The 2008 ARIS: Atheist State of the Nation

As you’ve surely heard by now, the landmark 2008 American Religious Identification Survey has just been released. The ARIS is an enormous study that questioned over 50,000 respondents to assemble a broad picture of religious belief and disbelief in the United States, building on previous surveys from 1990 and 2001.

The 2001 results showed that nonbelievers had made incredible gains, rising from 8% to just over 14% of the U.S. population in just ten years – a genuine demographic boom. The new findings don’t show a continuation of this torrid rate of growth, but on the whole, they’re still very good news for atheists. Consider some of the highlights from the 2008 report’s chief investigators, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar:

The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million “Nones.”

…”Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly,” Keysar said. We now know it wasn’t. The ‘Nones’ are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.”

The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent.

Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million.

And best of all:

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

What these results show is that atheism in the U.S. is undergoing a period of strengthening and consolidation. It was hardly to be expected that we could continue to double in number every ten years. But we are still growing – granted, more slowly than before – but that is a significant achievement when most religious groups continue to lose ground. As the study’s findings show, Christianity’s share of the total population has declined by over 10% since 1990. Meanwhile, nonbelievers – and only nonbelievers – continue to make gains in every region of the country, especially the Northeast. (USA Today‘s Flash graphic offers a visual of the rise of the nonreligious in every state over the past eighteen years.)

We should also take courage from the fact that, within the larger group collectively identified as nonreligious or “nones”, the percentage of that group which specifically identifies themselves as atheist or agnostic continues to rise: from 0.7% in 1990 to 0.9% in 2001 to 1.6% – or about 3.6 million Americans – in 2008. This is a considerably faster growth than that of the nonreligious as a whole, and shows that our campaign to speak out is working! More and more people are coming out of the closet and announcing themselves to be atheists or agnostics. Prominent atheist spokespeople like Richard Dawkins deserve to be praised for the good work they’ve done in helping to spread our message, and their success is solid evidence that we’ve been on the right track all along when it comes to promoting atheism to the public.

But, by the same measure, these results also show us that there’s much work still to be done. As mentioned in one of the above quotes, although the people who call themselves atheist comprise only about 1.6% of the population, the people who are atheists (based on their stated beliefs) make up an amazing 12% of the population of America. Another 12% or so are deists.

What this tells us is that, despite the success atheists have so far enjoyed in our evangelism, we have much more ground left to cover. There are millions and millions of Americans who are atheist in all but name, but who choose not to use that term to describe themselves. Most likely, this is due to the lingering negative stereotypes about atheists which make people hesitant to claim that identity for themselves. We “out” atheists need to do more to dispel those prejudices. We need to work harder to depict atheism as the positive and healthy worldview it is, one that people can claim proudly for themselves and need not be embarrassed or ashamed of adopting, and we need to make our case more strongly to deists and other “soft” believers who are most amenable to persuasion.

Although our numbers are growing, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit still waiting to be harvested. If we do our job, we can bring atheism fully into the daylight and give rise to an organized, motivated political and ethical movement. If we can achieve this, the next ARIS may well come up with results that will further dismay and dishearten the forces of theocracy and give hope and courage to secularists and rationalists the world over.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Yay! Encouraging news. I’m pleased too in some ways that what is being indicated is a steady consolidation, rather than an erratic fluctuation in either direction. Other than regional is there any particular demographic that is accounting for a large proportion of the increase? Young? Black? Professional? Democrat? Republican?

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    I’m still hoping for an 80% atheist one day, at least among polititians

  • http://fancy-plants.blogspot.com fancyplants

    This is reassuring news, I was worried that the American populous was drifting the other way, especially in response to things like 9/11. (e.g. [xtian] ‘soft believers’ solidifying their religious stance in the face of terrorism). I’m glad I was wrong.

  • penn

    fancypants, post 9/11 religiosity could account for the significant reduction in atheistic growth and Christian decline in the last 8 years. It could also be that the 2001 results were somewhat anomalous, and that made the last 8 years not look as impressive.

  • Jim Baerg

    If ‘atheist’ still has negative stereotypes, perhaps we should call ourselves ‘god-free’. ;)

  • Paul S

    As scientific and technological advances continue to increase, along with the vast amounts of diverse information available to anyone with an internet connection, religion will become less and less convincing as an answer to many of humanity’s questions. It’s just a matter of time.

    There is an excellent article written by Michael Spencer in the Christian Science Monitor about the collapse of evangelical Christianity.

  • Alex, FCD

    If ‘atheist’ still has negative stereotypes, perhaps we should call ourselves ‘god-free’. ;)

    “Now with 50% more skepticism!”

  • Richard P

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. I came from a catholic, Born again background.
    It really does become self evident the lies and deceit that needs to be carried out to keep the faith.
    I would say that double digit conversions should be expected now that there is a vocal alternative gaining awareness. I was a closet atheist for years, mostly because I did not really know there were other choices. When I found my first atheist web site, I was giddy with relief that others were finally catching up to me, I never new I wasn’t the only one…
    I really think once we start to see more people coming out it will reach the point of self evident. Only those that really don’t want to accept responsibility for themselves will gravitate towards religion.

  • SASnSA

    I do have to question somebody’s understanding of statistical percentages based on this statement:

    But we are still growing – granted, more slowly than before – but that is a significant achievement when most religious groups continue to lose ground.

    If most religious groups are losing ground, it only makes sense that somebody, probably somebody non-religious is gaining it.

  • TommyP

    Wonderful news! I saved the front page form USA Today that was fretting over these results. It was great!

  • John Nernoff

    Let’s not forget to give George W Bush credit for showing us all what a Christian ideologue can do to something as important as a real country.

  • http://robin-edgar-for-god-emperor-of-duune.blogspot.com Robin Edgar

    Well you know what Mark Twain said about statistics. . . Right?

    :The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million “Nones.”

    The fact that someone is not a member of any particular religious community does not mean that they do not believe in God. . .

    :Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million.

    Since when is 1.6 million 1.6 percent of all 300 million or so Americans?

    It is closer to 0.5 percent. . .

    Also, regardless of how many “outright atheists” there really are, even if it is 10-15% which I doubt, any apparent increase in “outright atheists” might have more to do with an increase of “out” atheists than an actual increase in the number of “outright” atheists. Right?

    It never ceases to amaze me how “less than bright” some self-described “Brights” can be. . . As I pointed out here on Thor’s Day.

    http://www.montrealmirror.com/2009/031209/letters.html

    It’s worth a peek. Here’s the parting shot -

    “Who would have thought that evangelical militant atheists would ever give God free publicity?”

    You might like ‘The Atheist Supremacist’s Song’ parody based on G&S’ ‘The Major General’s Song’ of course -

    http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com/2009/02/richard-dawkins-is-pompous-ass-now.html

    And these LOLCats are kinda fun too -

    http://the-wonderful-wizard-of-uus.blogspot.com/2009/03/dog-delusion-aka-theres-probably-no-dog.html

    Gotta love that pompous ASS* Richard Dawkins for giving us the meme! :-)

    Allah prochaine,

    Robin Edgar aka The Wonderful Wizard of U*Us

    * Atheist Supremacist Spokesperson

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    :The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million.

    Since when is 1.6 million 1.6 percent of all 300 million or so Americans?

    It is closer to 0.5 percent. . .

    As my post said and as the report stated, there are 1.62 million self-identified atheists and 1.98 million self-identified agnostics, for a total of 3.6 million, which is 1.6% of the American population.

  • Keri

    I just wanted to comment that someone that doesn’t believe in any gods but does not identify as an atheist is not necessarily doing so from a conscious decision due to negative stereotype. I have a friend who is definitely an atheist but does not call himself an atheist and didn’t even know what it meant when I first met him. He just has no interest in the subject, and thinks religion is silly. I think that there are a lot of people out there that are atheists, but just aren’t interested enough in the subject of religion to label themselves anything.

  • bbk

    A couple things that I find interesting about the last 8 years. We’ve had a war, a corrupt right-wing extremist government, and the sabotage of anything secular in the educational system. We went through the high water mark of the evangelical social engineering movement that started in the 1970′s. Perhaps some of these events have socializing effects that dampen people’s willingness to join an out group.

    Also, the previous decade before that had marked the introduction of the internet to the general public. Perhaps the growth of atheism has something to do with the growth of internet usage. As well, we’ve gone through a strong economic growth followed by a major economic downturn.

    There’s definitely a lot of trends to correlate with and hypothesize about. Here’s my two cents… In developing countries, people leave behind the organizational structures of extended families and strongly knit traditional communities when economic and governmental institutions come in to play and start offering better, more reliable alternatives. Religion, with its strong bent on charity and community organizing, seems to be another traditional structure that becomes less appealing when better alternatives become available. The organizational power of the internet, for example, has made it the primary conduit of modern reform movements. Overall, the more power and independence that society affords to the individual citizen, the less influential traditional community organizations become.

    At least, that’s what I think. So if I can make a prediction, I’ll wager that universal single-payer health-care would be a boom to atheism. So would a return to accountability and transparency in both government and the corporate world. The more trustworthy and robust our secular institutions are, the better for atheism.

  • Alex Weaver

    blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

    -Robin Edgar

    Your actual objections were dealt with in the post. The rest of your comment tells me that your local elementary school needs to budget more for after-school programs; you clearly don’t have enough to do.

  • Mr.Pendent

    While I look at this as general good news–the fewer organized xtians there are, the better–I don’t think that lack of God is necessarily the goal. Although it might be a step on the road, the goal (in my mind) is not to remove god, but to remove thoughtless obedience and the worship of nonsensical ideas. While the removal of god is progressing, I would say that the mindless obedience and silly worship is not increasing judging by MUFON membership, the hunt for bigfoot, area 51, pyramid power, and the many other denizens of the “new age” shelves in the bookstore.

    But any progress is worthwhile, I guess. :)

  • Alex Weaver

    It’s worth noting that whereas organized religions, especially monotheistic religions, are prone to actively killing people who oppose them, whereas New Agers prefer to passively kill people by undermining evidence-based medicine and societal confidence therein. It’s easier to get someone off a quack treatment and into a proper clinic than it is to restore life to someone burned at the stake, and the victim’s personal choice actually plays a role, so this is arguably an improvement.