Wednesday, January 24, 2007

So, How Many Atheists Are There In America?

Many mourn the supposed rise in American religiosity over the last two decades, largely because of the negative impact it has on social and academic freedoms. Personally, I have always questioned whether this is more perceived than real. Data from my own experiences (anecdotal, to be sure) suggests quite the opposite. Religious fervor seems be largely concentrated among the older age classes in American society; not only does there seem to be an increasing number of agnostics and atheists among young people, more and more people I know are abandoning organized religion, largely because it demands much (financially and behaviorally, as well as requiring a degree of intellectual suicide) without offering much in the way of spiritual satisfaction (or at least not offering spiritual satisfaction that you can't get on your own). Even among those I know who remain active in "THE CHURCH", their allegience to the pulpit is lukewarm at best. After explaining why I left the church to many friends, I heard a number of arguments as to why I should just stay, none of which bordered on the theological. When I left and explained my concerns, I was surprised at the arguments most gave in response: "Oh, we don't listen to all the behavioral rules, we just go for the Mass"; or "Oh come on, we only go to do something as a family on Sunday", or "Hey, we just go to be social". Now, while I'm not a big fan of organized religion, I do think there is more than just a hint of hypocrisy if you stay within an organization but have no intention of following the rules. Say what you will, but some of us left religion precisely because we understood what was expected and could not in good conscience follow it.

So, it comes as no surprise to me that, contrary to what you might hear on FOX, new data suggests a significant rise over the last decade in agnosticism, atheism and those who remain spritual but with "no religious affiliation". Polling data from 2001 showed that the fastest rising religion in the U.S. is actually Paganism, but there had also been almost a doubling of those who consider themselves unaffiliated since 1990. "Christian" religions also registered a declilne during that time. More recently, the Secular Coalition for America notes that polling data in 2003 indicate that slightly more than 20% of Americans don't believe in God or have doubts about the existence of an omnipotent being. While there is some variation to these numbers, the poll author felt that these numbers were more accurate because the polling methods (online) lessened the stigma of "social undesirability" and allowed people to more freely admit their convictions. Most telephone polls footnote the percentage of atheist/agnostic in this regard as suspected of being lower than most people let on. It is likely that many feel uncomfortable admitting atheism in a personal interview. And today, the Institute for Humanist Studies reports a new survey indicating increasing loss of religious affiliation with each new generation. While America remains the most religious country, those who associate themselves with a specific religion are dropping dramatically with each new generation. Twenty percent of "Generation Next" (18-25 year olds), fall within the atheist/agnostic/no religious affiliation category, nearly double since the 1980s. Among the other findings:

One-in-five members of "Generation Next" say they have no religious affiliation or are atheist or agnostic, nearly double the proportion of young people who said that in the late 1980s.

Nexters are among the least likely to attend church regularly: 32 percent attend at least once a week compared with 40 percent of those over age 25.

Nearly two-thirds of Nexters (63 percent) believe humans and other living things evolved over time. By contrast, Americans over the age of 40 favor Creationist accounts over evolutionary theory.

Nexters are the most tolerant of any generation on social issues such as immigration, race and homosexuality.

Nexters are among the most likely to say the will of the American people, not the Bible, should be a more important influence on U.S. laws.

And just 4 percent of Gen Nexters say people in their generation view becoming more spiritual as their most important goal in life.

I particularly like the third one; that also mirrors my experience in Anthropology courses - as much as I hear some teachers complain about the numbers of creationists in class, my experience is that there are actually very few. Most students either are already convinced of the data for evolution or seriously want to learn more about it because they weren't exposed to it in High School.


XaurreauX said...

No doubt you are statistically correct, but the problem is not necessarily reflected by the demographics. Christian dominionists have been extremely effective in mobilizing voters to the point where their representation and influence in all levels of government far exceeds their numbers. While the number of religiously unaffiliated under 40 years of age who accept science and law as authoritative may be growing, there is no indication that they are especially concerned about the erosion of Establishment Clause protection and the insidious attempts by theocrats to insert religion into public school science classes and other activities.

More must be done to reach out not only to this group, but also to believers who are mature enough to recognize that their religious freedom is ensured, not threatened, in a secular state.

Tim said...

I think that you also have to consider the decrease in the stigma of being non-religious. Are there really more Americans who are freethinkers, or are they just more willing to say so in public--or to a pollster? It was not long ago that homosexuals were considered disgraceful and were locked in closets. Today I see and hear about GBLT people all the time. I don't think it's because there are more of them, just that they speak up. Same for Atheists and other non-religious people.

Anecdotally, I know a man who went to church every Sunday of his life--until his remaining surviving parent passed away. He told me he couldn't bring himself to tell even one of his parents that he was a non-believer. So he was there, every week for at least 40 years.

I enjoy your blog, please keep up the good work.



Anonymous said...

My goodness! What a sad commentary on the condition of America. Have you forgotten the moral and religious values our society was founded upon? God is real, sin is real, Heaven and Hell are real, and the Bible is still true. It still says, "The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord!" I am so glad, that at the age of five, I realized that I was a sinner and that nothing would save me except trust in Jesus Christ's atonement for sin by His death on the cross (after which He rose again three days later!). I repented of my sin and asked Him to become ruler of my life. I am not ridden with guilt, I have perfect peace; when all is colliding around me I have a rock of comfort, Jesus Christ, in whom I place complete confidence! I am not a weak, spineless Christian needing a crutch to lean on during hard times! No, instead, I realize my humanity and God's sovereignty and trust Him completely with my future. He is coming back soon, and if you do not accept Him as Saviour , you will not go to Heaven; but, instead, Hell. Both are very real places! I'm so glad I know the truth! I'm eighteen years old and am honored to believe in God!

Anonymous said...

As an atheist and ex-Christian, I find attitudes toward atheism in this country deplorable. There are many studies in America which show how backward and pathetic this country can be with regards to atheism. For example, a 2007 Gallup poll showed that a little more than half of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified atheist for president. In a 2006 study by the University of Minnesota, 48 percent of respondents said they would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist. And in the same study, 40 percent of respondents said that atheists "do not at all agree with my vision of America" (the next biggest groups were Muslims at 26 percent and homosexuals at 23 percent). It is perfectly acceptable to hate atheists in this country. Links for the following studies/polls: the Gallup poll is here. And the UMinn study results were published in American Sociological Review, Volume 71, issue 2, April 2006. (Email me at

Anonymous said...

As an atheist I accept that once I die that is it. There is nothing else. There is no heaven and there is no hell. To me these concepts sound like really bad fairytales, nothing more nothing less. What is funny to me then is how often I am told that I will be going to hell by those who do believe in God. They believe in something which has no evidence of existence something as far fetched as Peter Pan or Harry Potter. How and why do they think I would be concerned about spending eternity burning in a place that, in my mind, does not exist? The rest of the civilised world has moved away from religious control and yet America seems bogged down in this debate more than ever. As a young adult I was allowed, by my parents, to make an informed choice by weighing up scientific evidence over blind faith. I am so thankful I was not brainwashed as a child to the extent where I was unable to sit back, weigh up the pros and cons and then make an informed choice.
Robert, NZ

Anonymous said...

Once you die, one microsecond later you will be standing in front of the Creator of the Universe and of you, yourself: JESUS CHRIST. And you will be judged based on the Ten Commandments, not judged by the Golden Rule which Christians will be judged by. Buddah, Mohammed, Bagwan Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Oral Roberts: all stood before Jesus at the end. There is no escaping the judgement we all will face.

With the rise of atheism and agnosticism, so has there been a rise of treating life as not important-- rampant abortion, parents killing their kids, kids killing parents, serial killers running amok, kids being kidnapped and raped, road rage everywhere, broken marriages, unwed pregnancies, etc.. On and on, all because the world is turning away from God. Is this the world you want, because it's getting worst? Time for all to turn back to God and escape the flames of Hell. Amen!

Anonymous said...

The saddest thing imaginable is to accept that when we die, we're gone. Forever. There's no afterlife. There's no place for us after that. In a very human world where we have friendship and love and community, it's hard to come to the realization that all of these things are finite.

الاندرويد said...

time after time all is going to be gone

roger said...

An above post said that a gallop poll showed that over half of the American people would not vote for a well qualified atheist for office. To me that is an oxymoron. In my opinion he cannot be well qualified if he an atheist. said...

I think everyone must read this.