The Future of the Atheist “Movement”

After writing my previous piece, I ran across some interesting ideas from research from PRRI.

In their discussion of the religiously unaffiliated, they identify three sub-groups from the unaffiliated.  They have labeled them Rejectionists, Apatheists (clever that!) and Unattached Believers.  Here is the breakdown of the proportions as identified by PRRI.

In my own experience, I think these categories are probably pretty sound.  Unfortunately, although they broke out the groups by education, the did not break it out by age groups.  My guess is that there is a significant generational difference in non-believers.

People of my generation (born in 1960) came into a country where the vast majority of people claimed one religion or another.  So, even if our parents were not serious observers of religion, there was at least some.  Therefore, most people of my generation, when becoming unaffiliated, had to escape from one religion or another.  This was an active process and often left families divided, with some believing and some not.

As the country takes religion less seriously, it is easy to see where the apatheists might be coming from.  If they come from a family where religion is not very important, maybe going to church a few times a year “with grandma.” making the final break is no big deal.  Church, religion and god are just not important enough to think about.

Rejectionists, such as myself, are the kind of people who are going to self identify as “atheist.”  We had a religious identity and changed it to another identity.  Even after escaping, religion still has a pull on our lives.  We like to commiserate with fellow escapees and like to read and hear about how awful religion is.  Even for most “critical thinkers” confirmation bias is a comfortable place to hang our hats.  These are the people going to conferences and meetings and who think of atheism as a “movement.”

I think the apatheists are much less likely to identify as “atheist.”  “Atheist” seems like it is against religion, but they are not really against it.   They think of religion like most Americans think about kimchee.  It is not that they are avoiding eating it, there is just no occasion where they would.  My presumption is that these folks do not go to meetings or read atheist books.  I would think to them, our meetings would actually seem like preaching.  Preaching about something they don’t really care about or think about.

The last group, “Jesus is my friend, but I don’t like church” is obviously not going to join in our atheist meetings.  However, we should keep an eye on this group as they are obviously most likely to drift back into churches as they get older.

It seems to me that the latter two groups, apatheists and unaffiliated believers probably represent the younger generations.  So, those groups will continue to grow.

As for us “rejectionists,” we have choices ahead.  I am guessing that our percentage of the unaffiliated will begin to fall as more apatheists come of age, and we ourselves send forth a generation of apatheists.  Our kids and grandkids probably won’t care about religion one way or the other.  For now, our actual numbers will probably be steady — there is still plenty of religion to escape from.  But we may become a minority of the unaffiliated — and it may happen pretty soon.

We can certainly continue our anti-religion outlook and take our place as the vocal sub-group of the unaffiliated.  Or we can try and find common ground with the other unaffiliateds, probably through some form of secularism.  This would possibly increase our political footprint, but it might not be as fun.

Let me know what you think in the comments!



  1. jazzlet says

    I was born in 1960 too, the grown children of my siblings and cousins are mostly staunch atheists, having been brought up to be so. The exceptions are the cousins-once-removed who were brought up in the original family faith of Methodism, at least one of whom has not only retained her faith but become a lay preacher.

  2. says

    Looking at the report, they define the apatheist/rejectionist distinction by whether they think religion causes more harm than good, or more good than harm. I think this is questionable, since I wouldn’t assume that someone is apathetic iff they believe religion is good. But I guess that’s only a problem in their choice of terminology.

    I am not convinced that people born in the 60s are more likely to be “rejectionists” than people born in the 80s or 90s–either as a fraction of the general population, or as fraction of religiously unaffiliated people. Growing up with religion in your face all the time can cause people to oppose it more vociferously, but it can also cause people to take it more for granted.

    After writing that, I realized that PRRI does in fact address the question of age, and you had missed it.

    More than one-third of Apatheists (38%) and Rejectionists (35%) are under the age of 30, compared to fewer than one-quarter (24%) of Unattached Believers.

    Using these figures, I estimate that unaffiliated people under 30 are 13%/25%/62% unattached/apatheist/rejectionist, and unaffiliated people over 30 are 21%/21%/58% unattached/apatheist/rejectionist. Note also that the older generation is less likely to be unaffiliated in the first place.

    Thanks for pointing to this PRRI report, it was very interesting.

    • says

      Thank you for that find there, I was looking for a chart like for some of the other breakouts.

      Obviously I find the age factor you quoted counter-intuitive, but sometimes data is like that. We will have to see, I suppose. It might be possible that over the last, say 25 years, as religion has gotten a lot louder on a narrower range of social issues that perhaps there is more rejectionism. We will have to see.

  3. says

    I see religion fading, but general Ideology taking over. I see less “Christianity” but more strong left or right politics used as identity. Class seems more prevalent in this regard.

    All of these shaping how people see themselves, give people new monsters, heroes, and rhetoric to identify other group members

    Our fight was to break out, sometimes with force from religion. The younger fight is now to decide who they are.

  4. cherbear says

    Some of the problem is that no one takes anything seriously. When I became atheist it was a long considered decision resting on my rejection of the basic horrors of religious belief and thoughts, and the acceptance of science as an explanation of things that go on in the world. If people who are younger don’t take either seriously, where will they land in 20 years? Will they go back to superstition and dark ages thinking? Or will they decide that science explains the world better than a book written by sheep herders 2000 (or so) years ago?

    • says

      I am not sure yet if the younger generation “takes nothing seriously.” Perhaps that is true, there seems to be an uptick of fatalism/anger going around and perhaps it is because people don’t know what to believe.

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