Pew Survey Shows That Even Non-Religious People Are Unhappy About There Being More Non-Religious People

We know the percentage of people who are non-religious (although some of them might be “spiritual”) is on the rise, and has been for a number of years now, as indicated in this graphic by NPR’s Matt Stiles:

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, knowing the trends, asked people if they thought the rise of the “Nones” was a good thing. Specifically, they asked (PDF):

Please tell me if you think each of the following trends is generally a good thing for American society, a bad thing for American society, or doesn’t make much difference?

[Item C] More people who are not religious

Turns out people aren’t thrilled about it:

Nearly half of all American adults think it’s a bad thing that more people are not religious. Only 11% of them find it to be a good thing.

You know what that means? Even some Nones think it’s a bad thing that more people are Nones.

There are some self-hating Nones out there…

Even among adults who do not identify with any religion, only about a quarter (24%) say the trend is good, while nearly as many say it is bad (19%); a majority (55%) of the unaffiliated say it does not make much difference for society.

Here’s a better way of showing that information:

I don’t know what’s weirder: That there are evangelical Christians out there who are happy that more people are becoming non-religious… or that there are a lot of unaffiliated people who are upset by it.

But still. What the hell. Even with the margins of error taken into account, those numbers are still really surprising.

Pew also informs us that there’s really no significant difference between men and women on this issue, but (as expected) there is a big difference when we looks at the different age groups. Millennials tend to find the increase of Nones a good thing… not by much, though — a third of them think it’s bad:

That difference evaporates, though, when we look only at people who are religious, as you can see at the bottom of that graphic.

So what’s the explanation for this?

It’s possible there are people out there who believe in a higher power — who don’t call themselves “religious” and are therefore lumped in with us — who are disturbed by the increase in vocal atheism.

Or perhaps there are Nones who are disappointed by the fact that when you lose your faith, you also tend to lose the community and camaraderie that comes along with it.

What this says to me is that while organized religion is doing a good job of pushing people in our direction, we still need to do a better job of improving our self-image. People ought to be proud of being non-religious; right now, too many of them, for whatever reasons, are not.

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.

  • Ryan Jean

    I’d flip it around entirely… 48% think it’s a bad thing? Well, that means 52% don’t think it’s a bad thing. That’s a majority!

    Among the unaffiliated? 81% don’t think it’s a bad thing!

    All they did was split the “good/indifferent” vote into two categories, but it’s the combination that matters in the end…

  • TCC

    Honestly, I think the real lesson from this is that a lot of people think having more “Nones” doesn’t in and of itself make society better, which has a sort of logic to it. I would imagine that this simply says that some of the “Nones” are of the opinion that their decision not to be religious is fine for them but that being religious might be good for society (a view that reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of religion in The Righteous Mind).

    • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt Eggler

      I have to agree that having more “nones” is not necessary a good thing for society. Sure it weakens the churches, but most of the “nones” I know are of the “spiritual but not religious” variety that are full of fuzzy thinking: many of them are anti-vaccers and voted against floridating the water in Portland, OR for example. Society definitely doesn’t need more of these.

      • Machintelligence

        This is the classic “I am an atheist but…” argument.
        I am a fine and rational person, but some of these soft headed “nones” need a structure to keep them in line. Do you truly think that the anti-vaxers et. al. would have more rational beliefs (or possibly just behave more rationally) because they also had religious beliefs? I think not.

        • Agrajag

          No, it’s more like: the fact that someone doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t really tell me all that much about them. The same is true for the opposite statement. Yes, it does tell me that they’re irrational about this one topic, but not a lot more.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I have some non-religious conservative friends and they’re not down with atheists at all because they look at them politically as being social progressives at the very least whereas the Christians fall way more in line with their political views. (Generally speaking of course)

    • Machintelligence

      There certainly are some Ayn Randian libertarian atheists out there. The virtue of selfishness: “I’ve got mine, fuck you very much.”
      Atheism is only one axis of belief, and possibly not the dominant one.

      • Art_Vandelay

        Right…and that could account for 19%.

  • C Peterson

    What this tell me is… very little.

    All of these surveys monitoring religious affiliation, religious beliefs, and many aspects of worldview are noisy and variable. More to the point, as single data points they don’t reveal much. This seems to be the first time the question has been asked, so we can’t examine the trend. And the trend is what matters- as we see in other surveys.

    I say we revisit this again in a decade or two. Then we might be able to draw some useful conclusions.

    • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

      I agree with you but Pew has been running these stats for six years now so there is some data that could shed light upon a trend but I think we would be better served by a hundred year study.

  • Rain

    Did they have any double negatives in the question? Those can be confusing sometimes. Even for the “nones” who are very intelligent people, obviously. Maybe they thought they said “nuns”.

    • NotThatGreg

      Yes. Not the first baffling survey-result breakdown I’ve seen. It makes me wonder if there’s some basic ‘noise floor’ of people misunderstanding the question, not paying attention, not caring to think, pushing the wrong phone button, assuming it will follow the same order as the previous question’s answers, etc, etc. There should be ‘control questions’ for this. Like asking a question twice in two different ways to see if the answers match. Or “How often do you participate in surveys? (1) never (2) rarely (3) sometimes … etc. See how many “never” results show up.
      And “Please note, for the purposes of this survey, if you accept Jesus as your saviour, you should consider yourself to be religious.”

      • Agrajag

        There tend to be. I’ve participated in many studies that ask near-identical questions twice (often well-spaced) to establish the nonsense-floor. People contradict themselves all the time. And then they deny that they contradicted themselves. For example a *MAJORITY* of Norwegians will answer thusly:

        Do you believe there any kind of God exists ? No. Are you a christian ? Yes.

  • Sven2547

    A good buddy of mine might fall into this camp.

    He’s an atheist, through and through, but he has a low view of human nature. He believes that most people are incapable of getting by without the kind of “support structure” (an impossibly vague notion) that only religion provides. In the absence of worshiping God, he fears a population that instead worships the State, which is a quick path to Totalitarianism.

    We’ve argued on this point more than once, haha

    • Tainda

      I kind of agree with your friend to a point. On the whole, I do not like people and think the majority aren’t smart enough to get rid of the structure and false safety religion gives them. I don’t think we will ever live in a religion free world. I’m not even sure atheism will ever be in the majority.

      I’m a very nice person but when it comes to the herd mentality that humans have, I just shake my head and sigh.

      To quote a great man in black “A person is smart. People are dumb panicky animals and you know it” :)

  • pierre

    The main thing that speaks to me on hearing this is that the religious establishment has been very successful in demonizing the non-religious, that even the non-religious buy into it. “I’m not be an evil atheist, so those other atheists must be the horrible atheists I keep hearing about.”

    Uncle Tom comes to mind as a useful analogy.

    • 3lemenope

      It’s either that or S. E. Cupp has had company, unbeknownst to the rest of the known universe, this whole time.

  • Anna

    So what’s the explanation for this? It’s possible there are people out there who believe in a higher power — who don’t call themselves “religious” and are therefore lumped in with us — who are disturbed by the increase in vocal atheism. Or perhaps there are Nones who are disappointed by the fact that when you lose your faith, you also tend to lose the community and camaraderie that comes along with it.

    That might account for some of it, but I think the main reason is because most people are socialized to believe that religion is a good thing. People are taught to believe that faith is a virtue. That religious belief makes you a better person, a happier person, a more mature person. “Churchgoing,” “faithful,” “godly,” and “devout” are all adjectives with positive connotations, not negative ones. Religion is just assumed to be beneficial for society.

    This is why I believe the atheist movement should start up a campaign to counter the idea that faith is a virtue and that believing in the supernatural makes people better in any way. I’d love to see some billboards tackling those assumptions!

    • 3lemenope

      This, very much. The amount of conditioning that we receive to respect religious symbols, icons, and props, and venerate the values undergirding religious practice, is hard to overestimate. People who have never practiced Christianity a day in their lives still wince if someone back-talks a priest or witness damage done to a religious prop.

  • jonpowell

    I think a lot of the nones view themselves as lapsed in their religion. They stay home on Sunday but not without the occasional pang of guilt.

  • Frank Key

    Perhaps some of the non-religious think it’s a good thing to keep religious belief strong in order to provide some measure of control over the really bad people who would be substantially worse without it.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

    Pew explicitly states that the Nones i.e. The Unaffiliated are lumped together with agnostics and atheists. Agnostics The Unaffiliated make up the majority of the opinions polled.

    http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Religious_Affiliation/Unaffiliated/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf

    Edited for accuracy 7/2/13 8:51pst

    • TCC

      Citation? There’s nothing on the Pew Forum site to suggest this.

      Edit: Furthermore, it’s more likely that the proportions would neither be majority atheist or agnostic but rather simple unaffiliated – people who are not religious but who do not self-label as atheist or agnostic.

      • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

        yes you are correct

        Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life has
        used
        and will continue to use “religiously unaffiliated” as our preferred
        term for Americans who tell us in surveys that they are atheists,
        agnostics or have no particular religion. “Nones,” however, has become a
        popular label for the same population, used not only in social
        scientific journals but also by the media, including on the cover of Time magazine As a result, in this report we use both terms interchangeably.

        http://www.pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Religious_Affiliation/Unaffiliated/NonesOnTheRise-full.pdf

    • Keyra

      Really? Because last time I checked, Christianity is still the majority and atheism, agnosticism, New Atheism, Antitheism, and “idgaf” types of nonreligious combined are still a minority (slightly, minimally above Hindu). Although there’s many nonreligious people who love and accept Jesus as their savior

      • TCC

        TBJ is talking about the “unaffiliated” respondents. Please try to keep up.

      • NotThatGreg

        “there’s many nonreligious people who love and accept Jesus as their savior” By definition, if you accept Jesus as your savior then you are religious, so exactly how many nonreligious people are religious? Words mean things. Though maybe this is part of the issue with the survey results….

        • meekinheritance

          I think she means they are believers who are very secular in their daily lives. Maybe they attend church on Xmas or that kind of thing; maybe they don’t. I think they fall into the Revelation 3:16 category, “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”

      • D.j. Crowe

        Majority thought means absolutely nothing. The majority of the world used to think the earth was flat. Did that make it flat?

  • Gideon

    My guess is that the cause is the ever-popular fear of change.

  • Eddie Vroom

    I suspect a flawed survey.

  • Keyra

    Mainly because making a movement out of a nonbelief is just about the most pointless (and retarded) thing I can think of, really. If people simply don’t believe, they’re entitled to that opinion, but staunch atheists getting loud & vulgar about their opinions of there being no God is just ridiculous if you ask me; if they really don’t think there is any higher power, why bitch & moan about it?

    • http://nomadwarriormonk.blogspot.com/ Cyrus Palmer

      Why bitch and moan on an atheist blog about how ridiculous atheism is?

    • TCC

      Because we value truth.

      Because some people have wrongly decided that professing a belief in an unverified/-verifiable deity is necessary to be considered a moral, civilized individual.

      Because belief in god(s) is symptomatic of larger issues that need to be addressed to ensure the security and existence of humanity.

      Because people like you keep telling us to shut up.

      That good enough for you?

    • FlyingFree333

      Christians burn women and children alive for witchcraft in Africa TODAY, Muslims execute atheists in several countries, Muslims and Christians both imprison and execute gays in dozens of countries around the world, even in so-called ‘civilized’ nations like the USA gays, atheists, women, blacks, etc are denied basic human rights because of religions and yet a moron like you has the balls to ask why we speak out? YOU are what is wrong with humanity.

      “the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it.” Albert Einstein

    • meekinheritance

      I’m not sure if you’re trolling, but assuming you’re not, I agree with you.

      That’s why I support the secular humanist movement, because it’s a positive message and not pointless at all.

      I also believe that all theists and atheists should be loud and vulgar about keeping church and state separated (in the USA, at least).

    • scroogleu

      Why? It’s because they don’t want their democratic process to be so heavily influenced by the sort of ignoramuses who would call anybody who does not think like they do “bitchy retards”!

  • advancedatheist

    Smart people going back to the ancient Greek philosophers have traditionally thought that the dumbasses in their communities need religious beliefs to keep them in line, even if the philosophically enlightened could dispense with such beliefs themselves. Considering how many people in our society need some level of zoo-keeping to keep them out of trouble, or to keep them from causing trouble for the rest of us who can run our own lives, this view of religion as a cheap means of social control probably has some merit.

    • Troglodyke

      I’m in agreement. If religion disappeared tomorrow, crime would skyrocket. Why? Because many people are weak and cannot police themselves without external help. They need the crutch of belief.

      Many of us nonbelievers like to think that freeing all people’s minds of the ridiculousness of religion would be the best thing for everyone. I disagree. I’d like for more people who are agnostic but still consider themselves Xtian, i.e., the intelligent, thinking people who deep down KNOW it isn’t real, but stay in it because it’s expected of them, it provides fellowship, it’s for the kids, etc, to be able to shed the shackles. They would, as freethinkers, add much to society.

      The uneducated masses, however, would be lost. And then what?

      • Agrajag

        But people are -already- unwilling to let themselves be policed by religion. Essentially zero catholics (to take one example) are actually willing to adhere to any of the catholic rules for moral behaviour.

        About 95% of them have sex before marriage. About 85% of them use contraception. Sure, they’re catholic in principle, but in -practice- if what the priest says conflicts with what they want to do, they ignore it. And they don’t seem to feel much anguished by this either.

      • scroogleu

        Your understanding of human nature is so twisted by religious ideas that you may as well be in church! The behavioral influences of religions aside, people are not, and never were regulated socially by religious ideas. Most criminals are religious people, not the other way around! Those who are conscientious, law-abiding citizens are so mostly because they have the genes for that personality, rather than the genes of pathological risk-takers or psychotics . That they were taught to credit their good behavior to their beliefs is why they do so, while those who are risk-takers and/or psychotic are religious as it suits them. Have you ever heard it said that criminals and. psychopaths make their own rules? They make their own religion too! The Sicilian Mafia involves the burning of a Catholic saint’s likeness in the initiation rituals of its “made” members. That’s a religion which they are quite serious about, but it never stopped them from killing anybody! People will do what serves their own interests when they can feel right about it, and when they believe they can. As for religious deterrents, those who think they are too slick to get snagged by a very real legal system in this only certain life are at least as good at deluding themselves on their future in the next one.

  • sailor

    Only 39% f the population think it a bad thing that people are getting less religious. That sounds good to me. It is not like the other 69% are don’t knows.

  • Nick

    “we still need to do a better job of improving our self-image. ”

    Sure do, because for the most part I find we often come off like grammar nazis, always ready to correct and lecture. Either that or it’s dripping sarcasm and derision. I think we generally come off as a negative community to the wider public. That turns people off. Not that I’m innocent of that behavior myself and I’m certainly not judging anybody for it, it’s just my perception of it and how I think we may be perceived by others.

  • DougI

    Let’s have this poll redone after some Christians knock on a person’s door early in the morning.

  • D.j. Crowe

    I have to call BS on the poll. I have never spoken to a true atheist that would be unhappy about the demise of religion.

  • Tak

    I consider adopting atheism to be one of the major turning points in my life for the better. I do not know any atheist who thinks the decline of religion is a bad thing.

  • Supermoves3000

    They probably sampled S.E. Cupp 400 times.

  • Kael Godkiller

    Obviously, religious affiliation is different from religiosity. This study is comparing two different things. Just like you can be a fan of a band, and agree that more people should listen to the band’s music, but no be a member of the official band fan club; so also you can be religious, and agree that others should be religious, but not have a religious affiliation. The findings aren’t strange; they’re obvious

  • Mick

    A workmate once told me, “I don’t believe in god but I’m still a Christian.”

    He apparently accepted the idea that Christians hold the high moral ground and atheists are almost criminals.

    Well he wasn’t a criminal — therefore he must be a Christian (belief in god had nothing to do with it).


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