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There Are 10 Times As Many Atheists as Mormons: When Will Non-Believers Become a Political Force?

The rise of atheists as political players would have positive effects on American society and possibly even the world as a whole.

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The definitive word on atheist demographics in the U.S. is the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a massive study that questioned over 50,000 Americans about their religious beliefs. The ARIS found that self-identified atheists and agnostics account for 1.6 percent of the population of America, or about 3.5 million people. But the ARIS also asked people in-depth questions about what they really believe. And based on their results, the survey's authors concluded that whether they choose that word to describe themselves or not, 12 percent of Americans are atheists -- over 36 million of us!

To put that number in perspective, there are about as many atheists in America as there are members of all the mainline Protestant churches -- Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ -- combined. There are ten times as many atheists as there are Jews or Mormons. The only two religious groups in America that outnumber atheists are Baptists and Roman Catholics. But both of those groups have seen their membership as a percentage of the population decline steadily since 1990, while the non-religious have grown proportionally in the country as a whole and in every state. And the numbers show a clear trend: Every generation since World War II has exhibited higher rates of nonbelief, now up to 20 percent among those born since 1977.

So, atheists don't lack the numbers. Nor do we lack passion or political interest. In fact, the opposite is true: Atheists have one of the highest rates of political participation of any group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of the non-religious are very or somewhat likely to vote, an astonishingly high turnout level. In fact, the only group more likely to vote is Christian evangelicals. But the political loyalties of evangelicals are settled already, while non-religious voters -- again according to Pew -- are disproportionately likely to be independent voters whose choices often determine the outcome of an election.

Given these facts, politicians should be lining up to court us. On a purely numerical level, atheists are a large, potentially influential group. We're highly motivated to get out and vote, more so than almost any religious group. We tend to be swing voters, the kind that makes all the difference in close races. And most of all, atheists are common among the young, and good politicians know that political loyalties established at a young age usually last for a lifetime.

So why aren't candidates seeking atheists out and appealing to us for our support? Why is the political class, even the liberal political class, so fearful of being associated with us?

The obvious answer is that the pervasiveness of anti-atheist bigotry makes it political suicide to associate with us. (Elizabeth Dole failed in her attempt to appeal to it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.) But I think there's a deeper answer that explains both why that bigotry exists in the first place and why politicians so habitually neglect us: Atheists don't lack the numbers or the passion. What we lack is the organization.

Organized religions have two built-in advantages: they have large followings that are accustomed to unquestioning loyalty, and hierarchical structures through which the leaders can issue marching orders to the flock. This means it's easy for them to orchestrate coordinated actions, like marches, protests and letter-writing campaigns, that are highly visible to politicians and journalists. Atheists, by comparison, are a fiercely independent and contentious bunch -- and while I wouldn't change that if I could, it does make it harder for us to act in unison in the ways that make politicians take notice. It also makes it more difficult for us to mount a swift, strong and coordinated response to the slanderous stereotypes that are habitually heard from pulpits and in the media.

 
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