Why aren’t atheists more politically influential?

YouGov has a new poll that says that only 76% of Americans believe in a god. Why do I say ‘only’ when it is a large majority? Because it really is quite surprising that a quarter of the public in America say they do not believe in a god. Recall that previous polls have put atheists and agnostic in the single digits and that the ‘unaffiliated’ groups at around 20% but the last number may include people who believe in a god but do not belong to any religious denomination.

Jonathan Turley asks why, when compared to other groups, nonbelievers do not have political clout commensurate with their numbers.

Yet, I am struck by the large number of atheists and agnostics given their small influence on politics. Compare more powerful groups like the 34 percent of gun owners or 22 percent Tea Party supporters or 12.9 percent over 65 or 3.5 percent Gay population or the 2.2 percent Jewish population. Non-believers constitute 25 percent of the population but continue to be not only marginalized politically but vilified socially. It is an interesting contrast with other groups of similar or strikingly smaller size with more power politically.

I don’t think that is surprising. All those other groups tend to be single-issue ones that are quite passionate about the issues that affect their group. Nonbelievers, on the other hand, are all over the map politically. And even when our ox is directly gored and (say) politicians use religious tropes we just tend to treat them as silly and not worth getting too upset about. Even when a prominent person says that we are going to hell, we tend to shake our heads and wonder how people can be so childish, rather than have a mass demonstration in protest.

Our mode of action tends to be to make fun of religious silliness and if the situation is serious enough, ask for redress in the courts. I wonder what it would take to get nonbelievers outraged in large numbers and demand some sort of action. Previous struggles to fight for equality for minorities, women, and gays had concrete goals that people could rally around and pressure politicians about. What would nonbelievers want to see happen?

Is this seemingly lackadaisical attitude because we are so sure we are right and history is on our side? It is usually only people who feel really threatened that want to organize and fight back.


  1. says

    Are you familiar with Venn Diagrams and/or sets? If we were to place atheism and theism in such a diagram, theism would be circle A (or set A) and everything outside of A (i.e, “not A”) would be atheism. These people who “don’t know” clearly don’t belong to A, so that means they must belong to “not A,” or atheism. It really doesn’t matter if you want to add another circle (or set), B, for “don’t knows,” but that circle/set would be mutually exclusive of A (there would be no overlap), making B a subset of “not A”.

  2. says

    Though, I should add that, if nothing else, your comment does reveal a problem — There are lots of people out there who are atheists but don’t actually realize it because they don’t understand what an atheist is. Until these people can be educated to understand this, we are going to essentially be a small group. I do have hope, though. I think being outspoken will help spread such understanding.

  3. thewhollynone says

    If that “don’t know” means “I don’t want to answer” then that 10% should be thrown out of the poll and the percentages recalculated.

    If that “don’t know” means “I don’t know if there’s a god” or “I don’t know whether or not I believe in a god” or even “I don’t know what I believe, never thought about it” then those answers should be counted as nonbelievers. Either you are a believer or you’re not.

    There are more of us nonbelievers in the USA than many people realize because we have been stigmatized, ostracized, threatened, and made to shut up if we wish to participate in society and politics. I would never, NEVER, have gotten the school teaching job that I excelled at if I had been in any way outspoken about my atheism. Some people knew that I was anti-Catholic, but then they just assumed I was some kind of Protestant, or that I had some silly personal grudge against the Catholic Church.

    As an atheist, what do I want? I want complete separation of church and state; no god in the pledge, no prayers at government meetings, no god on the money, no religious symbols on government land or government buildings, no religious requirements for holding public office, and certainly no religious claptrap in public schools. But that’s not enough. I want religious organizations and religious people to have to obey ALL the laws, including laws about discrimination against women and minorities, the laws about child abuse, and the laws about financial disclosure; no more exemptions for “but that’s against my religion” or “but my religion teaches me so-and-so.” But that’s still not enough. I want religious “nonprofits” to be subjected to the same scrutiny as all other nonprofits by the IRS, and I want my secular government to investigate and actively prosecute all cases of fraud perpetrated by these religious con artists who lie, steal, and victimize ignorant citizens.

    I want to put the religious charlatans out of business because I don’t believe that the religious worldview is one on which we can build a viable modern world.

    Well, we don’t always get what we want in this world, do we?

  4. thewhollynone says

    And another thought– you may as well ask, “Why do females have so little political influence?” when we are a certified majority in the USA and probably in the world. You really do not have to guess about how many females there are, do you, but they have so little political power that it’s a freakshow when one of them attains a political position by mimicking male behavior.

    It seems to me that male hegemony in the world is a direct result of #1 physical force or the threat of physical force coupled with #2 patriarchal religions which prohibit female participation in the public square, often enforced by #1.

    When I was younger, I thought of inventing– or reinventing– a matriarchal religion around which females could collect and function as an influential group like modern Amazons or Wonder Women, again mimicking male behavior. That might be possible since personal physical force can now be balanced and somewhat controlled by technology. But I thought about it and I realized that I just didn’t have it in me to try to perpetrate another religious crock of fowl excrement on top of what our culture was already dealing with. There is an old saying though, that in culture wars “you can’t fight something with nothing,” and I am afraid that is what feminists and atheists have been trying to do.

    I think you are correct in implying that we need a platform, a statement of what we want.

  5. raven says

    Give it time.

    US xianity is dying and they have finally noticed it. US xianity is losing 2 million members a year and projected to go below 50% in a few decades.

    Their reaction is to become even more extreme and ugly. Not unexpectly, it isn’t playing well.

  6. thewhollynone says

    Give it time? Same thing they told me when I was a girl. Well, I’m 76 now and I’m running out of time! When I taught economics, I taught that “time is a scarce resource.” Forgive me if I’m getting a bit impatient.

  7. raven says

    Give it time? Same thing they told me when I was a girl.

    Yeah, I’m a Boomer. I probably won’t live to see that 50% point.

    Just to cheer you (and me) up, here is some recent data, from a xian source no less.

    Xpost EB blog today.

    People are waking up and realizing that his Oogedy Boogedy fundie death cultists will destroy the USA if they can.

    Approval ratings for their political arm, the Tea Party, are now at the Crazification Limit of 21%. And their cults are slowly dying.

    More Data:

    Salt Lake Tribune:

    Baptism rates slide despite high-profile boost of Prince George
    | Religion News Service First Published Oct 23 2013 04:50 pm • Last Updated Oct 25 2013 06:12 pm

    The SBC, which considers baptism a key marker of Christian faith and also denominational vitality, tallied 314,959 baptisms in 2012 — a low not seen since 1948.

    “It’s a sad situation,” said Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources. “In 1948 we had 6 million members of the SBC but today we have (nearly) 16 million members.”

    Yet, Rainer called himself an “obnoxious optimist.” .Although his research on the nation’s 80 million “millennials” (born between 1980 and 2000) shows that only 15 percent call themselves Christian, Rainer said those youth are “on fire” for faith.

    “It’s a sad situation,” said Thom Rainer, president of (SBC) LifeWay Christian Resources. Speak for yourself, Ranier. As far as I’m concerned, your toxic cults need to drown themselves in a bathtub for the good of our society. I just cheer wildly and collect more statistics.

  8. Mano Singham says

    You raise an issue that I have been thinking about for a while and that is that despite the fact that there is a major war being waged on women’s rights in the US, especially on helth-related issues, that is much greater than any attacks on atheism, but the reaction has not been commensurate. In Ohio, for example, the war on women by the state legislature is in full swing but the anger is not there. Or maybe it is, and I am out of the loop. But I just don’t see it.

  9. says

    Words have many meanings, depending on the intent of those that use them. “Belief” can mean “I don’t have to judge for myself whether it’s true.” And belief that GOD is a Mystery that I can’t possibly know can mean therefore that “I know it all.” For such people, Atheists know nothing! ! ! ! !

  10. raven says


    Words have many meanings, depending on the intent of those that use them.

    Spoken like a true follower of Alice in Wonderland. Humpty Dumpty said the same thing.

    Or more ominously Orwell’s 1984 Newspeak and Doublespeak.

    Freedom is Slavery

    Ignorance is Strength

    Lies are Truth

    In your case, (assuming it’s not just gibberish and Sandberg is really trying to make a coherent point) and translating with Google from Fundiespeak to English:

    Belief is Lazy Ignorance
    Knowing Nothing is Knowing Everything
    Atheists are Ignorant

    Hitchens Rule: These are simply claims without proof or data and may be dismissed without proof or data. They are meaningless Deepities.

  11. raven says


    Words have many meanings, depending on the intent of those that use them.

    Humpty Dumpty:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

    You could call it Alice in Wonderland theology. But it is just straight out of the fundie xian instruction manual, Orwell’s 1984.

  12. raven says

    It was amusing whatever it was.

    I couldn’t tell whether Sandberg was writing gibberish or trying to make a point.

    If you try to unpack it, it looks better but not by much. Something like, god exists because Orwell’s 1984 and Humpty Dumpty.

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