I love the look of the ads… but I cannot figure out where they’re getting this 1 in 4 number.
The closest thing I can find is this excerpt from a survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life:
Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
But that’s a specific age demographic. And we’re talking about people with no religious affiliation — the “nones” — not just atheists. Are you “spiritual-but-not-religious”? Someone who calls himself an atheist, yet thinks god might exist? A “follower of Christ” who refuses to self-identify as a “Christian”? You could be in that group.
There’s also a Financial Times/Harris poll from 2007 which was cited by Ronald Aronson in The Nation:
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.
In other words, when you add agnostics, “not sures,” and “would prefer not to says” to the atheist count, only then would the number potentially get close to 25%.
But nowhere can I find where it says 25% of people are atheists.Formspring response from Seattle Atheists which references the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (PDF). ARIS said the following:
Nones have historically been concentrated in the West region and particularly in the Pacific Northwest (i.e. Oregon and Washington), where now they account for about one-quarter of the population
Again, though, we’re still talking about “nones” and not necessarily atheists. I still say the ad isn’t telling the whole truth.
End of update.
Ok. *Deep breath*
That aside, I still think the ads are a nice sentiment — maybe some atheist who feels alone in her non-belief will discover that many other people think as she does.
The ads are also important because they stress the undeniable point that there are *way* more atheists out there than most of us acknowledge, even if we don’t have an exact count. We’re not as rare as you might think, but we’re not always public about it. That needs to stop.
If this campaign encouraged more atheists to speak up and come out, that’d be a net gain for us, even if the 25% statistic is dubious.
***Update 2***: John Keiser of the Seattle Atheists explained the derivation of the statistic to me in an email. I’m quoting it with his permission:
There is no hard data on exactly how many Washingtonians (or Seattleites) are specifically atheists. But we do have math.
1. 25% (1 in 4) Washingtonians are irreligious. Straight from the ARIS survey. We reference this directly all over the place, since it’s the easiest picture to understand.15% is the national figure.
2. 12% of Americans are atheists or agnostics. Again from ARIS (we are counting both when we say “atheists”–people who lack a belief in God).
3. 20% Washingtonians are atheists. If the 12% of atheistic Americans scales to Washington the same way the None figure scales to Washington (25% Washington Nones / 15% American Nones = X Washington Atheists / 12% American Atheists), then there are 20% Washington Atheists. This assumes that people who identify as atheists will overwhelmingly identify as Nones.
4. 25%+ (1 in 4) atheists in Seattle: Seattle has a lot more atheists per capita than the rest of the state (urban vs. rural areas are generally different this way,and the split is amplified here to the point where the rest of Washington has semi-seriously threatened to secede). I admit that this final number is the softest of the lot, since we don’t have relevant data I’m aware of, but given 20% in Washington, 25% in Seattle doesn’t even seem like a stretch.
And of course, we don’t mention that these numbers likely underreport, because the word and concept are so besmirched.