Numbers on nones

audenEarlier this week, Steve looked at media coverage of the American Religious Identification Survey and it’s finding that the percentage of Americans that claim no religious affiliation is on the rise. Commenter Martha directed readers over to the web site of Paul Zachary Myers. He’s the University of Minnesota biology professor who was last discussed here at GetReligion for media coverage he received after asking folks to send him consecrated Hosts in order to publicly desecrate them. And then he posted photos of the desecration.

Anywho, Professor Myers makes a complaint about the media coverage of the ARIS survey:

The really bizarre news here is the way people are squirming to put a twist to the data to reassure the believers. They’ve got a label for that 15% that isn’t “godless atheist unbelievers”: they are “Nones”. Don’t panic, they say, only 10% of them call themselves “atheists”! They’re mostly agnostics and skeptics of organized religion! You don’t have to stockpile food and ammo, bar the doors and windows, and prepare for the anarchy and evil that would follow if all those people were atheists.

It’s rather annoying. Every article I see on this subject makes this desperate rush to reassure their readers that this growing cohort of Americans aren’t really those [expletive deleted] atheists — they’re nice people, unlike those cold-hearted, soulless beasts called atheists, and they aren’t planning to storm your churches and rape the choir boys and boil babies in the baptismal fonts, unlike the scary atheistic monsters. They’re special. And most of all, they aren’t French.

Oh, please. All the low frequency of self-reported atheists in the survey tells you is that the long-running campaign in American culture to stigmatize atheism has been highly successful — and it’s an attitude that we still see expressed in reports like this. The most important news they try to transmit is not the increase in unbelievers, it’s “Thank God they aren’t atheists! They’re just rational skeptics, instead!”

So is that fair? Are reporters “squirming to put a twist to the data to reassure the believers”? Let’s go to the survey.

The survey asked respondents who claimed no religious affiliation, “Regarding the existence of God, do you think . . .:

There is no such thing (7%)
There is no way to know (19%)
I’m not sure (16%)
There is a higher power but no personal God (24%)
There is definitely a personal God (27%)
Don’t know/Refused (7%)

So just to clarify, 93% of the respondents did not reply with the atheist answer. And even if you include agnostics, at most you’ve got 42%. But if at least 51% of the “nones” are claiming belief in a higher power or personal God, I think P.Z. Myers attack on reporters is unfair. He can have his opinions on atheism and he can even disagree with the methodology of the survey. But to say that reporters are unfairly characterizing the “none” population just can’t be factually substantiated.

Print Friendly

  • Martha

    As I said, the interesting/intriguing/amusing thing was that one of the creators of the survey came on to defend their methodology and explain why they did it the way they did, and he was careful to flash his We’re Not Crazy GodNutz, Us! credentials (one of them is an atheist, the other more an agnostic, if I’m remembering rightly) and *still* the commenters tramped on them for being insufficiently zealous for the cause.

    One shining example of the strict adherents to logic, reason and evidence was a particular commenter who said that, since the survey-makers are associated with Trinity College Hartford, that right there proves their pro-religion bias since anything with religious associations such as “Trinity” is automatically suspect.

    Data that is not produced by the approved methods used by the approved persons in the approved organisations is wrong and must not alone be ignored, it must be obliterated!

    So much for evidence-based fact gathering and the scientific method, hmmmm?

  • Kristine

    Thanks for all of the links on reaction to this survey & news coverage. I just read the blog & comments. Lots of puffery, swear words & self-congratulations. Not to mention complete inability to get to the essence of what ‘none’ meant in this context.

  • http://none Daniel T.

    So just to clarify, 93% of the respondents did not reply with the atheist answer.

    Are we reading different results? The only theist answers on the survey were:

    There is a higher power but no personal God (24%)
    There is definitely a personal God (27%)

    So only 54% of the respondents “did not reply with the atheist answer.” Strictly speaking, the 24% who said “no personal God” are deists, not theists so the result is even smaller when you take that into account.

    Or are you one of those people who think that someone who answers “no” to “do you believe in a personal God?” something other than “not a theist”?

  • Lori Pieper

    One reason to be slightly skeptical about survey results like this is that a great many people, to put it bluntly, don’t know what they’re talking about when they discuss this subject.

    For instance, exactly how do you define “personal God?” I consider myself fairly sophisticated in the religious sphere, but I myself am not sure. To me, it would mean “a God who is a personal being and not just an amorphous cloud is spiritual energy.”

    On the other hand, C. S. Lewis once recalled that he has spent a good hour discussing the existence of God with someone who said he “didn’t believe in a personal God” before he found out that what the person meant by this was he didn’t believe in an anthropomorphic God – that is, he didn’t believe that God was literally an old man in a white robe in the sky. Of course, a good many people who believe in a personal God don’t believe this either.

    So the surprisingly high percentage of “nones” who say they don’t believe in a personal God might not really reflect what many people think it does. They may actually believe in what we call a personal God without knowing it.

    Once again, I think there’s real lack of sophistication in the news media in discussing this question.

  • Lori Pieper

    Daniel T, your comment evidently posted while I was writing mine; I just wanted to say that, as my post indicates, not all people who would answer “no personal God” are necessarily deists, or would even know what deist means. The category of the unchurched and religiously unaffiliated is just as likely as not to contain a large proportion of the religiously uneducated. Plus trying to put all of what I imagine are literally thousands of different idiosyncratic beliefs and types of belief into one of five or six slots is naturally going to lead to a lot of generalization. So I don’t see any reason to make categorical statements about that 27%.

  • Lori Pieper

    And by the way, how do you figure that “deist” is the same thing as “atheist”? Deists do believe in a God, however remote and uninvolved with us, so theirs shouldn’t be counted as part of the atheist answer, which in terms of this survey is characterized by “there is no such thing” as God. Your version is predicated on those who are theists and those who are not (including atheists and deists) but the question wasn’t posed in those terms, or using those words.

  • Lori Pieper

    oh, sorry for the large number of posts, but I actually meant “statements about that 24%” — that is actually the percentage of those who said “no personal God”.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Daniel T.,
    “Atheist” does not mean “anyone who is not a theist.” “There is no way to know” and “I’m not sure” are agnostic answers, not atheistic ones.

  • Mollie

    Daniel T.,

    As Mike notes, an atheist is “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.” Only a small percentage of people who have no religious affiliation picked the atheist (i.e. denial of existence of God) position.

  • Chas S. Clifton

    If I am not mistaken, isn’t the Auden book titled after the monastic “hour” of Nones? Long O, right?

    Nothing to do with “none,” right? Poor choice of illustration?

    Funny how none of GR’s Christian writers picked up on that.

  • Jerry

    I think there’s real lack of sophistication in the news media in discussing this question.

    I wanted to underline this sentence of Lori Pieper. This is, of course, not just limited to this question but this issue does serve as a visible example of the problem.

  • Mollie


    It may be a poor choice of illustration, but I was familiar with the content of the Auden book.

  • Lymis

    On topic with the original article, but off topic with the thread thus far – one of the things the media seems to be getting very wrong about this is that the “none” label is being discussed as though it is a synonym for atheist, and even here, the numbers are being parsed that way. In fairness, here on the thread, it is only about the one question – which really is a atheist/agnostic/deist/theist question.

    But the none label is about religious affiliation, not about belief in God. People on both sides of the debate (and some heavily atheist blogs are complaining about it too) seem to be assuming that religious belief automatically goes with a chosen religious affiliation.

    The unchurched believers count as nones, too. People who, for whatever reason, maintain a belief strong enough to personally identify with but do not see themselves as part of a tradition, denomination, or convenient label would count as “none” but not as “atheist.”

  • Davis

    Doesn’t this conversation reinforce Myers argument that the press if falling all over itself to interpret the numbers to avoid labeling people athiests, as if that’s the worst thing in the world? While I think Myers is arguing there are more athiests–using Mollie’s definition–then the survey says, he’s also arguing there is an “anyone but athiest” furor in classifying people, because calling someone an athiest is an insult as awful as suggesting someone is a pedophile or something.

  • Mike Hickerson

    How? I took a close look at Myers’ blog post and the ensuing conversation, and I don’t see how his argument holds up. In the research in question (and it is research, not a “poll” as Myers calls it), less than 10% of the people who say they ascribe to “no religion” can legitimately be called “atheists.” As one of the researchers explained on Myers’ blog, they are aware of possible anti-atheist bias in the US and intentionally designed the survey to counter it. I haven’t read enough of the MSM coverage of the survey to know whether Myers’ characterization is correct, but I think he owes the researchers a public apology for the way he and his blog community have treated their work. Myers regularly criticizes conservative Christians for distorting scientific research, yet he’s done exactly that in this case.

    As for the MSM, there’s an educational service in explaining that someone who says they don’t follow any particular religion is not necessarily “godless” (Myers’ choice of word, not mine). I’d be willing to bet that many of these “nones” are quite serious about spirituality, believe very strongly in some sort of divine force or being, and would be offended if they were called atheists – not because of any anti-atheist bias on their part, but because of the misrepresentation of their personal beliefs.

  • C. Wingate

    Well, no. The ARIS study is about religious affiliation; if that is what you are interested in, then people who are unaffiliated because they are irreligious fall in the same bucket as people who have some religious that doesn’t have them going to church/temple/mosque/whatever. Myers is flatly trying to spin the numbers in an attempt to depict the USA as a lot more atheistic than it actually is. But the connection between belief and affiliation creates a problem in covering this sort of survey: how do you get readers to understand that this doesn’t really tell you what people believe?

    It should also be pointed out that Gallup has been polling on this since 1948. Here’s an excerpt from a longer report on religious self-identification:

    In 1948, 2% of Americans interviewed by Gallup volunteered that they had “no religion.” The number stayed in that range until about 1970. By 1972, Gallup had measured 5% with “no religion.” Gallup trends show the percentage gradually increasing since that time, with a very modest decline from an average of 8% in the early 1990s to 6% from 1993-1995, and then some fluctuation in the late 1990s, with the percentage settling in the 9% to 12% range since 2002. (Additionally, in 2008, an average of 3% of Americans did not answer the question on religious identity. Whether these people truly do not have a religious identity, or were confused or had several religious identities, is unknown.)

    If one believes that the ARIS and Gallup data can be juxtaposed, then the message is that the big bump on “nones” is powered mostly by unaffiliated believers. The thing is that press coverage tends to have no memory, so Gallup data released in April isn’t set against the ARIS data let loose six months later.

  • Davis

    I guess I read Myers critique primarily being the anti-athiest “thank God they are those awful athiests” issue more than the actual numbers. While Myers clearly does want to challenge the polling numbers, he also sounds concerned about his perceived tone of the coverage, which is echoed in the comments here.

  • H. E. Baber

    Of course to be fair and balanced you should also note that not everyone who states a “religious preference” believes in God. Fewer than half of those who give their religious preference as Jewish do, and only 70 some odd percent of those who call themselves Catholic say they believe in God. It may be a wash.

  • Mangoe

    I’m guessing that Myers didn’t read any of the raw data. The flip side of his comments, however, is a long-standing tendency of anti-religious writers to transform any deviation from conventional, expressed church-going piety into unbelief. In working on Religious affiliations of United States Presidents in Wikipedia, for example, I found a heavy reliance on a survey written by one Franklin Steiner, associated with the American Rationalist Association. In this survey, published in 1936, he identifies all the early Anglican presidents (except Jefferson, whose copious writings identify him with modern Unitarian beliefs) as deists. Unfortunately for this thesis, the main evidence for it is a lack of evidence. Essentially nothing is known about Monroe’s beliefs, and what Madison wrote is extremely guarded. The situation with Washington is much murkier, and his religion was certainly unconventional by modern standards; but the Second Great Awakening and the Oxford Movement changed everything in US protestantism, so modern standards do not apply. Unlike Tom Paine, he never expressed Deist ideas directly.

    Anyone who has followed the American religious scene over the last few decades has seen how “spiritual but not religious” has become more publicly prominent. Myers simply leaps right over this because, after all, he is a polemicist for his faith in atheism.

  • Daniel T.

    You say that you think Mike is right, and then post a definition that agrees with my position. “A person who denies or disbelieves…” is an atheist.

    When it comes to the question of knowledge, agnosticism fits in (“There is no way to know”.) When it comes to belief, either you believe and are theist or you are not a theist (i.e. you are an atheist.) Davis is absolutely correct and you are falling into the same trap. The stigma against being called “atheist” is so great, that the word itself seems to be getting redefined.

  • C. Wingate

    It never hurts to actually look at the data. The study identifies two responses as agnostic, but keeps them split as “hard agnostic” and “soft agnostic”. The former is the classic “we can’t tell if there is a god” which I would agree can be identified as essentially atheistic. The “soft” response, however, is simply a lack of commitment. Lumping it in with the atheists is arguable at best.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Daniel T.,
    I am defining theism as “belief in a personal, active god,” as distinct from deism, pantheism, and other forms of belief in the divine or supernatural, which I’ll admit is not clearly delineated in the survey. Atheism/theism is not an on/off switch, but two options among several. Yes, “atheist” literally means “not a theist.” However, adherents of many religions are not theists either – for example, a Theravada Buddhist who believes that a good death leads to nothingness, or a Vedantic Hindu who believes that Brahman, the “world soul,” is an impersonal force akin to the ocean. Calling them “atheists” would be technically correct, I suppose, but hardly meaningful.

  • Leigh Williams

    PZ’s post is a continuation of an ongoing issue with him and his fans (they’re called “minions”, by the way), the demonization of atheists in American culture. I read the data the way he does: only 27% of the respondents are conventional theists. The rest are strong/weak atheists, strong/weak agnostics, or deists/Spinoza universe as God types. The 7% who wouldn’t or couldn’t answer aren’t, I suspect, unaffiliated evangelicals, either.

    And I noticed something omitted from the July post, also. At the time PZ desecrated the frackin’ cracker, he also desecrated pages torn out of the Q’uran and The God Delusion — thus demonstrating his contempt for protecting idols while condoning threats of violence to actual human people.

  • Pingback: Week in Review: Nobel Prize Edition at The Emerging Scholars Blog