More atheists in the Age of New Atheism

By Razib Khan | October 9, 2012 1:14 am

Pew has an important new report out, “Nones” on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. Here is the bottom line in terms of numbers: over the past generation the proportion of Americans who explicitly reject a religious affiliation has doubled, from ~10 percent, to ~20 percent. In addition, the, the proportion who hold to Christian fundamentalist religious views has also declined. The United States of America is still a very religious nation in the context of the Western world, but 1990-2012 has been as second period of secularization after the “pause” of the 1970s and 1980s (after the initial wave of defections in the 1960s).

And these numbers apply not just to those with no religion, but atheists & agnostics as well. There has always been a tendency for more people to hold to atheistic and agnostic positions than those who would admit to being atheists or agnostics. That gap is closing. Why? I have no idea, but I do think that people need to stop talking about how terrible the New Atheism is for secularists. I doubt this wave of secularization has anything to do with the New Atheism (it precedes it), but certainly the New Atheism has not turned people off to secularism. I also think data like these need to put into perspective stupid books like God is Back (the book is stupid because the authors don’t know much about what they’re talking about in depth; this is contrast to someone like Philip Jenkins).

There are a few tidbits within the full report which warrant some attention. First, there are some indications that religious practice is declining (e.g., attendance at church). I think this is illusory. There has long been evidence that Americans overstate their church attendance. As more people leave their nominal Christian affiliation, they are no longer lying. Second, it turns out that the irreligious are really no more superstitious than the Christian. Finally, as I predicted earlier this year, America is now less than 50 percent Protestant in official affiliation. I say official, because I think culturally American remains overwhelmingly Protestant, in that American Catholicism and Judaism both have a Protestant congregational flavor.

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Comments (45)

  1. Quite possibly our atheism retains a Protestant flavor as well.

  2. Bobby LaVesh

    I consider myself agnostic because I have no idea if there is a God or not. Friends have told me I’m an atheist, not agnostic, because I don’t think there is a God- but I could not say for sure- and I consider it unprovable.

    I also prefer to call myself agnostic due to the fact that there are some real prats out there who are hate-filled lunatics that call themselves atheist. I think the reason many people of religion have such a poor view of atheists is due to some of the more radical who act like religious nuts attacking religions. Atheism is NOT a religion- but some zealots seem to treat it like one. They do hurt the more rational majority of us who are disbelievers.

    I also think Mike Keensey makes a good point. Although I am atheist/agnostic I was raised in a somewhat christian tradiotion- being from Europe, somewhat less-so than in America- but still a society strongly steeped in christianity- where basic beliefs and traditions of the people have a strong christian undertone. I think atheists in a christian nation may hold different views on morality and personal conduct than those from other nations.

  3. zengardener

    Bobby LaVesh.

    You might not like the label “Atheist”, and there may be many rude and confrontational atheists that rub you the wrong way, but you are an atheist.

    The existence of some Gods, as defined by the faithful may be unknowable, but there are many more definitions of God that are logically impossible. It doesn’t do any of us any good to pretend that the religions of today make claims that are beyond investigation.

  4. Scott

    “There has long been evidence that Americans overstate their church attendance. As more people leave their nominal Christian affiliation, they are no longer lying.”

    Yes, but if the trend is real, then as those people leave their nominal Christian affiliation and stop lying, there are others who are moving from strong Christian affiliation to nomianal Christian affiliation and are starting to lie.

    Why would fewer people be lying at any given time?

  5. Mitch

    It’s funny, the name of Atheism has been so besmirched by religious people that even Atheists don’t want to claim to be Atheists.

    Not that the religious folks have kept their flock, they’ve just bred Atheists by a different name.

  6. John

    Lets get this cleared up first, Agnosticism/Gnosticism do not preclude Atheism/Theism, or vice versa. I am an atheist agnostic anti-theist, as each of the three terms answers a different question. Atheist says I do not believe there is a god, agnostic says I do not know there is a god, and anti-theist says that I believe theism does more harm than good. The first and last do not require absolute certainty while the second one does.

  7. Karl Zimmerman

    I think the recent trend towards irreligiousness in the U.S. has been a counterreaction to the prominence of the religious right in U.S. political discourse. Essentially, Christianity itself has shifted from something which was taken as an underlying social glue in the U.S. (unless you were a weird nonconformist), to an increasingly quasi-partisan signifier. This is causing nominal Christians, particularly former Mainline Protestants (like my wife’s parents), to reject their former nominal status and just drop out of religious affiliation entirely.

  8. Mark Plus

    I never understood the apologetic argument that the popularity of christian faith among low-status people, often ones with histories of bad judgment, somehow shows the truth of the christian revelation. You might hire some deeply religious person like that from a developing society for menial labor, but you wouldn’t trust that individual with important responsibilities or seek advice from him or her about problems in your life involving, say, personal finance.

    In other words, why should it impress me that socially disadvantaged people in tropical places have decided to become zealous christians, when they don’t know how to run their lives according to modern standards in general?

  9. Sandgroper

    “I think atheists in a christian nation may hold different views on morality and personal conduct than those from other nations.”

    You think? Do you want to define “Christian nation”, define “other nation” and give some evidence of what you’re talking about, or at least be a little more specific?

  10. Mr. Anthony

    I wonder if the Internet played a role?

  11. Douglas Knight

    As more people leave their nominal Christian affiliation, they are no longer lying.

    What leads you to believe that this is the correct explanation of the data? The Pew data says that in the past 5 years, the unaffiliated have grown a lot faster than the people who admit to rare attendance. Do you have data over a longer period?

    I know there is some direct measure of exaggeration of attendance, but is there a time series showing it decreasing?

  12. Paco

    Atheism is the new “gay.” It still is dangerous socially to “come out” as an atheist in America. But that stigma is being eroded, and, like claiming a non-hetrosexual sexual orientation was in the 80s and 90s, will soon join the long list of shoulder-shrug social attributes on our long, grinding process to real social freedom.

  13. Douglas Knight

    Actually, since most of this is driven by generational differences, not individual change, you don’t need a time series. You just need to know that young people exaggerate attendance less than old people. That could be measured directly, but assessing age of real attendees is harder than just counting.

  14. #12, #13, i concede the null. i don’t have time to look at the data sets even if i had access to the original.

  15. Chad

    When people get uptight over the definition of “atheism” I am reminded of the two-part South Park episode where religion has been abolished and three different atheist camps are at constant war with each other over what they should call themselves. One of the most brilliant and insightful South Parks ever.

  16. #15, agreed. though to be fair…it doesn’t look like this sort of thing is indicative of reinforcement of stereotypes, but a parody which is reflective of the ‘coming out’ of this subculture. this kind of makes sense, since neither the co-creators themselves are believers.

  17. Chad

    I know neither are believers, but I think because of their “nothing is sacred approach” that they see the irony that a lot miss.

  18. #17, actually, i’m sure most atheists see it (having been involved in them in the past). it’s commented on in atheist organizations. but institutional and ‘movement’ organisms tend to have the same birth life death cycle no matter what. the same problems exists with libertarian groups. everyone is a chief in these demographics.

  19. though richard carrier’s recent behavior makes you wonder….

  20. Sandgroper

    #15 – I think I’d see joining an atheist organisation as just joining a new kind of religion. To me part of the joy of deciding I would no longer participate in the stupid ritualistic thing, was in not having to turn up any more, profess to be anything or talk to anyone.

  21. #20, the role of atheist orgs in many parts of the USA are hard to comprehend in other parts of the developed world. i don’t accept the analogy with homosexuals for various reasons, but it is not totally uninformative.

  22. i was delayed in being hired for my job so the position could be offered to “under-privileged minorities.” Don’t i qualify as one since i’m an atheist?:) also, i was asked to donate to the Boy Scouts a couple of days ago and i said “No thanks, I’m gay.” i forgot they also discriminate against atheists as well. i didn’t even have to lie about being gay i could’ve just said my piece. my point? people don’t like atheists.

  23. J

    Yes, to me this graph says a lot about the strength of atheist arguments and the weakness of the typical atheist personality.
    Overbearing evangelism is obnoxious enough in the religious without adding in the condescending, mocking sneer so typical among atheist evangelists.

  24. #23, so you’re saying that atheists arguments are getting stronger and the personality getting more robust? my point, which if you read the post, was that for 10 years people have been complaining how new atheists have been polarizing society, turning people off, and giving atheism a bad name. but in fact the % of atheists seems to have gone considerably up. one can’t make a causal connection (i don’t), but it behooves people griping about what losers atheists are to note that there are more and more of them.

    i’m not a new atheist myself. but i think people should shut up about how they are giving atheism a bad name, because the data don’t indicate that, at least if popularity is a measure.

  25. Bobby LaVesh

    I think the real surprise is that there are not more atheists/agnostics.

    It’s the 21st century and most of the “reasons” for religion are no longer valid. We don’t need religion to enforce laws. We don’t need religion to give authority to head of state- or as an identity for our tribe. We don’t need religion to explain things like why the “sun rises and sets” or where the earth came from. Religion almost seems an anachronism.

    Whereas the % of atheists is increasing- how much quicker would it be increasing without the “atheist-jihad”- that minority of our number who are giving atheism a bad name. Difficult to imagine how much they are altering the “conversion” rate- but can we rule out that they have an impact?

    To me- the real surprise is that religion still has a sizable majority in America.

  26. J – yeah, i really really have zero respect for people like yourself because you’re all such cowards. religion is stupid and deserves to be mocked…and so do you:)

  27. Whereas the % of atheists is increasing- how much quicker would it be increasing without the “atheist-jihad”- that minority of our number who are giving atheism a bad name. Difficult to imagine how much they are altering the “conversion” rate- but can we rule out that they have an impact?

    i think you are trying to hold on to your thesis here by any means. my own personal attitude toward ‘evangelical atheists’ isn’t really positive. but the data here are clear. your position isn’t irrational, it could be that the rate of growth is slowed by the people you speak of. but if the data showed stagnation? what would you say? i suspect you might offer that it is because of the ‘atheist jihad.’ in other words, your theory is insulated from empirical evidence which might push your posterior probability in a given direction. that’s fine, we don’t know. but i think it is the reasonable thing to do and admit that for all the complaining about how obnoxious new atheists are, they are not likely to be harming atheism’s image in the USA. you can’t prove it because of the dynamics you’re alluding too, but i’m 99.99% sure that if the data went in the other direction new atheist-skeptics would be all over it. therefore, the problem isn’t with the method, but the conclusion.

    more honestly most humans are unsophisticated and stupid. the coarse and brutal attack style of new atheists may actually be winning more than we might think…. after all, evangelical/fundamentalist religion seems to be doing better than more liberal faiths.

  28. #26, chill out a bit bro. you can have your fun on the open thread 😉

  29. J

    “so you’re saying that atheists arguments are getting stronger and the personality getting more robust? ”

    Hi Razib,
    No, I’m saying that I think the argument against superstition is a strong one in modern times for obvious reasons (power of science to explain), and the logic of the message itself is gaining steam among the masses. However many people don’t like to be associated with socially obnoxious atheists, so while they may not much believe in the supernatural, they aren’t much more likely to self-describe as “atheists”. To call oneself an “atheist” conjures up the mental image of a socially awkward activist who spams their friends Facebook news feed with repetitive anti-religion rants/juvenile memes. In essence I think “New Atheism” has been effective at spreading the message, but not at making friends (I am not saying they necessarily *should* be making friends either).

    I am atheist myself but I hesitate to brand myself as an “atheist” to those who inquire for this reason. Instead, I just tell them I’m not religious and politely change the subject.

    26 – I’m confused by what in my comment inspired your unhinged vitriol. (perhaps it unwittingly makes my point better than I have?)
    I was adding to your point that “people don’t like atheists. ” I think you are right, they don’t, even if they start to agree with the atheists.

  30. simplicio

    Its a little silly to say that “New Atheists” have given atheists a bad name. People distrusted atheists long before Dawkins et. al. arrived on the scene, and if anything, like them much more now then before hand. Atheists are given a bad name by religious people that don’t like atheists, not by a few vocal and somewhat impolite atheists.

    According to Gallup, in 1958 only 18% of Americans would vote for an atheist President. That number steadily improved until now, when 54% of people would vote for an atheist.

    Atheists were far more mistrusted before the New Atheists, and while its not clear that the New Atheists have sped up acceptance, its pretty clear they haven’t done anything to slow it down.

  31. However many people don’t like to be associated with socially obnoxious atheists, so while they may not much believe in the supernatural, they aren’t much more likely to self-describe as “atheists”.

    yes. this is evident in the polling data. about half the people who are atheists label themselves as such, for the reasons you state. my main point is that my confidence in the *power* of these observations making a difference in reducing the popularity of atheists is reduced by these data. we’ve seen nearly 20 years of increased secularization in the USA. are atheists more confrontational than they were 20 years ago? i’d have to say in the aggregate, yes. does this limit the potential audience for atheism? perhaps. but what we do know is that the number of self-identified atheists has doubled. conditional on that fact i will continue to express my general disinclination toward associating myself with ‘new atheists’ (though i don’t shrug off the term atheist at all), but, i have to admit that i don’t see evidence at all that they’re causing a major public relations problem. on the contrary, the arguments of the new atheists re: ‘overton window,’ etc., are more persuasive to me than they were before, though i remain skeptical.

  32. J/Z – my bad. i read that comment too fast and assumed you were deriding me as you are one who is “above both sides’ stupidity.” you know, one of those “on the fence” libs who thinks rude atheism is equally as bad as rude/normal religion.
    my bad – comment retracted.

  33. #32, very christlike of you to admit your error!

  34. i was kinda laughing as i wrote that cuz guess what i’m listening to (because of you):
    dis iz my JAM

  35. Matt

    I think postmodernist culture is the main driver for people leaving Christianity. I’m on an internet dating site (OkCupid), where people have the option of answering certain user created questions on any number of topics (sex, ethics, interests, body type etc…). It’s a very small sample size that I’m looking at, but I do see some – much more than I’d expect – self described Christians answering affirming the idea that one religion cannot be more correct than others. Likewise, many say their religion is Christianity, with the qualifier that they’re “not too serious about it.” Christianity has become less a complete worldview that one uses to think about and interpret issues, than something that has a pick and choose quality to it. And my non-theist friends are more likely to bring up, before anything else, how religion fosters extremism which for someone who just wishes we all could just get along is the ultimate sin. From that perspective, new athiesm, which does take a definite moral stance and which isn’t shy about condemnation of ideas, doesn’t fit with the postmodernist culture. So I’d question if new atheism has actually had much of an impact with regards to the waining religious views in the US.

  36. Masquirina

    I wonder how many atheists identify as unitarian…

  37. Abelard Lindsey

    The decline of religious belief among Americans seems to occur at a rate of around 1% a year. Its a rather slow but steady process that seems to be long term (greater than 50 years). I think this trend will continue until about 35% of Americans identify, which will be around 2040. I think it will stabilize at this point.

  38. I just read the report and felt the urge to correct a few possible misconceptions (including a couple of my own).

    – That headline number (one in five have no religion affiliation) includes a lot of theists. 68% of the unaffiliated believe in God.

    – The decline (contra #13) is slightly more rapid among younger generations but also exists in older generations. The % of Boomers with no affiliation has increased by 4% in the last 4 years, for example.

    – I expect, in surveys like this, there is no meaningful difference between the people who identify as atheist and those who identify as agnostic. Most of the differences are arguments about what the words mean (cf #2, 3 & 6).

    I agree with Razib’s sentiment about the effects of the new atheist propaganda. I expect that the new atheists are both a cause and an effect of the growing number of unaffiliated. The various new atheist campaigns (the brights, the scarlet A, there is probably no god) have helped make atheism more socially acceptable and the more the numbers increase the more acceptable atheism becomes. There is no longer a stigma – in much of the country – against atheists or, more importantly, about staying home on Sunday mornings.

    And, echoing #36, I expect the trend will continue to be long and slow until the percentages in America mirror those in Europe. It’s the same trend – America just started late. 25 years ago, I almost gave my commanding officer a coronary when I traded in my ‘Church of England’ dog tags for ‘Atheist’ ones. now, I expect, it would barely raise an eyebrow.

  39. You recently posted a Gallop poll showing just how stigmatized atheism is in relation to Presidential voting. The poll also showed a gap in Democrat voting preference for Mormons and it was suggested in the comments that this effect was due to a particular Mormon being on this year’s Republican ticket.

    One would wonder if that effect would hold if Harry Reid, a Mormon, was running and his religion was widely known by Democrats taking a similar poll in the future.

    As far as atheism goes, could the specter of Stalin be a reason that people are reticent to come out as atheists as politicians (one might point to Paul Ryan’s backtracking of his Objectivist beliefs)?

    In an age where one can make a convincing argument that Obama is a secular progressive atheist humanist (his memoirs suggest as such) and like Ryan wearing the cloak of true Christian belief due to political necessity, can’t we also contend that a lack of atheist heroes being advertised as such, leaves many to couch their true beliefs with vague language and inaccurate responses to polls?

    It has been shown that the term “gay” and “homosexual” and “bisexual” are so stigmatized that “men who have sex with men” is used in surveys to capture that group who would not self identify, even anonymously, as queer, but who do participate in same sex activity. Well, how many non-believers still call themselves “Christian” or related terms due to the stigma of the label “atheist”?

  40. Luke Raines

    Rejecting a religious affiliation is not the same thing as being an atheist or even an agnostic. Many people believe in some sort of supreme being or supernatural entities without belonging to a particular religion.

  41. DK

    But “nothing in particular” *is* a definition of atheism. A-theism.

  42. John Emerson

    I think that religion is an almost meaningless flag that people in the US fly in order to be regarded as normal and good. To be in some minimal sense Christian (the most common American religion) costs you nothing at all, but you signal that you’re not a troublemaker. To be “spiritual” also costs very little, since for many spirituality is just a pleasant buzz.

    In some countries the default is “nothing in particular”, and whatever believers there are usually have some degree of actual active commitment, though often they are also different in ethnicity, region, or class.

  43. Richard P

    There are some interesting points that emerge when comparing the affiliated of this study with Pew’s study of U.S. Muslims.

    For one, the percentage of U.S. Muslims who report that religion is ‘very important’ is basically the same as the general public. Same with daily frequency of prayer category and weekly attendance.

    However, I suspect that this may not be the case, as it depends on how Pew defined ‘Muslim’. Would they define Razib as a Muslim due to ancestry or merely self-reporting? If it not self-reporting, then many people who are from a Muslim background wouldn’t make the cut into survey. Which brings me to my real point of curiosity – how many Razibs are there and what percentage of the total cohort of the US pop with Muslim backgrounds are they? How do the unaffiliated ex-Muslims behave/believe in relationship to the greater U.S. unaffiliated community? I haven’t found any of this data.

  44. #43, self-reporting.

    Which brings me to my real point of curiosity – how many Razibs are there and what percentage of the total cohort of the US pop with Muslim backgrounds are they?

    aziz ansari? but in any, there are many black ex-muslims. seems a lot of churn in the black muslim community (e.g., the whole ismail family of football fame went from muslim to christian).

  45. #36 Something on the order of 150,000 to 200,000 atheists identify as Unitarian Universalist (based on the total number of adherents about 350K-400K and a rough percentage based on my occassional experiences at UU churches). An identification as “Unitarian” as opposed to “Unitarian Universalist” these days generally denotes a Unitarian Christian identification. This is about 0.4% of U.S. adult atheists.

    I did a pretty lengthy analysis of the story here where I note that the growth rate of non-Christians is about the same as for nones and that U.S. non-Christians have an almost equal and opposite political impact of partisan elections to Evangelical Christians (as measured by votes cast). About one in three Republicans is a white Evangelical Christian, about one in three Democrats is a non-Christian. Their degree of partisanship is very similar (non-Christians are slightly more Democratic than white Evangelical Christians are Republican but their numbers are slightly smaller).

    Also in any given post-WWII cohort people get more secular as they get older contrary to conventional wisdom.

    A somewhat stream of consciousness social history of modern American secularism follows in this post, using the same kind of cultural historical analysis found in Albion’s Seed.

    In terms of forecasting trends and modeling secular “market share” in the U.S., I am inclined to think that a logistic curve starting at about 9% in 1990 and ending at some indefinite date at something on the order of the 65% found in Western industrial democracies where secular transition has pretty much run its course, probably comes close to the mark. This suggests something on the order of 4.7% annual growth in secular market share on average over the next twenty years with peak growth ca. 2020 and slower growth at greater distances in time on either end. This would put “nones” at circa 29% in about eight years.


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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


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