They’ve released their latest analysis of the demographics of American ‘skeptics’ (they use the word “skeptic” to refer to the combined group of atheists and agnostics). It’s a somewhat confusing report, because they insist on looking at us through the lens of religion — we’re “unchurched”, they use a set of metrics designed for assessing the religious, they refer to Christian and “post-Christian”, and other annoyingly pointless divisions that only matter to Christians), but in all the clutter, there was something that stood out.
It ain’t just the ol’ white boys club any more.
Five Demographic Shifts among Skeptics
They are younger. Skeptics today are, on average, younger than in the past. Twenty years ago, 18 percent of skeptics were under 30 years old. Today that proportion has nearly doubled to 34 percent—nearly one-quarter of the total U.S. population (23%, compared to 17% in 1991). By the same token, the proportion of skeptics who are 65 or older has been cut in half, down to just 7 percent of the segment.
They are more educated. Today’s skeptics tend to be better educated than in the past. Two decades ago, one-third of skeptics were college graduates, but today half of the group has a college degree.
More of them are women. Perhaps the biggest transition of all is the entry of millions of women into the skeptic ranks. In 1993 only 16 percent of atheists and agnostics were women. By 2013 that figure had nearly tripled to 43 percent. This enormous increase is not because the number of skeptic men has declined. In fact, men’s numbers have steadily increased over the last two decades—but not nearly as rapidly as among women.
They are more racially diverse. Religious skepticism has become more racially and ethnically inclusive. While whites represented 80 percent of all skeptics 20 years ago, that figure had dropped to 74 percent by 2013. This is largely a reflection of the increasing Hispanic and Asian adults among the skeptic cohort. Asian Americans, the least-Christian ethnic demographic in the United States, especially tend to embrace skepticism. While a growing number of skeptics are Hispanic, they still remain, along with Blacks, less likely than other ethnic groups to accept the idea of a world without God. White Americans, who constitute two-thirds of the country’s total population, are well above average in their embrace of atheism and agnosticism; they comprise three-quarters of the skeptic segment.
They are more dispersed regionally. In decades past, the Northeast and West were seen as isolated hotbeds of atheism and agnosticism. They still remain the areas where skeptics are more likely to live, but the skeptic population is now broadly dispersed across all regions.
Now we just have to get the word out to the big name atheist organizations, which are still a bit behind the times. For that matter, so is Barna. They are trying to explain why the godless are growing, and they reached for the usual “atheist celebrity” trope.
Many of these ideas are initiated, promoted and reinforced by celebrity personalities and media exposure. There has arisen a new stratum of anti-religion celebrity apologists that includes Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Peter Singer, Woody Allen, Phillip Roth, Julia Sweeney and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Yay! One woman. And one dead guy. And two people I’d rather were not associated with atheism, Maher and Woody Allen. Where’s Annie Laurie Gaylor, Susan Jacoby, Sikivu Hutchinson, Natalie Angier, Anthony Pinn, Margaret Downey, David Tamayo, Taslima Nasrin, Patricia Churchland, Cara Santa Maria, Sanal Edamaruku, or Maryam Namazie? If you just want media celebrities, how about Chris Rock or Angelina Jolie or Jodie Foster? It’s rather telling that when they go looking for names that are associated with atheism, they come up with just the usual suspects, people who aren’t at all involved in movement atheism, and one white man who is dead. Why not throw in Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, and Baron D’Holbach, too?
It really is weird how they can talk up the fact that 43% of atheists/agnostics are women, and an increasing number of racial minorities, while simultaneously failing to note that a number of people in these groups are leaders and activists. It is important that we break the conceptual stranglehold that so few people are trotted out to represent us, and they don’t reflect the population at work.
I can’t blame Barna, though, when atheists themselves tend to be just as myopic.
Another important implication from this work, though, is that maybe finally we can break away from one old explanation: that the rise of atheism is a consequence of 9/11, and that it’s a bunch of Sam Harris’s getting all angry at Islam and driving everyone to hate religion. It should be obvious now that with all this diversity there are also diverse reasons why people would abandon their faith.