The 2008 ARIS: Atheist State of the Nation

The 2008 ARIS: Atheist State of the Nation March 13, 2009

As you’ve surely heard by now, the landmark 2008 American Religious Identification Survey has just been released. The ARIS is an enormous study that questioned over 50,000 respondents to assemble a broad picture of religious belief and disbelief in the United States, building on previous surveys from 1990 and 2001.

The 2001 results showed that nonbelievers had made incredible gains, rising from 8% to just over 14% of the U.S. population in just ten years – a genuine demographic boom. The new findings don’t show a continuation of this torrid rate of growth, but on the whole, they’re still very good news for atheists. Consider some of the highlights from the 2008 report’s chief investigators, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar:

The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, has now increased to 15 percent. Given the estimated growth of the American adult population since the last census from 207 million to 228 million, that reflects an additional 4.7 million “Nones.”

…”Many people thought our 2001 finding was an anomaly,” Keysar said. We now know it wasn’t. The ‘Nones’ are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.”

The percentage of Christians in America, which declined in the 1990s from 86.2 percent to 76.7 percent, has now edged down to 76 percent.

Only 1.6 percent of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic. But based on stated beliefs, 12 percent are atheist (no God) or agnostic (unsure), while 12 percent more are deistic (believe in a higher power but not a personal God). The number of outright atheists has nearly doubled since 2001, from 900 thousand to 1.6 million.

And best of all:

The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.

What these results show is that atheism in the U.S. is undergoing a period of strengthening and consolidation. It was hardly to be expected that we could continue to double in number every ten years. But we are still growing – granted, more slowly than before – but that is a significant achievement when most religious groups continue to lose ground. As the study’s findings show, Christianity’s share of the total population has declined by over 10% since 1990. Meanwhile, nonbelievers – and only nonbelievers – continue to make gains in every region of the country, especially the Northeast. (USA Today‘s Flash graphic offers a visual of the rise of the nonreligious in every state over the past eighteen years.)

We should also take courage from the fact that, within the larger group collectively identified as nonreligious or “nones”, the percentage of that group which specifically identifies themselves as atheist or agnostic continues to rise: from 0.7% in 1990 to 0.9% in 2001 to 1.6% – or about 3.6 million Americans – in 2008. This is a considerably faster growth than that of the nonreligious as a whole, and shows that our campaign to speak out is working! More and more people are coming out of the closet and announcing themselves to be atheists or agnostics. Prominent atheist spokespeople like Richard Dawkins deserve to be praised for the good work they’ve done in helping to spread our message, and their success is solid evidence that we’ve been on the right track all along when it comes to promoting atheism to the public.

But, by the same measure, these results also show us that there’s much work still to be done. As mentioned in one of the above quotes, although the people who call themselves atheist comprise only about 1.6% of the population, the people who are atheists (based on their stated beliefs) make up an amazing 12% of the population of America. Another 12% or so are deists.

What this tells us is that, despite the success atheists have so far enjoyed in our evangelism, we have much more ground left to cover. There are millions and millions of Americans who are atheist in all but name, but who choose not to use that term to describe themselves. Most likely, this is due to the lingering negative stereotypes about atheists which make people hesitant to claim that identity for themselves. We “out” atheists need to do more to dispel those prejudices. We need to work harder to depict atheism as the positive and healthy worldview it is, one that people can claim proudly for themselves and need not be embarrassed or ashamed of adopting, and we need to make our case more strongly to deists and other “soft” believers who are most amenable to persuasion.

Although our numbers are growing, there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit still waiting to be harvested. If we do our job, we can bring atheism fully into the daylight and give rise to an organized, motivated political and ethical movement. If we can achieve this, the next ARIS may well come up with results that will further dismay and dishearten the forces of theocracy and give hope and courage to secularists and rationalists the world over.

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