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Profiles of the Godless: Results from a Survey of the Nonreligious

August 05, 2009

Amherst, NY (August 5, 2009)—The best statistical portrait yet available of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonreligious Americans, based on data collected from nearly 6,000 respondents, has just been published in Free Inquiry magazine (Vol. 29, No. 5, pps. 41-45). Luke Galen, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University (Grand Rapids, Mich.), reported on the Non-Religious Identification Survey (NRIS), which he conducted in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry, a secular think tank.

“NRIS is the first study of its type to direct a full range of sociological survey questions to a population of ‘nones,’ as they have come to be known,” said Thomas Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry . (“Nones” are respondents who tell pollsters they identify with no religious tradition.) “For decades, pollsters and social scientists have used surveys to measure the religious beliefs and attitudes of believers. We have mountains of data, from the substantial to the silly; there’s data on the nonreligious too, but it’s far skimpier and suffers from having been collected accidentally.”

This new survey reports that confident nonbelievers are more emotionally healthy with respect to “fence sitters” or religious doubters, shows that “spirituals” report less satisfaction with their lives than those who identify with other self-labels, and suggests that the common assumption that greater religiosity relates to greater happiness and life satisfaction is not quite true.

“The nonreligious account for as much as 16.1 percent of Americans, yet social scientists still pay much more attention to distinctions within the religious portion of society,” Flynn noted. In general-population surveys, meaningful differences between distinct types of nonbelievers (atheists, humanists, agnostics, etc.) have often been neglected, with the broad category encompassing the nonreligious only included with the implication that they merely represent the “absence of religion.”

The NRIS explores the social and personal distinctions within the nonreligious population, including religious upbringings, social demographics, emotional stability, and preferred self-labels. The study, which compiled the questionnaire results of 5,831 mostly U.S. respondents, also tested certain stereotypes often pushed onto secular people (e.g. that the nonreligious are “angry loners” or “asocial”), and sought to discern the basis for variations, such as how “spiritual” individuals differ from “religious,” or how “humanists” differ from “atheists.” Big-picture questions were addressed, such as why women tend to be overrepresented among the spiritual and religious, and why men likewise dominate the atheist and agnostic subset. The study also shows how the label “atheist”—long taboo—is now supplanting others as the self-label of choice.

Click here  for a PDF copy of Galen's Free Inquiry article.

Click here for a PowerPoint slide show of Galen’s study.

Free Inquiry is a bimonthly magazine featuring thoughtful and provocative commentary from such leading political and social commentators as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Wendy Kaminer, and Nat Hentoff. Established in 1980, Free Inquiry has a paid circulation of approximately 34,000 worldwide. Visit online at www.secularhumanism.org/fi/