The Pew Research Center in America recently released the results of a survey measuring the populations and distributions of the world’s major religions. Coming in at first and second place are Christianity and Islam, but making an impressive third place standing was “none.”

Of these people with no religious affiliation, the lion’s share live in the Asia Pacific Region of the world – 76.2% to be exact.  In terms of sheer numbers, that’s roughly 858,580,000 people, one fifth of the total population in the region.

There are a lot of factors to consider in this data.  For one, the massive population of China alone is significant.  China ranks as the number one country for “godless heathens”, with 700 million people having no religious affiliation, yet it is also home to the seventh largest Christian population in the world (68,410,000 people).

Japan comes in a distant second with an unaffiliated population only about a tenth the size of China’s, followed by the USA with fifty million people.  Asian countries like South Korea and Vietnam also figure prominently in the top ten.

If we look at things in terms of percentage of population we get a different story. The Czech Republic takes the top spot with 76%, followed by North Korea (71%), Estonia (60%), Japan (57%), Hong Kong (56%), and then China (52%).  The United States drops way down, with only 16% of its population subscribing to no religion.

Although the positions shift, Asian countries tend to stay at the top of the list.  What makes these places so secular?

Flexibility

One might say that traditional Eastern religions generally were more lenient in the sense that they lacked a single omnipotent beings who denied any and all contradiction.  Confucius was just a man, as were Lao Tsu and Siddhartha Gautama.

Although they were considered great men, they were just men with potential failings at one time or another.  In this way, the Eastern religious sense of worship varies from the West. To worship Buddha is not quite saying “he is the ultimate being whom none shall go against” as it is “he is a great example to live our lives by and is deserving of great respect.”

This line of thinking could have relegated religion to more of a backseat in daily life. Although it is certainly prominent in Asian social structures and attitudes there isn’t the significant dogma or symbolism that makes people adamantly label themselves as a Taoist, Buddhist, and so on.

Oppression

Another factor is that most Asian countries at one point or another underwent a nationally imposed secularization or belief system. China’s Cultural Revolution fueled opposition to religious institutions in the country for years.  That was just a blink of the eye compared to Japan’s long-standing tradition of imperially-enforced and managed religious beliefs up until the end of the 19th century.

Now free of this oppression, many Asian countries are without firmly entrenched organized religions of other nations. As a result there’s pretty much a believe-whatever-you-want culture.

Conclusion

The causes and effects mentioned are but a small, small part of the complex evolution of these cultures. However living in these countries the lack of religious certainty is very clear.

In Japan there’s an oft-said cliché that people are born into Shintoism, marry as a Christian, and die as a Buddhist.  This is a reference to babies being “christened” (for lack of a better word) at Shinto shrines, men and women often getting married in Christian stylized weddings, and funerals being held in Buddhist temples with Sutras.

Although there are definitely elements of spirituality to each, again they aren’t enough to make people say definitively they are one religion or the other. This way of life is popular now but could easily change with the times.

Although it has been grouped into the same category as “no affiliation” by Pew, Asian people by and large don’t come across as atheists. That would be just as definite as a religion. They simply have other things to think about.

Religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam often focus on belief in an absolute being outside of us whereas Asian beliefs (or lack thereof) tend to focus on achieving absolute within one’s self.

The result is an overall atmosphere of high religious tolerance with low religious impact on society at large.  Kind of a nice way to live if you ask me.

Source: Pew Global Religious Landscape 2012 (English) via Excite News (Japanese)