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.

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The Election 2012 Weekly Report: The race evolves

The gay marriage fallout

President Barack Obama made some history this week by becoming the first sitting president to support the legalization of same-sex marriage. Obama's announcement, made during an interview with ABC News, came a day after North Carolinians voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning both gay marriage and civil unions. Mitt Romney reiterated his opposition, saying, "I believe marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman."

Obama's statement has shifted the campaign rhetoric away from the economy and foreign policy to domestic social issues, but it may also have international ramifications. A number of world leaders responded to Obama's announcement. Germany's openly gay foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said "I welcome this not just personally but also in the name of the German government." Following Obama's statement, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said for the first time that he was not opposed to gay marriage. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she remains opposed. Newly elected French President Francois Hollande plans to push for the legalization of gay marriage, to which his predecessor was opposed.

The Vatican has not yet responded to Obama's change of heart, but two months ago, Pope Benedict XVI warned U.S. bishops not to surrender to "powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage." Last December, the Obama administration announced that it would tie U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy to the promotion of gay rights around the world, a move that provoked anger from some foreign leaders. 

Romney on the attack

Romney continued to dial up his criticism of the Obama administration for trying to "make friends with some of the world's worst actors" in an interview with Sean Hannity on Tuesday. Romney has been hesitant to call for U.S. military intervention in Syria, but in the interview described it as "one of the great opportunities for America, and for the world, right now" and said he believes the United States should take the lead in efforts to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Obama courts the establishment

The president held an off-the-record meeting on foreign policy this week with nine prominent editors and columnists. Though mostly on the liberal side of the political spectrum, the group included Newsweek's Peter Beinart and The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who have staked out starkly differing positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Following the meeting, attendee David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote that the president is campaigning with "a sense of success and political advantage in the ­foreign-policy areas that have often spelled trouble for Democrats." He also suggested that climate change, nuclear weapons reduction, development assistance to Africa, and the Mideast peace process might be priorities for Obama's second term if he is reelected. 

Summit week

It will be a big week of summitry for the Obama administration with the G-8 meeting at Camp David on May 18 and 19, than the NATO summit in Chicago beginning on May 20. The week has not gotten off to a particularly auspicious start, however, with newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin announcing that he will not be attending, instead sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. Many are reading Putin's decision as a slap-in-the-face to the Obama administration, particularly as the conference had been moved away from Chicago, where the NATO meeting is being held, partly in deference to Putin's opposition to NATO missile defense plans.

Plans for the transition out of Afghanistan will be on the agenda for NATO, but much of the coverage will likely focused by planned protests by the Occupy movement.

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William Tobey on why Vice President Joe Biden is "isolated from reality" on Iran.

Joshua E. Keating on Michele Bachmann's short-lived Swiss citizenship.

Pete Souza/White House Photo via Getty Images