Mario Canseco – The Angus Reid World Poll conducted for Maclean’s found that most Europeans and Canadians appear to be turning away from religion, while Indians, South Africans, Mexicans and residents of three Middle East countries still consider it an important part of their daily lives.

France is at the bottom of the list, with only 17 per cent of respondents expressing interest in religion, with Britain at 23 per cent, Germany at 24 per cent and Spain at 31 per cent. Italy, traditionally one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, is the exception among continental nations with 51 per cent.

The trend towards secularism has been evident in France during the presidency of Jacques Chirac. In February 2004, the French government implemented a ban on religious symbols in schools as a measure to reaffirm the country’s secular identity. Former government minister Bernard Stasi headed the panel, which concluded that some garments—such as Islamic scarves, Jewish kippas and crosses—represent a “conspicuous” sign of spiritual affiliation that should not be allowed in the classroom.

Spain has also shown a tendency towards secularism during the tenure of José Luis Rodr­guez Zapatero, who took over as president from a conservative government in April 2004. The Socialist administration legalized same-sex marriage over the objections of religious associations, and compelled the Catholic Church to pay the Value Added Tax (VAT) for the first time.

Saudi Arabia was the most religious country of the 20 nations surveyed at 96 per cent, followed by Egypt with 89 per cent, South Africa with 70 per cent, Lebanon and Mexico with 65 per cent each, and India with 55 per cent.

Islam is the official religion of Saudi Arabia, the legal system is based on Islamic law or Sharia, and all citizens have to be Muslims. In Egypt, 90 per cent of the population is Muslim. South Africa is predominantly Christian, but a third of the population follows traditional and indigenous beliefs, Islam or Hinduism. In Lebanon, religious diversity is entrenched in the Constitution, and the Assembly of Representatives allocates half of the seats to Catholics, and the other half to Muslims.

Earlier this year, some newspapers in Western Europe decided to re-print a series of controversial cartoons depicting Muslim prophet Mohammed, which had originally appeared in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. The two most contentious drawings show Mohammed with a bomb for a turban, and greeting suicide bombers in heaven. Public protests occurred in more than a dozen countries, and the embassies of Denmark and Norway in Syria—as well as the Danish consulate in Lebanon and an Italian consulate in Libya—were torched by mobs.

In North America, a change in Canadian perspectives has been evident over the past 14 years. In 1992, 61 per cent of respondents said religion was very important for their daily lives. This year, the number dropped to 39 per cent. In the United States there was also a decrease, from 83 per cent in 1992 to 63 per cent in 2006.

The U.S. has faced constant debates that have examined the role of religion in daily life, particularly in regard to the ethical questions posed by embryonic stem cell research and abortion, as well as euthanasia—exemplified during the case of Terri Schiavo in 2005. Another avenue of discussion is the emergence of the theory of intelligent design, which suggests certain biological mechanisms are too complex to have developed without the involvement of a powerful force or intelligent being, and has been chastised by scientists as a concealed method of teaching creationism.

Mexico is the only predominantly Catholic country where more than 60 per cent of respondents express an interest in religion. Mexican president Vicente Fox—who will step down in December after a six-year term—openly discussed his faith during speeches and press conferences, a rarity for Mexican heads of state.

Despite the variations across the globe, spirituality clearly has an influence on the way people feel. 60 per cent of global respondents who expressed optimism in the future say religion is very important to their daily lives. Conversely, 63 per cent of respondents who feel pessimistic about their outlook think religion is simply not that significant.

Methodology (PDF)