Study: 1 in 6 Follows No Religion

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 18 2012 12:47 PM

The "Unaffiliated" Are Now the Third-Largest Religious Group in the World

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Head stones adorn graves in a Catholic cemetery below residential buildings in Hong Kong on Dec. 18, 2012

Photograph by Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images.

The religiously unaffiliated are now the third-largest world group, behind only Christians and Muslims, according to a Pew study released today.

According to the results, based on data from 2010, the unaffiliated include about 1 out of every 6 people spread out across the globe, or right around 1.1 billion people total. About 62 percent of the group live in China.

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Overall, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 76 percent of the unaffiliated world population. But that doesn't mean that the region is significantly less religious than the rest of the world. In fact, Asia-Pacific's percentage of unaffiliated as compared to its total population is only slightly higher than it is in the West: About 21 percent of the Asia-Pacific's total population is unaffiliated, while 18 percent and 17 percent are unaffiliated in Europe and North America, respectively.

Pew found six countries with a majority unaffiliated population: the Czech Republic, North Korea, Estonia, Japan, Hong Kong and China. By comparison, the American unaffiliated population hovers between one-in-five and one-in-six. 

But according to the results, the unaffiliated may not hold onto third place worldwide for long. Hinduism, at 1 billion people worldwide and counting, was identified by the study's authors along with Islam as the most likely to grow in adherents in the the future.

Pew defines unaffiliated as an umbrella group for agnostics, atheists, and those who otherwise do not identify themselves as part of a specific religious group. This, as evidenced by an earlier study on American unaffiliated people, doesn't necessarily mean "non-religious." Even in China, with a majority of unaffiliated residents, 44 percent of unaffiliated people reported worshiping at a tomb in the past year.

Abby Ohlheiser is a Slate contributor.

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