New Survey Shows Millennials Are Losing Faith, but Americans Still Think Atheism is Bad for Society

The Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution recently released the results of a survey on “Citizenship, Values, & Cultural Concerns” (PDF) and a couple of the findings are very notable for what they say about atheists.

First: This is no surprise to anyone, but the percentage of young people (18-29) who have no religious affiliation is just leaps and bounds bigger than any other age group (31%).

One other important religious difference separating seniors and Millennials is the number of each who identify as religiously unaffiliated. Nearly one-third (31%) of Millennials identify as religiously unaffiliated, compared to roughly 1-in-10 (11%) seniors. Millennials (13%) are also about four times more likely than seniors (3%) to identify as atheist or agnostic.

I guarantee that percentage hasn’t peaked yet, either.

Second: We’re still pretty damn unpopular. Moreso than any other group surveyed, people ranked atheists as a group changing America for the worse:

Somehow, “non-religious” people are liked a little more than atheists…

On the other hand, by a nearly 4-to-1 margin, Americans believe that atheists are changing American culture for the worse (39%) rather than for the better (10%). There is roughly a 2-to-1 gap in views about the impact of non-religious people (31% worse vs. 16% better).

For what it’s worth, the numbers aren’t as bad when you look at a younger demographic:

A majority (55%) of seniors say that atheists are changing American culture and way of life for the worse, compared to less than 1-in-4 (24%) Millennials.

So a quarter of Millennials think atheists are changing America for the worse.

I’ll admit: I’m shocked by that. People are losing faith but despising atheists at the same time. Doesn’t seem to make sense. But it may just be a holdover from the past — we’re still trying to overcome a lot of nasty stereotypes.

No Cross No Crescent summarizes that idea well:

There is positive change on the horizon, but its rate is glacial. The rapid rise of the religiously unaffiliated, combined with the negative perception of them that dominates the society otherwise, is concerning for future social tensions. But going back into the closet is not an option.

I think it’s faster than “glacial” but we still have a long way to go. Still, the momentum is on our side and our unpopularity will go in the other direction before long. We just have to continue speaking up and speaking out.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • glenmorangie10

    Lots of those Millenials may have rejected the faith tradition they grew up in, but still may not know an open atheist. They associate the word with the archetypal, and largely fictional, “military atheist”, and it doesn’t occur to them that atheist can mean the woman who delivers their furnace fuel. With time, as the numbers of non-religious grow, young people will have met more of us, and seen us contributing to society not so much “as atheists” but as human beings. As with the LGBTQ community, this social normalization of atheism will probably do more for acceptance of atheism than anything else.

  • TiltedHorizon

    No surprise here, we live in a country where preconceived notions and anecdotal evidence qualifies as facts and truths for many. My hopes lie with the Millennials, they seem to be better equipped to vet their understanding of the world around them.

  • Elizabeth

    I’m not surprised. The majority of my friends are most definitely “unaffiliated” and even only weakly religious, but they still believe in some loose concept of “God” as influenced their Christian upbringing. I think for most people, rejecting specific religious doctrines and systems isn’t the same thing as rejecting belief and faith as a concept. Though I’d like to think they’re on their way to understanding that.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

      That’s it, exactly. It’s still considered a good thing to have belief and faith. The societal perception is that having those things (even if they’re just in some nebulous “higher power”) makes a person better in some way, ie: responsible, mature, trustworthy, honest, etc.

      I think there needs to be some kind of campaign encouraging people to consider the idea that perhaps faith is not a virtue, that in fact whether or not people believe in the supernatural is separate from their actions and character.

  • C Peterson

    I agree with you that a large part of this comes from the remnants of old social views- the strong prejudices against atheism that developed in the decades after WW2 because of the association with Soviet Russia. As younger people move away from religion (or overt religion), it seems like attitudes will naturally follow.

    Still, there are many organizations and activists today who aren’t helping. All those who tie atheism to some sort of political view, who come across as activist, are probably pushing a lot of people away.

    In my town, people know I’m an atheist. It hasn’t stopped me from being respected, it hasn’t stopped me from holding public office. I’m casual about my atheism- it’s no secret, but neither do I flaunt it. It simply is. And people know I’m a decent, moral person, and so they make a positive connection, consciously or otherwise.

    I reserve my activism for social and political matters that have nothing to do with atheism, but which are often confused with it. Secularism, skepticism, anti-theism. I absolutely never link these things with my atheism, and as a consequence, ideas that some people might strongly disagree with don’t tarnish the simple fact of atheism.

    • ortcutt

      “Still, there are many organizations and activists today who aren’t helping. All those who tie atheism to some sort of political view, who come across as activist, are probably pushing a lot of people away.”

      [Citation needed]

    • pRinzler

      “All those who tie atheism to some sort of political view, who come across as activist, are probably pushing a lot of people away.”

      I’m not sure I know what you mean. Can you give an example of what you mean?

      • baal

        seriously or jaqing?

        • pRinzler

          I was serious. I could have responded to C Peterson by assuming some things, but they could have well been significantly different from what C meant. Asking questions is generally a good thing, usually doesn’t hurt to do so.

      • Pattrsn

        He’s afraid that atheists asking other atheists not to be racist or sexist will make atheism less appealing to bigots.

      • C Peterson

        Yes. I think that it is largely inappropriate for organizations to include the word “atheist” in their name, unless their specific intent it to provide support for atheists in places where such support is needed. I think that is the only legitimate purpose of an “atheist” organization. And its only real function should be just that, not speaking out against theistic institutions.

        I think it hurts atheists, and encourages people to think of atheism negatively, when people speak out about issues like skepticism or secularism when primarily identifying themselves as atheists. Calling people “New Atheists” is damaging. In general, tying any belief system or sociopolitical viewpoint to atheism is damaging.

        Please understand, I’m not remotely suggesting being a “doormat” or staying in some closet. As I noted above, I am very open about my atheism. I simply avoid making any connection between it and any views about the world. After all, atheism doesn’t lead to any, and anything that makes it appear that way simply alienates those with different views.

        An example of an organization that I think really gets it right? FFRF. It doesn’t bill itself as an atheist organization (indeed, it has theist members). It doesn’t, for the most part, engage political causes from an atheist standpoint, but from a secularist standpoint, which is right in line with its charter. Its leaders certainly don’t hide their atheism, but neither do they make the claim that their activism is rooted in atheism, but rather in a respect for the Constitution.

        An organization that really doesn’t get it? American Atheists. They run around with their antitheism, secularism, and humanism (sometimes very in-your-face), but they give the impression that these are ideas that stem from atheism (which they are not). And because of that, people who don’t adhere to these same ideas treat atheism as a threat (and atheists). But the real threat to them is these ideas, which aren’t a natural product of atheism at all.

        • NoCrossNoCrescent

          As it happens, evidence suggests you are wrong. Negative public perception of us has nothing to do with American Atheists and their tactics. http://www.skepticink.com/nocrossnocrescent/2012/12/27/a-look-at-the-second-class-status-of-atheists-and-why-it-is-not-dawkins-silverman-et-als-fault/

          • C Peterson

            What evidence? I see opinion, that’s all. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t agree with the conclusion. And I don’t blame AA for everything, I just identify them as one example of part of the reason atheists are so unpopular. They misrepresent atheism.

            • NoCrossNoCrescent

              So the fact that so many fundies blamed the Newton massacre on atheists is an “opinion”. Either that, or Dave Silverman forced them to. Good to know.

              • C Peterson

                Your point escapes me. We’re not talking about fundies. The question is why so much of mainstream America thinks that atheism is harmful, and my opinion is that it comes from a combination of recent historical issues and of misrepresentation of atheism by atheists.

                Nothing about the article (and its internal links) argues against that viewpoint.

                • NoCrossNoCrescent

                  Actually it does. When so many prominent religious figures slander us and the rest of them stay mum you don’t see how that affects the public’s perspective on us? Or maybe you don’t see it because it doesn’t fit the alleged “misrepresentation of atheism” narrative.

        • pRinzler

          “I think it hurts atheists, and encourages people to think of atheism negatively, when people speak out about issues like skepticism or secularism when primarily identifying themselves as atheists. ”

          I don’t get this. Gun owners speak out on issues, lef-thanded bowlers can petition their government for a redress of grievances, anyone can legitimately try to influence the political process through legal means, public and private. That’s what democracy is.

          A group can do that expertly or they can shoot themselves in the foot while trying to do so, but the principle itself seems pretty sound and necessary, but you seem to be arguing against it on principle, not just in its execution, expert or clumsy.

          • C Peterson

            The distinction is in whether somebody presents their views as if they are a consequence of their atheism (which is nonsense, and hurts atheism), or they represent their atheism as a consequence of their world view.

            You are misunderstanding my viewpoint if you think I’m even remotely suggesting that atheists shouldn’t speak out on issues of importance to them, or that they should ever hesitate to be open about their atheism.

            • pRinzler

              “The distinction is in whether somebody presents their views as if they are a consequence of their atheism (which is nonsense, and hurts atheism), . . . .”

              Wouldn’t support of separation of church and state, as part of secularism, be a consequence of atheism? Or do we mean different things by “a consequence of?”

              One of your original points was that people speaking out on secularism when identifying themselves as atheists was a problem. So if I identify myself as an atheist and I speak out about our secular society, and how separation of church and state is an important part of a secular society, so get the picture of Jesus out of the high school, that’s a problem?

              I’m trying to take your words and follow them where they lead.

              • C Peterson

                No, I wouldn’t say that support for the separation of state and church is a consequence of atheism, or follows from it in any way. Most theists support the same thing, after all. To present secularism as a consequence of atheism does no favors to either. The same sort of beliefs can easily lead a person to both atheism and secularism, but neither follows logically from the other.

                I think it would be much easier to remove the social stigma of atheism if it could simply be seen for what it is- just a lack of belief in gods, not something that carries an expectation of any particular social or political viewpoint.

                • pRinzler

                  I think that’s being disingenuous. It ignores that American atheists live in a country in which some theists assume many privileges, and that some important social issues are exactly about atheists needing to fight that privilege, as atheists, in order to more perfectly have a secular society.

                  Your analogy that theists support secularism would then infer that African-Americans had no special role to play in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s. Many white folk were in favor of the Civil Rights Act, for instance, on quite firm grounds. The same can be said for gays/straights, women/men, etc.

                  Atheists (and other non-Christians) have a special role to play, as atheists, in a country in which the majority Christian population will claim special privilege that erodes a secular society.

                • C Peterson

                  I don’t see atheists playing any role because they are atheists. As humans, they have many roles to play.

                  The roles we play depend in part on our beliefs, but atheism doesn’t represent any particular belief.

                • pRinzler

                  No comment on the analogy to African-Americans, gays, women, etc.?

                • C Peterson

                  I’ll agree with your comparison to the extent that atheists might want to involve themselves in the matter of atheist civil rights issues- that is, discrimination against atheists because of their atheism. But that is really a tiny part of the atheist “movement”, which is much more dominated by secularism, humanism, skepticism, anti-theism, anti-religion, and freethought- none of which are products of atheism, and none of which are applicable to your analogy involving oppressed groups.

                • pRinzler

                  OK, but now I’m not sure what you mean by the atheist movement. Are you saying, for instance, that someone who publicly identifies as an atheist should not (for what reason?) speak out against religion; that is, should not take an anti-religion stance. For example, when Christopher Hitchens says he is an atheist (as well as an anti-theist) and says that religion poisons everything, you’re saying that the problem (or one problem) with that is that he identified as an atheist? If he somehow, hypothetically, were able to not be identified as an atheist, that would be better when he says that religion poisons everything?

                • C Peterson

                  I only used “atheist movement” because it’s a term we often hear. In fact, I think it’s a terrible concept, and should never be said. Same with “New Atheist” and many other terms incorporating “atheist”.

                  The harm caused by Hitchens (which isn’t to say he didn’t also do a lot of good) was precisely because he tended to focus on atheism more than on the active belief systems he championed, with the result that the broader public associated atheism with those other views… incorrectly. People call Dawkins and Hitchens famous atheists, when they should call them famous scientists, anti-religionists, or religious philosophers. Yet they are primarily identified with atheism, despite the fact that this is the least important of their views. And it goes a long way towards creating the false understanding of atheism that so much of the public has.

                  I have no problem at all with a person publicly identifying themselves as an atheist and speaking out on issues of personal importance. I’m only saying that we would do well to make clear the connections between our ideas.

                  I speak out against religion, not because I’m an atheist, but because I’m an anti-religionist. I speak out against Creationism not because I’m an atheist, but because I’m a skeptic and a scientist. I speak out against state-church entanglement not because I’m an atheist, but because of my political philosophy. I’m not a skeptic because I’m an atheist, I’m an atheist because I’m a skeptic. My views made me an atheist; my atheism did not form my views.

                • pRinzler

                  OK, I think I have to view what you say as something idiosyncratic to yourself. I’m not sure you’ve said anything that would demand any one else to adopt your approach, especially given my analogies to race, gender, orientation etc.

                  Assuming that, I’ll bow out now, cheers.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      I think it depends on what you mean by ‘helping’. Sure, there are things we could do differently that would make people like us more. But I’m not sure how many of those things would be productive in the long run, in particular if they mean fundamental change in ourselves.

      If we started to petition for giant ‘historical’ pictures of Jesus in every high school, they might think we’re not quite so bad.

      I’m not a fan of needlessly making enemies. I’m also not a fan of being a doormat.

  • ortcutt

    “White Christians strongly embrace the belief that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s. Three-quarters (75%) of white evangelical Protestants and more than 6-in-10 white mainline Protestants (61%) and white Catholics (62%) say American culture and way of life has changed for the worse over the past half-century. Majorities of Hispanic Protestants (54%) and Mormons (54%) also agree that American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the worse. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of Jewish Americans (65%) and majorities of Hispanic Catholics (57%) and black Protestants (58%) believe that American culture has changed for the better.”

    We see the end of segregation, the end of separate women’s and men’s jobs listings, and the end of imprisonment and brutality against gays and lesbians as cultural progess. They see it as decline.

    • Gus Snarp

      I think this is absolutely the correct interpretation of these results. Although we could probably also throw a few more items in your list.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      One of the key differences between Liberals and Conservatives is that Conservatives see change as a moral value. Liberals don’t include change in their basket of things under moral consideration.

      http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html

      • ortcutt

        It’s also a matter of lack of empathy. If you’re white, straight, and a man or a woman who was personally happy with 1950′s family roles, then those changes didn’t have any direct positive impact on your life. Meanwhile the decline of Christian hegemony seems like cultural decay. Appreciating cultural progress requires evaluating the world from someone else’s standpoint.

    • rwlawoffice

      So what proof do you have that ending segregation is seen as a decline by Christians? Or that Christians relished in brutality towards gays and lesbians?

      I would venture to say that the majority of Christians belief we are in a decline is related to the rise in teenage pregnancies, abortion, the high divorce rate, the large numbers of children born out of wedlock, the lack of civility in our society, the attacks on religious freedom, the violence in our culture, the demise of the4 family and family values, the poverty rate and the saturation of sex everywhere you look, among other things.

      • ortcutt

        We had teenage pregnancies and abortions in the 1950s. The only difference is that a girl disappeared from school for a while, ashamed, and then the child was put up for adoption. Women got abortions too. They just had to put their lives at risk to do it. Do you think that locking people into failed marriages was a solution to divorce? Do you think that the lynching of Emmett Till exhibited a level of civility in our society? Do you think that the daily ritual humiliation of the black population exhibited a level of civility in our society. The cultural nostalgia that conservatives feel to a deeply diseased time in our history is disturbing to me.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        ” rise in teenage pregnancies, abortion, the high divorce rate, the large numbers of children born out of wedlock”

        Should we trot out the graphs that correlate those factors to religiosity? Or would that be a lack of civility? Can we talk about ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies to reduce abortions via improved access and education about contraceptives? Or would that be an attack on your religious freedom?

        “attacks on religious freedom”

        You say attacks on religious freedom, we say freedom for all religious views to not be drowned out by one religious view.

        “demise of the family and family values”

        Family values aren’t in demise. Respect for a wider array of types of families is on the rise.

        “the violence in our culture”, “poverty”

        Ya, ok, we agree on that much.

        • rwlawoffice

          The point of my post was to point out the reasons why Christians feel our society is in decline. It isn’t because Christians are upset about the end of segregation or that we look fondly at a time when homosexuals could be beaten. That was the argument of Ortcutt. When asked for proof of that the questions were ignored.

          As for your views of the changes in our society, I expected we would have a difference of opinion. The same differences that exist between Liberals and conservatives, regardless of religious views.

          Sure, show me your charts and we can discuss them. Regarding sexual education helping to reduce teenage pregnancies, that is a liberal myth, but we can certainly discuss it without infringing on my religious freedoms. However, when the govt. requires me to pay for yours or force my children to learn about it the way you think is appropriate, then you are infringing on my freedoms.

          How is refusing to tolerate a florists religious views on same sex marriage tolerating other religious views? How is not allowing a student to mention God in her own graduation speech respecting other’s views?

          The demise of family values has noting to do with recognizing other “types of families”. It has everything to do with other changes such as the number of children born out of wedlock, the norm of living together without marriage, sexual promiscuity, among others.

          • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

            The demise of family values has noting to do with recognizing other “types of families”. It has everything to do with other changes such as the number of children born out of wedlock, the norm of living together without marriage, sexual promiscuity, among others.

            Sure, it does. You reject “types of families” that involve unmarried partners living together and having children who are born out of wedlock. They represent “the demise of family values.”

            Of course, you’re perfectly entitled to hold that view, but it’s disingenuous for Christians to pretend that their obvious preference for heterosexual, married couples doesn’t mean that they consider unmarried and same-sex couples inferior or morally deficient in some way.

      • Glasofruix

        the majority of Christians belief we are in a decline is related to the
        rise in teenage pregnancies, abortion, the high divorce rate, the large
        numbers of children born out of wedlock

        I’d say it’s more related to the “abstinence only” education you and your people keep pushing.

  • Taz

    The 39% figure for atheists “Changing America for the Worst” doesn’t bother me near as much when I see that it’s 30% for “Young People”.

    Some folks just want everyone to get off their lawn.

  • rustygh

    30% of young people dislike atheist for one reason only. To appease their elders because they are not following in the same religious path. Those elders see atheist as very bad people and will never change.
    These numbers will change drastically in the next 20 years when “I’m sorry to say” we lose old die-hard religious elderly. Kind of the same as the gop expects to lose 30% in the next 20 years to those same elderly.
    All in all these numbers look good. Young people are educating themselves about false religions! ツ

  • busterggi

    Of course the Millenials still dislike atheists – everyone has fear deep in their being & paredolia is powerful so the idea of a god which culture shoves into everyone from their birth is always subliminally there,

  • mikespeir

    They view atheism as virtually synonymous with iconoclasm. We’re seen to be fighting everything that has traditionally been regarded as good and right and respectable, things that make human society flourish, and we’re doing it pretty much for the giddy and perverse thrill of watching things topple. Unfortunately, there are just enough of us actually doing that to continue to fuel the misperception.

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    I’m always wary of statistics about “nonreligious” and “no religious affiliation” people. I’ve encountered many people, whom I’d call religious Christians, who claim they aren’t religious at all. To them, religion only refers to the bad, wrong, misguided parts. I wonder if, and how much, these semantic shifters skew the numbers in this category.

  • NoCrossNoCrescent

    The one thing I could add to my post is that while people dismiss us saying we are only 3% of the population (forgetting, of course, that this is more than the Jews and Muslims combined), the real number is almost certainly quite a bit higher. The hatred directed at us and displayed in this poll is no secret, which is why people don’t want to admit they are atheists, even to themselves.

  • Revyloution

    “I think it’s faster than “glacial” but we still have a long way to go. ”

    Glaciers are moving a lot faster these days.

  • StoicAtheist

    As atheists, the onus is on us to de-villainize atheism. And we must start with villainous, rude, insulting atheists like Richard Dawkins. We must wrestle morality, empathy, civility and general goodness and caring from the theifdom that is christianity. We have to “be better christians” then they–not in our private little hideaways–but out for all the world to see, know and compare.

  • Chris

    In what way exactly is “white”, “black” and “hispanic” a religion?
    I guess I’ll never understand the USA…

  • EllenB

    Change may be glacial right but the experience of the LGBT rights movement shows that the rate of change can suddenly ramp up and quickly become overwhelming. This will happen for atheists/non-believers the same way it happened for gays/lesbians/ trans/etc… when a majority of people realize they already know non-believers and find them to be pretty much the same as everyone else.

  • Marketingking

    Wouldnt Generation Y be a more accurate description than millenials?

  • Noelle

    I notice the GenX’ers can’t even get their bar to go all the way up to 100 in that first graph.


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