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There have always been non-believers. But for the first time in recorded history, there are now numerous societies with a majority of people who don’t believe in God.

According to an analysis of the best internationally-available data by Isabella Kasselstrand, Ryan T. Cragun, and me, published in our new book Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, the seven democratic countries in the world today with more atheists, agnostics, and assorted nontheists than God-believers are Estonia, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic.

Of course, not every nonbeliever in these nations actively or personally identifies as an atheist or agnostic, per se—the former label is heavily stigmatized, while the latter is relatively obscure in certain cultures. But the percentage of the population in each country that answers “no” when asked if they believe in God is as follows:

Sweden – 63.9%
Czech Republic – 61.6%
South Korea – 59.4%
Netherlands – 56.3%
Estonia – 54.3%
Norway – 52.7%
United Kingdom – 51.6%

While there may be similar or even higher percentages of nonbelievers in other nations such as China or Vietnam, we ought not consider them because they are unfree dictatorships where the atheistic government actively polices, prohibits, and represses religion; in such societies, people have a fear of expressing their true religious beliefs, and thus, survey data is suspect. But in open, free democracies where being neither openly religious nor openly secular provokes the government’s wrath, answers to surveys are much more valid and reliable.

Why these seven?

Why are these seven nations so secular?

Each country has its own unique history that contributes to low levels of theism. For example, the UK is the birthplace of Charles Darwin, whose ideas regarding evolution have been detrimental to Christian faith. Anti-clericalism has been a significant strain of Czech nationalism going all the way to the Hussite Wars of the 15th century. Estonia experienced 50 years of Soviet occupation, during which time religion was squelched, and it never rebounded, even after the fall of the USSR. In South Korea, the educational system places a strong emphasis on scientific knowledge and technology, with little attention paid to religion.

But regardless of each country’s idiosyncrasies that may have contributed towards their high degree of irreligion, they have all experienced some combination of the following: greatly improved levels of social welfare, societal well-being, and existential security; increased degrees of wealth and prosperity; increased levels of educational attainment; a significant transition from a traditional, rural, non-industrial society to a contemporary, urban, industrial (or post-industrial) society; increased rationalization, whereby the ordering of society based on technological efficiency, bureaucratic impersonality, and scientific and empirical evidence. As our research shows, these factors are all strongly conducive to increased secularization in society.

How are they faring?

It has long been a staple of conservative propaganda that if a society loses its religion, things will go to shyte. And even some on the left buy into this nonsense; earlier this month, New York mayor Eric Adams blamed America’s never-ending school shooting epidemic on a lack of religion. “When we took prayers out of schools,” he proclaimed, “guns came into schools.”  

Of course, as I have been arguing for over a decade now, if godlessness led to national depravity or high rates of violence, then we would expect to find those countries that are the least religious to be the most horrible, impoverished, unhealthy, and crime-ridden. But we find exactly the opposite correlation. These seven most godless democracies provide excellent examples, as they all boast high levels of societal health and well-being, high GDPs, extremely low rates of violent crime, almost no school shootings, superior healthcare, and more. Consider Norway, where Christianity has plummeted in the last half-century, with rates of belief in God, church attendance, and church membership at all-time lows – and yet Norwegian society is simultaneously characterized by fantastic schools, health care, elder care, access for the disabled, gender equality, economic prosperity, as well as very low rates if murder.

Indeed, five of these seven highly secular nations rank in the top 20 on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. The remaining two, Estonia and the Czech Republic, come in at 31 and 32, respectively.

It is not that these majority-non-believing nations are thriving because of their godlessness; there are too many variables at play to establish such causation. But as to the right-wing article of faith that godlessness leads to social depravity – that thesis can be flatly rejected.

Also, it should be noted that these societies are not utopias. They all have their problems. The northernmost nation of the UK, Scotland, is currently struggling with a dangerous drug epidemic. South Korea’s birth rate is shockingly low. Sweden is struggling with immigration issues. Affordable housing is in relatively short supply in the Netherlands. And so on. But compared to the vast majority of countries in the world, when looking at nearly every single indicator of societal well-being, these secular seven are doing extremely well, overall. Heck, according to the US News and World Reports rankings of top countries with the best quality of life, Sweden ranks at #1, Norway #5, Netherlands #8, the UK #12, South Korea #24, Czech Republic at #27, and Estonia at #42. Clearly, going godless does not result in national dystopia.

Godlessness goes global

Our analysis found that there are many other countries where almost half of the population does not believe in God, such as France, Denmark, Australia, Finland, and New Zealand. Given current trends, we expect these nations to join the pack of majority-godless nations in the next decade or so. And while the US is quite far from such a state of irreligiosity, belief in God has nonetheless been dropping significantly: the percentage of Americans who believe in God has dropped from 98% in the 1950s to 81% today. Among Americans under 30, it is down to an unprecedented 68%.

The term “village atheist” was common parlance a while back, suggesting that in every village, there was always some single curmudgeon who didn’t believe in god. Well today, we can longer accurately speak of the village atheist. Rather, we must accept the increasing reality of villages with many atheists. And not just villages, but towns, cities, and countries all around the globe.

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Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including What It Means to be Moral (Counterpoint, 2019) The Nonreligious (Oxford, 2016), Living the Secular Life (Penguin, 2014), Faith No More (Oxford,...