American Atheists: In The Closet?

A study suggests many non-believers may uncomfortable telling a pollster they don’t believe in God. elenabsl / Shutterstock.

A new study suggests that the number of atheists in uStates is considerably higher than the numbers shown by traditional polls by Pew and Gallup. The study is flawed, and the authors cheerfully admit this and are working on better ways to conduct their poll, and they remain convinced there are more atheists than assumed. I don’t find that terribly difficult to believe, as atheism in this country carries a high stigma, and in a number of states, could cost people their jobs and turn goodwill towards them cold. Politics here are inextricably linked with religion, and a politician who states they are an atheist aren’t going to find themselves very popular, to say the least. Even when a lot of atheists are willing to admit it, they quickly follow it up with making nice noises about religious people, or point out that they aren’t against religion, it’s just not their thing.

I remember when atheists at large were utterly thrilled when President Obama acknowledged the existence of atheists in America. He was soundly condemned for that mention by theists. We were thrilled because that simple acknowledgement was a large risk to take. It’s a stark illustration of just how much atheism is considered to be a dirty little secret here, and in the minds of many, it remains linked with being a dirty commie.

Here’s a simple question: How many Americans don’t believe in God?

Pew and Gallup — two of the most reputable polling firms in America — both come to a similar figure. About 10 percent of Americans say they do not believe in God, and this figure has been slowly creeping up over the decades.

But maybe this isn’t the whole story. University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle have long suspected that a lot of atheists aren’t showing up in these polls. The reason: Even in our increasingly secular society, there’s still a lot of stigma around not believing in God. So when a stranger conducting a poll calls and asks the question, it may be uncomfortable for many to answer truthfully.

Gervais and Najle recently conducted a new analysis on the prevalence of atheists in America. And they conclude the number of people who do not believe in God may be even double that counted by these polling firms.

“There’s a lot of atheists in the closet,” Gervais says. “And … if they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance.”

Vox has the full story.

Mother Jones also has this story, but with a different perspective: the new study showed that not one single republican identified as an atheist. I don’t find that surprising at all.


  1. blf says

    It wasn’t clear to me which closet or cupboard I should look it, so I tried to check all the known ones in the lair. The first was one of the curiosity cabinets, which besides the expected Entwife, had a Tardis containing, judging by the loud snoring and buzzing squeaks, an asleep extremely angry mouse in a nest built out of sonic screwdrivers. The Entwife, by the way, was in full springtime bloom; however, I don’t think she was responsible for the blue sparkling sticky mist tasting of dark rum. That has the mildly deranged penguin excited, so she is currently hunting for her duckproof suit to go on an investigative expedition.

    Which makes looking in the closets she is searching quite easily, despite constantly having to weave and dodge the debris she is tossing out on the so-far suitless search. Not too much interesting has been tossed out, e.g., the crew of the Mary Celeste, several Orbs of Yendor, at least two Holy Grails, no cheese, and several unfinished Sudoku puzzles.

    Looking in other places, generally too small to contain a duckproof suit, found several halfdigested socks, what seems to be a dead sockeater (I was wondering what that smell was), a thriving colony of ballpoint pens, an extremely annoyed Santa Claus — who shouted something about chocolate chimneys — who dashed off in a, yes, sleigh, pulled by several bunnies and a Punch & Judy show. There was also a stash of Penguins On Pluto! plus some quite rare issues of Naughty Cheeses, well nibbled.

    No sign of any atheists, unless they were in the snarling drawer which kept fighting back. There was a heap of small bones nearby.

  2. says

    The study is flawed, and the authors cheerfully admit this and are working on better ways to conduct their poll, and they remain convinced there are more atheists than assumed.

    That’s the problem with polls and surveys: people are going to be subtly led in one direction or another based on the subconscious (or sometimes deliberate!) biases of the person formulating the questions.

    “Are you an atheist?”
    a) Yes
    b) No
    c) Yes, I am going to hell
    d) Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftaghn!

    I’m very leery of the social sciences, since it seems that whenever you invite them into your house of science they shit in the hot tub and come up with a reason why it’s your fault, because it seems that most of what they are doing is measuring human group identity. To which I say, “so what?” It’s just labels -- I know people who’d describe themselves as “theists” who I’d describe as an “atheist” because they act indistinguishably from someone who does not believe in god, except for professing the belief in god. If you were to measure whether people were “atheists” or “theists” based on carefully selected behavior-points, you’d probably find that 90% of everyone is an atheist. They just might disagree with that result. Well, “god bless ’em” I say.

  3. says

    Marcus, yes, it’s not the cleanest issue ever, and it gets complicated by people tailoring beliefs. Even so, I think this is interesting, because it’s very important that the stigma surrounding atheism gets removed, more now than ever. There’s current legislation going up in from the of the court about allowing churches to be political, and being free to take money, which directly violates the separation of church and state, but Gorsuch will likely go for it anyway.

    Whether we like it or not, this is an issue of major importance right now. If we don’t start making inroads on the whole “atheism is commie and anti-American” crap, we’re going to find ourselves sitting in a theocracy.

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