India is a land of believers. Only 33,000 people declared themselves atheists in the 2011 census that puts India’s population at 1.2 billion. Nearly half of the atheists are women. And seven out of every 10 atheists live in rural India, the data released earlier this week shows.
This is the first time in recent years that census data in public domain puts a number on atheists, people who do not believe in the existence of God. The 2001 report – the census is done every 10 years — said “only a handful few claim to be atheist”. At 9,652, Maharashtra is home to the highest number of atheists, 71% of them live in the villages. Meghalaya comes next with 9,089. Kerala – a communist stronghold in electoral politics – reported 4,896 atheists in all, six times more than West Bengal’s 784.
Delhi had just 541.
The findings may be an anticlimax of sorts for the non-believers, particularly after the 2012 Global Religiosity Index estimated that 3% of Indians didn’t believe in God. That count appears to be way off the mark.
Atheists are a miniscule minority, barely 0.0027% of the total population.
A census official said there were many more – nearly 2.9 million or 0.24% of the population – who did not tell enumerators their religion or confused it with other identities. They are listed under the category “religion not stated”.
It is possible that some atheists who refused to answer the question on religion were bracketed in this category.
“What I can tell you is that there were quite a few people including dignitaries holding top posts in the government who did not record their religion in the census. They felt that their faith was a personal matter and did not want their actions to be seen through the prism of their faith,” he said.
The official refused to identify those public figures pointing that census information was confidential.
The census figures are also half of the 66,000 people from India who counted themselves as atheists in an online global census, each vote identified on the basis of an email address.
A former government official familiar with the decadal headcount said it also needed to be kept in mind that the census questionnaires were usually filled on the basis of information from the head of the family, and not the younger individuals who may lean towards atheism.