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Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Is Atheism in America Growing? (Short Answer: Minimally) An Unbiased Examination of Survey Data

I was never a statistics wiz (in fact, in business school we called it “sadistics”). But for the longest time I believed statistics were the mathematical version of objective “truth.” It did not take me long to realize that statistics offer a great opportunity to manipulate the truth. And nowhere is this “creative” interpretation more apparent than in atheists’ attempts to quantify the number of unbelievers in the U.S.

The questions I present in this blog: What is the estimated percentage of adults who are atheists (including agnostics)? And has that number grown over the past decade?

Data pertaining to these questions can easily be manipulated for one’s purpose. The potential bias of greatest concern derives from the desire among doctrinaire atheists to claim substantial growth in the unbelieving population. Were atheists not able to make this claim, all their proselytizing, debating, and hammering through best-selling books will have been for naught.

Relying on recent surveys of American religiosity, atheist advocates claim that the unbelieving population approached 15% of U.S. all adults in 2009, an increase of 8% since 1990.

Before I evaluate the veracity of these numbers, I first want to define what is meant by “being religious.”

Definition of “Religious”

What makes a person religious is belief in and efforts to relate to a Transcendent Spiritual Reality, which has two necessary characteristics: (1) It is a spiritual mode of reality that is not subject to the physical laws and temporal limits of the natural world; and (2) It is an objective reality that transcends the material world, is the source or creator of that material world, and is usually conceived as being more real than our material reality.

The reference to a Transcendent Spiritual Reality (TSR) is synonymous with our Western (and Islamic) conception of a theistic or deistic “God.” The reason I use TSR as the basis for my definition is so that I can include within this umbrella the non-theistic Eastern traditions. Buddhism and many interpretations of Hinduism may not use the term God, but they clearly embrace a TSR.

Thus, in my conceptualization, you are considered religious even if your idea of God is indistinct and nebulous, such as this minimalist definition by Keith Ward: “God is a non-physical being of consciousness and intelligence or wisdom.” You fit my definition of religious if you do not specify a particular kind of spiritual entity, but believe that you possess a non-material soul or spirit that transcends death. You are religious if you borrow from Eastern traditions in postulating a higher or transcendent Self that exists apart from the ego-world of material phenomena.

Lastly, you are considered religious in any of the above contexts even if you do not express or practice your belief within an organized religious institution. I will have more to say about this last point later. But suffice to say that of the people who may repudiate organized religion, most are not necessarily rejecting a religious conception of reality or God.

The key qualifier for “religious,” therefore, is belief in and connection to an “invisible” reality that exists “beyond” the natural world and is not subject to the mandated laws of the material universe. Within that context, even the loopy belief of an out-of-touch celebrity counts as religious, such as this idea offered by actress Gwyneth Paltrow: “I believe Mohammad and Jesus and Buddha and Shiva are all the exact same thing: an energy, our link to something larger than ourselves.”

Atheists Claim 15% of the American Population

One of the more vociferous atheists, PZ Myers, weighs in with: “The results of a poll [The American Religious Identification Survey] are out showing that the godless are rising and promise to rise for years to come. In 1990, we made up 8% of the population; now in 2009 we are 15%.”

On the surface, this figure sounds high, but who can argue with statistics, right? Within the same survey, however, the people who explicitly identified themselves as atheist/agnostic in 2008 amounted to just 1.6%, an increase from 0.7% in 1990. How is this discrepancy possible? What is going on here?

While the number Myers uses is definitely too high, it can be argued that 1.6% is way too low. And we know partially what is going on: Few people openly admit to being atheists because that label is also a stigma. And so it is expected that many unbelievers are “in the closet.” But it is certainly not possible that this undercount is on the order of magnitude of 10 to one.

The actual percentage of atheists/agnostics is somewhere in between 2% and 15%. But how can we arrive at a reasonable and valid estimate? First it is important to understand where that 15% comes from.

The Importance of “Nones”

In the parlance of surveys, “nones” are people with no stated religious preference, who check the “unaffiliated” box on the religious questionnaire. This is where over-zealous atheists like Myers come up with the estimate that some 15% of the population consists of unbelievers.

It is true that Americans are shifting away from formal allegiances with specific faiths. That is why the “nones” category is growing. But affiliation is just one characteristic of a person’s religious life, and not the most important one. The root of religiousness has more to do people’s private beliefs and behavior than their official affiliation with a particular institution. In fact, William James famously defined religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of people in their solitude so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”

While religious institutions may be waning, a report by the University of Chicago, “Religious Change Around the World,” reveals that private religious practices and beliefs are on the increase – specifically prayer and belief in the afterlife. Just because a person does not practice in a public context does not mean he or she is an unbeliever. The Chicago report concludes that more Americans “no longer think they need to go to services every week, but they still have some type of religious belief and practice, more often personalized than organized.”

Thus over-zealous atheists are trying to appropriate the “nones” as their own. And they base their exaggerated claims a spurious logic: They assume that “no affiliation” means “no religion,” which means “no religious belief,” which means “no God” or atheism. But this is clearly not the case.

Why the Perceived Increase in Atheists?

There is no question that most people, if asked casually, would admit that there has been some growth in the absolute number of atheists , even an increase in the atheist proportion of the population. Most of that perceived growth is the result of increased visibility of the atheist presence in America through books, organizations and debates; in other words, atheists have been able to increase their overall share of noise in the marketplace. Whether there has actually been any real growth in the percent of the population that identifies as atheist/agnostic is an open question. And I say that because the same research that reveals “nones” to be 15% of the population in 2008 shows that their percentage has grown only 1% since 2000 when the comparable figure was 14%. This is significant because the period between 2000 and 2008 was when atheists were the most visible and aggressive via numerous best-selling books, public debates, publicity campaigns, and the like.

Additional Countervailing Data

Here are some additional statistics and observations that further call into question American atheism’s growth to 15% of the population.

  • Men specifically are becoming less religious; women’s religiosity has been stable. Indeed, of the nones, a remarkable 60% are men, suggesting that much of the none-effect may be a result of self-alienation since men are much less social and communal than women.

  • Atheists have lower fertility rates than religious people. In Australia, the only country that keeps track of its parents’ religious belief, atheists have a fertility rate of just 0.85%, well below the replacement rate of 2.1%.

  • According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, remarkably 21% of self-identified atheists say they believe in God.

  • According to a Baylor University study, “What Americans Really Believe,” secular people tend make up for the lack of the numinous in their lives with a greater propensity to believe in the paranormal. Indeed, there seems to be a relationship between education and belief in such superstitions as demonic possession, psychic healing, and haunted houses.

  • Lastly, trust and confidence are declining in all major institutions. In addition to organized religion, in the past 30 years, reductions in trust have been recorded for financial institutions, the media, major companies, the government, and education. So one might ask: Why single out religion?

Conclusion: In the end, I estimate that 7% of U.S. adults are unbelievers, an increase of just 1% from 2000, and a total increase of perhaps 2% in the 20 years since 1990.
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