A new poll measuring global self-perceptions on beliefs indicates that while 13 percent of the world identify themselves as atheists, nearly half of China's population comprises non-believers. The United States is among the countries where religiosity is notably declining, the poll says.
A 2012 poll called, Global Index of Religion and Atheism, by WIN/Gallup International, asked more than 50,000 people in 40 countries whether they considered themselves "religious," "not religious" or "convinced atheist."
The question read, "Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious persons or a convinced atheist?" And 59 percent of the world said that they think of themselves as religious person, 23 percent said they see themselves as not religious whereas 13 percent said they were convinced atheists.
In the survey, around 47 percent of people living in China described themselves as atheists.
The poll had an error margin of between 3 and 5 percent.
The large atheist population of China can be attributed to its political history. The country's republic government was originally atheist at the time of its formation in 1949.
China opened up in the 1980s and religious freedoms were expanded while the state began to support traditional beliefs like Taoism and Buddhism as an integral part of the country's culture.
Article 36 of the 1978 Constitution provides for religious freedom. "No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens because they do, or do not believe in religion," the policy reads. The Chinese state officially recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism.
However, the Communist Party of China continues to be highly suspicious of and persecutes organized religions.
At least 132 cases of persecution, affecting 4,919 believers, were reported in China in 2012, according to an annual report released by the U.S.-based group ChinaAid. It tracked detention of more than 1,400 Christians, sentencing of nine believers, and abuse – involving beatings, torture, and verbal, physical and mental abuse – of 37 Christians.
Yet, contrary to the Communist Party's prediction that religion would disappear as society progresses, Christianity has seen a rapid grown in China.
According to Chinese academic Frank Lee, the country's house churches had more than 10 million Catholics and up to 70 million Protestants a few years ago, and the official Three-Self Church had about 20 million people.
Apart from China, atheism is also widespread in Japan, where 31 percent of the people say they are atheists, according to the poll.
Other top atheist populations include Czech Republic, France, South Korea, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Iceland, Australia and Ireland, respectively.
Even in the Islamic country of Saudi Arabia, five percent of the population describe themselves as atheists although atheism is considered a crime.
Top 10 countries experiencing notable decline in religiosity since 2005 include Vietnam, Ireland, Switzerland, France, South Africa, Iceland, Ecuador, the Unites States, Canada and Austria, the poll suggests.
In the United States, 73 percent of those polled said they were religious in 2005. In 2012, it declined by 13 percent, to 60 percent.
Globally, those claiming to be religious, dropped by 9 percent, while atheism rose by 3 percent.
On the other hand, top 10 religious populations include Ghana, Nigeria, Armenia, Fiji, Macedonia, Romania, Iraq, Kenya, Peru and Brazil, respectively.
"It is interesting that Religiosity declines as worldly prosperity of individuals rises," the poll notes. "While the results for nations as a whole are mixed, individual respondents within a country show a revealing pattern. If citizens of each of the 57 countries are grouped into five groups, from the relatively poor to relatively rich in their own countries, the richer you get, the less religious you define yourself."
Earlier this week, Pope Francis reached out to atheists. In the homily of his morning mass at his residence in the Vatican, he said atheists who are good are redeemed by Jesus and urged that people of differing beliefs work together.