New Survey Talks About the Atheist Influence on the 2012 Elections and Beyond

The Public Religion Research Institute has just released the 2012 American
Values Survey
(PDF) and it focuses on, among other things, how the religiously unaffiliated will shape the upcoming elections (“and beyond”).

It also talks about our changing demographics, the rise of the Nones, and our views on a variety of social issues.

Let’s get to the good stuff:

When it comes to our numbers, nearly a third (32%) of the Millennials (18-29) are religiously unaffiliated, mirroring the results found by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life:

The survey also says that “15% of Americans have left the religious tradition in which they were raised to become religiously unaffiliated.”

But why did we leave our childhood faith?

Weird… Christian apologists always say we become atheists because we hate God or just want to sin. But those don’t show up in the list… I guess those Christians are just misinformed. Or liars. Shocking.

Ok, what about the politics?

When it comes to Obama, it turns out that 23% of the people likely to vote for him are religiously unaffiliated, making it the largest single “faith” group supporting him:

Compare that to Romney’s base, which only has 8% support from the “Nones”:

Once again, it raises the question of why the Democrats don’t try harder to appeal to our community. Our votes matter. Our votes could transform election results. And the Democrats don’t seem to care. Why the hell not?!

The survey inadvertently suggests one possible answer:

religiously unaffiliated Americans are less likely to say they are certain to vote than religiously affiliated Americans (61% vs. 73%).


In other words, we may overwhelmingly support Obama, but when it comes to delivering on Election Day, the religious groups have us beaten. They do a better job than we do at getting voters out to support their candidates.

What does that mean for us? Personally, it means all future atheists conferences and events (especially at colleges and high schools) ought to include voter registration drives. We need to make sure atheists are as ready and informed as possible to vote for the better candidate. Sitting on the sidelines does us no good (neither does voting for a third party candidate, I would add, if you’re living in a swing state).

Incidentally, 73% of the Unaffiliated support Obama, while 22% support Romney.

Another piece of interesting information involves the dissection of unaffiliated people into distinct groups: Unattached Believers, Seculars, and Atheists/Agnostics (click image to enlarge):

Random tidbits:

When it comes to legalizing marijuana, the religiously unaffiliated are on the right side of the issue moreso than any other demographic:

When it comes to abortion and the death penalty, the Unaffiliated are overwhelmingly in support of legal abortions, but disappointingly high when it comes to support of the death penalty:

When it comes to marriage equality, atheists and agnostics are obviously in support of it, but the percentage for us is much higher than even that of “secular” Americans and unattached believers:

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans favor same-sex marriage. Within this group, however, there are differences in intensity. Atheists and agnostics (89%) are more likely than secular Americans (70%) and unattached believers (57%) to favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.

Overall, the more fervent an atheist or agnostic you are, the more likely you are to support liberal causes. Not really a surprise, but it’s always nice to put numbers to it.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Ewan

    “Once again, it raises the question of why the Democrats don’t try harder to appeal to our community. Our votes matter. Our votes could transform election results. And the Democrats don’t seem to care. Why the hell not?!”

    Several reasons: You’re not going to vote for the other guys anyway, you’re probably going to vote for the Dems even if they ignore you, and courting atheists would scare off a hell of a lot of other people – no point gaining atheist votes if you lose more religious ones.

    In terms of preferring the death penalty to life in prison you’d have to know /exactly/ what the question was. If I were in the position of being the condemned, I’d prefer death to life in prison for myself; there’s a case to be made that it’s actually more humane than locking someone up for half a century plus.

  • MargueriteF

    “Weird… Christian apologists always say we become atheists because we hate God or just want to sin. But those don’t show up in the list… I guess those Christians are just misinformed. Or liars. Shocking.”

    Don’t be silly. Of course they aren’t liars. We atheists are the liars. Everyone knows that!

  • TheBlackCat

     “I’d prefer death to life in prison for myself; there’s a case to be made
    that it’s actually more humane than locking someone up for half a
    century plus.”

    That is your choice to make. You have no right to force that choice on others, though.

  • Sindigo

    Absolutely. I don’t think the state should be in the business of murder. I’ve never understood how a Christian, with all their preaching on  forgiveness could support such a policy.

  • Sindigo

    I’m surprised that only 4% cited social/sexuality issues as reasons for leaving their religion. I thought that the marriage equality issue had got more traction than that.

  • EivindKjorstad

    The “reasons for leaving” as a pie-chart doesn’t make sense. Obviously people can, and do, have more than one reason to leave, so there’s no logic in the reasons summing to 100%, like they seem to do here. If you’re an atheist you’re even likely to come pretty close to “all of the above”

  • EivindKjorstad

    It’s an USA-oddity, and likely linked to conservative religion. If you look at a list of states currently using death-penalty in peacetime, you don’t find many wealthy first-world democracies.

    The Top 10 list looks like this:

    China. Iran. Saudi Arabia. Iraq. USA. Yemen. North Korea.  Somalia. Sudan. Bangladesh.

    (those are also the only countries that still has the law, -and- officially use it atleast 5 times a year)

    If nothing else, that list should give people pause. Yes it’s possible, I suppose, that USA somehow got it right, and -every- other country with reasonable respect for human rights got it wrong. But it doesn’t seem likely.

  • fett101

    “Prefer death penalty to life in prison” is an odd question. Seems like a false dichotomy. Better question would be “Do you think the death penalty should be an option for criminal punishment”.

  • MargueriteF

    I agree. This makes it appear that only 4% of the unaffiliated left due to lack of belief in God, which would make it seem the rest of the unaffiliated are believers of a sort. I find this unlikely. I imagine people just ticked the box that was most important to them, but personally, I could have easily checked off six or seven of these items. In fact, the only ones I probably wouldn’t have checked are “sex abuse scandal” (since I was Lutheran, not Catholic), “not sure,” and “don’t know.”

  • Sindigo

    It certainly is an oddity but one more in a long list of oddities when it comes to the American justice system. A system that imprisons more of its citizens than any other country* on Earth. I would have thought that the fact that the US still has the death penalty is reason enough for us (I’m in the UK) to deny extradition under any circumstances.

  • Ed L.

    Either you or I are reading the chart incorrectly. The color  I see matching *Don’t believe in God/teachings* represents 23%. *Social/Sexuality issues* is 4%.

  • Ewan

    I’m not sure I accept that – under normal circumstances, yes, I’d have no right to just kill you, but neither would I have any right to just lock you up. In the cases where we are going to impose some sort of punishment on someone, why is it then not OK to impose one kind, but it is OK to do something worse to them instead?[1]

    Also, regardless or the substantial issue, the survey response is strongly dependent on the survey design; even without deliberately biasing the survey ( see Yes Prime Minister: ). If the question was ‘Would you prefer the death penalty or life in prison’, I’d have given my answer for myself – it says nothing about whether I’d impose it on anyone else or not.

    [1] Just to be completely clear about my own views, fwiw, I’m not in favour of the death penalty, but I’m also not in favour of US style life sentences either, and I do think they’re actually worse. The end result is the same, but only one involves taking decades to slowly torture someone to death.

  • MargueriteF

    I think you’re right, but I had to enlarge it quite a bit to be sure. Pardon my middle-aged eyes:-). That makes more sense, but still, it’s not an either/or, or shouldn’t be. Someone below mentioned the low amount of people leaving the church due to social/sexuality issues. That was certainly on my list, but I probably would have ticked off “don’t believe in God” if given only one choice. Still, for many of us, leaving the church is more due to an accumulation of issues over a long period of time.

  • b00ger

    “…neither does voting for a third party candidate, I would add, if you’re living in a swing state”

    Hemant, I find your blog highly informative and enjoy reading it. However, I don’t expect statements like this from someone of your caliber. Hold yourself to a loftier ideal and shrug off your cold pragmatism. Upholding the status quo is no way to make a change for the better.

  • Jake Stevens

    Doesn’t it seem likely that reason non-religious folks vote less is just that they are younger on average, and young people in general are much less likely to vote? Here is the proportion of different age groups that vote:

  • Baal

     My primary issue with the death penalty is that it’s too commonly used and falls disproportionally on minorities – shockingly so.  A close second in why I don’t support it is that the error rate is non-trivial.  This means in fact innocent people are being killed by the State.  Third, killing doesn’t have a deterrence effect.  So in theory, i could support the death penalty but given those three hurdles, it should be abolished yesterday.

    *I find being in company of some rather nasty countries to be a huge tip off that we’re on the wrong path here.

  • ortcutt

    Can we just marvel at one thing for a second?

    White Evangelical Protestant Religious Affiliation by Age:
    18-29: 9% !!!
    30-49: 18%
    50-64: 25%
    65+: 30%

    Our long national nightmare of the Moral Majority, Family Research Council, Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, etc… may someday finally be over.

  • Ewan

    I think all of those objections apply equally to long term imprisonment don’t they? With the difference that mistakes, if acknowledged, can arguably be somewhat corrected.

    I should note that I’m British, and while we have plenty of problems with our criminal justice system we don’t have either the death penalty or the US’ attitude to long term prison sentences and I’m not in favour of having either of them, but as fett101 pointed out below, the survey seems to have asked a forced choice question on a false dichotomy, and I’m not sure the result is anything to be particularly upset about when ‘Neither’ doesn’t appear to have been an option.

  • Icelander

    Vote for the better candidate, as long as that candidate is a Democrat or Republican. Don’t want the wrong lizard to win, eh?

  • Icelander

    Vote for the better candidate as long as that candidate is a Democrat or Republican. Don’t want the wrong lizard to win, eh?

  • CanadianNihilist

    Reasons for leaving childhood faith needs an all of the above option.

  • Matt Eggler

    As far as the death penalty goes, the main reason I oppose it is, unlike a life sentence, it is not reversible. A person in prison can be released, a corpse cannot be resurrected, in spite of what the Christians say. Given the many imperfections of our justice system, such as juror bias, prosecutorial misconduct, biased or flawed police work and reliance on such forms of evidence such as memory and eyewitness testimony that have been scientifically demonstrated to be unreliable, any form of irreversible sentencing is unconscionable. 

  • Arthur Bryne

    The Christian fundies who say it’s “just want to sin” will first point to the “too controlling” category as an example, and then claim it’s vastly understated.

  • Haydenmuhl

    With regard to the one percent of atheists attending church weekly, I did that for almost three years. I was employed as a choir section leader, which meant rehearsal every Thursday and at least one service a week.

  • Coyotenose

     Tess: You’re a baby-eater and a liar.

    Danny: I only lied about being a baby-eater, and I don’t do
    that anymore.

    Tess: Eat babies?

    Danny: Lie.


  • Arthur Bryne

    From an assortment of evidence, I’ve conjectured in comments on various blogs there’s a somewhat surprisingly high fraction of atheists/agnostics with relatively high-SDO personalities. The otherwise surprisingly high support of atheists/agnostics supporting the death penalty appears another piece of data consistent with that, since there’s a modest (0.17) but significant (p .LT. 0.001) SDO and death penalty link.

    See (doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2012.01.006) for the SDO/DP link, though that journal may require a subscription. Dr. Bob Altemeyer’s general introduction to RWA and SDO, “The Authoritarians”, does not.

    As to the low “None” voter turn out, a whack at the 2010 GSS and the 2008 voting indicates there are two factors. The first is the traditional problem of low voter turnout among the young, true whether one is strongly religious or unaffiliated. The youth-heavy demographics of the Nones means this contributes significantly to the difference. However, that’s not all of it. Even within generational cohorts, those with weaker or no religious affiliation are much less likely to turn out and vote.

  • Quintin

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but the evidence suggests Hemant is right.
    Suppose everybody who can legally vote votes for the candidate they favour most in congressional elections, as you seem to want reality to be. Now of course, that’s unobtainable, but there are examples of countries that come close. My own home country, the Netherlands, with over 75% participation in 2010′s elections and a ten party lower house (all parties having at least two seats, with 150 in total), is probably one of the best approximations of your wishes. But there’s a catch, elections over here are done by proportional representation in only one (1) district, the whole country. Using the “winner takes all” system the US uses for their lower houses and dividing the Netherlands in 150 fair districts, those ten parties would be reduced to just five, and one party would have had almost an absolute majority. Don’t believe me? suggests so. And that’s with close to optimal voting behaviour and far superior participation. So long as the US doesn’t change the way its national elections are handled, you can vote for third parties, but they’ll be just that: third parties. Maybe fourths of fifths, but that’s it. You can tell a pragmatist to be more of an idealist, but so long as your idealism isn’t pragmatic, it’ll just rub off. Yes, pragmatic idealism is a thing, and in the US it’s called electoral reform. And if you’re not convinced, go watch some of CGPGrey’s stuff on Youtube.

  • Arthur Bryne

    The topline gives the exact wording, at Q14. “Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: [INSERT; ROTATE OPTIONS]?” Options were “the death penalty” and “life in prison with no chance of parole”. Q15 was a followup about how strongly that was felt by those who answered one of the two.

  • Arthur Bryne

    My impression is it’s often a factor, but usually other things are bigger factors.

  • Arthur Bryne

    It’s a summary, not the exact question. The topline gives the exact wording, at Q14. “Which punishment do you prefer for people convicted of murder: [INSERT; ROTATE OPTIONS]?” Options were “the death penalty” and “life in prison with no chance of parole”. Q15 was a followup about how strongly that was felt by those who answered one of the two.

  • Arthur Bryne

    However, encouraging voters in non-swing states to cast votes for third party candidates allows eroding the status quo without risking pragmatically detrimental results.

  • Don Pope

    Let’s hope that the millenials don’t get religious as they grow older.

  • Arthur Bryne

    It’s a factor, but the GSS shows those who claim lesser or no religious affiliation tend  less likely to vote, even within age groups. The two historical exceptions are 80s babies in the 2000 election (where the religious in that cohort only were less likely) and 50s babies in the 1972 election (which lacked a smooth trend, but with the strongly religious less likely than the unaffiliated). Both of these results might just be sampling “jellybeans”.

  • Arthur Bryne

    The demographic trend makes it look like the Unaffiliated Left will outweigh the Religious Right eventually, but probably not until after the 2020 elections, possibly even 2024.

    Also, the light that we see at the end of the tunnel might be the headlamp of a fast approaching train….

  • Arthur Bryne

    There may also be some college students going to school close enough to home that they still live with their parents, but who have not “come out” yet about their irreligion.

  • b00ger

    The short-tem, pragmatic effect might be to actually elect a less popular president. However, I see little real difference between the top 2 contenders. I agree that what is needed is overall election reform. Getting rid of the first past the post system and make states divide up their electoral college votes would be two big steps forward. However, the needed reforms will never happen until we get 2/3 of the country pissed off because a candidate with only 1/3 of the popular vote took an election.

    More over, there are other long-term advantages for a third party to get a higher percentage of the popular vote. Getting on the state ballots for the next election, qualifying for the main debates, qualify for federal money to help their campaign, etc.

    The current system biases unfairly toward the two major parties. As can be blatently evidence by the arrest of the Green party candidates at the last debate.  The only way to change the dynamic is for the population to demand it, as the R’s and D’s have absolutly no desire to give up their priviledged positions. The pragmatic short-term view loses all credibility when exposed to the long-term. We can (and will) suffer through at least 4 more years are R’s and D’s. That doesn’t mean we need to do so forever. The only way to change that is by expressing our disdain through votes.

  • ortcutt

     “Also, the light that we see at the end of the tunnel might be the headlamp of a fast approaching train….”

    I don’t see the point of this comment.  Is it in response to actual data or just a rhetorical flourish?

  • Leo Buzalsky

    “But disappointingly high when it comes to support of the death penalty”

    I completely agree that this is disappointing.  I’m just here to speculate as to why this is.  Could it be in part because we are more educated and…white?  In other words, we aren’t necessarily worried about the death penalty, nor do we personally know someone on death row.  Whereas the Black Protestants may deal with that shit personally.

  • Arthur Bryne

    The Pew Report earlier this month indicates that the levels of religiosity tends to remain relatively constant in each generation over time; the GSS has data confirming that. What increase there is tends to not be from the unaffiliated becoming religious, but the affiliated though not very religious becoming more strongly affiliated.

    Furthermore, the most recent Pew Report has shown a relatively sharp rise in the numbers of unaffiliated in post-Boomer cohorts over the last 5 years. That might well fade in a decade or two, but it’s only a shift of about 3% in each cohort. The trend to younger cohorts having higher irreligion than their predecessors is a lot more pronounced than that. The Millennials are currently running about 30%; if the current logistic curve shift holds, the post-Millennials will run about 50% — more if that recent shift doesn’t reverse itself.

  • ESC_key

    Maybe they had that question as a “mark all that apply”? I’m not sure if that’s how the question worked, but I agree with you that it would have led to a more honest result than forcing one reason above all the others

  • Daksejk

    To be fair, it seems very likely that the pie chart explaining reasons for leaving childhood religions was created by the data resulting from a survey asking which of these 11 options do you view as having the largest influence in turning you away from your faith.

    The comment, “Christian apologists always say we become atheists because we hate God or just want to sin. But those don’t show up in the list,” doesn’t make any sense.

    Also there was a good 12% of people who voted “other/don’t know” even when given the option “no reason/not sure”. Some of those people may have felt that they hated God or wanted to sin. Just sayin…

  • Arthur Bryne

    Some very tentative data. See my other comment on high-SDO.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    Canadian judges will typically refuse extradition to the US unless they receive assurance that the death penalty will not be requested by the prosecution in crimes where it might apply.

  • JohnnieCanuck

    I noticed that too. It was the survey maker who left out the category, so no-one had the option.

    However,  I think the number of people who seriously believe that to be the case for themselves approaches zero and there was no reason to include it. You don’t put categories in a survey to tempt the joker in us all. ‘Jedi master forbids me.’ would be a mistake that would distort the results and ruin the value.

  • Quintin

    So suppose a significant portion of the population votes third party. Let’s also suppose they’re mostly “democrats”. Because of this the republicans will get a presidential seat and a congressional majority without any problem, and without any real mandate either, and will start fucking everyone over as they said they would. You suggest that people will get upset about this and they’ll be asking for electoral reform in no time. I doubt that would happen. Instead, I suspect that the eventual result will be that within one, maybe two election cycles people, be they formerly undecided, third party voters or moderate republicans, people will just start voting democrat again, because they see no other way out (and because they think electoral reform is hard), and we’re back to the same old, same old.
    Complain all you want that pragmatism doesn’t work in the long term, it sure seems it does.

  • Sindigo

    Very sensible, though I’d probably want assurance that any potential detainee would avoid federal prison as well. Some of those look like they’re tantamount to tortuous. 

    Unfortunately, as it stands we have a desperately one-sided extradition treat with the US at the minute. As the recent case of Gary McKinnon shows.

  • ortcutt

    I see nothing there to be concerned about.  The scary people as far as I’m concerned are people who think that God is the Authoritarian and they are just following orders. 

  • Ashton

     Also, 4% of people said social/sexual reasons.  I’m sure that church members would say that would be leaving because one wants to sin.

  • Ibis3

     Maybe some people left the church/religion first and lost their belief in God later. That seems a common trajectory.

  • Ibis3

    However, I see little real difference between the top 2 contenders.

    Let me guess. You’re not queer and you’re not a woman. Bully for you.

  • Ibis3

    Or married people with religious spouses.

  • Bnclindsey

    Who are the 1% “Who the Hell?”?  As a member of it, I’d say one possibility is they are in relationships (marriages presumably) that predate their loss of religious affiliation/belief.  Life can be complicated sometimes and one has to weigh the cost/benefit of your actions.

  • Steezeandcrackers

    More Humane for everyone! Find one person, just one who has spent 25+ years in prison and doesn’t wish they had just received the death penalty. Find even one example and I’ll say you have a point…

  • Ewan

    “I see little real difference between the top 2 contenders.”

    It might be worth a read of this from the New Yorker, it’s a strong, and really quite interesting, endorsement of why voting for Obama is the right thing to do:

  • Ewan

    Right, to it is a completely false dichotomy forced choice then. Of the two, I’d quite happily defend choosing the death penalty, though only on the grounds that they’re both completely horrific, just one slightly more than the other. In reality I’d much prefer to go for ‘neither’, and ‘it depends on the details’.

  • abb3w

    (Still Arthur here.)

    You probably should read Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians” — or re-read it, if you have before. First, the (high-RWA) authoritarian followers are pretty scary, yes, but that doesn’t change just because they’re following something other than God. (Communists provide an empirically verified example.) Second, the high-SDO are as scary or more.

    And third, though there’s yet only the barest hints evident, there’s some moderately complex theoretical reasons to expect that (ceteris paribus) the high-RWA tendencies of the unaffiliated will significantly increase as the demographic shift continues.

    Religion is more the symptom than the root problem.