Which Country Has the World’s Most ‘Godless’ City?

Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton wants to build a £1m ‘temple for atheists’ in London. (Photograph: Thomas Greenall & Jordan Hodgson)
Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton wants to build a £1m ‘temple for atheists’ in London. (Photograph: Thomas Greenall & Jordan Hodgson)

Norwich has the highest proportion of residents describing themselves as having no religion, while Berlin has been called the ‘atheist capital of Europe’. But what about the rest of the world? And is such an assessment meaningful?

Discovering how many people in a given city believe in God (or not) is an almost superhuman task. In territories controlled or influenced by Islamic State, for example, the risks to declared non-believers are drastic and obvious. On the other side of the coin, the state atheism promulgated by the leaders of the Soviet Union meant that believers were stigmatised at best, persecuted at worst.

As sociology professor Phil Zuckerman pointed out in an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, even the terminology of religious belief can throw up roadblocks to understanding. If my idea of religious practice is a good deal looser than yours, can we have a meaningful conversation about which cities are godless and which are not?

Naturally, the methodological hurdles have not prevented researchers from making the leap. According to the 2011 Census of England and Wales, Norwich had the highest proportion of respondents reporting “no religion”. The city’s figure was 42.5% compared with 25.1% for England and Wales as a whole.

The survey revealed that Brighton & Hove came in a close second in the ‘godless’ stakes with 42.4% of residents describing themselves as having no religion. Local newspaper reports in both areas pointed to the relative youth of the population and the high number of students as being relevant factors. If you are young and bright, it seems, you are more likely to be irreligious.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, professor of psychology at the University of Haifa, provided a psychological profile of atheists in The Cambridge Companion. He argued that: “Those with no religious affiliation have been found to be younger, mostly male, with higher levels of education and income, more liberal, but also more unhappy and more alienated from wider society.”

Meanwhile, the author and biopsychologist Nigel Barber has argued that as cities become more stable and prosperous, their inhabitants are less likely to feel the need for religious belief.

These broad generalisations go some way to explain why Berlin has been dubbed the “atheist capital of Europe”. Some 60% of Berliners claim to have no religion, shaped no doubt by the city’s divided heritage. In 2009, a proposal to give religious lessons the same status as ethics classes in Berlin schools was defeated in a referendum. The proposal was backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, but a low turnout of 30% revealed the lack of interest from the capital’s citizens. Ethics classes have been compulsory in the city’s schools since 2006, introduced after a so-called “honour” killing of a Muslim woman by her husband. Before the change, voluntary religious education classes were poorly attended.

One attempt to study the demographics of godlessness is made by the American Bible Society, which ranks the nation’s cities based on their level of Bible engagement. The survey is conducted by the Barna group and regards individuals who report reading the Bible in a typical week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches as ‘Bible-minded’. “This definition captures action and attitude, those who both engage and esteem the Christian scriptures. The rankings thus reflect an overall openness or resistance to the Bible in various US cities,” the survey organiser says.

The least Bible-minded cities in the 2016 survey were Albany/Schenectady/Troy in New York state with only 10% of residents qualifying as Bible-minded. Boston, Massachusetts (11%), moved from third to second place while Providence, Rhode Island (12%), the least Bible-minded city in 2015, dropped two spots to third place. The only Midwest city to make the top five in ‘least Bible-minded’ list was Cedar Rapids, Iowa (13%), followed by Buffalo, New York (13%). Other cities in the bottom 10 include Las Vegas, Nevada (14%), San Francisco (15%), Hartford/New Haven, Connecticut (16%), Phoenix/Prescott, Arizona (16%), and Salt Lake City, Utah (17%).

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SOURCE: The Guardian

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