A global study of religious adherence released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Centre found that about one of every six people worldwide has no religious affiliation. This makes the “unaffiliated,” as the study calls them, the third-largest group worldwide with 16% of the global population — about equal to Catholics.
The study, ‘The Global Religious Landscape,’ is a snapshot of the size and distribution of religious groups as of 2010, and does not show trends over time.
“Something that may surprise a lot of people,” said Conrad Hackett, a primary researcher on the report, “is that the third-largest religious group, after Christians and Muslims, is the religiously unaffiliated. There may have been some guesses floating out there before, but this is the first time there are numbers based on survey data analysed in a rigorous and scientific way.”
More than three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated live in Asia, the majority in China. Many of the people in this group do hold some religious or spiritual beliefs and may even believe in a deity, but they do not identify with a particular faith.
People who practise folk or tribal religions, like African, Chinese, American Indian and Australian aboriginal traditional religions, make up another 6% of the world’s population. Smaller faith groups — like Bahais, Jains, Sikhs, Shintoists, Taoists, Wiccans and Zoroastrians — combined make up less than 1% of the global population.
The study is based on analysis of 2,500 different data sources, including censuses and demographic surveys of children and adults in 232 countries. It relies on self-identification, so it includes people who are not regular practitioners or orthodox believers of the religion they claim.
The study also shows that about one-fourth of the world’s population lives in countries where they are a religious minority. But 97% of Hindus and 87% of Christians live in countries where they are the majority faith, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.