Where are all the Atheists? The NONES, the NONS, and the SHUNS

February 25, 2012

Barry Kosmin’s ARIS 2008 survey has supplied the most detailed look at American religious identity yet. That category of the "Nones" -- people who said "None" when asked to label their religious identity -- now encompass 15% of Americans, up from 8% in 1990.

The social category of the Nones gathers people together according to their own sense of belonging (or not) to some religious group. As the ARIS 2008 report is careful to explain, this category of the Nones is a category of “belonging”, and not “belief”. Some among the Nones keep believing in some sort of God or universal spirit. ARIS 2008 and other polls consistently show that a small number of people will simultaneously say “I can’t say that I feel a part of any religious denomination” yet also say “I do believe in God.” Still, the social category of Nones is very useful in demographics, sharply separating people who know what religion they belong to apart from people feeling unconnected to any religious tradition.

Where are the atheists among all this polling data? It’s clear that the Nones are hardly all atheists or agnostics – lots of Nones still believe in a god. It would be nice to have a clear demographic category dealing with non-belief in god, to match non-affiliation in religion. Long, long ago, there was a unique obvious category – the “Atheist” – to gather under one label all those unwilling or unable to agree that god exists. Since Enlightenment times, more options and labels have emerged. Nowadays, the amiable game of debating who is the proper atheist vs. the agnostic vs. ____ vs.... well, you may already know how that game is played, to no final conclusion.

As for me, I have applied a practical meaning for the atheist – someone who lacks a belief in God or universal spirit (which includes those deist/pantheist/spiritualist options). On my definition of the atheist, this label properly covers the apatheist, the skeptic, and the gnostic subcategories of “the atheist.” The apatheist doesn’t care at all about God or religion, so it just isn’t true that they disbelieve in God. They lack belief in God, but if you ask them “Do you believe in God” they usually won’t reply with “Nope, I think God doesn’t exist.” Instead, they will deny that they think that God doesn’t exist, because they don’t find any opinion about God meaningful, understandable, assertable, or sensible. The skeptics, by contrast, are happy to reply “I’m doubtful about God” or “I don’t think that God exists,” while the gnostics (the “knowers” – not those 2nd-3rd century Gnostics) go further by claiming to be quite sure, or saying they pretty much know, that no God exists.

However satisfying that you and I may find my three-fold subdivision of atheists, what I’m far more interested in is the issue of what to label all these sorts of people. As for me, calling them all “atheists” works just fine – since I already like my tidy subdivisions. But that won’t work as a label for everyone else to use. In American life today, the word “atheist” has a common meaning much closer to “confidently says that no God exists” or “claims to know that no God exists.” Nonbelievers don’t have much control over the common public meanings of their own labels. Polling exposes the consequences: as much as 7 or 8% of Americans say they do not believe in a God, but far fewer (around 2% usually) will choose the “Atheist” label for themselves when a poll offers that label as an option.

How many atheists are there in America? Religious organizations proudly trumpet how there are very few atheists, while honest reporting instead mentions that 7-8% figure. However, that 7-8% figure doesn’t include additional people who do look like atheists according to my broader definition, especially those who are quite unsure how to answer a God-belief question.

I think that many apatheists and some skeptics are getting left out of the polling category of “Don’t have a belief in God.” I’m interested in a sharp contrast between the 2010 Gallup poll and divergent results in the 2009 Harris, 2008 ARIS, and 2007 Pew surveys.

2010 – Gallup
Believe in God = 80%
Believe in universal spirit = 12%
Believe in other = 1%
Believe in neither/no opinion = 7%

2009 – Harris
Believe in God = 82%
Not sure = 9%
Don’t believe in God = 9%

2008 – ARIS
Believe in a personal God = 70%
Believe in a higher power = 12%
Not sure/no way to know = 10%
Don’t know how to answer/refused to answer = 6%
Believe there is no God = 2%

2007 – Pew
Label themselves as Christian = 78.4%
Label themselves as Muslim/Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu/etc = 4.7%
Religious, but won’t label themselves = 5.8%
Nonreligious but won’t label themselves = 6.3%
Label themselves as Agnostic = 2.4%
Label themselves as Atheist = 1.6%

In 2007, Pew found that a total of 10.3% of Americans (6.3 + 2.4 + 1.6) can’t say that they are religious. That figure goes up to 18% (10 + 6 + 2) in the ARIS 2008 poll, and the 2009 Harris poll arrives at the same 18% figure (9 + 9). These numbers are much higher than the 7% figure in the later 2010 Pew poll, probably because that Pew poll didn’t offer a way to categorize people expressing low degrees of belief, such as “Not sure,” “Don’t know how to answer,” and “No opinion.” That’s where so many apatheists and skeptics are located! If a (hypothetical) 2012 Pew poll were to offer optional ways to indicate degrees of belief, that fresh poll would probably look similar to the other recent polls.

The two reliable large polls about religious belief in the past four years, 2009 Harris and 2008 ARIS, determined that 18% of Americans don’t reply that they believe in some sort of god. Hopefully, careful demographic surveys will continue to accurate categorize optional ranges for all nonbelievers, including those who feel unsure, or can’t say, or just have no opinion on the question of a god’s existence. Are 18% of Americans now atheists? They are nonbelieving enough for me, and these “Nons” should be applauded for leaving faith behind.

For religious demographics, however, these “Nons” are not all the same people as the “Nones,” although their respective numbers are about the same. Some people retain belief in a god but they will tell pollsters that they don’t affiliate with any religious denomination, so they get counted among the Nones but not the Nons. Similarly, some other people don’t believe anymore but they sometimes go to a church or observe religious holidays, so they tell pollsters that they do affiliate with some religious denomination, and therefore they don’t get counted among the Nones. There couldn’t be a very large number of either of these kinds of people, but there are probably enough of them to throw off summary statistics by a couple of percentage points at least.

Perhaps the most honest measure of nonreligiosity would be to additionally track the “Shuns” – those who neither have a belief in a god nor engage in any religious practices. The Shuns would be the most disengaged and distant from religious belief, belonging, or behavior. How many Shuns live in America today? Any educated guess could range from 6 to 12% -- but arguing over any specific number is pointless since there hasn’t been enough data fully analyzed to quite say.  

If you are interested in the social reach and influence of religious organizations, then you watch the figures for the Nones. If you care about how many people don’t have religious belief, then you track the figures for the Nons. And if you want to know how many people are entirely secular, then you try to figure out those Shuns as well. However you look at it, religion is declining in America by any sound measure.