The Decline of Atheism?


Editorial Review: “Who Are These Doubters Anyway?” by Tom Flynn, Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, Feb./March 2012

This is an informative article that may have been missed by much of the atheist community because its title did not mention their favorite word, “Atheist”.

In case you missed it, I’ll summarize the article and then follow-up with a few italicized personal comments.

Attempts to estimate the number of atheists in the USA have been inaccurate and confusing. In 1930-40 estimates were low, only 2% of population were thought to be atheist because of the poor counting techniques and the fact no one wanted to admit to being one of those “dirty atheists.” By 1990 it was estimated that the percentage had risen to 8%, or 50,080,000 individuals and family members. I think this percentage is still low because of “closeted” atheists/non believers who chose to continue with the comforts of their church community, and nonbelieving children living in Christian households. At a Creationist conference in Indianapolis several years ago, a prominent religious leader warned the audience to be vigilant because 40% of children raised in Christian households will give up their faith.

Nevertheless, the numbers of atheists is impressive compared to other politically active minorities. Religious unaffiliated Americans outnumber Hispanic Americans, African-Americans, GLBT Americans, are more than 7 times more numerous than American Jews, and 15 times as numerous as religiously active American Jews. Next to the combined categories of Catholics and Christians, nonreligious Americans are the largest group potential voters in the nation. Unfortunately nothing binds them together in a voting block.

The most commonly used figures about belief in God come from the Gallup Polls. Initially, 90% of Americans claimed to believe in God. This figure has held stable since the 1940s. The definition of one person’s God may be so different from another’s as to contradict it totally. Hindu, Buddhist, Hebrew, Mormon, and Scientology Gods do not qualify as Gods by some Christian faiths. Most people have their own definition of God.

The Gallup poll changed the poll question in 1976. Instead of asking if you believed in God, the poll asked, “do you believe in a God or a universal spirit?” Why? They did this to maintain the numbers of God believers. (In 1967, 98% of respondents reported in believing in God; in 2011, only 92% reported in believing in God.) Could it be the rate of decrease was such that Gallup decided to cover it up?

More comprehensive surveys offered more choices such as: 1) don’t really think there is a God. 2) Don’t really know what to think. Or, 3) Don’t know. In 1994 a similarly broadened poll by an Evangelical group showed that only 67% of Americans believed in a traditional Christian God. Ten percent said, “God was a state of higher consciousness.” Eight percent said, “God was the total realization of personal human potential.” Three percent said, “God is everyone.” And, eight percent “professed ignorance.” As Flynn’s article points out “read the fine print” The polls vary depending upon how the questions are asked and who is asking.

Flynn’s article continues on to probe the number of scientists who believe in God. In 1916, a reputable poll said 40% of American scientists believed in God. The religious world thought this was good news and rejoiced. Unfortunately for them, in 1936 it dropped to 30 %. In 1996, new pollsters claimed the about 30% of scientists believed in God or an afterlife. In 1998, the same pollsters polled 517 elite scientists from the National Academy of Sciences and reported that unbelief had made huge strides among them: only 7% of elite scientists believed in God. Note, the number of elite scientist who did not believe in God increased dramatically. Did they know something the average person did not?

Recently there was an increase in the number of “Nones”, those people who answered polls by choosing “none of the above” when asked about religious preference. In 1990 “nones” were 8%. By 2000 it was 11%. In 2001 it was 14%. Of course, not all the “nones” were atheists. Keep in mind that not every one wished to be labeled as an atheist or agnostic and many peopled felt their preference was a private matter.

The Pew Forum on Religion conducted a survey in 2004 and labeled the nones as “unaffiliated”. It claimed nones numbers had increased dramatically to 16% of the general population. And, of that 16%, 3.2% were atheist/agnostic, 7.5% were seculars, and 5.3% were believers (spiritual but not religious who believed in some kind of God or soul.) So adding up atheists, agnostics, and seculars we have 10.7%, well over half the “nones” did not believe in God. Believers who claimed they believed in God may not have believed in the traditional Christian God or concept of soul. The survey did not address this.

In a 2006 telephone poll of 18 to 25 year olds, 20% described themselves as “nones”. This age group accepts evolution two to one while older groups are evenly split. A 2006 Baylor University poll claimed one of three Americans was a born-again evangelical and 92% of respondents reported belief in God. These results were problematic. The 92% was a combined number including all conceptions of God, including non-Christian conceptions.

31% believed in an authoritarian God
23% believed in a benevolent God
16% believed in a critical God
24% believed in a distant, deistic God

Only one-third believed in the fundamentalist evangelical Christian God. The survey was so overtly evangelical Christian, that atheists were discouraged to participate. The Baylor study claimed 86.5 evangelicals have no doubt that God exists. This leads us to believe the rest,13.5% have doubts that God exists. Baylor published another poll in 2008, which stated the number of American non-religionists has remained the same at 4% since 2008. This contradicted all other polls that said non-religionists were on the rise. The Baylor polls were skewed because they only counted the atheist and agnostic answers as part of the 4% rather than give other options, such as “life style” questions, or “none”, or “no answer” as they did in past surveys. When needed, poll takers seem to change the poll questions to appease those who pay them to take the polls.

In 2009 Trinity College sponsored another survey which stated the challenge to Christianity does not come from other religions but from the general rejection of all religions by the public. It also noted that 24% of the surveyed were atheists, agnostics, or deists. Why were deists included with atheists and agnostics? It’s clear to me, deists essentially reject the Christian God so they are considered no better than atheists and clumped into the same group.

Tom Flynn’s article next deals with “Self-Reporting”. Basically, Christians taking poles lie rather than admit they do not attend church regularly. Forty percent of Christians claim to have attended church last Sunday. Skeptical researchers attended churches and counted noses. It turns out that only about 20% of members usually attend church at any one time. Even on special holidays such as Christmas and Easter when the churches are the most crowded, often with standing room only, not all members are in attendance.

Despite the increase in evangelical and fundamentalist church membership in the USA, all other church membership is in decline worldwide except Islam. Muslim increases are mainly due to increased birth rates. By 2050 it is projected that one human in four will be a Muslim. Evangelicals also have an unusually high birthrate and subsequent increase in membership. Mostly however, their increases depend upon evangelism of the down and out, those seeking some sort of security here or in the afterlife. Nevertheless the fastest growing group worldwide is still secularism; not by increased birth rates but by voluntary conversion alone. Evangelism and fundamentalism are strikingly associated with high birth rates, low incomes, minimal education, low science understanding, low skepticism, and acceptance of authority.

Disbelief in supernaturalism is the main reason religion is in decline and secularism is increasing. This is party the result of increased education in science. Once a person loses wealth or a job his/her security is jeopardized. In the US it is more difficult for a person to recover wealth. Social support is more comprehensive in Europe and Japan and other Developed Western countries. Citizens feel they do not need the dubious support of religion for their security in countries other than the USA. Even thought religion is usually subsidized, it does not play a significant role outside America. When citizens do not have state support they look to comforting religious promises. Recent austerity cutbacks in other Western developed nations may mean a religious revival is on the horizon as it is in the evangelical community in the USA. There may be a heightened demand for “invisible means of support.” I don’t buy into this theory. It would take a huge multi-generational change to cause this reversion to superstition and religious practice.

Finally, Flynn writes about Religion behind bars, the bars found in prisons. If one cannot be good without God, then prisons should be overflowing with atheists and agnostics, but they are not. In fact, the opposite is true. There are hardly any atheists in prisons. The highest religious populations are Catholic and then Protestant, greatly above their percentages in the general population. Atheists are a tiny percentage if any at all. Less than one-third of one percent of those executed were atheists. Even priests working at prison chaplains complain, “Convicts as a class seem to be the most religious people in the nation.” The overwhelming numbers of religious believers in prisons disproves the contention that religious belief fosters morality. This is something we see every day in the news whether it is child abuse by priests, or terrorist activity for religious reasons. Past history and the Judeo-Christian bible is replete with religious wars, inquisitions, torture, persecutions, and burning at the stake. If anything, religion seems to cause more suffering than it relieves.

I hope you learned something from Tom Flynn’s magazine article, I did. It summarized bits and pieces of data that pop up elsewhere and are hard to recall. Thanks Tom, I appreciate it.


About cgosling

I am a retired medical/scientific illustrator and creator of patient teaching simulators, who has given up illustration to write about science, superstition, and secular humanism. I consider myself all of the following: atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, and nature lover. I have several published books but the mass of my writing is unpublished. I write children's fiction, poetry, essays, and several plays and radio theater shows, that are available as free downloads to be used on secular podcasts and meetings. They can be heard on Indy Freethought Radio or on YouTube “secularradiotheater”. I hope some of my writings will be of interest to like minded freethinkers who I cordially invite to respond. I am also a Darwin impersonator. I invite readers to listen to and use the Darwin script for secular purposes.
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