How Many Americans are Atheists? Fewer than You Might Think.

There is confusion in popular discussion about how many Americans are atheists. Here I review how many Americans are atheists, and why there are such varying estimates of this number.

Short answer: 3%-5% of Americans are atheists.

Atheists are people who believe that God does not exist. They are not the same as agnostics, who don’t know if God exists, or belief that it can’t be known.  Among people who believe in God, there’s a wide range of beliefs as well as certainty in those beliefs.

The most straightforward survey measure of atheism is to ask people if they believe that God exists. A Gallup poll in 2010 asks this, and it found that:
• 5% of Americans report that they are “convinced that God does not exist.”

Another quality measure is offered by the General Social Survey, probably the best-known, most rigorous social survey out there. It gives respondents a series of statements about their beliefs in God, and it asks which come closest to what they believe. The 2010 survey found that:
• 3% of Americans “don’t believe in God.”
• (Another 6% reported that they “don’t know whether there is a God and don’t believe there is any way to find out,” i.e., agnostics.)

These surveys, and other similarly-worded questions, give us the best estimate of how many Americans are atheists, and they consistently range between 3% and 5%.

However, there are two other approaches to measuring God beliefs that are often misinterpreted when it comes to atheism.

The first misinterpreted approach is to ask people if they think of themselves as an atheist. For example, the 2008 Pew Landscape Study found that 1.6% of Americans define themselves as Atheist. Likewise, the 2008 American Religious Identification Study found less than 1% of Americans describe themselves as atheists.

This type of question gets at social identification rather than people’s actual beliefs, and some people who believe that God does not exist do not think of themselves as atheists. There’s nothing wrong with asking this type of question as long as we understand what it’s measuring: a self-identity rather than actual beliefs.

The second misinterpreted approach is to ask people simply if they believe in God, with no other clarifying information. For example, a 2011 Gallup Poll found that 7% of Americans did not believe in God. A 2011 PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey found that 8% did not believe. A 2009 Harris Poll found 9%.

Here’s the problem this this approach: It’s not a measure of atheism. Yes, atheists will say that they don’t believe in God. But so too will agnostics, who do not believe in God because they don’t think it can be known.  In addition, there are people in the world who may believe that God exists, but they don’t “believe” in God in the sense of having faith and following Him. They too will answer “no” to this question.  That’s the problem: This question is ambiguous as to whether it’s getting at belief of God’s existence or acceptance of God as a guiding force.

Think about it. If I ask you if you believe in Barack Obama, I’m not asking if you think he exists as a person, rather do you affirm him as a leader. Or if I ask if you belief in freedom of speech, I’m not asking if you think it exists in our society, but rather if you agree with it.

Likewise, some unknown number of people interpret the question “do you believe in God” to mean do they have faith and follow God. (The GSS question gets around this by giving other belief statements for the respondent to choose from, and they clarify the meaning of the “do you believe in God” statement for some respondents.)

I asked the 200 students in my social psychology class what they thought the question meant. About a third to two-fifths thought it was asking whether they have faith and follow God, not about whether He exists.

Because of these two other approaches, we hear a wide range of estimates about atheism, as ranging from 1% to 10% (or more) of the population. The actual range of reliable estimates is much more narrow, at between 3%-5%.

  • TheGuy250692

    Gnostic = to have knowledge/knowable || Agnostic = unknown/unknowable
    Theism refers to belief |Atheism refers to non-belief.

    One can be unsure/not know of the existence of God (agnostic) and still believe. Thus agnostic-theist. Likewise, one can be unsure/not know of the existence of God (agnostic) and not believe. Thus agnostic-atheist.

    Gnostic refers to knowing/having knowledge. Most people, I would argue, are agnostic because they don’t claim to have that knowledge. However, they may still believe, thus theist. Agnosticism is not a middle-ground between atheism and theism.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2JoR2LzHw0

    Peace :)

    • MIKE DEWALT

      Agnosticism is Atheism without balls. Atheism is Agnosticism that is narrow and close-minded.

  • WTF Are you talking about?

    Atheists are people that DO NOT BELIEVE that there is a god. This is very different than holding the active belief that there is no god. You really should educate yourself on the meaning of words before you blog about them. Here is a refresher for you.

    Theist = belief in a god or gods
    A-theist = LACKS a belief in a god or gods.

    Gnostic = Has KNOWLEDGE (in this case, knowledge about a god or gods)
    A-gnostic = LACKS knowledge (in this case, knowledge about a god or gods)

    Theism is about belief, gnosticism is about knowledge.

    There can be (and are) the following…

    Gnostic Theist = Knows that god exists
    Agnostic theist = Believes that a god exists but does not know for sure
    Gnostic Atheist = Knows that a god does not exists
    Agnostic Atheist = Lacks a belief in a god but does not know if a god exists.

    Now you know, and can now correct your woefully ignorant post.

  • http://skeptimusprime.blogspot.com Dylan Walker

    It ultimately goes to the question of how one defines atheism exactly. People often use words in slightly different ways.

    I have considered myself an athiest for a number years but if I were asked if I am “convinced that God does not exist” I am not sure I could answer yes to that without any qualifiers. I highly doubt it, of course, but convinced implies a level of certainty that I am not sure I could claim.

    Of course one could say that this makes me agnostic but I frankly disagree because agnosticism implies a certain level of nutrality about the claim. I clearly do not believe in god, because there is curretly no evidence that such a being exists. However I am willing to have my mind changed if evidence were presented. Since I have no way of knowing that such evidence does not exist I might well object to the use of the word “convinced” depending on what is being implied by it. The word convinced could mean either “100% certain” to which I would object, or it could mean provisionally convinced based upon the evidence I have avalible to me at the time, in which case I would agree.

    The point is that the polls to determine how many people are athiests are someone messy because of the language employed in them, this is why the disparity between these polls exist because the people being polled may be working from a different definition of words like “athiest” “agnostic” or even “convinced” than the people polling them or the ones reading the poll.

    Point of fact, I don’t particularly agree with the way you define “atheism” and “agnosticism” Of course you do note this problem in part when you speak about several different meanings of the word “believe,” but that is hardly the only word whose meaning can be a bit muddy in certain contexts.

    Perhaps we need more terms to describe the various types of non-religious people out there than just “atheist” and “agnostic” but language is a little more complicated than just making up new words.

  • Mike

    A person can be an agnostic atheist. An atheist is more properly defined as one who has no positive belief in a deity. This is different from the straw man definition so often used presenting atheists as someone who knows for certain that there are no gods. Atheism and agnosticism are two different terms dealing with what someone claims to believe and what one claims to know. I don’t know for sure if a deity exists, but based on claims and descriptions so far presented, I do not believe that any deities exist. This is not a claim of certainty.

  • Josh

    “Atheists are people who believe that God does not exist.”

    Normally I wouldn’t care, but in this case the definition is very relevant.

    You capitalize the word “God,” which implies that it’s a proper name. I can only assume you refer here to the Christian god. Do you really think atheists define themselves with reference to a specific god? By your definition, are Muslims atheist? What about Hindus?

    In modern usage, atheist simply means a disbelief in a god or gods. This can be taken two ways: a strong belief that no gods exist, or a simpler lack of belief in any gods. These two positions are known as “gnostic atheism” and “agnostic atheism,” respectively. I suspect that most people who reported themselves atheist in these surveys are the latter kind.

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      Fair enough about the capitalization, but specifying a broader range of deity/deities (which some questions do) would only serve to lower the number of people who don’t believe in one.

    • Sara M.

      Muslims and Christians believe in the same God.

      • Margarita A. Mooney

        Kadivar was very clear that Muslims and Christians have very different beliefs about God, such as about the divinity of Jesus (Christians believe he was God, Muslims believe he was human). That said, you could argue that there is only one God, and our differences in beliefs don’t mean there is more than one God. However, there is ample evidence that differences in beliefs about God among Muslims, Christians, and other faith groups are very consequential for people’s lives and the organization of societies.

    • Troll lololol

      I’m sorry, but I am a “Grammar Nazi.” You capitalize words when they are used as titles. For example, the word “dad” is not capitalized when used as as an improper noun (My dad is fun.) However, it is capitalized when used as a proper noun (Dad is fun.)

      Yes, this is all I deduced from this. Carry on then.

  • DKeane

    Sounds like the best question would be “Does god exist?”

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      Certainly having the word exist in the definition of atheism seems important…

  • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

    Most the comments revolve around the relationship between agnosticism and atheism. While that wasn’t the point of my post, I’ll weigh in on it. I accept that nature of deity beliefs and certainty of those believes (or maybe assumed know-ability) are different dimensions. I would go further than some of the posts and say they are continuous rather than high-low dichotomies. As such, if we wanted to be fully accurate, we would have to identify any one person by where they fell in relationship to those two axes. Say there are 10 levels of each (and I assume there are more), this becomes a 10×10 analysis, which is conceptually cumbersome.

    So, people, like social scientists, collapse continua into categories. This loses some information, but it allows for perhaps stronger analysis. We judge categories by their usefulness & how often they are used.

    A common category in discussions about God beliefs is atheism. That’s what I’m looking at here.

    The focus of this post is looking to identify how many Americans best fit the “atheist” category. The best available evidence is 3-5%. For example, the Gallup poll, which looks solely at the dimension of atheism, i.e., believing that God exists, finds 5%. The GSS, which contrasts it with agnosticism gives lower.

    Clearly we’re not going to fit the whole range of religious beliefs into one close-ended question, but we should pay most attention to the best efforts at it.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/BionicDance BionicDance

    You’re either a believer or you’re not; your opinion on how knowable god is has no relevance. Agnostics are still atheists if they are without belief in any deity.

    Gnosis = knowledge
    Theism = belief

    When you include EVERYBODY who has zero god-belief, regardless of its reason, strength, or any other factor, the number of atheists is much higher; this article was written with inappropriate and inaccurate bias, claiming only those with active DIS-belief can be counted as atheists. The truth is that anybody who is not a theist qualifies as an a-theist; what this article was counting was “strong” or “explicit” atheists, not ALL atheists.

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      To me that redefines the concept much more broadly than it is currently used. Not knowing if there is a God is different than both believing their is, and believing there isn’t. It seems worth keeping these concepts distinct.

      • Dan Norcott

        In that case it might be pertinent to rename the article “How Many Americans fit my narrow definition of what an Atheist that ignores what the word actually means? Fewer than You Might Think.”

        • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

          I don’t think the definition is unique to me.

          • Dan Norcott

            No – it’s a common narrow definition, but not right. What you are talking about is Strong or Positive Atheism. To put it in context, even Richard Dawkins isn’t a strong atheist.

  • Marty Kay Zee

    I’m here to tell you people – there are no gods. Conjuring them up with a whole lot of hoo haa is simply cowardice designed to make you feel less alone in a vast impersonal universe. Get over it and take comfort in what you are while you’re alive. Then, it’s curtains.

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      I was wondering why you were here… ;-)

  • Paul S

    I’m not sure I get the point of the post. First of all, you write, “How Many Americans are Atheists? Fewer Than You Think.” Yet you fail to bolster your statement (“fewer than you think) with any data. Maybe you should have included the results of a poll that asked people how many Americans they thought were atheists. Or maybe you should have titled your post, “How Many Americans are Atheists? Fewer Than I Thought.”

    Again I ask, what’s the point? Whether it’s 1% or 10%, so what? Does believing there are less “official” atheists in America make you sleep better at night? Let’s say you’re correct and 4% of the population considers themselves atheists. That’s 12 million people (assuming a 300,000,000 US population). OK, now what?

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      Many people, myself included, are simply interested in the social world and in religion, and so learning about it is an end in itself. As far as the implied comparison group, I’ve read various popular commentaries in the past that trumpet double-digit rates of atheism, and that’s what I’m responding to.

  • http://www.hafree.org David T.

    Bradley, I am an atheist who does not claim to know whether some deity in the universe exist, or not. The reason I’m an atheist is because I don’t believe in any of the thousands of gods humans have invented over the centuries. Yes, if given appropriate evidence, I might be willing to believe in a deity, but so far there hasn’t been any evidence for a god. Furthermore, the universe behaves exactly as if no gods exist. If a deity were to move hundreds of stars to spell my name and it was seen by everyone from earth as such, I might consider believing because so many physics laws would have to be violated all at once, that the alternative would have to be a deity…maybe!

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      Sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into your beliefs. While we disagree, I appreciate that and wish that more people would.

  • Denis

    Perfect example of why theists cant be trusted !!

    You define X. You then measure Y. You then report that X = Y !
    That is why atheists dont trust theists ! At best disingenuous, at worst -lie !

    If you dont measure according to the definition, you can show Black = White !

    • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

      Actually, I’m not doing the measuring, rather I’m reporting the best available measures.

  • GordonHide

    Given the apparent prominence of religion in US politics perhaps a more relevent question is: do you support an organised religion and its moral tenets and do you think the law should be used to try and ensure that those who don’t believe in your religion conform to some of its tenets?

  • http://1minionsopinion.wordpress.com 1minion

    In terms of my own atheism, for years I’ve considered gods to be inventions, invented by civilizations in search of answers they thought they couldn’t get any other way. Why it rains, why people die unexpectedly, why no number of sacrifices will stop the volcano from erupting… As our grasp of nature and biology and other scientific fields gets better (or at least better known by those interested enough to do the learning) I sit here wondering why my approach to the notion of god-belief winds up being such a minority viewpoint. I think it’s a lot more rational than believing any religiously inspired myths about our origins and history.

  • Orthodox Christian Lady

    It’s true that there may not be that many genuine atheists out there. However, if one counts the numbers of those who are in reality the emotionally immature, embittered, and disgruntled “ex-believers” who who delight in descending on various online newspapers comment pages, message boards, and websites to spew their extreme anti-theistic, apostate, blasphemous venom, the kind of trash guaranteed to anger religious people in general (and Christians in particular) then that number would be considerably higher.

    • Jim Gillen

      I consider myself Christian AND YET history is replete with violence against those who did not want to “conform”. It is still going on (unfortunately). I take SOME of the vitriol as a few “getting some their own”. I remember “belonging” to a “church” as a boy and being turned away from god by the experience and now I have come to believe that Christ’s WORST enemies are quote” christians” unquote.

  • Dan Norcott

    You are using a definition of Atheism that would exclude Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and pretty much every thoughtful atheist I know. Penn Jilette would get into your 3% though.

  • Mark Nowitzky

    This article is treating “atheist” and “agnostic” as if you cannot be both. I’m an atheist because I do not believe god(s) exist. And I’m agnostic because I do not know with 100% certainty whether god(s) exist. It can be argued that EVERYONE is agnostic.

    But this article does a good job of pointing out the problems with ambiguous words. It can be difficult to find unambiguous words once you drill down into specifics.

  • Raf Fak

    The poll should have asked “if Gods exist”. Then for those who answer yes, have them identify which god they believe in.

  • http://www.brewright.com Bradley Wright

    I’m going to close down the comments on this post… starting to get too many trolls & name-calling.

    • Troll lololol

      Sorry

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  • Wrong Link?

    Why Gall Up Poll Link directs to University of Connecticut that requires log in?

  • Mark Zalinsky

    One piece of this discussion that you’re forgetting:
    Many atheists are afraid to say so. It’s extremely politically incorrect to say such things in America–people thing you’re an evil, bad, immoral person if you say that you’re an atheist. People are scared of the term–it has an extremely negative connotation in this country. Can you imagine a political candidate admitting that they are an atheist? Can’t happen; won’t happen soon.
    Therefore, I presume that there are significantly more atheists than this article admits to.

  • http://atheistunited Ben Davis

    I am an Atheist so I can tell you for sure that agnostic and atheist are different. Atheist like my self not only have faith at all. not lacking, not disbelief, This is a belief not in any way shape or form a religion. Religion is Faith = believe without prove there is a difference. Atheism is more of a state of mind, or a philosophy. Agnostics are those aren’t sure what to believe. They don’t believe in any god. Cause they don’t know what to believe. Which is fine for we Atheist they are kind of like are little brothers cause they more or less follow are foot steps. Atheist don’t have faith in fact we actively oppose it. For the most part we will ignore it until religion starts stepping on a few toes if you catch my meaning.

  • Kitty P.

    I think, too, that one’s answer to this survey has to do with
    one’s definition of atheism and God. Many things hinge on our personal
    definitions.

    Do I believe in God, as in the God whose name is capitalized,
    the God of the existing monotheistic religions of the world, Christianity,
    Judaism, or Islam? Well, because I most definitely don’t believe in any of the
    existing monotheistic religions of the world, I would say that most definitely,
    I don’t believe in God, and therefore, I am an atheist. If I were asked if I
    believe in the existence of any god, as in a supernatural being that controls
    life or some part of the world (Again, what is the definition of the world? Is
    it Earth, or does it encompass the vast universe which, as of today, I have no
    way of completely exploring?), now this is where I lean more toward agnosticism
    because there is so much in the universe I don’t know. I am probably
    99.999999999999% sure that there is no supernatural being controlling something
    in the universe, but because supernatural means that it is something that is
    not physical or material or governed by the laws of nature, something that doesn’t exist in nature (whatever that means) and that is invisible (this is all based on various definitions of supernatural that I have read), this means it is
    impossible to prove that it doesn’t exist, or likewise, that it does exist. To me, by this definition, invisible light is almost a god (Think about it. It is not material, it affects life, it is invisible, except, because we can detect it and “make it” visible to us, we know it exists, and therefore, it exists in nature. It is with science that we are able to realize it is not a god. I can even think of the vacuum of space as an almost-god. Again, it is not material, if affects life, it cannot be seen, but yet we know that empty space exists because, by contrast, we know and see that matter exists to fill it.) So,
    with that last iota of doubt in the existence of the supernatural, I guess I am
    agnostic. But at that point, I’m thinking, “Why does it matter whether or
    not I prove if something exists or doesn’t exist that is, by definition,
    impossible to explain or prove that it exists.” If you can prove that
    something exists, then I would say that it exists in nature,
    and it is no longer supernatural anyway, and therefore, no longer a god by
    definition. So basically, once you prove that a god exists, it no longer
    exists. This is where the idea of blind faith comes in, and I don’t want to
    believe that something truly exists without proof, though I can still say there
    is a minute POSSIBILITY that it exists.

    Then there are others who say, “No, God to me is not a
    being and is not supernatural. It is love.” Well, I believe in love, but why
    call love God? Why does it need a synonym? Why not just call it love? And yet
    others have told me that God to them is the interconnectedness of all living
    things. And I think, “Evolution, you mean? We’re all interconnected through
    evolution. Or maybe you’re talking about the food chain. I just don’t know.
    That could be a lot of different things.” Yet others say God is the spark of
    life. Well, I know that life started from some process, so by their definition,
    I believe in God too. Until everyone agrees on a common definition of these
    terms, there is no way to take a fruitful survey.

    I believe in a system that proves and disproves phenomenon
    within this natural world. And that is why I just tell most people that I don’t
    have a religion, which I believe was the original way people explained the
    unexplainable in our world, and now it is obsolete. I am a scientist and I
    believe in the effectiveness of the scientific method. Anyway, I think this is and instance where we should focus less on what we believe and more on what we know and what we could know–concrete facts. That’s how the judicial system works, or how it is supposed to work. “Innocent until proven guilty.” Why isn’t religion the same? “Doesn’t exist until proven to exist.”

  • HarryLeroy

    I read a lot of good comments below, and this is a very interesting discussion. Reason I wanted to find out what the estimated number of Atheist and Gnostics might be was to see how many people make up the tail wagging the dog in the US.

  • Bill Clintion

    the answer, is 10%. this is wrong.


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