The Numbers Game

April 21, 2009

As I mentioned the other day (OK - it’s been a few weeks; I’ve been busy), I believe we need to examine the claim made by some, including the Center for Inquiry in a 2008 press release, that the number of Americans who are nonreligious has increased dramatically in recent years and churches in the United States are soon going to be as empty as those in Sweden.

The two principal bases for this claim are the   U.S. Religious Landscape Survey released by the Pew Forum in 2008 and the   American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) released this year. The Pew Forum survey found that 16% of Americans stated that they are not affiliated with any religion. However, "unaffiliated" is not identical in meaning or reference to "nonreligious." In fact, the majority of the unaffiliated stated that they were not affiliated with any particular religion. This does not imply they are not religious. The Pew Forum survey itself stated, "it is simply not accurate to describe the entire group [of unaffiliated] as nonreligious." In the survey, only 4% of Americans described themselves as atheists or agnostics, with another 6% saying religion was unimportant in their lives. Moreover, about one-fifth of the self-described atheists stated they believe in God. (No, I can’t figure this out either.)

The ARIS found that the proportion of Americans who state that they do not identify with any particular religion is about 15%. This is roughly double the number who placed themselves in this category in 1990, so this does suggest a definite trend - but a trend for what? Here again - to borrow a phrase - the devil is in the details. The percentage of Americans who stated that there is no God was only 2.3%. An additional 4.3% stated there was no way to know whether there was a deity (the traditional understanding of an agnostic). Therefore, only about 6.6% would be considered atheist or agnostic under the generally accepted definitions of those terms. The increase in those not identifying themselves with a particular religion seems to indicate just that: more people do not want to be classified as Catholic or Methodist or Episcopalian or what have you. It does not necessarily mean they are not believers.

Moreover, even if we take the 15% figure as an indication of the number of nonreligious, this implies that 85% of Americans are religious. In elections, a candidate who obtains 60% of the vote is usually considered to have won in a landslide. When a glass of water is 85% full, it’s pretty full. Religious belief remains resilient in the United States.

So if we mean by a "secular nation" a nation in which the majority of individuals are not religious, the U.S. is not close to becoming a secular nation.

But should that bother us? One concern I have about the fixation some seculars seem to have with the recent surveys is that it suggests that our goal should be to persuade the majority of Americans to abandon belief in God or gods. Why? Does it make us feel more secure in our own beliefs if more people agree with us? That’s pretty pathetic.

Numbers do matter, but only up to a certain point. If our goal is not to "convert" most Americans to atheism or humanism, but instead to end the privileged position that religion still enjoys in our society and to prevent religious dogma from influencing public policy, then we don’t need to obsess about how close we are to being a majority. Provided there are a sufficient number of nonreligious to make their voices heard - and a sufficient number of the religious who understand the importance of basing public policy on secular considerations and empirical evidence - our most important goals are achievable. I don’t really care how many people go to church, temple, or mosque, provided they keep their religious views to themselves. If by "secular nation" we mean a nation in which government and public policy are kept strictly separate from religion, then the Framers arguably established that nation more than two centuries ago - at least in theory. We just have to work on implementing their vision. Surveys about the number of Americans who identify themselves as nonreligious are, at best, a very imperfect guide to our progress in that regard.