More Godless Numbers

Newsweek reports the results of a religious identification survey they recently conducted. The bits of interest to me are:

  • 91% of Americans “believe in God”.
  • 82% identify themselves as Christian.
  • 10% have “no religion”.
  • 6% “don’t believe in a God at all”.
  • 3% “self-identifies as atheist”


While I’m mindful of comments like Paul’s, the last two lines seem to indicate that 6% of Americans are atheists, but half of them don’t want to call themselves that, for whatever reason.

By contrast, the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2001 found that 0.4% of Americans identified themselves as “atheist”. I seriously doubt that the ranks of the godless have swelled fifteenfold in just six years, despite all the efforts by people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Pat Robertson, and Ted Haggard, and I’m more inclined to suspect differences in methodology. After all, ARIS also found that only 0.5% of Americans identified themselves as “Evangelical”.

For the same reason, I’m not sure we can read a real rise into the fact that ARIS found that 76.5% of Americans were Christians in 2001, vs. 87% in this Newsweek poll.

The article also says,

Nearly half (47 percent) of the respondents felt the country is more accepting of atheists today that it used to be and slightly more (49 percent) reported personally knowing an atheist.

which clearly shows that atheists suck at PR. Maybe we should get some badges or club jackets or something.

More worryingly:

Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view.

which I guess confirms what we already knew: that evangelicals are more nutsoid than Catholics are more nutsoid than non-evangelicals. And I suspect the corollary is that “Evangelical” is what the fundies started calling themselves after they tainted the word “Fundamentalist”.

Another thing to note: if you get into a discussion about the nature of God or something like that, you’re likely to run into someone who’ll say that it’s naïve to think of God as a bearded old man on a cloud, that God is an essence permeating the whole fabric of existence, or some such. But the numbers above show that a huge chunk of Americans do, if I may crudely generalize, believe in a bearded old man on a cloud.

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8 Responses to More Godless Numbers

  1. Troublesome Frog says:

    I think that atheists clearly suck at PR. I’m always amazed that whenever I see somebody bring up Dawkins, everybody reacts like he’s some sort of fire-breathing monster who can’t put out a rational argument to save his life. Have these people ever even heard Dawkins speak? His position may offend people, but he’s generally extremely patient, polite, and reasonable when he makes his points. He’s not a fire-breathing nutcase by any stretch of the imagination, but most people (who have never read any of his work or heard him out) think the guy has horns and hooves.

    I think that “an atheist” is basically the same evil mythical creature as “a Dawkins” is in the minds of many people. Both are simply abstract monsters that nobody would every really associate with. It’s kind of like the “fact” that so many evangelicals “don’t know any gay people.” Like they’d be able to tell because of their rainbow-plaid skin and the extra eyes they have on the tops of their heads…

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  2. arensb says:

    Troublesome Frog:

    I think that “an atheist” is basically the same evil mythical creature as “a Dawkins” is in the minds of many people.

    I think you’re right. I know that when I was growing up, “atheist” was close to being synonymous with “communist” (and I had more reason than most Americans to dislike communism, since members of my not-too-distant family were killed by Stalin), so I was as shocked as anyone to discover, years later, that “atheist” was a word that applied to me. I went through a stage that might charitably be called “deist” and later “secular”, and less-charitably called “atheist in denial”.

    and the extra eyes they have on the tops of their heads…

    The better to see whether your living room colors coordinate, my dear 🙂

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  3. Fez says:

    Troublesome Frog

    I’m always amazed that whenever I see somebody bring up Dawkins, everybody reacts like he’s some sort of fire-breathing monster who can’t put out a rational argument to save his life. Have these people ever even heard Dawkins speak? His position may offend people, but he’s generally extremely patient, polite, and reasonable when he makes his points.

    Interesting. I did hear him speak a couple of months ago at a local bookstore and walked away with a contrary opinion – to me he was rather an offensive prick, and a perfect example of the type the neocon apologists like to dismiss as an, “educated liberal elitist.” This would seem to presuppose that being educated is somehow a net negative but that’s a discussion for another topic 😉

    That he was offputting to me led me to believe that many would disregard what he was saying because of how it was presented.

    I think that “an atheist” is basically the same evil mythical creature as “a Dawkins” is in the minds of many people. Both are simply abstract monsters that nobody would every really associate with.

    Perhaps because it’s easier for people of that mindset to slap a convenient sound-bite friendly label onto whatever it is they don’t like. Demonizing an abstract is trivial – they can’t argue back..

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  4. arensb says:

    Fez:

    Perhaps because it’s easier for people of that mindset to slap a convenient sound-bite friendly label onto whatever it is they don’t like. Demonizing an abstract is trivial – they can’t argue back..

    It’s also easy to hate something with a face. Compare the way /. ers feel about Microsoft (which has Bill Gates’s face) or environmentalists feel about Exxon (Lee Raymond’s face) vs., say, ConAgra (which doesn’t have a face).

    I think the point here is that there’s Dawkins the person, and there’s Dawkins the perceived persona, which are separate and independent entities. Kind of like Immanuel Goldstein in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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  5. Fez says:

    arensb,

    It’s also easy to hate something with a face. Compare the way /. ers feel about Microsoft (which has Bill Gates’s face) or nvironmentalists feel about Exxon (Lee Raymond’s face) vs., say, ConAgra (which doesn’t have a face).

    I guess I’m victim to my own fezomorphizing. When I picture Microsoft I see rising blood pressure. When I picture Exxon I see draining bank accounts. When I picture ConAgra I see frozen burritos, and I eat them. With great ConAgra relish.

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  6. Troublesome Frog says:

    Interesting. I did hear him speak a couple of months ago at a local bookstore and walked away with a contrary opinion – to me he was rather an offensive prick, and a perfect example of the type the neocon apologists like to dismiss as an, “educated liberal elitist.”

    I think, like most people, this depends on whether he’s talking to a crowd of people who eat up every word he says or a mixed audience. He’s certainly no lovable Carl Sagan, and like most people, I imagine he can get out of line when everybody cheers when he says something potentially offensive. At the same time, when he addresses questions from dissenters, he generally answers them completely without mocking or name calling. Generally, he has to say something like, “Well yes, I can see how you might believe that, but here’s how evidence completely devastates your position” which is hard do do without stepping on some toes. He’s pretty good–not the best, but certainly not the fire breathing fundamentalist demon people seem to think he is.

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  7. Fez says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    He’s certainly no lovable Carl Sagan, and like most people, I imagine he can get out of line

    I should have added (and thought I had – stupid geriatric moments) that a sample size of one is, as you’re aware, statistically meaningless :). He could have just been having one of those days, y’know? I would say he displayed the capability to let the inner child out to play for a bit though, and for some people that would be enough for them to justify killing the messenger.

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  8. arensb says:

    Fez:
    IMHO Dawkins is being no more of a prick than Phil Plait pointing out that moon hoaxers are full of shit, or Randi tearing down the claims of psychics. For historical reasons, religion has always been treated with respect, and when someone like Dawkins comes along and points out that the emperor’s wedding tackle is flapping in the breeze, it can come across as being an arrogant prick. Could it be that that’s what you were seeing?

    (Obligatory link to PZ’s excellent The Courtier’s Reply.)

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