Atheists posed for photos on the bench during the 2013 unveiling of an Atheist monument outside the Bradford County, Florida, courthouse. AP file photo
Atheists posed for photos on the bench during the 2013 unveiling of an Atheist monument outside the Bradford County, Florida, courthouse. AP file photo

Faith

26 percent of Americans are atheist? Researchers say the godless are undercounted

By Scott Canon

scanon@kcstar.com

May 01, 2017 11:47 AM

Josh Stewart differs from most atheists. He’ll tell you there is no God.

But when he gets together with other faithless folks in the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, they color code their name tags. One hue for those who are proudly public about their beliefs, another for whom photographers are asked to avoid.

“It is an issue,” said the 31-year-old Westport resident and coffee shop worker. “They’re worried how their boss or their family or somebody else might react. It’s not always good.”

Josh Stewart of the Kansas City Atheist Coalition
Scott Canon scanon@kcstar.com

Even in anonymous surveys, atheists tend to keep their views secret.

“There’s a lot of atheists in the closet,” University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais, whose research suggests their numbers are undercounted, told Vox. “If they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance.”

Yes, America is becoming steadily less religious.

Fewer parents raise their children in the church. Those kids grow up less likely to worship. It’s not just that more people self-style their faith outside sect or denomination — although that’s happening, too. More people reject faith in the supernatural entirely.

Yet even as their numbers grow, researchers continue to find atheists a particularly unpopular lot.

Americans, pollster Gallup reports, would vote for a Catholic, a woman, an African-American, a Jew, a Mormon, a gay or lesbian person, an evangelical Christian or a Muslim — in that order — before they’d consider an atheist president. Only socialists ranked in less regard.

Sociologists and opinion researchers define an atheist as someone who doesn’t believe in God. Yet even in anonymous telephone interviews, people are a third as likely to accept the label as to concede the belief (or lack thereof). Said one researcher: “They’re hiding it.”

A research group surveyed Americans in 2004 and again in 2014. The numbers remained virtually unchanged and declared a clear preference for the faithful over the irreligious.

A quarter of those surveyed thought atheists didn’t share their values. More than a third said atheists held a different vision for the country. A third said they lacked a moral center. Nearly half don’t want their children to marry an atheist.

A recently published study based on 2,000 interviews suggested that a quarter of Americans or more are atheist — multiples of what other surveys have found.

Gervais and fellow University of Kentucky psychologist Maxine Najle posed a list of innocuous statements — “I own a dog,” “I enjoy modern art” — and asked how many of the declarations applied to a respondent. Then they put the same statements to another group but added the statement, “I believe in God.”

By comparing the results, they concluded that 26 percent of the U.S. population doesn’t believe in God. Previous surveys in 2015 by Pew and Gallup asked directly about the belief in God and found the number of atheists at between 3 and 11 percent.

“Obtaining accurate atheist prevalence estimates may help promote trust and tolerance of atheists — potentially 80 million people in the USA and well over a billion worldwide,” the study said.

For now, though, atheists remain largely out of view and broadly disliked.

“Anti-atheist sentiment is still really high,” said Penny Edgell, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. “That doesn’t decrease with exposure, doesn’t change as the number of atheists grow. That stigma is why there could be quite a few people out there who don’t identify as atheist. They’re not comfortable.”

She sees a religious and political polarization at work. Christians are likely to see faith in the teachings of the New Testament as central to their identity. The same is true for Muslims and the Qur’an. So when atheists suggest there is no higher power, Edgell said, people of faith often take that as an attack.

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Atheists who draw the most attention tend also to be those not just skeptical of God’s existence, she said, but also those who belittle religion and faith.

Richard Dawkins, author of books such as “The God Delusion,” presses aggressively on the idea that belief in God equals a rejection of science. The late Christopher Hitchens spent the final years of his life in public arguments, including in the book “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” railing against the religious majority.

Or how is a religious person supposed to react to “An Atheist Manifesto,” in which writer Sam Harris imagines a little girl abducted, raped and killed while her parents hold faith that God will look out for their child?

“Is it good that they believe this?

“No.

“The entirety of atheism is contained in this response,” Harris continues. “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.”

One social psychologist calls people like Harris “fundamental atheists” who aggressively make the argument that belief in God is for suckers.

“Those people are more rare than other atheists … but they represent the only time someone knows they’re hearing from an atheist,” said Jordan LaBouff, a University of Maine psychology professor who has studied religion and prejudice.

He said even growing contact with more ordinary atheists — people who often buy the ethical truths of religious Scripture even if they can’t accept supernatural elements as fact — might not dramatically reduce prejudice.

“People implicitly trust members of other religions more than they trust an atheist,” LaBouff said. “We sort of assume that people who don’t believe in a big scary God that might punish you for bad behavior are going to be less moral.” (A 2014 study found that religious and non-religious people were equally likely to perform moral or immoral acts.)

Those factors, researchers say, help explain why so many atheists keep their non-beliefs quiet.

Still, atheists may become increasingly unavoidable. Young adults of the millennial generation attend church less than their parents did at the same age, pray less on their own and are less likely to believe in God.

“They’re the least religious generation we’ve ever seen by virtually every measure,” said Daniel Cox, the research director for the Public Religion Research Institute. “There’s no indication that there will be a rush back to the church.”

That’s partly, he said, because their baby boomer parents were less likely to raise them in religious teaching. Often, people return to church when they marry or begin to raise children. But Cox said fewer people hold church weddings or fall into the other religious patterns of earlier generations.

Stewart, the Westport atheist, was raised by devout Christians and now takes an approach to telling people about atheism much like a preacher. He’ll sometimes stand on a street corner with signs such as “I’m an atheist. Ask me anything” or “No God, no problem.”

The resulting conversations can get rough. Stewart insists he’s not trying to talk somebody out of their faith. Rather, he aims to get people beyond their anti-atheist prejudices.

“It’s real common to get a kind of hostile reaction,” he said. “But ultimately I don’t want to have a fight. I want to have a conversation.”

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon

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