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Are East Germans the world's most godless people?

It was Leipzig-born Friedrich Nietzche who wrote that "God is dead" in the 1880s. As far as his fellow East Germans are concerned, he may have been on to something.

A recent study by University of Chicago sociologist Tom Smith looks at survey data on belief in God in 30 countries between 1991 and 2008. The citizens of the former German Democratic Republic have by far the highest rate of atheism at 52.1 percent. The Czech Republic is the most atheist currently existing country at 39.9 percent. They're followed by the French (23.3 percent), the Dutch (19.7 percent), and the Swedes (19.3 percent). Japan is the country with the lowest percentage of people who say they "know god really exists and have no doubts about it."  (4.3 percent.)

The most religious country in the survey was the Philippines, where 83.6 percent of people are sure God exists and only 0.7 percent are atheists. The United States is pretty godly as well, with only a 3 percent rate of atheism and 60.6 percent sure that he exists. 

East Germany has gotten less religious since the fall of communism -- and young people are less religious than their parents --  a trend that doesn't hold for other members of the Eastern Bloc. Russia, for instance, saw an 11.7 percent decline in atheism since 1991 and a 17.3 percent increase in belief in God. Israel saw the largest increase in belief in God (23 percent), possibly due to the influx of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The rate of atheism in the United States increased very slightly. Generally speaking, belief in God declined modestly in the 30 countries in the survey, nearly all of them in the developed world.

Die Welt digs in to the German findings: 

Researchers found other reasons for atheism in the former East Germany, not least the deep mark left by the National Socialists and the Communists. But they also point to the fact that many Slavic and non-Orthodox communities present in the area since the Middle Ages were nonreligious; that the secularization movements during the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) were particularly strong in the states of Thuringia and Saxony; that the resistance of most DDR dissidents to the church was not seen, unlike the way it was perceived in Catholic Poland, as specifically religiously motivated.

The present study shows that Germany as a whole occupies a middle position on the atheism scale, as the belief in God in West Germany is still very strong – much more so than in neighboring countries like the Czech Republic or France, for example.

East Germans' general indifference to religion doesn't seem to apply to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who told a meeting of her Christian Democratic Union party in 2010, "We don’t have too much Islam; we have too little Christianity."

It will also be interesting to see whether long-term economic distress will have any effect on religious belief in countires like Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images

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