40 Million Nonbelievers in America? The Secret Is Almost Out
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As reported recently in the New York Times , a South Carolina chapter of Habitat for Humanity prohibited a group of Secular Humanist volunteers from wearing their “Non-Prophet Organization” T-shirts; a Charleston-area teacher “came out” as a nonbeliever after years of church dinners and demurrals; and Humanist Loretta Haskell struggled over her role as a church musician. While such stories remain commonplace, a related story with a substantial bearing on these anecdotes is one of America’s best-kept secrets.
A recent Newsweek cover—in a bid to (finally) match the celebrated 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover of Time—read, in the shape of a cross: “ The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Editor Jon Meacham’s story highlights Newsweek’s latest poll results showing that 10% fewer Americans identify as Christian today than twenty years ago. But more importantly, and mentioned only in passing, is the growth among atheists and secularists of all stripes.
According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of more than 54,000 adults, between 2001 and 2008 the number willing to identify themselves as atheist and agnostic has gone from under 2 million to 3.6 million. Small numbers compared to the whole, of course, but most notably it’s a rise of 85% of those willing to describe themselves as living without God during the years of our most overtly religious presidency!
Even more newsworthy, when the widely-scorned labels “atheist” and “agnostic” are replaced with specifics about beliefs (“There is no such thing” as God, “There is no way to know,” or “I’m not sure,” and added to those who refused to answer) it turns out that over eighteen percent of Americans do not profess belief in a God or a higher power.
According to ARIS, then, there could be as many as 40 million adult nonbelievers in the United States!
Personal God Going the Way of the Dodo?
Consider: If these numbers are correct, nonbelievers amount to more than the highest estimates of African Americans or gays. Secularists are one of America’s largest minorities. It is no longer possible to proclaim, as the Gallup Poll announced fifty years ago: “Nearly all Americans believe in God.” That is today’s most significant change.
So what explains the impressive increase among those willing to identify as atheist or agnostic? For those who think that books and ideas simply don’t matter, it is dramatic tribute to the success of the “ new atheist” writers—including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. To paraphrase the title of Dennett’s book, their goal has been to “break the spell” of religion—and they have evidently helped more Americans “achieve” that goal.
If a new confidence is in the offing it is also visible in the American Humanist Association’s scandalous Christmastime bus ads in Washington DC (“Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”). No less striking is the “Out” campaign (“Come Out,” “Reach Out,” “Speak Out,” “Keep Out,” “Stand Out,”) especially among students and young people.
One of the few writers who has paid attention to these phenomena, Konstantin Petrenko, writing for Religion Dispatches, does so in order to dismiss them [see “ Godless America? Say Hello to the ‘Apatheists’,” March 19, 2009]. He stresses the discrepancy between those embracing the “atheist” or “agnostic” label and those who describe themselves as not believing in God. “It appears that most of the unaffiliated individuals are not atheistic or anti-religious in any activist sense, but are rather apathetic toward organized religion and reluctant to join any particular denomination or sect.”