Yesterday I showed some overall statistics for religions in the world, and more focussed numbers for Judaism to a class at the University of Guelph/Humber. I made the usual cautions about the reliability of statistics and their use as only one tool in an historian's toolkit. I then mentioned that stats are useful at least to give you broad indications of the place of religion in the world. One statistic that stood out for me at the world wide level was for those with no affiliation - roughly 16% - which is about the same as appeared on Canada's 2001 census [the last reliable census data for religion in Canada BTW, perhaps forever....], and about the same proportion as social scientific data can winnow from surveys of Americans. The statistic surprised me as I know from a recent article I read that there is a resurgence of religion in China, and other places where atheism had been imposed for some time.
I suppose it depends on how one defines that difficult word, 'religion'. Does it refer to the institutional aspect only? Or does it refer primarily to that amorphous concept called faith? Or both? The study in Rethinking Secularism [edited by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen] by Richard Madsen, Secularism, Religious Change, and Social Conflict in Asia reports that in Asia, religion was traditionally a matter of ritual that bound families and communities together and did not necessarily need belief in the western understanding of religion. That is, an individual who willingly took part in religious rituals - Buddhist, Taoist, or even Christian, in China did not necessarily accept all or even any of the doctrinal bases of these faiths. The individual had a cultural acceptance of the need for communal ritual to bind society, and usually, local society/community together. There may well be a poignant faith in an unseen order, but there may also be only a residual belief in this, or even none whatsoever.
This is something I must think more about, as it might apply more to the western world than I would have thought - at least to the West before the Protestant Reformation.