Atheists may now constitute 25% of Americans

The relentless march of our country towards nonbelief continues, documented by Michael Shermer in his latest Scientific American post (click on screenshot below):

There are three pieces of information:

1.) The number of atheists, agnostics, and “nones” (those who claim no formal religious affiliation) is continuing to grow.

A 2013 Harris Poll of 2,250 American adults, for example, found that 23 percent of all Americans have forsaken religion altogether. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll reported that 34 to 36 percent of millennials (those born after 1980) are nones and corroborated the 23 percent figure, adding that this was a dramatic increase from 2007, when only 16 percent of Americans said they were affiliated with no religion. In raw numbers, this translates to an increase from 36.6 million to 55.8 million nones. Though lagging far behind the 71 percent of Americans who identified as Christian in the Pew poll, they are still a significant voting block, far larger than Jews (4.7 million), Muslims (2.2 million) and Buddhists (1.7 million) combined (8.6 million) and comparable to politically powerful Christian sects such as Evangelical (25.4 percent) and Catholic (20.8 percent).

I can’t imagine any circumstance that would reverse this loss of belief, except perhaps a cataclysm that destroys the well being of all Americans, which might prompt a return to faith for many. Eventually we’re going to wind up like Denmark and Sweden, and we’ll be the better for it.

2.) The “nones” and nonbelievers can still believe in woo. 

Even among atheists and agnostics, belief in things usually associated with religious faith can worm its way through fissures in the materialist dam. A 2014 survey conducted by the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture on 15,738 Americans, for example, found that of the 13.2 percent who called themselves atheist or agnostic, 32 percent answered in the affirmative to the question “Do you think there is life, or some sort of conscious existence, after death?” Huh? Even more incongruent, 6 percent of these atheists and agnostics also said that they believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead. You know, like Jesus.

What’s going on here? The surveys didn’t ask, but I strongly suspect a lot of these nonbelievers adopt either New Age notions of the continuation of consciousness without brains via some kind of “morphic resonance” or quantum field (or some such) or are holding out hope that science will soon master cloning, cryonics, mind uploading or the transhumanist ability to morph us into cyber-human hybrids.

Well, stuff like crystal healing and other forms of spirituality aren’t nearly as injurious to society as religion: for one thing, these believers don’t usually proselytize nor bring up their kids in as propagandistic a way as, say, Catholics, Mormons, or Christian Scientists. Belief in Resurrection is more harmful, as it “enables” religionists, and of course all forms of belief in woo gives unwarranted respect to faith, which is believe without proper evidence.

3.) The number of nonbelievers might be underestimated from poll data. (My emphasis in the following)

To work around this problem of self-reported data, the psychologists employed what is called an unmatched count technique, which has been previously validated for estimating the size of other underreported cohorts, such as the LGBTQ community. They contracted with YouGov to conduct two surveys of 2,000 American adults each, for a total of 4,000 subjects, asking participants to indicate how many innocuous versus sensitive statements on a list were true for them. The researchers then applied a Bayesian probability estimation to compare their results with similar Gallup and Pew polls of 2,000 American adults each. From this analysis, they estimated, with 93 percent certainty, that somewhere between 17 and 35 percent of Americans are atheists, with a “most credible indirect estimate” of 26 percent.

If true, this means that there are more than 64 million American atheists, a staggering number that no politician can afford to ignore. Moreover, if these trends continue, we should be thinking about the deeper implications for how people will find meaning as the traditional source of it wanes in influence. And we should continue working on grounding our morals and values on viable secular sources such as reason and science.

Well, that’s heartening, but I’m not all that concerned about the issue of “how people will find meaning” in a world without religion. This will happen naturally, as it has in northern Europe—a largely atheist area. I don’t see it as my job to tell people how and where they should find meaning once they give up religion. They will find their own meaning.

As for grounding morals and values on secular sources, well, that’s a more important issue, and one that atheists should think about—if for no other reason than to answer religionists who say that without God there’s no source of morality. There are endless resources for reading about this, including Steve Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now.

37 Comments

  1. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Re “grounding of morals and values”

    As I have mentioned here before, Catholics believe that at least a partial grounding of morals and values is possible without religious belief, due to their perrenial respect for the moral reflections of (some) pagan Greek philophers, though they have caveats. (Catholics have generally like the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, but naturally balk at his defense of the morality of suicide.)
    By contrast, Evangelical Protestants tend to believe there is no valid source of morality outside the Bible (genocide and slavery notwithstanding!)

  2. Paul S
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    If you want meaning and an endless struggle to reach perfection, take up golf.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      A good walk spoiled.

    • Posted April 10, 2018 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      In this context I can’t find meaning in the word meaning.

      Seriously, what is this “meaning” that people seek? Whatever it is, why are people convinced that it must exist? Why do they think their lives have meaning when meaning doesn’t even have meaning?

  3. GBJames
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    sub

  4. busterggi
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Our woo level will drop preciitously when Deepak Chopra and Gwenneth Paltrow pass away.

    • GBJames
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      There will be replacements. A population of credulous people with a buck in their wallet will always find a woo-meister willing to take it.

      • Simon Hayward
        Posted April 9, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        There is a Dawkins quote, along the lines of “as knowledge grows, gods shrink, and then redefine themselves to restore the status quo” the replacement woo-meisters will likely pursue a similar ploy.

    • Posted April 9, 2018 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      I was going to write a post defending Gwyneth Paltrow because I don’t think she believes the woo of her own web site. I saw an interview of her on a talk show in which the presenter showed some of her products and she didn’t seem to take defending them seriously at all. In fact she seemed to be laughing with the audience at the ridiculousness of the products.

      Then I realised that, if I am right, she’s actually a con artist, which makes it worse.

  5. Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Actual the oligarchs see religion for what it is a social control mechanism. They also see that countries that are the poorest and least secure are the most religious. So, the campaign by these oligarchs to increase wealth inequity is abetted by their desire to see us more religious. making us poorer guarantees more and more of us will turn back to religion.

    This shows these oligarchs are neither unfriendly to science or unfriendly to religion. They are using both the increase their wealth and decrease everyone else’s.

    On Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 12:01 PM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “The relentless march of our country towards > nonbelief continues, documented by Michael Shermer in his latest Scientific > American post (click on screenshot below): There are three pieces of > information: 1.) The number of atheists, agnostics, and “n” >

  6. Ben
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    “I don’t see it as my job to tell people how and where they should find meaning once they give up religion.”

    and THAT is one of the major differences between your worldview and that of a religious person…

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Well of course it is. It is the difference between a religion, any religion and not. It is the whole game.

  7. Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    [speculation]

    The obverse issue: large numbers of religious people are actually atheists.

    Many have no conviction. They are cowed into ‘believing’ by social/familiar pressure. Maybe they go to church for social community, altruism, or conformity. Are they theists?

    Many do not go to church/services, but “consider themselves” Jewish/Christian/Buddhist etc. [note: i was married to one, and have another in my extended family.]

    And simply this: Many who would report that they are religious and believe in a higher power spend all of their time on the plane of objective reality. They don’t think of God, or pray, or follow Jesus, or have given themselves to God. There’s just a vague pressure in their mind “there must be something more.” So they check the box “I believe in a higher power” and get counted as a non-atheist.

    [end speculation]

    All children are born atheist. To be a theist you must be carefully carefully taught. The full belief is not always achieved.

    • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      I’d argue about the last. To me, all children are born believing in a Mother Goddess, and usually she is soon joined by a Father God.

  8. Posted April 9, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree with your final thoughts here. While atheists are certainly free to come up with their own “meaning of life”, it would be helpful to have a well-thought-out default/starting point for new atheists.

    • GBJames
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think I agree, in part because I don’t think the concept “meaning of life” has much meaning itself.

      Except, of course, in the context of Monty Python.

      • Posted April 9, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        I agree that “meaning of life” is a fuzzy concept but I suspect most people understand the concept. Of course, it is more than one thing for most people. Many are shared with varying priority. Included (in no particular order) are religion (salvation), the health and success of one’s children, exploring the wonders of the universe, sports, caring for animals, good food, joy of sleep, etc.

        • GBJames
          Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

          “The meaning of life” = “Stuff I like”, then?

          Monty Python after all!

          • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

            No problem with that! I love Monty Python!

            Actually, I think you have hit on one of the main difficulties non-atheists have with the atheist position on human values. The idea that we make our own human values seems too self-centered for their liking. Not enough mind control for their tastes.

        • Posted April 10, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          paultopping, The “meaning of life”…. Which life? That is the problem. There are the delusional who believe they have two, when there is really only one. Dr. Peter Sapolsky refers to them as schitzotypal. They the delusion that they are special and do not really die.

  9. Posted April 9, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    And we should continue working on grounding our morals and values on viable secular sources such as reason and science.

    I would disagree with Shermer here. You can’t found morals and values in reason and science (you can’t get an “ought” from an “is”). Instead, human morals and values come from … human values. Which is a good enough source for them (better than any other).

    • Posted April 9, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      You seem to imply that there are human values that can’t be supported by science and reason. Care to name some?

      • Posted April 9, 2018 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

        Human values can be partially “supported by” science and reason, but they cannot be derived from science and reason. Thus, science and reason on their own cannot lead to or produce values.

        • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

          I’m ruling out the cases where some religion or outside authority imposes human values. Otherwise, human values are all in our head. If they don’t come from our rational thoughts and, where applicable, understanding of the world and science, then where are they coming from? Irrational thoughts? Gut feelings? Even those that come from the gut can be explained by science, at least that’s what we hope.

          • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

            Where do our values ultimately come from? From our nature, from our basic feelings, from our genes, heritage, environment and evolutionary programming.

            But explaining why we have certain values is not the same as deriving values from facts and reason.

            • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

              I see the distinction you are making but still look to science to our innate feelings. Some of these are good things and others are not so good (eg, racism). We decide which innate feelings should go into our set of promoted human values, and which should be suppressed, using logic and science.

              • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

                We decide which innate feelings should go into our set of promoted human values, and which should be suppressed, using logic and science.

                No, we don’t, we decide which feelings to promote or suppress based on our *values* (informed by logic and science).

                Logic and facts themselves are a-moral and value free, and cannot by themselves tell you which of your feelings are “good” or “bad”. (Though they can influence your values and how you feel about them.)

              • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

                Say evolution has given me innate racism/xenophobia and I also realize that these feelings are “wrong” in some manner. Which of these things are human values? These competing values or feelings both have innate and reasoned components.

              • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

                By “realise these feelings are wrong” you mean “clash with other values you hold”.

                (I agree that all values have facts and reason as *part* of what makes them, but you can’t get a value from facts and reason alone, and nor can facts and reason alone tell you that a feeling or value is “wrong”.)

    • Hemidactylus
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      My goodness. It is as if Alasdair MacIntyre never wrote on the virtues nor WD Ross the prima facie duties. Aristotle wrote on virtues long before Sam Harris pontificated on the moralistic merits of the fMRI tube. MacIntyre traces (in After Virtue) views on virtues through literature including the distinguished neuroscientist Jane Austen. WD Ross recognized the shortcomings of ideal utilitarianism of fellow intuitionist GE Moore (of naturalistic fallacy fame) and the monomania of Kant’s unwieldy categorical imperative. His pluralistic deontology sounds reasonable to me (intuitional or otherwise). Fidelity is important but nonmalificience trumps in cases where lying to malefactors protects innocents from harm. Pluralistic deontology subsumes eudaimonia as but one consideration.

      And is can imply oughts. I think it was MacIntyre who pointed to social roles to be is’s that entail prescriptive norms (or there would be no good parents nor occupational performance evaluations). That doesn’t do much to collapse the fact-value distinction IMO. But there are bridges. Defining good is more problematic (as appeals to nature show). As Thomas Huxley knew, fitness ain’t flourishing.

  10. Christopher
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    An aside to one of the things a “None” might believe in as life after death, the consciousness uploading idea, discussed a bit in the new Michio Kaku book, I can’t help but wonder, assuming some future where it’s possible, how he kind would cope with the separation from the brain, without the totality of sensory stimulus, without activation of certain regions by hormones, and so on. Might this claim of freedom from death be nothing less than a living hell, where the disembodied mind goes quietly and quickly insane?

  11. Tyno Ng
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Religion is prevalent in low socio-economic countries as well as dysfunctional ones.
    These polls show a large increase in the non-religious group (a goodthing), but I don’t see a proportional decrease in the causes of religion. I think we can instead attribute the power of the internet as a driving force.

  12. Sastra
    Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Well, stuff like crystal healing and other forms of spirituality aren’t nearly as injurious to society as religion: for one thing, these believers don’t usually proselytize nor bring up their kids in as propagandistic a way as, say, Catholics, Mormons, or Christian Scientists.

    I think New Age Spirituality only seems less harmful when we think of it as small and marginalized. Any fantasy-based belief will both eat away at intellectual honesty and try to infiltrate itself into science and society whenever it can. A physician faced with a hospital administration promoting crystal healing sees the harm easily enough. Ask the folk at Science-Based Medicine website.

    Spirituality tends to employ a different kind of propaganda technique: every deeply-felt view is respectable and we don’t judge other’s truths lest we be considered bullies. It’s all good. When in power or in private, though, they’ll revert to demonizing their critics quickly enough.

    • Posted April 9, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes, as has oft been noted, the only difference between a cult and a religion is that the latter is more institutionalized with property, hierarchical priesthood, special clothes, etc. They are really all capable of doing much harm.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted April 9, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      In Britain, I think, (non-religious) woo is seen by sceptics as a much greater problem than it is in the US.

      [speculation]: This is probably because of the lower religiosity in Britain, which has left a gap for the woo to creep in; and because in the US, the religions themselves naturally oppose/suppress woo among their adherents because they don’t like competition.[/speculation].

      cr


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