comes to the “nones” that’s not quite the real picture. They want readers to equate “none” with “atheist” but another Pew Research Study on atheism in USA offers a much more nuanced view:
Of that 20% that say “none” to the religion question, only 13% are true atheists. 39% say religion is “not important” in their lives, which is not the same as being asked whether one believes in God or practices a personal, non-affiliated spirituality.
That same Pew study finds a startling result about the secret spiritual lives of the “nones”:
Three-in-ten (31%) say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly. A similar share (35%) often thinks about the meaning and purpose of life. And roughly half of all atheists (54%) frequently feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe, up from 37% in 2007. In fact, atheists are more likely than U.S. Christians to say they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe (54% vs. 45%).
So if half of the nones are spiritual and existential, and only 1.3 out of 10 of the nones truly self-identifies as atheists, the percentage of people who feel a strong desire to keep all religion and spirituality out of our dialogue is just 2.6 in a hundred Americans.
That challenges both the Conservative arguments that atheists are conspiring to kill Christmas and have thwarted mainstream Christian Americans. It also challenges the notion of Conservatives that their flavor of Christianity is really the dominant one. When you include spiritual people of many faiths together following a similar world view as one group, evangelical and main-line weekly churchgoing Protestants are the second largest faction, and the third largest if you consider Catholics as their own group (who don’t vote the same way).
Just something to think about, as we enter a period of rapid political fact manipulation.
Overall: the vast majority (91 percent: 84 percent religious plus 9 percent from half of the non-religious) of the planet sees the world through a partly deistic, spiritual lens, and the rest include many who have a strong spiritual side even if they don’t practice organized religion.
I needed these numbers for my upcoming book, Story centered learning for organizations working for change.