Over the last century, what's the most successfully growing religion? Is it evangelical Protestant Christianity? Islam? Scientology?
Trick question: the answer is actually not a religion at all. It is the faithless -- atheist, agnostic or simply "no religion" -- that has seen the largest, most sustained increase in numbers over the last century. From a minuscule 3.2 million people (0.2% of the globe) in 1990, the number of non-religious has sky-rocketed to almost a billion people world-wide in 2000, and continues to increase at the extraordinary rate of 8.5 million people per year. Worldwide, there are almost as many non-religious as Muslims, or as Hindu and Buddhist combined.
In the USA, the proportion of non-believers has increased from 1-2% in the 1940s and 50s to 9% today, with a further 12% saying they are not sure. At a growth rate of more than tenfold, the raise of atheism and agnosticism far outpaces even the growth in Mormonism and Pentecostalism.
There are now 30 million American atheists, far outnumbering American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. They outnumber Southern Baptists, and gaining new recruits every day.
In "Why the Gods Are Not Winning", Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman write:
To put it starkly, the level of popular religion is not a spiritual matter, it is actually the result of social, political and especially economic conditions (please note we are discussing large scale, long term population trends, not individual cases). Mass rejection of the gods invariably blossoms in the context of the equally distributed prosperity and education found in almost all 1st world democracies. There are no exceptions on a national basis. That is why only disbelief has proven able to grow via democratic conversion in the benign environment of education and egalitarian prosperity. Mass faith prospers solely in the context of the comparatively primitive social, economic and educational disparities and poverty still characteristic of the 2nd and 3rd worlds and the US.
The practical implications are equally breath taking. Every time a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian education and prosperity it loses the faith. It's guaranteed. That is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms their only practical hope is for nations to continue to suffer from socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation. That strategy is, of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the secular community should be more encouraged.
Even the fear, uncertainty and doubt following Sept 11 didn't put a dint in the rapidly increasing secularization of the world. Church attendance increased immediately after the tragedy, and then fell back to previous levels, and continue to fall. America has seen its first openly atheist Congressman, something which just two years ago I didn't think I'd live long enough to see.
And even among the religious, belief is becoming more liberal and less virulent: in the US since 1972, liberal religion has grown at a significantly faster rate than Fundamentalist religion.
We're still along way away from a world where people stop clinging to myths, but despite the priests and the mullahs, every day we get a little closer.