More curiosity about atheists?

By Razib Khan | June 7, 2011 1:08 am

Josh Rosenau has a post up discussing the impact of “New Atheism” on public perceptions of atheists. He mentions offhand that “New Atheism” as a movement really only crystallized in the mid-2000s, which made me wonder: what does Google Trends tell us about interest in atheism?

Unfortunately there wasn’t any information on “New Atheism.” The search query didn’t have enough volume, alas. But “atheist” did. So I compared “atheist,” “Christian,” “Buddhist,” “Hindu,” and “Muslim.” I limited the data set to the United States.

You can’t really tell what’s going because the volume for “Christian” is very high. So let’s remove that.

The interest in Muslims is obviously news dependent. So removing them:

You can now discern that there has been a rise in the search for the term “atheist.” Finally, let’s compare atheist to “humanist” and “agnostic”:

This agrees with my intuition. Though the word atheist isn’t exactly novel, it has long had an air of disrepute (in past centuries the term “atheist” didn’t even mean what it means today, insofar it was an insult toward those who didn’t believe in the right god, or were disrespectful to god, religion, and public morals). I’m pretty sure that the negative connotations with the term atheist is why “free thinker” and “humanist” became popular. But today these seem to be in relative decline. I think one can make the case that the “New Atheism” has “reclaimed” the term, which had seemed aggressive and somewhat unpatriotic during the Cold War (after the failure of “Brights” to catch on).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
MORE ABOUT: Atheism, Religion
  • Darkseid

    Yeah, I used to be indifferent to the new atheist movement as I didn’t think it’d make any difference but new research shows it reduces discrimination. Thanks, Hitch!

  • Geoff

    So what happened in late 2007? That spike is bizarre. What could possibly have got so many people talking about all of these religions so much but so briefly? It looks like mid November and I can`t think of anything at all in that time period. An unlimited supply of kudos for 1 day for whoever figures it out.

  • http://www.waxingapocalyptic.com/ kelltrill

    I’ve been very cautious of tools such as Google Trends and Google Correlate because of people jumping from correlation to causation, but they can be useful on certain levels, such as the way you’ve used it here. Since this relies purely on search volumes I think it’s pretty straight forward.
    I wonder why the spike in interest in all three terms in the final graph towards the end of 2007.

  • Stuart

    That spike is the biggest for Christians (and really an almost exact doubling of all of the search terms). It doesn’t seem to change the overall trend of the data though. I can’t imagine it was a very big event that had absolutely no long term effects and I can’t think of anything else it might be except for a problem with the data.

  • omar

    “god is not great” was published in May 2007, the god delusion a year earlier, maybe the conversation reached critical mass by late 2007? and Musharraf was in trouble in Pakistan, bombs were going off in Iraq and Afghanistan and there was nothing new under the sun.
    Who knows. It does look like an interesting mystery. Random noise in the system got entrained by chance and led to a larger than expected oscillation?

  • Mark Plus

    Paraphrasing PZ Myers, “New Atheist” means an Old Atheist the Catholic Church can’t arrest and set on fire.

  • Fran

    In the 1990′s I decided to join a local atheist group. I had listened to too many religious pieces on NPR, and it felt like religious thinking was taking over and I had to fight back.

    About that same time I got on the web, before Google, and I tried setting up a New York Times alert for the term atheist, and I got nothing. As I looked around, it appeared that a lot of news sources boycotted the word “atheist” and anything resembling it, which of course left most atheists thinking that they were the only atheist around. There was actually one short column I read in the Nation that indicated there was an active editorial policy of this sort in the Times, and I knew that local papers rejected atheist ads. I expanded my search to include agnostic, and got articles on platform agnostic software. Then I expanded my search to include Humanist, and got notices of weddings conducted by members of the Church of Spiritual Humanism.

    I think it really did take people like Hitchens and Dawkins to change the respectability of the term atheist. And I suspect that newspaper editors have gradually lost some of their ability to marginalize the word.

  • aimee w

    Jonathan Miller did a fantastic BBC series called ‘A brief history of disbelief’ which looks at the inception, rise and meaning of atheism over the last couple of thousand years – certainly something I would suggest is worth the watch.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/features/atheism.shtml

    And there’s a followup: ‘The Atheism Tapes’

  • http://ntrygg.wordpress.com nina

    Athiests also took a lesson from the gay community toolbox – being out and vocal is key to getting public discussion.

    Luckily, secular law does not discriminated against athiesm, so there is only the need to uphold existing law

    rather than over turning and changing or redefining any laws.

    so atheists can focus on education, outreach and awareness, without battling for legal status and recognition.

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  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    @Mark: I happen to live in a theoretically (traditionally) Catholic state and, excepting inside the family and Catholic school (and not too much), I never felt any real discrimination against for being Atheist (tough I perceive strong discrimination in favor of Catholic institutions such as the right to make noise with those bells, getting financing from the state…)

    However when I traveled to the USA in 1985-86, I did feel social hostility towards my beliefs (or lack of them thereof). I was at first poked as “heathen” and repeatedly invited to go to mass – eventually I got my way but I did find the USA to be a sociologically fundamentalist country to at least some extent.

    Here not even Christian-Democrats mention God in political discourse (for fear of alienating agnostics and such), in the USA even Liberals fill their mouths with the word God every two or three sentences and not one admits to be agnostic or atheist (regardless of what they truly believe in their hearts).

    I find the USA hence to be some sort of “Christian Saudi Arabia”. Even before I traveled there, my uncle, who lived in the states several times already found this outspoken religiosity disturbing. He said that the USA is built on three pillars: the Constitution, the Dollar (with the name of God on it) and the Bible (which you can find in every hotel room, what is also disturbing).

  • vnv

    Regarding #11, I knew someone from Iran who was commenting on certain religious Americans (politicians and public figures who were in the news) who commented that they were “the same people”* as the fundamentalists in Iran.

    *or words strongly to that effect if not exactly that. The meaning was unambiguously “I have seen this before; it is the same thing; it frightens me”.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Regarding #11, I knew someone from Iran who was commenting on certain religious Americans (politicians and public figures who were in the news) who commented that they were “the same people”* as the fundamentalists in Iran.

    i think that’s trivializing the theocratic tinge of iranian society. who is executing people for homosexuality here? to get to social norms which are enforced by the state in iran you’d have to go visit a extremely reactionary religious commune (e.g., mormon fundamentalists). there may be broad rhetorical resemblances, but one should be careful to draw analogies with barbaric societies.

  • vg

    As for what happened in late 2007, maybe this is it:

    http://undergod.procon.org/view.additional-resource.php?resourceID=708&print=true

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    #11: Obama is Christian but throws a few public approval nods in the direction of agnostics and atheists, so there’s progress. I think he can see where 15% of the country is located, and a chance to peel off a few voters and donors from the Republican side.

  • Chris H

    I’m not educated on “Google Trends” but if you are showing us a picture of the amount of one word google searches its going to be a bit misleading. Try looking at “Richard Dawkins”, “Bible Genocide”, “God is not Great”, “Evidence against Noah’s Flood”, or something along those lines.

    Of course, it’d be impossible to log all of the phrases that may be connected to google searches about atheism, and I’d imagine there would be some debate about whether or not some of these phrases are actually associated with atheism. I’d think all the recent atheist books that have reached the New York Times Best Sellers List do speak for how popular this topic has become. Looking at the hundreds of college and high school atheist groups that have opened up over the past few years also shows this. Seeing the dozens of atheist billboards and bus ads erupt over the past few years and these new, non religious, summer camps start all over the nation shows this as well. There are other trends to point too, but I’m sure you see where I’m going.

    I’m not sure how good this Google Trend point is or what it proves. I wouldn’t be suprised if I did, but I don’t recall ever just googling “atheist” or “atheism”. If I am misunderstanding what Google Trends does, then disregard this post.

  • Michael

    Funny how words and thoughts don’t convey accuracy anymore. Nowadays, “agnostic” doesn’t actually mean “I’m not really sure;” now it means “I don’t believe in any god.” Likewise, “atheist” no longer means “I don’t believe;” now it means “I don’t believe \in your Christian god!”\ Ummm … hello … in order to not believe in something, there has to be a something to not believe in.

  • Chris H

    Michael,

    Atheism, like theism, deals with belief. The atheism/theism tag tells someone what your beliefs are about a god or higher power. Atheism doesn’t mean “I don’t believe \in your Christian god!\”, that’s a very self centered claim. It’s not all about Christianity, although many Christians would like it to be. Plenty of atheist books take shots at other religions and their beliefs.

    Agnosticism deals with knowledge, or the lack of. An agnostic doesn’t know whether or not a god or higher power exists, but that within iteself doesn’t tell you what they believe.

    For some reason, people now-a-days think that agnostic and atheist are mutually exclusive terms when they are not. One can be an agnostic (they don’t know whether or not a god or higher power exists) and be an atheist (they don’t believe in a god or higher power).

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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