American Nonbelievers are now Third behind Catholics and Baptists

March 9, 2009

The   2008 American Religious Identification Survey has just been released . Confirming earlier trends, the fasted growing segment of the American population is still the "Nones", especially in the Northeast. The   Survey tables show how the 8.2% of Americans in 1990 who declared their atheism, agnosticism, or lack of belief in any religion has grown to 15% by 2008.

Confirming this lack of belief in religion is   a new question asking people about their belief in God . 2.3% answered "there is no such thing" as God, while 4.3% said "there is no way to know" and another 5.7% said "I’m not sure." Adding together the atheists with the strongly skeptical and the personally skeptical reaches 12.3% which is similar measure of American skepticism and disbelief. With another 12.1% of Americans who think there is a god but it isn’t a personal theistic god, a grand total of 24.4% of Americans announce that the traditional supernatural God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam doesn’t exist.

We can applaud surveys of American belief/disbelief that use more nuanced questioning about what people actually do and don’t believe in. So far, as indicated by this latest definitive survey, these lines of questioning show that Americans are much more willing to express their skepticism than they are willing to label themselves as "atheist" or agnostic". The labels are holding people back, as many have suspected for a long time. Isn’t this a good time to remind everyone that the label of "skeptic" is perfectly fitting and ready for use?

The dividing line between ‘atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’ got too murky after the atheist was strategically defined as dogmatically knowing that God does not exist. Agnostics too willingly stepped into the new gray area between dogmatic belief and dogmatic disbelief. This verbal tactic worked admirably. Friends of religion can portray atheists as even more close-minded than they are (quite a feat in itself). Agnostics can look more open-minded than really necessary. (Is "I’m just agnostic" the trimmer hipper version of "I’m just spiritual"?) But putting your faith in a label might not be working.

The portion of the Nones who label themselves as "atheist" still remains small. But "agnostic" has not fared much better. Surveys show that more and more people are willing to express doubt about God, yet most don’t want to even call themselves "agnostic" much less "atheist". Pundits and atheologists endlessly debate what exactly is the big difference between an atheist and an agnostic (after all, neither believe in God). New flavors of ‘negative’ or ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ or ‘positive’ atheism, and ‘negative’ or ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ or ‘positive’ agnosticism are test marketed to the unfaithful. Which of these eight flavors is the most reasonable stance, since traditional supernaturalism is unreasonable? Yet the American people are leaving all that debate and semantics behind. Are the American people wrong-headed about this?

Why not return to the original meaning of atheism: simple skepticism. The most reasonable atheist is the skeptical atheist, unable to believe because reasonable support for any religious claim is lacking. The skeptical atheist only need worry about countering given evidence and arguments for gods with skeptical complaints. “Disproving god” once and for all is never a clear or attainable goal. (How many possible divinities would have to be proven non-existent?) Fortunately, this goal is entirely unnecessary for the atheist who avoids distractions. The skeptical atheist is not dogmatic, and not a ‘weak’ or ‘negative’ atheist – or some kind of agnostic. Such fine distinctions must be discarded. The skeptical atheist claims the strongest possible position concerning the existence of god: no one should believe that any god exists because of insufficient reasonable justification for belief. More and more Americans are coming to agree. The Nones are simply skeptical, and that’s atheism enough.



#1 Rich (Guest) on Monday March 09, 2009 at 9:06pm

Considering that the question asked in the ARIS survey was:

What is your religion, if any? (DO NOT READ LIST)
(IF NECESSARY “Whatever religious group you identify with”)

it doesn’t surprise me that many who might otherwise self-identify as atheists or agnostics in many contexts would answer the question “No religion/None”.
I suspect the question itself skews the number who answer “Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, or Secular” downward considerably.

#2 Kris Diehl (Guest) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 at 8:13am

Having been a non-believer for some years now, but only recently discovering the greater support network of freethinkers, I’ve been wondering about the nomenclature myself. “Atheism” and “agnosticism” do have all the problems described above, plus they just *sound* like religions themselves, perhaps lending to peoples’, (especially the religious’) misconception of them as a devout form of belief. “Non-believer” or even “skeptic” are also problematic to me because they intrinsically are at odds with the religious believers, creating conflict from the get-go and making it that much harder for us to be listened to. The best I’ve come up with is “rationalist,” which avoids making any sort of value-judgement about those, the “religious,” who are not. At least no more so than, say, “liberal” vs. “conservative.” If we can have liberally-minded conservatives and liberals with a fiscally conservative stance, then surely a self-identified religious person can also have rational ideas, or an essentially rational person can have some religious beliefs?

#3 Erik (Guest) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 at 8:29am

Typo in the first sentence: ‘fasted’ should be ‘fastest’. FYI.

#4 Paul LaClair (Guest) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 at 9:58am

I’m going to go off on my usual rant against the term non-believer. Skeptic is a good word, as you point out, so use it. Non-theist would do equally well.

The reason I’m so insistent about this is that calling ourselves “non-believers” is an enormous mistake in my opinion. Yes, I know people know what you mean, but this term implies that the only belief is a belief in “God.”

This is no small point. As a trial lawyer, I am keenly aware of the power of words. By using this term—- and we do it all the time—- we give credence to the view that we are nihilists; I reject that label emphatically. We are also saying that the theists get to dictate what is meaningful and what isn’t. This term is like saying that all the things we believe—- reason, science, a universal ethic based on the value of a human life for the sake of the person living it—- are meaningless.

That’s the theists’ argument. Why make it for them?

We really need to take this seriously, and stop shooting ourselves in the collective foot.

#5 Bill Walker (Guest) on Tuesday March 10, 2009 at 9:22pm

If the Catholic church was subjected to an actual body count, instead of counting as Catholic everyone who had been baptised Catholic, we’d be closer to second place. A huge percentage of us are apostate Catholics.

#6 april (Guest) on Thursday March 12, 2009 at 3:00pm

There’s another survey up - a general survey that shows a decline in faith in organized religion:

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