…a more recent and more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans that allowed respondents to declare agnosticism as well as atheism: 18 percent of the more than 2,000 American respondents chose one or the other, while 73 percent affirmed belief in God or a supreme being.
A more general issue affects American surveys on religious beliefs, namely, the “social desirability effect,” in which respondents are reluctant to give an unpopular answer in a society in which being religious is the norm. What happens when questions are framed to overcome this distortion? The FT/H poll tried to counteract it by allowing space not only for the customary “Not sure” but also for “Would prefer not to say”—and 6 percent of Americans chose this as their answer to the question of whether they believed in God or a supreme being. Add to this those who declared themselves as atheists or agnostics and, lo and behold, the possible sum of unbelievers is nearly one in four Americans.
One in four Americans! If this poll result is accurate, atheists and agnostics would be the largest single group by religious affiliation in America, equalled only by Roman Catholics. Although nonbelievers do not all have the same political aims or operate as a monolithic group, if we could harness even some of these numbers in the cause of church-state activism and freethought evangelism, we would be a force to be reckoned with. An enormous amount of good could be done if the freethought constituency could take a strong, public stand for nonbelief and rally behind principled politicians who would defend secularism in government. With such numbers, we could face down obnoxious religious leaders and compete with them directly on their own terms.
Granted, this result is probably something of an outlier. Most polls, including a Pew study from 2004, find that the percentage of Americans who are atheist, agnostic or otherwise secular or non-religious Americans is around 15%. This result has been reproduced by numerous studies, including the major 2001 ARIS study and a more recent survey from March of this year, so we can trust that it is mostly accurate.
However, if this poll is an outlier, it is one on the leading edge. Surveys have also shown that the number of secular and nonreligious Americans is increasing with each generation. And given that the Harris poll tried to compensate for the social desirability effect by explicitly listing “Would prefer not to say” as an answer, it may well show that other surveys have underestimated the number of secular Americans.
This fact further underscores why atheists need to speak out. Given the strong prejudice against atheism that still exists in many places, it is extremely probable that a significant number of nonbelievers are still in the closet, reluctant to declare themselves even to pollsters. By doing this, they give the impression that the religious are more numerous and influential than they actually are. But we who are already “out” can counteract this by speaking out strongly in favor of atheism, which will widen the realm of discourse and stake out a space in which others will feel more comfortable announcing their own convictions.
This result also highlights the irrelevancy of those who say that atheists should keep quiet and not criticize religion, lest we antagonize the believing majority. This claim is born of fear and contradicted by reality. If we act as if we’re afraid to offend the holders of irrational beliefs, we will only further embolden the virulent fundamentalists and send closeted atheists the message that they should stay hidden and keep their heads down.
Conversely, by taking a strong stand for atheism, we will send the message that we cannot be intimidated, which will encourage yet more hidden nonbelievers to step forward. In addition, it will expose people who are religious only by default to a different view, and may well sway them if the case we present is passionate and well reasoned. So therefore, let us voice our convictions, the more strongly the better. It is better to have too much criticism of religion than too little, and if we refuse to be silenced, that 25% figure may be a herald of things to come.