Whatever the short-term fluctuations of politics, the long-term trends driving the evolution of American society are stable. And one of the most consistent trends in America since I started writing this blog has been the steady growth in the number of self-identified atheists and agnostics. It’s a cheering thought that gives me hope for future generations discarding the harmful dogmas of the past.
But even these optimistic estimates may have been an undercount, if a new study is to be believed. The truth could well be that, as FiveThirtyEight puts it, way more Americans may be atheists than we thought.
It’s often been observed that the social stigma surrounding atheism makes people reluctant to claim the label for themselves. This is an enduring problem that leads outsiders to miscount and underestimate our numbers. This study’s authors came up with a way to get around that problem: a statistical technique that allows them to deduce the answer without anyone ever having to say “I am an atheist” or “I don’t believe in God”.
Instead of asking about belief in God directly, they provided a list of seemingly innocuous statements and then asked: “How many of these statements are true of you?” Respondents in a control group were given a list of nine statements, such as “I own a dog” and “I am a vegetarian.” The test group received all the same statements plus one that read, “I do not believe in God.” The totals from the test group were then compared to those from the control group, allowing researchers to estimate the number of people who identify as atheists without requiring any of the respondents to directly state that they don’t believe in God.
And the results?
The study concludes that roughly one-quarter (26 percent) of Americans likely do not believe in God.
This is a stunning number. To put it in context, when I last wrote about atheist demographics in 2015, these were the latest numbers:
[I]n 2007, about 4% of all Americans identified as atheist or agnostic. As of 2014, that number is now slightly more than 7%.
Even that 7% number, small as it sounds, is bigger than any single Christian denomination, or the total number of all non-Christian believers in America combined. The new finding blows that away. If one-quarter of Americans – 75 million people! – are atheists, then we’re not just an influential minority, we’re the most typical member of the American religious landscape.
Now, some necessary caveats. Obviously, this shouldn’t be taken as the definitive answer to how many atheists there are in America. There’s plenty of room to debate whether this new methodology is best at piercing the veil of stigma or whether another method could be more accurate. I’d also like to see other studies reproduce this result before I put full confidence in it.But the biggest problem is that, in a way, the answer to this question doesn’t matter. If atheists don’t flex our political muscle, if we don’t organize and vote and march in proportion to our numbers, it’s irrelevant how many of us there are. We could be 51% of the population and still lose at every turn on the issues we care about. With America careening toward theocracy even as the populace becomes more secular, that’s a lesson the secular community may be about to learn through hard experience.
On a related note, here’s some more good news for secularists and freethinkers. According to a Gallup survey, the percentage of creationists in America is the lowest it’s ever been in the 35 years they’ve been polling this question:
The percentage of U.S. adults who believe that God created humans in their present form at some time within the last 10,000 years or so – the strict creationist view – has reached a new low. Thirty-eight percent of U.S. adults now accept creationism, while 57% believe in some form of evolution – either God-guided or not – saying man developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life.
…This is the first time since 1982 – when Gallup began asking this question using this wording – that belief in God’s direct creation of man has not been the outright most-common response.
It’s a depressing commentary on the ignorance of America that it took until the year 2017 for creationism to become the non-majority view. While science is more important than it’s ever been for the continued survival and prosperity of the human species, anti-scientific ignorance maintains its stubborn hold on the minds of the uneducated. But here, too, there are bright spots:
Since 1982, agreement with the “secular” viewpoint, meaning humans evolved from lower life forms without any divine intervention, has doubled.
It’s no surprise that acceptance of life’s natural history has grown in tandem with the overall rise in the number of atheists. As we reject religious dogmas based in faith, the natural alternative stands as the only plausible explanation.
That’s not to say that evolution is anything like a dogma among us; it’s just the best-supported scientific answer right now. If we’re proper skeptics and rationalists, we have no allegiance to one particular theory, only to whatever conclusion the evidence points towards. If evolution were disproven tomorrow, we’d simply go in search of a better theory to replace it. But the belief that God created humanity out of mud 10,000 years ago wouldn’t become any more compelling.