Atheism might be more common than assumed...but it's complicated

May 16, 2017, Society for Personality and Social Psychology

It's tough to figure out just how religious or nonreligious different populations of people are. Widely-cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest U.S. atheist prevalence ranging from 3% to 11%. But in the US, there's heavy stigma leveled against religious disbelief, which might make people reluctant to disclose their lack of belief over the phone to a stranger. Using a subtle, indirect measurement technique, psychology researchers have found that atheists may represent anywhere from 20% to 35% of the U.S. population.

The study, "How many atheists are there?," appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Based on the results, "Just as there are, and have historically been, closeted gay men and lesbians out there, there are probably lots and lots of closeted atheists out there, who don't even identify themselves as such in anonymous polls," says lead author Will Gervais (University of Kentucky).

The authors surveyed 4000 people across two studies of 2000 people each in nationally representative samples. They used an indirect sampling method, which gives participants a list of things to look at and then record how many of the statements, but not which specific statements, are true for them. This technique lets researchers infer overall prevalence of things people might not want to admit, and has previously been used to estimate the prevalence of various undesirable or criminal behaviors.

"Within our sample, one in three atheists in our online survey did not disclose their lack of belief, highlighting the level of stigma associated with lack of belief," says coauthor Mazine Najle (University of Kentucky).

Gervais says he was "surprised by just how far the indirect measurement diverged from established polls of religious disbelief. Our best estimate is more than double what Gallup telephone polls estimate." Gervais and Najle expected a much more modest gap between self-reports and indirect measurements.

The findings also have potential impact for science. For decades, researchers have been developing and testing theories about how religion works, but they focus on belief being prevalent and a rare occurrence.

"If it turns out that atheism isn't all that rare, it might challenge a lot of prevailing theories," says Gervais, "Basically, it'd mean that those of us who study the natural foundations of religion need to question our bedrock theories and assumptions."

It's important to note that their results weren't crystal clear and perfect. Their estimates are "pretty noisy," says Gervais, "It's 26% as a best guess, but it could be quite a bit lower...or higher. Could be 20%, could be 35%. We also had some findings that made us question the validity of the very task we employed."

The authors appreciate that even with the "noise" their research was accepted for publication.

"Social psychology has been taking a beating lately for producing results that are too good to be true, and it's a real feather in the cap for this journal that they didn't pressure us at all to put out the "perfect" paper, rather than just transparently communicate what we found, including the good, the bad, and the ugly," summarizes Gervais.

Explore further: Study explores distrust of atheists by believers

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12 comments

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rderkis
1 / 5 (3) May 16, 2017
Why would it be scarce?
Atheism is a religion based on faith because it is impossible to prove there is no GOD.
PTTG
5 / 5 (5) May 16, 2017
Rderkis, that's like saying someone is superstitious because it is a leap of faith to believe -- in absence of evidence -- that unicorns do not exist.
EmceeSquared
5 / 5 (6) May 16, 2017
Atheism is not a religion. Any more than darkness, the absence of light, is a frequency of light. Or ignorance is knowledge.

Yet another comment from you that demonstrates you don't know how knowledge works. Atheists don't necessarily believe there is no god, they just don't believe there is a god. The assertion that there is a god can just be ignored by people who require proof to believe, because there is no proof. But lack of a belief is not a belief.

Besides, there's no way to prove that there's no Tooth Fairy, but not believing that once one is an adult is not a religion either.

rderkis:
Why would it be scarce
Macrocompassion
1 / 5 (2) May 17, 2017
There is one thing all atheists must believe in and that is that they are right about having no religion. Many of them, if not nearly all, also have moral beliefs and behaviors which have been taken from religious teachings too.
Guy_Underbridge
5 / 5 (3) May 17, 2017
Atheism is a religion based on faith because it is impossible to prove there is no GOD.

Is there a Stupidest Post of the Week Contest going on that I missed?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) May 17, 2017
If it turns out that atheism isn't all that rare

Not much of a surpriss - and it's not just limited to religion. Whenever there's a large group you will find loads of people who are just in it in order to belong to a community - not because they believe in the idea(l)s of a community. This applies to religion, political party affiliation or something as basic (and nuts) as feigning patriotism/nationalism.

The number of people who will stick to any of this when the rubber meets the road is surprisingly small.

Atheism is a religion based on faith because it is impossible to prove there is no GOD.


Is there a Stupidest Post of the Week Contest going on that I missed?

Looks like it. The statement is wrong on so many factual/logical levels it's not even funny.
TheGhostofOtto1923
5 / 5 (1) May 17, 2017
"But in the US, there's heavy stigma leveled against religious disbelief"

-Because of the incredible media propaganda blitz from all sides at the moment there is no way to say what anyone really believes.

There is an interesting demographic thing going on at the moment. There are indigenous fundys groups undergoing the requisite explosive growth - specifically the Mormons, anabaptists, and orthodox Jews.

But there has been a massive influx of equally prolific Muslims, Hispanic Catholics, and even sikhs in recent years. Add to this the revival of evangelicals and quiverfull types, and you begin to understand why the bizarre emphasis by conservative talk radio and fox news hosts, and politicians including the president, on faith and church.

These religionists all need to identify with an established political presence or else they would begin to establish their own political parties and media outlets.

Hence the perception that the US is full of fundies.
zz5555
5 / 5 (2) May 17, 2017
Many of them, if not nearly all, also have moral beliefs and behaviors which have been taken from religious teachings too.

This doesn't appear, to me, to be correct. Even the bible points out that most moral beliefs come from society and that those inform the belief systems that make up religion.
SlartiBartfast
5 / 5 (2) May 17, 2017
The number of people who will stick to any of this when the rubber meets the road is surprisingly small.


I'm not sure 65-80% is all that small.

---

And just as an informal way to confirm the social stigma of being an atheist, check out the number of openly atheist members of Congress, past and present (hint: it's pretty low).
EmceeSquared
5 / 5 (1) May 17, 2017
No, atheists are human of course. So plenty of atheists have doubts about having no religion, and plenty of others just don't bother thinking either a god, a religion, or whether that's right to ignore.

Macrocompassion:
There is one

EmceeSquared
not rated yet May 17, 2017
Answering a telephone poll question is not where the rubber meets the road. Unrepentantly sinning is where the rubber meets the road. A very large fraction (perhaps a majority) of the polled believers repeatedly vote for official sins, like wars of choice, stiffing the poor, even adulterous (or worse) representatives. That's where the rubber meets the road: sinful hypocrisy. That road is layered with skidmarks.

In actual practice, there are extremely few actually religious people, and hundreds of millions of sinners, from casual atheists to effectively devil worshippers.

SlartiBartfast:
[I'm not sure
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) May 17, 2017
Many of them, if not nearly all, also have moral beliefs and behaviors which have been taken from religious teachings too.

This doesn't appear, to me, to be correct.

I look at it like this:

Posit: It's independent of where you live how many people are true believers (in an ideal, a religion, a nation, ... ) or are just pretending
Consequence: Look to a place where there is a persecuted minority (e.g. christians in a muslim country) and see what percentage of the population they make up. Then divide by a certain factor (2-4) because even there micro-communities (families) tend to foster conformity rather than real belief. That's the percentage of real believers that exist in the world.

By that measure real believers are somewhere in the low single digit percentile. The rest are just tag-along for the community benefits.

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