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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the trend away from religiosity, or not – various countries, part 2

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100127Italy (2)

Okay, to continue my survey of religiosity in more or less arbitrarily selected nations. Most of this data comes from Wikipedia, which has a series of entries, ‘Religion in (name your country)’, so I haven’t bothered with the time consuming process of linking to every source.


As you might expect, with the ‘Papa’ nerve-rackingly nearby, most Italians identify as Catholic Christians – with recent polls ranging from nearly 92% to 77%. The 2005 Eurobarometer poll, quoted in my summaries of other countries, found that:

  • 74% of Italian citizens responded that they believe there is a God;
  • 16% answered that they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force;
  • 6% answered that they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force.

Italy’s 1947 constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and under a revised accord with the Vatican in 1984, the disestablishment of the Catholic Church was made complete. However, the dominance of the Catholic church has continued to be problematic, with Protestants being persecuted even up to recent times. There have been protests against the displaying of Catholic symbols in state schools, with governments and courts evading the issue by claiming these are ‘cultural’ rather than ‘religious’ symbols. However, in an entry on freedom of religion in Italy, Wikipedia reports this:

In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights, in a case brought by an Italian mother who wanted her children to have a secular education, ruled against the display of crucifixes in the classrooms of Italian state schools. It found that ‘The compulsory display of a symbol of a given confession in premises used by the public authorities… restricted the right of parents to educate their children in conformity with their convictions’ and that it restricted the ‘right of children to believe or not to believe’.[3] This ruling was in marked contrast with the position of the Italian courts that had ruled in 2005 that crucifixes were allowed to be present in polling stations and, in 2006, that display of crucifixes in state schools was allowed on the basis that the crucifix symbolised core Italian social values.

The same Wikipedia entry states that according to a 2006 poll (but no details are given), four million Italians are atheist or agnostic, a much higher number than for any other religion apart from Christianity. We should also be sceptical that those identifying as Catholic are anything other than nominal Catholics.


I’ve picked this country out at random as an Eastern European country. Needless to say, there’s no such thing as a typical Eastern European country. Bulgaria does have a religious question in its census, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, a variant of eastern orthodoxy, is the prevalent and traditional religion in the country, with 59.4% of the population identifying with it in the 2011 census. No previous censuses are recorded, sadly. Some 9.3% identified as atheists, and 21.8% didn’t answer the question. 7.8% identify with Islam, a result of years of Ottoman rule, and interestingly neither Protestants nor Roman Catholics can claim even 1% of the population. The number of Jews in Bulgaria is minuscule, and anti-Semitism appears to be rife. Also, the number of practising orthodox Christians is quite low, and likely falling, though I have no figures on that.

United Kingdom

I was born in Scotland, so this region still interests me, in spite of the transcendental cosmopolitan plane that I now inhabit. The situation there is much the same as in other western European countries – predominantly Christian but with church attendance dropping sharply in the late twentieth century and still declining, and with immigration bringing an increase in other religions, but from a very low base. Anglicanism became the established religion in England thanks to the shenanigans of Henry VIII, but Scotland has remained, at least until recently, largely Presbyterian. There’s been much talk about disestablishing the Anglican church in England in recent times. I think it’s inevitable. It has already been disestablished in Wales and Ireland. Wikipedia presents census figures for England for 2001 and 2011, which shows that identification with Christianity has dropped from 71.7% to 59.4% in 10 years – a really significant drop. Various other surveys show lower figures though, indicating again that the framing of the question makes a big difference. Everything suggests that a large proportion of the population identifies with Christianity out of habit rather than conviction. This can perhaps be more accurately described as cultural religiosity, which, as I’ve reported, is a common feature of Catholicism. Finally in Britain, as elsewhere, secular law is becoming less deferential to the claims of religion. The Equality Act of 2010 is making life more uncomfortable for denominations that continue to discriminate, though it remains to be seen how the law deals with the rise of largely unenlightened religions such as Islam.

South Korea

I’ll finish where I started, with an Asian country that appears to have embraced many western values and practices, including secular democracy. Needless to say I’m not doing justice to the enormous complexity of religious tradition in any of these countries, but it seems that Koreans, like many of their Asian neighbours, have been eclectic in their religious practices over the centuries. Korean shamanism, or Muism, goes back a long way, and has been overlain with Confucianism, Buddhism and more recently Christianity, which had its heyday there from the sixties to the nineties, leaving South Korea the most Christianised Asian population apart from the Philippines and East Timor. The South Korean National Statistical Office reported these figures in 2005: 46.5% non-religious (but many of these apparently maintain shrines to traditional religions in their homes), 22.8% Buddhist, 18.3% Protestant, 10.9% Catholic. The Wikipedia entry here points out the difficulties in measuring religious practice and adherence, with Confucianism, for example, being practically impossible to measure. There is also a proliferation of smaller religions in Korea that are likely to be under-reported. The late Sun Myung Moon started up a new Christian-based religion in South Korea in the sixties, hailing himself as the new Messiah, etc. It enjoyed moderate success in his home country and in the USA in the seventies, possibly because of its strong anti-communist rhetoric. It seems that in recent years Christianity has been fading, and there has been some slight resurgence in traditional Muism, but I can’t find any figures on religious trends in general.

So that’s a few blurry snapshots of religious trends in an assortment of countries, which show I think that Christianity at least has peaked in western Europe and in some Asian countries. I’ve also heard, in the wake of the new Latino pope, that Catholicism is on the wane in Latin America, a trend that this papal election is unlikely to substantially reverse. Generally it seems that Christianity sells well in poorer countries these days, but starts to fade as the nations find their feet economically, and their inhabitants get access to a decent education. Many of the world’s poorer countries are in Africa and the Middle East – but nations like Pakistan and Afghanistan are too doctrinally Islamic to be much of a hunting ground for Christians. Rural China remains a promising area of course, but the scenario changes daily. My attitude is that we shouldn’t be too impatient, we should just keep plugging away with our fascination with this world, the only one we have.

Written by stewart henderson

April 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm

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