The Rise of the Nones

Due to a combination of laziness and everything blowing up at once at work, I wasn’t able to post about this earlier, so by now you’ve no doubt read all about the Pew forum’s poll report about the recent increase in the number of Americans with no religious affiliation, or “nones”.

You’ve seen this graph:

Growth of the Religiously Unaffiliated, from the Pew Research Center.

You’ve heard that for the first time, Protestants make up less than half of the US population. That there are more atheists, agnostics, and none-of-the-aboves than before, and that organized religions are losing members. That the nones lean toward the political left. That according to Bill Donohue we’re all a bunch of selfish, self-absorbed brats. So let me mention something else.

According to Pew’s chart, 2.4% of Americans adults call themselves atheists, 3.3% call themselves agnostics, and 13.9% are nothing in particular, neither atheist/agnostic, nor members of an organized religion, for a total of 19.6%. But the report also notes that

many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%).

which means that 32% of the unaffiliated don’t claim to believe in God. If my math is correct, the atheists comprise 12.2% of the unaffiliated, and agnostics are a further 16.8%; so atheists and agnostics together make up 29.1% of the unaffiliated. So even if we assume that none of the atheists or agnostics believe in God (probably a good assumption for atheists, perhaps not so good for agnostics), that still leaves us with 32% – 29.1% = 2.9% of “Nothing in particular”s who don’t believe in God, which presumably makes them atheists, even if they don’t call themselves that.

The last time I wrote about the American Religious Identification Survey, I noted a similar phenomenon. Except that then, the discrepancy between “people who don’t believe in God” and “people who call themselves atheists” was significantly larger.

Two obvious possibilities present themselves. It’s possible that ARIS and Pew are measuring different things, and that the numbers they report are only loosely related. But it’s also possible that people who don’t believe in God are more comfortable calling themselves atheists or agnostics; that the stigma attached to those words is disappearing. The difference between the ARIS and Pew surveys is the sort of thing I’d expect to see if that were the case.

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