[Blog Series] Measuring Atheism: Differentiating Non-religiosity and Anti-religiosity

In this post, Egbert Ribberink, Peter Achterberg and Dick Houtman explore the problematic nature of measuring and differentiating atheism, non-religion and anti-religiosity and call for using existing large-scale surveys to understand said phenomena. From their recent research they detail the particular obstacles they overcame and elucidate how different questions on measuring non-belief produce much different answers.


peter achterberg

Dick Houtman





In quantitative analysis, atheism is often used as a concept to describe those who state that they do not believe, when asked what they believe about God (for example Becker and de Wit) or those that indicate that they are not a member of a religious organization (for example Norris and Inglehart, p. 186). It seems as if researchers treat atheism as the ‘residual category’ in their study of religion. However, the recent debate on atheism, religious ‘nones’ and non-religiosity suggests that this sociological habit of categorizing non-believers and non-affiliates as atheists, does not do justice to the intricacies of the atheist identity (see Lee, Smith, Ribberink and Houtman, and LeDrew). There exists a great difference between say, an attender of an atheist gathering like the Sunday Assembly and a supporter of the American Atheists movement. Therefore, quantitatively oriented scholars should be very careful in their operationalization of the tolerant and almost spiritual kind of atheism on the one hand (better described as non-religious or a-religious; see Day and Lee for a discussion on these concepts), and the militant and provocative atheism on the other (better depicted as anti-religious).[i]

In our recent studies on non-religiosity and anti-religiosity in Western Europe, we discovered that operationalizing these differences is not so easy. We encountered three particular obstacles. First, the commonly used surveys for the study of religion, culture, and politics (for instance, EVS, ISSP) use different questions for measuring similar religious beliefs and attitudes. Second, they have very few items that lend themselves to distinguishing anti-religiosity from non-religiosity in general and religious indifference in particular. Third, there are a limited number of options for operationalizing different kinds of anti-religiosity, for example anti-Muslim sentiment. Now, researchers like us have two options: we could decide to dismiss datasets designed to measure religiosity as useless for understanding non-religiosity; or we could gloss over the differences and imagine that non-religiosity really is quite a straightforward matter. With this blog, we describe the way in which we overcame these pitfalls. We do not provide an exhaustive list of what can be achieved with these datasets on religiosity, but in discussing these three obstacles, we point to a number of important nuances to the data that analysts should attend to when quantitatively studying non-religiosity.


Different questions, different answers


In general, scholars of religion distinguish three different ways of measuring religiosity: practice, beliefs and affiliation. The same is true for non-religiosity. Looking at the most common measure of non-religiosity, namely non-belief, we find different outcomes, depending on which question is used.


  EVS 2 options EVS 4 options   ISSP 6 options
Czech Republic 54% 32% 37%
Germany 49% 35% 24%
Norway 45% 18% 18%
Table 1. Percentage of non-believers per country for different measures (Source: EVS 2008 and ISSP 2008).


In the EVS, the most commonly used question is: ‘Do you believe in God?’ with the answer categories ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’. Furthermore, the EVS contains an item that asks what statement comes closest to describing the respondents’ beliefs. The answers are ‘I don’t really think there is any sort of spirit, God or life force’, ‘I don’t really know what to think’, ‘there is some sort of spirit or life force’, and ‘there is a personal God’. These measures reveal huge differences in the percentage of non-believers in several European countries. For the Czech Republic, for example, comparing the first yes/no measure with the second four-option measure reveals 22% fewer non-believers (32% of total population instead of 54%) and comparing the same two measures for Norway reveals an even larger difference at 27% (see table 1). Including the ISSP, the picture varies even more. This survey also gives several answer options (six possible answers, ranging from ‘I don’t believe in God’ to ‘I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it’). Out of the 22 countries that appear in both surveys, 6 have larger differences than 5%, with Germany as an outlier with 11% fewer non-believers according to the ISSP-measure. For Norway results are similar, while for the Czech Republic the ISSP-measure reveals 5% more non-believers. Scholars of religiosity, spirituality, non-religiosity and secularity should be aware how each of these measures reveals a different number of non-believers living in each country.


Non-believers, religious ‘nones’ or non-attenders?


Looking at other measures of non-religiosity, namely religious affiliation and attendance rates, the differences between countries are even more striking, in particular for the Scandinavian countries (see Table 2).


no belief no affiliation no attendance
Denmark 18% 14% 91%
Finland 11% 18% 92%
Norway 18% 16% 93%
Sweden 19% 29% 94%
Germany 24% 34% 84%
Netherlands 20% 41% 80%
Great Britain 14% 33% 72%
Table 2. Percentage of non-believers (6 categories), non-affiliates, and non-attenders (less than monthly) per country (Source: ISSP 2008).


Compared to other former Protestant countries, the Scandinavian countries boast low levels of non-affiliates and high levels of non-attendance. Students of non-religiosity (and media reportages quoting them) should be well aware of these differences and their underlying historical, cultural and political reasons (see Sherkat). In our studies we mostly use the attendance measure for determining country-level religiosity and non-religiosity, because this gives the best idea of people’s active, day-to-day religious practice. However, the reason for choosing one or the other measure should depend on the theoretical question at hand.


Non-religiosity and anti-religiosity in ISSP and EVS


Thus far we have discussed different ways of measuring non-religiosity. Choosing a proper measurement of anti-religiosity is even more difficult, because of the limited availability of answer categories in the different surveys. Anti-religiosity is an attitude of opposition towards religions and the religious. Several possible ways of measuring this attitude are found in the ISSP. For example, two items inquire into attitudes towards the influence of religious leaders on governmental decisions and peoples’ votes; and two items inquire into responses to statements about the intolerance of religious people and whether or not religion creates conflict. We used a combined scale of answers on these items in our 2013 article on anti-religiosity in Western Europe. One of the interesting findings of this article was that people with higher education were significantly more anti-religious when living in a religious country (and vice versa), whereas on average the level of anti-religiosity was lower in these countries (see figure 1, and article for further details).

figure 1Figure 1. Predicted anti-religiosity for lower educated and higher educated in contexts of low and high national church participation in 14 Western European countries, source: ISSP 2008.


Bruce (see p. 221) uses the same four questions, studying sympathy for religions in Britain in 1998 and 2008, but adds two more on tolerance of religious power and confidence in religious organizations. Alternatively, one could also include items that inquire into the possible dichotomy between science and faith, but we follow Greeley in his concern that these questions are biased and do not measure a general attitude of anti-religiosity but a very specific pro-science attitude.

The EVS has richer data on people’s attitudes towards cultural, political, economic and national issues, but has fewer options for operationalizing anti-religiosity. It contains two items that can be seen to measure respondents’ hostility towards religion, albeit indirectly. One item asks whether respondents consider themselves religious. The possible answers differentiate between religious, non-religious and ‘convinced atheist’. Although the term ‘atheist’ can mean many different things, it is clear in this case that respondents are led to view it as something distinct from non-religiosity. It can therefore be argued that respondents read the term ‘convinced atheist’ to mean ‘anti-religious’. The item that asks for people’s confidence in the church as an institution can also be seen as an expression of religious tolerance (or the opposite: intolerance). Its answer category is a 4-point scale, ranging from ‘a great deal’ to ‘none at all’. Taken together, an index for anti-religiosity can be created (see our article). Nevertheless, statistically, this two-item index is less robust than the 4 (or 6) item-index that can be made using the ISSP-data.


Anti-religiosity and anti-Muslim sentiment


The availability of cross-national survey-data is very important for quantitative research. As we have shown, the different options for operationalizing anti-religiosity as distinct from non-religiosity are quite limited. This is even more problematic, considering the perspectives on anti-religiosity that now remain underexposed. For example, current opposition by Pegida to Muslims in Germany seems to be a typical anti-religious expression, although it can also be seen as an expression of an anti-immigrant prejudice. These two attitudes are hard to differentiate, using ISSP or EVS datasets.  In the ISSP there is no question that deals with attitudes towards Muslims, while in the EVS, there is only one item that deals with it very indirectly. It is a so-called “social distance” question about which groups of people (among others homosexuals, drug addicts, large families and Muslims) respondents find undesirable as neighbors. In the literature, this crude, dichotomous measure is used (see Strabac and Listhaug), sometimes combined with anti-immigrant attitudes to create a more robust measure. For most Western European countries, this latter construction is legitimate, since almost all larger non-European immigrant minorities are Muslim (with the exception of Indian people in Great Britain). When people are asked to think of immigrants, they tend to think about Muslims, and several studies have shown that anti-Islamic sentiments are closely related to types of prejudice related to immigrants (see Spruyt and Elchardus), like ethnocentrism, cultural and economic xenophobia, and authoritarianism. However, opposition towards Muslims, mosques, wearing of veils or other Muslims practices can also argued to be something purely anti-religious and not related to anti-immigrant sentiments. Thus, to differentiate these attitudes from each other, more specific survey data is needed.

Finally, one of the most intriguing questions in relation to measuring anti-religiosity is to what degree the secularization (Bruce) of the West leads to religious indifference (Bagg) or to polarization and conflict over questions of public religiosity (Casanova). Thus far, this question has not been settled, perhaps also because indifference or apathy is hard to measure. We can only hope that apart from qualitative research (Lee) and experimental surveys (Scheitle and Ecklund), the larger surveys are also improved to the point that we can answer questions like these conclusively. In the meantime, we hope that the possibilities and nuances provided above, will help analysts of non-religiosity to make the most of present survey data.

[i] Note that we use the term ‘nonreligion’ in its conventional sense to indicate the general absence or irrelevance of religion, in contrast to the sense used by Lois Lee, Johannes Quack and others, which describes a meaningful relationship of difference with religion. Anti-religion is therefore distinguished from (rather than an example of) nonreligion in our work.



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