Happy Holidays! Atheism Is Growing!

As we ring in the new year, here’s some news to give you a sense of optimism for 2010. This holiday season, we can add another piece of evidence to the growing pile which indicates that atheists are becoming more numerous and more successful:

This Christmas season, 78% of Americans identify with some form of Christian religion, a proportion that has been declining in recent decades. The major reason for this decline has been an increase in the percentage of Americans claiming no religious identity, now at 13% of all adults.

Granted, 13% doesn’t seem like much, especially compared to the size of the Christian majority. But considering it was 2% in 1948, and only 6% even as recently as 1998, it can’t be denied that this represents a major demographic boom for atheists and nonbelievers of all stripes. I can’t think of any religion, historical or modern, that’s ever enjoyed such rapid success. And given the steadily increasing rates of secularism among the younger generations, we can expect this rise to continue.

What this shows, as I’ve said before and will doubtless continue to say, is that we should ignore the brow-furrowing and finger-wagging of the Very Serious theologians who sternly inform us that we’re doing a disservice to our own cause by advocating and defending it in public. We have every reason to believe that atheist campaigns of persuasion are working, achieving their intended purpose of convincing more people to become atheists and weakening the social prejudice that treats religious belief as immune to questioning.

Further evidence of this comes from the Gallup poll, which shows not only that more people are walking away from religion, but also that those who stay are beginning to question whether religious belief has all the answers:

Note that the percentage who say religion is “old-fashioned and out of date” now stands at 29%, significantly higher than the 13% of Americans who say they have no religion. We could call these people “soft atheists”. Most likely, the majority of these people aren’t formal members of any organized church, and either don’t attend religious services or attend only infrequently. But because of societal pressure to conform, or their own belief that belief in God is necessary for virtue or community, they continue to call themselves religious even as they reject most of religion’s factual claims.

These people are the low-hanging fruit whom atheists can reach. We need to deliver a strong, effective message that belief in God is not necessary for the things human beings care about – that nonbelievers can justify morality with reason and conscience, and build a secular community without reference to faith. And given that our audience’s sympathies are already leaning in that direction, we should continue to make the case that religious belief is archaic superstition, contains many immoral rules, and has no solutions for the ethical problems humanity faces today. Let the theologians and mystics continue to carp and complain that atheists are being disrespectful, that we’re not acknowledging the magnificence of the emperor’s new clothes. We don’t require their consent, and they’re not our target audience anyway. The continuing growth of atheism throughout the world is all the encouragement we need to speak out.

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.

  • cello

    Note that the percentage who say religion is “old-fashioned and out of date” now stands at 29%, significantly higher than the 13% of Americans who say they have no religion. We could call these people “soft atheists”.

    I don’t know about this. I think a portion of that 29% are actual believers who just don’t like organized religion. Many Americans, religious or not, are independently minded. Even among Evangelicals, there is some sentiment that Christianity is all about an individual’s relationship with Jesus – no church required. But I agree with the broader point of the post.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Happy New Year to you and all correspondents!

  • Kevin Morgan

    One of the groups I find most interesting are the Catholics. My being raised as one and my wife’s family all being “devout” types. I am always amazed at how Catholics are able to completely ignore the bible and most of its teachings. The way the Church can modify rules and regulations from heaven because of their unpopularity possibly causing the masses to flee.

    You can’t eat meat on Friday. You CAN eat meat on Friday.

    Divorce is forbidden. Divorce gets a revolving door (could you imagine if it was part of the “Defense of Marriage Act” to forbid all divorces?)

    Abortion is a mortal sin. / Well, not so much anymore (just confess and keep those donations coming).

    Animals have no soul and don’t go to heaven. / Animals, especially our beloved pets, will be waiting for us on the other side of the rainbow bridge, tails wagging, to spend eternity with us worshiping the big guy.

    Jesus wants us to love everyone and take in the poor and hungry to feed and clothe. / Fuck the homeless and dirty immigrants, God is obviously punishing them for not being good Americans like Jesus.

    Happy New Year everyone. Wishing you all health and happiness in the coming year and thereafter.

  • Nathan

    Quoth Cello

    Note that the percentage who say religion is “old-fashioned and out of date” now stands at 29%, significantly higher than the 13% of Americans who say they have no religion. We could call these people “soft atheists”.

    I don’t know about this. I think a portion of that 29% are actual believers who just don’t like organized religion.

    Perhaps, but why would actual believers, as opposed to the kind of casually accepting of religiously normative behavior respond that religion was “old fashioned and out of date.” That’s pretty effectively saying religion is irrelevant or actively unhelpful to them, and that just doesn’t seem like something a true believer would … believe. At the very least, it would suggest the religious hook isn’t well set in them.

    Cheers,
    Nathan

  • Alex Weaver

    What this shows, as I’ve said before and will doubtless continue to say, is that we should ignore the brow-furrowing and finger-wagging of the Very Serious theologians who sternly inform us that we’re doing a disservice to our own cause by advocating and defending it in public.

    Ditto for Fratricidal Invertebratheists like Mooney and Nisbet.

  • Alex Weaver

    Abortion is a mortal sin. / Well, not so much anymore (just confess and keep those donations coming).

    The bible makes no mention of abortion. The closest it comes are some verses referring to fetal movement and god’s supposed foreknowledge that have been stretched and twisted beyond recognition or belief by theists seeking to justify their fundamentally misogynist and anti-sex views, a verse that specifies that causing a miscarriage is punishable by a fine (whereas killing a person is punishable by death), and several verses, mainly in Job and Ecclesiastes, to the effect that it is better to never be born than to have a miserable life.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I absolutely love the term “Invertebratheists”. :)

  • Kevin Morgan

    The bible makes no mention of abortion. The closest it comes are some verses referring to fetal movement and god’s supposed foreknowledge that have been stretched and twisted beyond recognition or belief by theists seeking to justify their fundamentally misogynist and anti-sex views, a verse that specifies that causing a miscarriage is punishable by a fine (whereas killing a person is punishable by death), and several verses, mainly in Job and Ecclesiastes, to the effect that it is better to never be born than to have a miserable life.

    True it’s not in the bible, however, it is Catholic Church doctrine, so that’s why I included it.

  • http://jetson.wordpress.com Jetson

    Excellent news! I read about it on a few other atheist blogs as well. I have not used my blog yet to spread news like this, so maybe 2010 will be the year I create a new blog category to help spread the word!

    Jet

  • http://onthewaytoithaca.wordpress.com EvanT

    One of the groups I find most interesting are the Catholics. My being raised as one and my wife’s family all being “devout” types. I am always amazed at how Catholics are able to completely ignore the bible and most of its teachings. The way the Church can modify rules and regulations from heaven because of their unpopularity possibly causing the masses to flee.

    Both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches have one thing in common (more prevalent in the Orthodox Church). The Bible is EXACTLY as authoritative as the word of saints and canonized monks, the Synods, Ecumenical Councils etc. (all summed up as Tradition). In many case Tradition trumps the Bible. Anything apart from a CORE doctrine can be reinterpreted with no internal problem arising, since the Bible is considered infallible ONLY on spiritual matters AFTER interpretation by the Church (i.e. priests, theologists etc.)

    It’s a combination REALLY hard to beat. I should know. *raised Greek-Orthodox*

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    …the Very Serious theologians who sternly inform us that we’re doing a disservice to our own cause by advocating and defending it in public.

    This made me laugh out loud. When you put it like that…

  • Javaman

    The last decade has been where the stats climb upward the steepest. The last decade has been really good for us and things are starting to get interesting. Let’s take the long view and think about the next 10 years. Where will the stats be in 2020? Any predictions? Legalize freedom.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Perhaps, but why would actual believers, as opposed to the kind of casually accepting of religiously normative behavior respond that religion was “old fashioned and out of date.” That’s pretty effectively saying religion is irrelevant or actively unhelpful to them, and that just doesn’t seem like something a true believer would … believe. At the very least, it would suggest the religious hook isn’t well set in them.

    There are people like this here in the US that may account for some actual religious believers that would conclude that “religion” is unable to answer the questions of life. They seem unable to comprehend that they are part of a religion (“It’s a relationship, not a religion!”) and see religion as bad, but what they do as good.

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  • Andrew T.

    It’s heartening to look over statistics like these. When I first acknowledged my atheism twelve or so years ago, I remember seeing some figures that stated that there were 19 “believers” for every one of us. 13% might not seem like much, but a 260% increase isn’t exactly something to complain about. :)

    Although the overall trends show a decline in religious belief over the last sixty-odd years, I’m a little interested by the “Catholic” graph, since it’s an arc that peaked around 1978. What might explain that?

    Regarding the correlation between “soft atheists” and nonchurchgoers, it’s not exactly set in stone. My mother probably falls into this category: She has a reasonably-secular worldview and holds beefs against archaic doctrine and fundamentalism. At the same time, she considers herself an unapologetic Christian, participates regularly in organized church services and events (and wonders why I don’t enjoy doing the same), and bends over backwards to defend her religion whenever I confront her about it. Societal pressure to conform is definitely a factor that exists, in any case.

  • http://www.croonersunlimited.com Jim Speiser

    Any statisticians here? I would like to know, given the trends shown in the first graph, when (approximate year) (1) the non-religious line will cross the 50% mark, and (2) when the combined religious population will decrease to statistical insignificance. I predicted about 10 years ago that organized religion would collapse globally within 2 centuries. Wondering if I’m on target.

  • Marshall Schreiber

    Unfortunately seventy years of data isn’t realy enough to extrapolate two hundered more years out into the future and get a meaningful answer, Jim.

  • Kenny Duzan

    Good news indeed. As a person who has been an outspoken atheist since I was 20 years old (I’ll turn 62 tomorrow)I am amazed at how many people uderstand how shakey the foundations of religious belief are and confide in me that they are nonbelievers. However, these same people would never admit this to most of their friends, their family, especially their parents. They still go to church and Baptize their children.

    What I am getting at is that there is a huge flood of non-believers who would “come out of the closet” if it were to become socially acceptable to do so. It is up to us to make it thus. Kenny

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  • Rollingforest

    The Catholic population peaked in 1978 because Catholics started having fewer children and many, especially from the North East, started leaving the church, not to become Protestant but to become secular. The only reason Catholicism hasn’t fallen even lower is because of Illegal immigration, most of whom are Catholic.

    I grew up in a Conservative Baptist area. While most people had social events at church, it surprised me how none of the kids prayed at lunch and they never talked about religion or politics. They had an unspoken agreement with homosexuals: if you pretend to be straight, we’ll pretend we don’t notice anything.

  • Rollingforest

    According to Wikipedia, there was a 10.2% shift away from Christianity between 1990 and 2008 and a 6.8% shift toward not having a religion during the same time period.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States#Religions_of_American_adults

  • http://scaryreasoner.wordpress.com SteveC
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