I got a chance to listen to this debate yesterday—I found myself almost entirely in agreement with Hemant Mehta.
I found David Silverman’s claim that there are 50-60 million atheists in the United States to be highly implausible. A close look at the demographics of the “nones” (as well as the atheists in organized religions—those who self-identify as members of a major religion yet answer “no” when asked if they believe in God) suggests to me that he’s greatly overstating the number.
And even though many atheists want to define “atheism” to mean mere “lack of belief in gods” (as opposed to “disbelief in gods”), most agnostics will continue to disagree and not self-identify as atheists.
The Pew Forum’s stats: http://pewforum.org/Not-All-Nonbelievers-Call-Themselves-Atheists.aspx
Of those who say they do not believe in God,
24% identify as atheist
15% identify as agnostic
35% identify as nothing in particular
14% identify as Christian
10% identify as other faiths
2% don’t know/refused to answer
The total of all of those amount to 5% of the population, or about 17.5 million. So 4.2 million who don’t believe in God self-identify as atheists.
When you look at it the other way—first ask who self-identifies as atheist or agnostic—you get more agnostics than atheists (2.4% vs. 1.6%). See http://religions.pewforum.org/affiliations, the “unaffiliated” consist of those two groups plus 12.4% of the population who self-identify as “nothing in particular.” But of those so-called “atheists,” 21% answer “yes” to the question, “do you believe in God or a higher power,” as does an even larger percentage of the agnostics.
On that survey, 2.4% of the population self-identify as atheists (even if they believe in God), or about 8.4 million people. If you substract those “atheists” who say they believe in God, you get about 6.6 million (which doesn’t quite match the 4.2 million from the other survey).
But there’s no way you get anywhere close to 50-60 million, even if you could all who self-identify as atheist and all who answer “no” to the question of whether they don’t believe in “God or a higher power.”
Another way to look at it—what’s the membership of American Atheists? Or even the sum of membership of all U.S. atheist groups (which would involve a lot of multiple-counting, since many people are members of multiple atheist groups)?