Shocking: Young Americans Have a More Favorable View of Atheists Than Senior Citizens Do

One more result from the new report (PDF) put out by Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute.

It seems that the younger generation (18-30) is far more accepting of minorities of all kinds — including atheists — than those Americans 65 and older:

… there is a relationship to education as well: 42 percent of those with no more than a high school education see the Bible as God’s literal word, a figure that falls by two-thirds to only 14 percent among those with postgraduate education. Young people are far more approving of atheists than are other age cohorts: 56 percent of them express completely or mostly favorable opinions of those who reject God’s existence, versus only 35 percent of seniors. Here again, education makes a difference: only 34 percent of those with a high school diploma or less are favorable toward atheists, a figure that rises to 57 percent among college graduates and 66 percent among postgraduates.

Is anyone surprised by that? The more educated you are, the more contact you’re going to have with other educated people who don’t believe in a god — and the more contact you have with atheists, the more you understand where we’re coming from. This isn’t to suggest there are no religious people in higher education (or dumb atheists, for that matter). But as you meet more atheists, it’s increasingly harder to demonize us. That’s all.

That’s why it’s so important for all of us to come out to people we trust. Start small and work your way up — to the point where you don’t even feel shy telling an acquaintance about your beliefs (if the topic arises).

One more finding about perceptions of atheists:

A plurality of Democrats (49 percent) and independents (49 percent) and majorities of Millennials (56 percent), non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans (62 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (68 percent) hold a favorable view of atheists. Conversely, less than 4-in-10 Republicans (38 percent), seniors (35 percent), white evangelicals (28 percent) and black Protestants (26 percent) hold positive views of atheists.

Only 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans hold a favorable view of atheists?! I’m not expecting high numbers anywhere on this list, but even that is a lot lower than I would’ve imagined… I wonder why that is.

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  • Anonymous

    I wonder what unreasonable or weird positions we will hold when we older. Surely there is something about us that the next generation will see as backwards too

  • Well, thank you, Albert Brooks, for predicting this future world in your book, 2030.

  • Ryan

    Your title implies that young Americans don’t like seniors.  You should add the word “do” to the end for clarity.  Some might think you mean that youth like atheists more than they like the elderly.  Otherwise, great post!

  • Anonymous

    Glad I wasn’t the only who read it that way the first time

  • Miko

    Now I’m curious to see a poll that actually asks that question.

  • John Small Berries

    “Young lady, I don’t care how much you love her, I will not have my daughter dating an artificial intelligence!”

  • David Kopp

    The “religiously unaffiliated” likely includes the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, as well as the majority of fringe religious groups. Not all are atheists, so the 68% seems about right.

  • “Only 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans hold a favorable view of atheists?! I’m not expecting high numbers anywhere on this list, but even that is a lot lower than I would’ve imagined… I wonder why that is.”
    I think it’s because of the negative false meanings that have become encrusted onto the word “atheist” like barnacles on an old ship.  To very many people, the word does not simply describe a stance about belief in gods, they think it describes an elaborate set of really ugly, scary  moral and personal traits. You’ve all heard the litany that I won’t repeat here.

    Even though religiously unaffiliated Americans aren’t sitting in pews hearing slander against atheists on a regular basis from bigoted preachers, the bigotry is spread out into the general environment every time the church doors open and the congregation files out. It’s like smog. Everybody is exposed to at least some of it.

    There are religiously unaffiliated Americans who believe vaguely in some kind of deity, and there are those who don’t.  I’ve had this conversation more than once with someone of the latter kind.

    “So, you don’t believe in any gods, is that correct?”
    “Yeah, that’s right, I don’t believe in any gods, or any religious stuff. ”
    “So, you’re an atheist?”
    “OH HELL NO! I’d never be like that!”

    If you were to delve further into what “that” means, you’d get the usual list of ugly, scary traits. Simply not believing in gods does not at all guarantee that someone has an accurate understanding of the word “atheist.”

  • Dubliner

    I think there are those in the atheist community who go out of their way to reinforce negative stereotypes. Their behaviour appeals to young college testosterone driven males and so probably has the effect of increasing our numbers through ‘shock tactics’ but is likely to put off many older people. That’s why Hermann is so right when he says it is essential for atheists to be ‘out’. People need to see not all of us are going to bite their head off  screaming obscenities and insulting their intelligence.

  • a kansas atheist

    The best defence against predujice is education. I live in a rather predujiced town in kansas so I understand ignorance im actually starting a blog about it and other interesting atheist topics so if its okay for a little self plublicity the blog is a kansas atheist hope its enjoyable

  • It’s funny though, because these polls come out in the UK all the time, yet a poll the next week will say that younger people are exploring religion more than they were a few decades ago, with a considerable rise in Christian faith, even though established church attendance is declining…

    Studies aren’t all that reliable. Though I’m not saying that younger generations aren’t more friendly towards atheists. Though I’m guessing you atheists in America may seem a ‘minority’ and oppressed. Well, we all feel like that, whether you’re an atheist, Christian, Muslim or something else. But, just like I complain when Christians are taken to court for wearing a cross necklace, I’m sure you will complain about your various political things too, which, might I say, is fine 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Young Americans are also more likely to BE atheists than are senior citizens, so this seems pretty obvious to me.

  • Anonymous

    I’m a bit surprised that the figures for “non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans” and “religiously unaffiliated Americans” are so close! I understand that the “religiously unaffiliated Americans” would include the “spiritual but nonreligious” category to draw it lower, but the figure seems very high for any religious group, Christian or not.

    Also, I realize this is incredibly nit-picky, but your comment about “dumb atheists” seems to imply that people without higher education are “dumb.” There are loads of people with higher education who could still be considered “dumb,” and loads of people without higher education who are quite bright.

  • “Only 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans hold a favorable view of atheists?! I’m not expecting high numbers anywhere on this list, but even that is a lot lower than I would’ve imagined…”

    Odd. I’m surprised it’s anywhere above 50%. I would think religiously affiliated people to be our biggest opposition. If a clear majority of them have a favorable view of us, then who’s left other than fringe nutjobs?

  • Anonymous

    Only 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans hold a favorable view of
    atheists?! I’m not expecting high numbers anywhere on this list, but
    even that is a lot lower than I would’ve imagined

    A few things could be at play here. For starters “unaffiliated” doesn’t mean “nonbeliever”. Many people are “spiritual” or “believe in god but not the church”. Many of them may hold residual bigotries that they may never have had occasion to question but that were drilled into them early.

    Another thing is that many people simply do not have a proper understanding of what it means to be an atheist. My best friend was one such person. He was an atheist himself but refused to call himself that because in his (Catholic) school they taught him that atheists were people who didn’t believe in god and that hated religious people. The religious training never took, but he carried that false definition with him until I had a frank conversation with him and explained the position. He now happily identifies as atheist. I bet there are a lot of people like him, nominal believers or nonbelievers, that have bought into the notion that to be an atheist is not just to not believe in gods, but to dislike or even hate the religious.

    All the more reason to come out of the closet and educate others about what it really means to be an atheist.

  • Stephen Illsley

    Although, after reading here about how intolerant senior citizens actually are, I have to say that, as a young American, my opinion of them has decreased somewhat.

  • “The more educated you are, the more contact you’re going to have with other educated people who don’t believe in a god — and the more contact you have with atheists, the more you understand where we’re coming from.”

    You realize you’re making up a causality here, right? What evidence do you have for this? If anything, I would have guessed that education causes a person to realize that religion isn’t true, and so of course you’re going to have more people approving of atheists. In fact, you’re going to have more survey respondents who are *themselves* atheists (did their analysis control for the religion of the respondent??)

    In any case, you’re making very certain-sounding statements about causality based on very little evidence.

  • It’s “religiously UNaffiliated.”

  • Follow up: It would have been nice to see if education made a difference in the older age group like it did with the younger. Then we could have said okay, this difference probably isn’t correlated with age so much as education. Then we would have had a better starting point for discussing *why* this is so.

  • Bob Becker

    And I’m wondering why they didn’t ask the “conversations” question about atheists, and what the results would have been if they did. 

  • Fixed!

  • amd
  • Anonymous

    Empirical atheists come across as unremarkable people for the most part, unlike the fantasy atheists which allegedly struggle daily with Meaningless, Despair, the Abyss, Existential Angst, Nihilism and other bogeymen. Christian theologians and certain European philosophers imagined these plagues in the lives of atheists back before we had many real, plague-free atheists to observe.

  • jbrock

    Does self-inflicted education count? A potentially shocking number of people who lack either the finances or the temperament for a formal University education are still fully able to read, observe, and think.

  • Timothy Kersting

    “56 percent of them express completely or mostly favorable opinions of those who reject God’s existence”That line could have been written better.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent comment as always.

  • “Only 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans hold a favorable view of atheists?! I’m not expecting high numbers anywhere on this list, but even that is a lot lower than I would’ve imagined… I wonder why that is.”

    Maybe it depends on who they counted as “unaffiliated”.  It probably includes people who believe in God but aren’t members of a particular religion or people who are in between religions or denominations at the moment.  Still, I agree, I would have expected that number to be higher.

  • Anonymous

    I’m betting if they didn’t use the word “atheist” and instead asked whether they accept people who don’t think there is a god, the poll numbers would be even higher. Words matter. Just changing the word you uses changes people’s opinion (global warming vs climate change. Fetus vs unborn baby. Illegal alien vs undocumented immigrant ect)

  • Perhaps these young people have avoided being infected with the God Virus that is having a devastating affect on the United Christian States of America, especially amongst Republicans.

  • Anonymous

    The Christians I met who are my age definitely do not have a favorable view of atheists at all.  

  • Anonymous

    If you read Bob Altemeyer’s work on authoritarian followers (and I would highly encourage everyone to do so), one of his findings is that education tends to act as a kind of vaccination against developing an authoritarian mindset.  Even if a person is raised in a very authoritarian home by very authoritarian parents, attending college will tend to make them markedly less authoritarian in their views over the course of their lives.  Part of this is due to the exposure to differing viewpoints that college provides. 

    Of course people with a high degree of religious belief also tend to score higher on ratings of authoritarianism.  Anyway, there are many variables but Altemeyer’s findings tend to support Hemant’s statement.  You could also substitute “Democrats” or “gays” for “atheists” and the statement would also ring pretty true.

    Altemeyer’s book can be read online – for free:

  • GeeH

    There’s a group of what we’d probably call weak or rational atheists who think atheists are all just strong atheists and/or assholes (I’m not saying that strong atheists are assholes). They self-identify as agnostic or apatheistic, or something else, or at nothing at all. I don’t know how many there are, but it’s got to be at least part of it.

  • On my blog, in a post titled “The war for enlightenment”, I said:

    “We are engaged in a war for enlightenment, being fought over generations”.

    This survey suggests: yes, it is being fought over generations; and we are winning.

  • “Grams, what’s a CD?”

  • Tinker

    Let me point out that dumb is not the opposite of educated. Education is not what makes people smarter although it can teach people to use what they have more efficiently. Also keep in mind that it is not the education itself that will inspire more Atheists, but the ability to learn to ask the right questions. 

  • Anonymous

    Re: Education and atheism.

    Though it is tempting to imagine that the education-atheism correlation is also a causation, I don’t think this can be assumed. There is evidence that 4 years of college will generally render you less religious (though not neccesarily nonreligious) which I suspect is why Jehovah’s Witnesses discourage a college education. I don’t doubt education is helpful, but education is tied to a lot of other things.

    Take poverty. People in poverty are less likely to get a higher education. I’d be willing to bet a moderate sum of money that atheism correlates well with socioeconomic class. Does that mean that atheism is caused by having more money in the bank?

    It’s for things like this that empirical studies were created. By doing complete surveys you can control for things like class, education, nationality, race etc. That enables you to ask questions like “All other things being equal, how much more or less likely is someone who completed college to be an atheist than someone who did not”. The key is “all other things being equal”. That way you can weigh the importance of things like an education, poverty, the presence of religious vs. nonreligious social programs, the religion of the parents etc.

  • It can be the result of other factors. Each generation grows up with more exposure to beliefs other than their parents’  beliefs, and so it becomes harder to indoctrinate the next generation than the previous one.

    If 100% of people believe, then probably close to 100% of the next generation will believe, because it simply appears to be “the truth”.

    If 90% of people believe, then not only will many the children of the other 10% not believe, but some of the children of the 90% will see that it isn’t necessarily “the truth”, and not believe. So this next generation (after the one with 90% believers) has fewer than 90% believers.

    And so it goes. There are indications that in the UK during much of the 20th Century it took about 2 generations to have about half the proportion of believers in a generation. (Obviously, it isn’t as simple as this suggests, but this gives a flavour).

  • So exposure to different viewpoints -> decreases authoritarianism, which -> increases acceptance of people different from yourself?

    That’s fine, if there’s data to support it. The point is that the data to support it doesn’t exist in the report Hemant drew his conclusions from. His conclusions were unwarranted, and uncautious assumptions about causation based on correlation should be discouraged. Hemant wouldn’t accept it if Christians lept to conclusions about data showing that having sex before marriage is correlated with divorce (which it is). He shouldn’t accept it from himself, either.

    A side note: I don’t have time to read a book at the moment; allow me to ask a bit more about Altemeyer’s work. Atheists have been shown to have some of the greatest familiarity with differing religious viewpoints. Would Altemeyer expect this to increase acceptance of those viewpoints or those people? People who would kill me if they thought their god told them to? People who want to stone their daughters for the crime of being raped? People who believe I was born dirty and rotten and can only be saved via the god who created me this way?

    What happens when exposure to differing viewpoints only serves to highlight how terrible they are?

  • “Only 68% of religiously unaffiliated Americans hold a favorable view of atheists?! I’m not expecting high numbers anywhere on this list, but even that is a lot lower than I would’ve imagined… I wonder why that is.”

    It’s because atheists do silly, petty bullshit like sue over the 9/11 cross. It’s because (here in Tulsa) the first ad we put on the TV was an image of the twin towers with the words “Imagine No Religion” titled across them. It’s because when the President of American Atheists goes on TV he follows the lead of the religious and chooses to be disrespectful of those who disagree with him.

    It’s because a loud and obnoxious few are more interested in starting fights than in building community.

    That’s why.

  • ahh. My mistake.
    still not very surprised though. atheists often make the mistake of believing religiously unaffiliated means atheist or agnostic. I’ve seen lots of crazy people who believe in all kinds of supernatural woo like ghosts and souls as well as God but don’t actually affiliate themselves with a religion.

  • PointerLabradorMix

    Quoth you: “This isn’t to suggest there are no religious people in higher education (or dumb atheists, for that matter). But as you meet more atheists, it’s increasingly harder to demonize us. That’s all.”religious + educated vs. dumb + athiests.implying two alternate existences
    To see the implication clearer, construct a separated square (into 4 parts) with the two available diagonal to each other.The implication being, clearer if you construct a four square, that religious people are not educated or are dumb.  And you wonder why we think you’re a mindless twat sometimes. :PHave you considered the possibility that there is a median gap, a middle area in which people are not educated enough in their own faith to make sense of it, but know just enough of the arguments against it to fall to doubt.   I rememer an athiest once pointing me to an inane list of 200 contradictions in the bible.  As I read I was able to counter each one as a limit in the understanding and reasoning of the author.  My own conflicts were eventually resolved as such. Within all that I searched there was not a single valid argument, and it became clearer and clearer that the author was arguing from ignorance.  I would have posted the contradictions, but the format of the site was to link externally in a manner which made the counterarguments less accessible than the original arguments.   In fact, there is an entire blog dedicated to countering the arguments.
       I’m not demonizing you.  I merely acted to point out a bias.  I would also like to point out that I know a great number of educated intelligent religious people(henceforth known simply as religious people), and I often find it’s the atheists who are unwilling to have their viewpoint challenged.   Even to the point of one saying that if God himself were to come down and tell him he is wrong, it would prove him right.   Would I say I hold a positive view of athiests?  Technically, yes and no.  I love them as people, and would help them out if they needed it and I am able.  However, each conversation I had with them ended in blindness… their unwillingness to even consider the possibility that they are wrong.  And my arguments began with physics, biology, and evolution.  Topics which, I had hoped, athiests should be glad to discuss. (Note: I did not dispute evolution.  It is evident in natural selection even today.)

  • LabOrDoor

    As an aside, it’s largely irrelevant.  People are, in their mind, up to three questions.  Do they approve of you, the athiest?  Do they approve of you being an athiest?  And do they approve of the concept of athiests in general?

  • LabOrDoor

    *answering  People are answering up to three questions.

  • LabOrDoor

    It’s to be expected, remember they were educated by people who are even more intolerant.  That’s why integrating schools was so important.  Knowing one good, kind person of a race and calling him a friend makes a blanket statement or hatred towards a race all the more difficult.  Blaming them for how they were raised is pointless.  With better funding for education, the next generation will get to see more of the world.

  • T-Rex

    Who cares what seniors think of atheists? They’ll all be dead and rotting in their graves soon, along with their religious beliefs and bigoted stances.  It’s the young, uneducated fundies that we have to worry about.

  • Anonymous

    “So exposure to different viewpoints -> decreases authoritarianism,
    which -> increases acceptance of people different from yourself?”

    No, not really.  It’s easier to explain if you have some understanding of authoritarianism.  If you don’t have time to read the book, at least check out the Wikipedia page:

    It’s more like the greater the exposure to differing viewpoints -> the lower the likelihood of blindly accepting the views of perceived “authorities” without question. 

    If the generally accepted view pronounced by leaders in your social group is that all Muslims are evil, meeting and interacting with some Muslims who you find to actually not be evil would serve to undermine your tendency to accept unquestioningly everything that those accepted as the authorities in your social group say, because it conflicts with your personal experience. 

    It’s not that exposure to differing viewpoints leads you to just blindly accept those views yourself.  Exposure to more varied views and experiences makes you less likely to accept the views of those in authority without question.

  • A bit more numerically, the Pew Landscape data suggested the breakdown within the Unaffiliated/”Nones” was about 10:15:40:35 atheist:agnostic:SecularNIP:Spiritual:NIP. (NIP = “nothing in particular”.) The 35% SpiritualNIP would probably account for a lot of  the circa (100-68=)32% unfavorable.

    There’s also likely some fraction of SecularNIPs and Agnostics who think Atheists that they’ve noticed are (ipso facto) too pushy about religion.

  • Or you can just use existing study data. The SDA archive at Berkeley includes the General Social Survey, its four decades of data about the US, and an on-line web interface that allows testing for a lot of correlations and controls. Variables you might care to play with include GOD, RELIG, RELIG16, COHORT, SEX, RACE, SEI, WORDSUM, POLVIEWS, PARTYID, INTEREST, EVOLVED… but there’s also a code-book that lists them all. 

    Of course, there’s the question of cause/effect/coeffects/coincidence even with correlations. But still… the tools are there, free, on-line for anyone to play with. Why aren’t YOU out there throwing science against the wall to see what sticks!

  • Slowly. The logistic curve time constant is about 27 years or so. The unaffiliated generally look like they’ll hit midpoint with the 2007 cohort, but that still leaves 40 years before they reach US median age, longer still before the atheists specifically get anywhere in that vicinity, and the rest of the world.

  • Daniel

    I was a little shocked recently when a 18-29 year old who I met in Boston was shocked when I said I was an atheist.  Maybe I just live in a bubble most of the time where these things are generally acceptable, but I’m still a little shocked to find that only 56% of 18-29 year olds hold favorable opinions of atheists. 

  • Lukesavin44

    Wow. No matter what you believe, you come across as a high strung know it all.

    Which goes to point out that a persons belief or disbelief is second to who they are as an individual. Both believers and athiests are capable of being good people or bad people. We can’t judge all by our experience with one.

    You dont represent believers … You just represent you. Very poorly.

  • Anonymous

    Anyone who holds their belief for emotional, rather than logical, reasons will be able to find all manner of  “explanations” to account for biblical errors and inconsistencies.  This does mean that they are the best fit to the data, only that the person is desperate to make them appear that way.  Most of the “explanations” that I have seen from theists require that the reader perform the most amazing semantic and logical somersaults. In most, if not all, cases the explanations are far less sensible than the alternative – that the Christian Bible contains a lot of errors, inconsistencies and horrific examples of moral depravity that are excused by theists because they are approved, condoned, demanded or caused by their version of god. 

    If you come to the study of the biblical text with the presupposition that a “true believer” will always find in favor or their particular belief set then you have come with a very clear and distorting cognitive bias.  With that attitude, and a lack of insight into its origins, the psychological effects of cognitive dissonance will certainly leave you with the conclusion that everyone else that is “biased” but you.   Outsiders will have no difficulty determining who is really blind.

  • Anonymous

    If the performance of “silly, petty bullshit” by some members of a group were the criteria for expressing a strong dislike for a whole group then Americans should hate all Christians.  You are not being logical.

  • Anonymous

    The Disunited States of Jesuslandia

  • Anonymous

    There is an almost perfect correlation between sex within marriage and divorce.  So?

  • Anonymous

    When I was an evangelical Christian the common myth among the people I associated with, most of whom went to church, was that none of us were “religious”, we were just “christian”.   Others in the group did not go to a formal church but went to “meetings” and other associations with believers that they did not refer to as “church”.  I call these people “disorganized” Christians as distinct from the more traditional “organized” ones. 

    I think you will find a large proportion of people in this group are what the dictionary would define as “religious”.  The ambiguity arises because people are allowed to use the terms “religious” and “church”  in ways that survey takers do not intend.

  • Anonymous

    As every snake oil salesperson knows,  there are studies that “prove” just about anything.  Researchers, however, make a point of determining the worth of a conclusion based on the methodological soundness of the study, including its sample size and attempts to control for possible bias. 

  • Conversely, less than 4-in-10 Republicans (38 percent), seniors (35
    percent), white evangelicals (28 percent) and black Protestants (26
    percent) hold positive views of atheists.

    I was fascinated by this last sentence and it triggered a memory retrieval from archival storage.Years ago, there was a TV series called “Alien Nation”. It was about an alien ship crashing in the desert and the aliens(slaves and their overseers) starting new lives on Earth, mostly in the US. Anyway, Detective Sykes, a main character, was introduced by leading an alien child he didn’t even know through a crowd of protesting people, a segregation metaphor.The crowd had both white and black people in it, and Sykes, who was white, had to call the blacks in the crowd on their obvious racism(specism?), reminding them that not so long ago they had to sit in the back of the bus and had to be led through protesting crowds. Yet there they were, doing the exact same thing.That’s what I thought of when I read that fewer black Protestants had a favourable opinion of atheists(26%) versus white Evangelicals with 28%.

  • Hi Stephen,  I’m an 85 year old rock hard Atheist. Most of the friends I have cultivated over the years are Atheists or Agnostics, & the great majority are ‘older’ Americans.  I did this through letters to the editor of various papers in response to letters from the zealots of different ‘faiths’. I lost a couple ‘friends’ over my activism, but I gained a great many more real friends.  We’re gaining – more of us need to ‘come out’.

  • Studies tent to support the beliefs of the person ‘conducting the study’.  It can be conducted outside of a church or a strip club, which will certainly skew the result of the poll.

  • Fred

    LabOrDoor: you need to learn to spell “atheist.”