More on ARIS’s “Nones”

I’ve taken a second look at the ARIS results, particularly the “Nones” which have attracted so much attention. Here’s a graph of various Nones through the three surveys, as a percentage of the US population at the time:

ARIS's "Nones"
(click to see a little larger.) This graph is drawn from data in Tables 1 and 3, and 4 of ARIS 2008.

Here, the topmost line represents what ARIS 2008 calls the “Nones”: atheists, agnostics, “anti-clerical theists”, nonreligious, and so forth. As expected, it’s the largest group.

It’s also the group that has grown the most since 1990, when NSRI 1990 (the survey to which ARIS 2001 was a followup) was conducted. However, its growth has slowed down substantially since 2001.

The red line at the bottom shows self-described agnostics, and the purple line just below that, self-described atheists. NSRI 1990 lumped atheists and agnostics together, so the leftmost data point actually shows the sum of both. This also explains the dip in 2001. The sum of self-described atheists and agnostics is 0.7% in 1990, 0.9% in 2001, and 1.6% in 2008, so the trend is actually increasing, and has apparently picked up steam (there were 29% more atheists+agnostics in 2001 than in 1990, and 78% more in 2008 than in 2001).

It’s interesting to contrast this to the slowing growth in Nones overall. I note that the “new atheist” bestsellers all came out between the last two surveys: The End of Faith in 2004, The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, and Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006, and god is not Great in 2007.

It would be nice to say that the Four Horsemen led to the growth in nonbelief, but there’s not enough data in here to jump to such a conclusion. At most, I think we can say that Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens haven’t killed atheism; atheists aren’t going back into the closet.

Lastly, the three triangles with no lines, in 2008, represent the answers in Table 4:

  • Atheist A: there is no such thing as a god.
  • Agnostic A: there is no way to know whether there are any gods.
  • Agnostic B: don’t know whether there are any gods.

The obvious thing to notice is that there are far more of them than either self-described atheists, agnostics, or both together. Doubtless this includes some Buddhists, Taoists, Scientologists, etc., but there are too few of those to account for these numbers. I suppose that some come from the “generically non-religious” pool, while others identify themselves as members of some mainstream religious group, but don’t accept all of the group’s tenets. “Cultural Catholics”, if you will.

All in all, it’s a bit disappointing that with all the hoopla about “the new atheism” and uppity unbelievers, out-of-the-closet atheists still haven’t cracked the 1% mark.

Another point that’s been talked about is the growth in “generic” Christianity (“Christian unspecified” and “Non-denominational Christian” in Table 4 of ARIS 2008). Some of this is due, I’m sure, to smaller churches shutting down and their parishioners migrating to generic megachurches. But the growth of the Nones leads me to suspect that it’s also due to a growing disenchantment with organized religion.

It’s not uncommon to hear a sentiment along the lines of “I’m a Christian, but religion is bullshit”. People who feel the divine, but feel that organized religions are corrupt, or self-serving, or otherwise undeserving of their membership. These people are not swelling the ranks of rationality; but at the same time, they’re diminshing church rolls, and helping to reduce the power base that the Pat Robertsons and Ted Haggards of the world can mobilize and use to wield social and political (to say nothing of monetary) power. So they’re a net gain.

In other words, what this data seems to show is that a) Americans are rejecting religion, and b) Americans are rejecting superstition. These are two separate issues, but in both cases, we’re moving in the right direction.

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