Annually observed on March 23, Atheist Day is a celebration of those who do not believe in deity. More than 400 years ago, the term “atheism” arose in medieval Europe to describe those who rejected the concept of a higher power. There are reportedly over 4,000 religions in the world today, and nearly all of them have associated festivals and observances. Despite the fact that atheists do not believe in God, they also desired a special day to be observed, thus the establishment of Atheist Day. This is an attempt to recognize the struggle of atheists to live authentic lives in many parts of the world, the struggle to openly affirm one’s atheism.
The share of Americans who identify as atheists has increased modestly but significantly in the past decade. Pew Research Center telephone surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019 show that 4% of American adults say they are atheists when asked about their religious identity, up from 2% in 2009. An additional 5% of Americans call themselves agnostics, up from 3% a decade ago.
The literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods,” according to Merriam-Webster. And the vast majority of U.S. atheists fit this description: 81% say they do not believe in God or a higher power or in a spiritual force of any kind. (Overall, 10% of American adults share this view.) At the same time, roughly one-in-five self-described atheists (18%) say they do believe in some kind of higher power. None of the atheists we surveyed, however, say they believe in “God as described in the Bible.”
Atheists make up a larger share of the population in many European countries than they do in the U.S. In Western Europe, where Pew Research Center surveyed 15 countries in 2017, nearly one-in-five Belgians (19%) identify as atheists, as do 16% in Denmark, 15% in France and 14% in the Netherlands and Sweden. But the European country with perhaps the biggest share of atheists is the Czech Republic, where a quarter of adults identify that way. In neighboring Slovakia, 15% identify as atheists, although in the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, atheists have a smaller presence, despite the historical influence of the officially atheist Soviet Union. Like Americans, Europeans in many countries are more likely to say they do not believe in God than they are to identify as atheists, including two-thirds of Czechs and at least half of Swedish (60%), Belgian (54%) and Dutch adults (53%) who say they do not believe in God. In other regions surveyed by the Center, including Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, atheists generally are much rarer.
A declining share of Canadians identify as Christians, while an increasing share say they have no religion – similar to trends in the United States and Western Europe. Our most recent survey in Canada, conducted in 2018, found that a slim majority of Canadian adults (55%) say they are Christian, including 29% who are Catholic and 18% who are Protestant. Slightlu over than three-in-ten Canadians – 34.6% of Canadians declare no religious affiliation, which is up from 23.9% in the 2011 Canadian census and 16.5% in the 2001 Canadian census. Among those estimated 4.9 million Canadians of no religion, an estimated 1.9 million would specify atheist, 1.8 million would specify agnostic, and 1.2 million humanist.
In many cases, being an atheist isn’t just about personally rejecting religious labels and beliefs – most atheists also express negative views when asked about the role of religion in society. For example, seven-in-ten U.S. atheists say religion’s influence is declining in American public life, and that this is a good thing (71%), according to a 2019 survey. Fewer than one-in-five U.S. adults overall (17%) share this view. A majority of atheists (70%) also say churches and other religious organizations do more harm than good in society, and an even larger share (93%) say religious institutions have too much influence in U.S. politics.
Atheistic traditions have played a significant part in Asian cultures for millennia. While Buddhism is a tradition focused on spiritual liberation, it is not a theistic religion. The Buddha himself rejected the idea of a creator god, and Buddhist philosophers have even argued that belief in an eternal god is nothing but a distraction for humans seeking enlightenment. A similar form of functional atheism can also be found in the ancient Asian religion of Jainism, a tradition that emphasizes non-violence toward all living beings, non-attachment to worldly possessions and ascetic practice.
While the Hindu tradition of India embraces the belief in many gods and goddesses – 330 million of them, according to some sources – there are also atheistic strands of thought found within Hinduism. The Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy is one such example. It believes that humans can achieve liberation for themselves by freeing their own spirit from the realm of matter. Another example is the Mimamsa school. This school also rejects the idea of a creator God.
The Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, deals with significant skepticism around the fundamental question of a creator God and the creation of the universe. It does not, at many instances, categorically accept the existence of a creator God. Nasadiya Sukta (Creation Hymn) in the tenth chapter of the Rig Veda states:
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.