The Atheist Community Is Diversifying

The Atheist Community Is Diversifying March 30, 2015

WhiteFlower

I was pleased to read about a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute on millennial views about sex. It confirms our generally pro-choice and non-judgmental attitude, with a few caveats:

“What we see running through the answers is that where principles of fairness come up, millennials want to see equal access to health services, abortion and contraception. They think people should have individual freedom to make decisions,” said [Robert] Jones [CEO of PRRI].

For the most part, millennials support birth control and abortion access, and are in favor of mandatory coverage of contraception in health plans, including from private companies. Majorities also believe that sexual assault on campus and sex discrimination in the workforce are still significant problems.

Unsurprisingly, the least progressive millennials are the white evangelicals (even more so than Hispanic and black Protestants, who are more conservative than average). However, even here there’s good news:

White evangelical millennials also stood out from other millennials on the issue of abortion: 80 percent of white evangelical millennials say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. That set them apart from majorities of black Protestants, white mainline Protestants and white Catholics who all say it should be legal in all or most cases.

However, the influence of white evangelicals on public opinion in the future may be muted by their small — and aging — numbers. White evangelicals are the oldest of the major religious affiliations, with 49 percent of them age 50 and older.

This is an encouraging fact, potentially indicating that slut-shaming as a culture war tactic and American puritanism about sex in general will decline in the years to come. But I have even better news to report.

The Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling firm, just released a report titled 2015 State of Atheism in America. It’s the culmination of a year-long effort to survey and study the unchurched-by-choice demographic, and it’s potentially valuable as an outsider’s view of religious skepticism, showing us things about ourselves that we might have overlooked. And if their findings can be believed, the secular community is changing in a huge – and very welcome – way:

Perhaps the biggest transition of all is the entry of millions of women into the skeptic ranks. In 1993 only 16 percent of atheists and agnostics were women. By 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43 percent. This enormous increase is not because the number of skeptic men has declined. In fact, men’s numbers have steadily increased over the last two decades — but not nearly as rapidly as among women.

Religious skepticism has become more racially and ethnically inclusive. While whites represented 80 percent of all skeptics 20 years ago, that figure had dropped to 74 percent by 2013. This is largely a reflection of the increasing Hispanic and Asian adults among the skeptic cohort. Asian Americans, the least-Christian ethnic demographic in the United States, especially tend to embrace skepticism. While a growing number of skeptics are Hispanic, they still remain, along with Blacks, less likely than other ethnic groups to accept the idea of a world without God. White Americans, who constitute two-thirds of the country’s total population, are well above average in their embrace of atheism and agnosticism; they comprise three-quarters of the skeptic segment.

…In many ways, skeptics resemble the rest of America more than they once did. And their numbers are growing more quickly than anyone expected 20 years ago.

Barna’s survey is also notable for what it says about the causes of unbelief. Most Christian authorities, with a few rare and honorable exceptions, have convinced themselves that young people are giving up on faith because of ignorance or distorted ideas. The Barna survey faces up to the truth: that most atheists and agnostics understand perfectly well what Christian theology says, we just reject it.

Given their antipathy or indifference toward the Bible, it is remarkable that six out of 10 skeptics own at least one copy. Most have read from it in the past, and a handful (almost exclusively agnostics) still read it at least once a month. The fact is, most skeptics have some firsthand experience with the Bible, and most had some regular exposure to it during their youth.

Churches have done little to convince skeptics to reevaluate. In fact, because more than two-thirds of skeptics have attended Christian churches in the past — most for an extended period of time — their dismissal of God, the Bible and churches is not theoretical in nature.

Many atheist writers (myself included) have been banging the drum for a while about the pressing need to increase diversity in the secular community. Barna’s findings indicate that our work is bearing fruit, perhaps faster than any of us expected.

The traditional base of skepticism has been white men, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se. There are good reasons why the most privileged demographic in society would be the first to break away from religion, since we’re best positioned to withstand the backlash. But if we want to expand our influence and succeed in making society more rational, we can’t remain a movement composed mostly of white men. That’s a recipe for political irrelevance at best, demographic suicide at worst, as America becomes a more diverse, majority-minority nation.

If we hope to succeed as a movement, we need to reach out to people who’ve historically been underrepresented in atheism, and if necessary, broaden our concerns to include theirs. Even more importantly, when women and minorities tell us we’re making them feel unwelcome, we need to listen! This simple truth has provoked massive petulance and outright tantrums from the old guard – but if Barna is to be believed, we’re succeeding at diversifying in spite of them.

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