Thirty Percent of Americans Are Really Atheists? Says Who?

Thirty Percent of Americans Are Really Atheists? Says Who? October 23, 2015

A Harvard graduate student in journalism contacted me recently because he was writing a piece about the Openly Secular campaign for The Humanist (You can read his article here). For reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s been following what I write, I’ve been a vocal and visible supporter of that campaign. I even agreed once to appear on CBS Sunday Morning to tell a little bit about the difficulties of openly identifying as a nonreligious person in a highly religious area. If you haven’t caught that before, you can watch that segment here.

The article in The Humanist also quotes four others including Todd Stiefel, who helped create and now leads the Openly Secular campaign, and David Silverman, who is among its many supporters but who objects to the choice of the name “Openly Secular” over the name “Openly Atheist.”  Silverman’s contention, which I understand features prominently in his new book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, is that far more people in the United States are really atheists but won’t admit it. Either they aren’t aware that they’re atheists, or else they’re flat out lying about it.  Either way, he seems to think he knows more about what they believe than they do.

Exactly what percentage of Americans does Silverman think are really atheists?

“This country is nearly 30 percent atheist today…”

Hold up. Wut?

Now, I’m a lifelong student of religion, particularly in its American varieties, and I have a fairly strong working sense of how prevalent atheism is within what is by all accounts the most religious post-industrial country in the world.  And I know good and well that number is waaaay off.  I asked him how he arrived at that outrageous statistic and this was his reply:

“As I describe in my book Fighting God, 42 million nones are 24% theistic… so that’s 32 million atheists. According to Barna, 22% of Christians (48 Million) see God as a metaphor for something real, like love or the universe. These are atheists too…”

Okay, back up just a second.  I see two bold claims there which clearly don’t track with reality, and the bulk of his numbers (82 million total atheists) come from these two assertions.  They are as follows:

1) 76% of the religiously unaffiliated in America are really atheists who just won’t admit it (that’s 32 million), and

2) Nearly a quarter of all people in the U.S. who call themselves Christians are really atheists as well (that’s another 48 million).

Let’s start with the first claim and figure out what’s going on with these numbers.

What Percentage of “the Nones” Believe in God?

beliefchartAccording to the Pew Research Center, which published the now famous studies chronicling “the rise of the nones” (full report here), the total number of atheists and agnostics put together don’t make up more than 7% of the U.S. population—certainly not 30% like Silverman says. But he contends that many more people among the unaffiliated simply don’t self-identify as such, which necessitates that we take a closer look at the beliefs of “the nones.” So what percentage of the unaffiliated have some kind of belief in God?

First of all, the Pew study puts the percentage of Americans who don’t claim a religion at just under 23%. That would include, yes, atheists and agnostics, but also it would include anyone else who still believes in God but who no longer feels a loyalty to any of the brands of religion currently cluttering the religious landscape.  Fortunately, their quantitative studies go into much more detail than that. According to Pew’s findings, 68% of the unaffiliated still “believe in God or universal spirit” (see table). Silverman is highly uncomfortable with that second category, but we’ll get to that in a second.

In order to not rely on only one religious survey group, I also asked the folks at the Public Religion Research Institute what their research says, and according to the director of their research,

“We found in a recent survey that 28% of religiously unaffiliated Americans believe in a personal God, 36% believe that God is an impersonal force and 28% say they do not believe in God.”

So they put the number of theistic nones at 64%, which essentially corroborates the data from Pew.  Their numbers essentially agree, and are the mirror opposite of what Silverman argues in his first point.

So I asked him to provide the source of his assertion, and he pointed me to another study done by PRRI which he says indicates that 76% of the unaffiliated are really atheists and just won’t admit it. In the relevant question from that study, religiously unaffiliated respondents were asked:

In general would you describe yourself more as a religious person or as secular, that is someone who is NOT religious?

They were then offered a few options, the first of which were: Religious, Secular-not religious, Spiritual-not religious, or Other (fill-in-the-blank).  When offered those options, 24% were religious, 52% identified as secular (either spiritual or not), and 24% identified as “atheist” or “agnostic.” So the two groups of “seculars” were lumped together in a way that didn’t distinguish from the spiritual/theists and the not-spiritual. You can see a screenshot of the relevant graphic from that study below.

prri_study

From Silverman’s perspective, all respondents who picked the “secular” option—which includes that ubiquitous spiritual-but-not-religious crowd—are really atheists.  One wonders what definition of atheism he is using here, and also what specific version of God a person must believe in before Silverman releases that person from the camp into which he wants to put nearly a third of all Americans.  Again, we’ll get to that in a second.

But first I’d like to note how much more popular the term “secular” was among those respondents than were either the word “atheist” or “agnostic.”  When given the option to label themselves, more Americans identified with the former rather than either of the latter two labels.  Which leads me to ask:  If you’re putting together a national public relations campaign, wouldn’t you want to choose the term by which more Americans will readily choose to describe themselves?  Isn’t the inclusiveness and applicability of that term precisely what makes it a better choice for naming a campaign meant to show how numerous a particular subgroup of Americans are?

But enough of that. Let’s move on to examine Silverman’s second brash assertion that nearly a quarter of people in the U.S. who call themselves “Christian” are really atheists.

The “No True Christian” Argument in the Hands of an Atheist

I asked Silverman on what source he based his statement that “22% of Christians see God as a metaphor for something real, like love or the universe. These are atheists too…”  He says he pulled that from a 2009 study by the Barna Group which states:

“All 1,871 self-described Christians were asked about their perception of God. In total, three-quarters (78%) said he is the ‘all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe who rules the world today.’ The remaining one-quarter chose other descriptions of God – depictions that are not consistent with biblical teaching…”  

So that’s where he got his 22% statistic.  But is it really accurate to claim that all who fell into that grouping are atheists merely because the version of God to which they hold isn’t the “biblical” (i.e. the evangelical Christian) version?  On a previous page, Barna took the time to clarify what “the biblical teaching” connotes:

For the purposes of the survey, a “biblical worldview” was defined as believing that absolute moral truth exists; the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches; Satan is considered to be a real being or force, not merely symbolic; a person cannot earn their way into Heaven by trying to be good or do good works; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and God is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the world who still rules the universe today. In the research, anyone who held all of those beliefs was said to have a biblical worldview.”

So in effect, Silverman is arguing that because nearly a quarter of respondents to a Barna survey subscribe to non-evangelical theistic beliefs (e.g. Maybe God isn’t all-knowing, or all-powerful, or doesn’t intervene in the daily lives of people), those people are all atheists. And when he says that 30 percent of Americans are atheists, he’s basing more than half of that percentage (48 million of 82 million, by his math) on this rendering of theism. Anyone who doesn’t view God in the same terms as Barna does isn’t a True Christian, and by default he or she must therefore be an atheist.

The Problem with Forcing Labels

Nobody likes being told what they are by someone else if it disagrees with how they self-identify.  I’ve lost count of how many preachers have taught their obedient congregations to believe that deep down everyone is a closet Abrahamic monotheist. It matters not what you say you believe. There’s a verse in the Bible that says everyone knows there’s a God (why only one god, I’m not really sure), so anyone who says otherwise is lying.  What a rude thing to say, and yet they have all been taught that this is normal.  The particularly obnoxious Ray Comfort even titled a book God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists.  

But how is it any different from what Comfort does when one of our most visible spokesmen for non-belief announces that deep down virtually everyone who doesn’t explicitly subscribe to evangelical Protestantism must necessarily be an atheist no matter whether he knows it or not?  It seems to me that this line of reasoning runs roughshod over the personal boundaries of the very people Silverman says he wants to reach.

Stealing a page from the fundamentalist preacher’s playbook, he purports to tell others what they really believe, stamping each of their foreheads with a label which they have explicitly rejected, in many cases choosing the term “secular” instead.  But rather than acknowledging the breadth of the appeal of this more inclusive term, he wants to argue people into embracing the more divisive and narrow term with which clearly so many of them cannot identify.  I fail to see how this is a winning tactic.

Incidentally, I don’t hesitate to embrace the atheist label myself because it does in fact indicate my answer to the singular question: Do you believe in gods?  But it’s such a limited word because it doesn’t tell you enough about who I am, what my values are, or what place I think religious beliefs should play in public life.  To encompass those things, I either describe myself as a humanist or alternatively as a secularist. These are not euphemisms or lies, as Silverman brazenly accuses.  They are better words because they encompass more issues, they fit more people, and they address what unites people rather than what separates them from one another.

Philosophical questions aside, I’m calling BS on Silverman’s numbers because I see no value in misrepresenting the data as it was presented by the people who did the studies. A deeper look into the sources of his statistics shows that they don’t really say what he thinks they say at all. Perhaps David would like to reply to some of the things I’ve discussed here today?  Perhaps not.  We will see.  If he’d like to address the concerns I’ve laid out, I’ll be happy to publish his response here whenever he offers it.  Invitation’s open.

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