How many atheists are there in the U.S.? A new paper says about 26% of the population

The estimate given in the title suggests a much higher number of American atheists than estimates from other studies relying on self-report (e.g., “Are you an atheist?”). Those self-report estimates range between 3% and 11% (the authors of the paper below define “atheists” as “people who disbelieve or lack belief in the existence of a god or gods”). The higher number from the present study could reflect errors or biases in how the authors derived their estimates, or (and I think this is a bit more likely) the fact that people’s atheism was estimated indirectly rather than by self-report.

Note that the paper, which you can get free by clicking on the link) is on Arχiv, so it hasn’t yet gone through peer review. Nevertheless, the results are interesting and it’s well worth reading. (It’s not overly long.)

I’ll try to be brief. The authors estimated the frequency of atheists among Americans by surveying people using two YouGov samples of 2000 people each. They also did their estimates using Bayesian techniques: seeing what proportion of atheists in the public was most likely to yield the survey results. The composite result was, as I said, 26%.

How did they indirectly estimate the proportion of atheists? They used a clever technique in which people were asked to list how many statements were either true or not true about them, with one list adding an atheist belief and the other missing it. The difference in the number of statements that people agreed or disagreed with in the two lists can be used to estimate the proportion of atheists. They also had a control question that you’ll see in on the second list, which should yield a 0% estimate of people who think that 2 + 2 is more than 13. The authors say that this indirect method of estimation has been showing in other studies to be revealing in that it gives a higher percentage than self-report, but only for socially sensitive traits which people don’t want to disclose in a direct self report. 

The authors also asked people directly if they were atheists, so they have an estimate of self-report.

This first group of questions yielded a Bayesian estimate of 32% atheists, with 95% confidence intervals of 11% and 54%, while the self-report (first question) yielded only 17%. You can see that the added question is in the third column and the participants aren’t supposed to say which statements aren’t true of them, but merely give the number. The difference between the totals in column 2 and 3 can be used to give a Bayesian estimate of the proportion of people who do NOT “believe in God”:

Some confirmation of the technique’s validity comes from analyzing the data from those who self-report being atheists in column 1. The Bayesian data from columns 2 and 3 give an estimated proportion of atheism of 100% of these people, so the self-report among those brave enough to disclose their atheism matches the indirect estimate.

Sample II used the same method, but couching atheism as a positive rather than a negative answer (i.e., you have to note whether “not believing in God” is true of you). There’s a control question about math in the third column.

This report yielded an estimate of atheism (comparison of first versus second column) of 20%, with confidence intervals of 6% and 35%.

The lower estimate in Sample II versus Sample I may, as the authors note, be attributed to the fact that in the second sample you have to note (indirectly) that atheism is “true of me”, which is more similar to a self report. And indeed, the 20% Bayesian estimate here is close to the self-report estimate of 17%.

Overall, combining both studies gave a Bayesian estimate of the proportion of atheists in America of 26%, with confidence intervals of 13% and 39%. The authors add that it is 99% certain that more than 11% of Americans are atheists (the Gallup poll estimate) and 93% certain that the proportion of atheists is higher than 17% (their self-report estimate). That means that about a third of atheists won’t disclose their nonbelief when asked directly. At any rate, the higher estimates from this study than in direct-question surveys suggests that there are far more atheists in America than believed: perhaps more than 80 million.

One weakness of the study is that the control question, which should show 0% of people rejecting the statement “I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13”, actually gave an estimate of 34%. The authors note this, showing that they are careful about the data:

Without a doubt, this is our most damning result (cf. Vazire, 2016). It may reflect any combination of genuine innumeracy, incomprehension of an oddly phrased item, participant inattentiveness or jesting, sampling error, or a genuine flaw in the unmatched count technique. Fortunately, we were also able to assess validity in a second way. In Sample II, the unmatched count to generated an atheist prevalence estimate of almost exactly 100% among self-described atheists, but only 13% among all other religious identifications. It is unlikely that a genuinely invalid method would track self-reported atheism this precisely. Across two assessment attempts our validity evidence was a mixed bag. This perhaps suggests that future researchers should attempt to—as we were able in Sample II but not Sample I—include diagnostic self-reports alongside the unmatched count to assess validity. And, as the present estimates are only as strong as the method that generated them, they should be treated with some caution. In our view—given heavy social pressures to be or appear religious—the 11% atheism prevalence estimates derived solely from telephone self-reports is probably untenable. Does this imply that our most credible estimate of 26% should be uncritically accepted instead? Of course not. The present two nationally representative samples merely provide additional estimates using a different technique, and our model suggests a wide range of relatively credible estimates. We hope that future work using a variety of direct and indirect measures will provide satisfactory convergence across methods, and the present estimates are merely an initial indirect measurement data point to be considered in this ongoing scientific effort.

Finally, here’s a table breaking down atheism (both self-report and indirect estimates) by sex, politics, age, and education. We see that the prevalence of atheism isn’t that disparate among any groups except “political affiliation”, but follows the familiar pattern of more atheists among males than females; more atheism among more highly rather than less educated people; more atheism among Democrats than among Republicans (note the 0% indirect estimate for Republicans!); and no difference between Millennials and baby boomers. Self-report is always lower than indirect estimates except among Republicans, which is a mystery. (The last column gives the probability that the indirect estimates are higher than the self-reporting estimates.)

The authors discuss the wider implications on the last page of their paper, noting that we can’t extend these estimates to the rest of the world because the degree of underreporting in the direct-question technique (the only one used) may vary, with opprobrium less in countries like Norway and Denmark, and greater in countries like Saudi Arabia. But the authors do speculate that there may be around two billion atheists worldwide, which makes the number of atheists higher than the number of Muslims (1.8 billion), but less than the number of Christians (2.4 billion) And their final paragraph gives the implications for the social acceptance of atheists:

Finally, the present results may have considerable societal implications. Preliminary research suggests that learning about how common atheists actually are reduces distrust of atheists (Gervais, 2011). Thus, obtaining accurate atheist prevalence estimates may help promote trust and tolerance of atheists—potentially 80+ million people in the USA and well over a billion worldwide.

Join the club! I’m referring to you, Andrew Sullivan!

And for dessert, you can have this new op-ed by David Leonhardt about the demonization of atheists in America (h/t: Greg Mayer):

h/t: Ginger K


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Very interesting

    I wonder about confusion of those surveyed when the word “God” is used – and the “spiritual but not religious” types. Which god?

    And then there’s this phenomenon called American Civil Religion:

    I do not know how that could be connected to the identification as an atheist, but this particular religious yet possibly atheistic view seems relevant since the political party was a variable.

  2. GBJames
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:23 am | Permalink


  3. rickflick
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    By the indirect method, 0% of republicans are atheist? OK. That explains some things.

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I also found curious that 8% of Republicans identified as atheists without being such.

  4. Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    The difference between the two surveys might be explained by people who are uncertain about the existence of God. They might well think that “I believe in God” is not true of them, but on the other hand they might not think that “I do not believe in God” is true of them either. So the first survey adds the “uncertains” to the non-believers thus explaining the larger figure.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      The uncertainty you point to would explain the error. The true value would still be in those margins.

      I didn’t look if they divided by sqrt(N), thus decreasing the error.

      But I think it means there needs to be more questions for those scenarios you describe.

  5. Historian
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    I think we may be reaching the tipping point in regard to atheists in politics. Within 10 years or less self-proclaimed atheists will no longer feel the needs to hide their beliefs and will be accepted in the political arena as gays are now (at least in the Democratic Party). Mayor Pete’s sexual orientation has not hurt him (I think) in the Democratic primary. Sure, the religious right will never vote for him or athesists, but they won’t vote for any Democrat. This is what will happen with atheists. As an aside, this is why the religious right, which dominates the Republican Party, is in total panic mode. Gains made by atheists and gays in acceptance by the American public in general frightens them to their core. They are relentless folk and will not go down without a fight. But, they will certainly lose in the end if current trends hold. Just as the Germans launched an initially successful offensive in the spring of 1918 only to see it bog down and then collapse, resulting in their defeat later in the year, so it will be with the religious right. Their day is coming to an end, even if they now appear to be on the offensive, and this is why they are trying to get as many judges appointed to the federal judiciary as possible because the latter will be the sole bulwark against the changing America that they find unspeakably unbearable.

    In the NYT article, David Leonhardt references an op-ed by Max Boot in the Washington Post. Boot, a never Trumper neocon, hopes to see an atheist in the White House in the not too distant future. After all, how could one be worse than the immoral occupant now there, adored by the evangelicals?

    • Murali
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:43 am | Permalink

      ‘In the NYT article, David Leonhardt references an op-ed by Max Boot in the Washington Post. Boot, a never Trumper neocon, hopes to see an atheist in the White House in the not too distant future.’

      I think you already have an atheist in the White House 🙂

      • YF
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Donald Trump, most certainly believes in God… and His Holy Name is Donald Trump.

        • Murali
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:30 am | Permalink

          Right 🙂

          It is unlikely that the ‘immoral occupant now there, adored by the evangelicals’ is a believer in the evangelical sense.

          In the interests of having a president with rectitude, someone with a scientific attitude towards public policy, can’t we have high-school courses for future presidents? Would that be considered brain washing?

          We could have Evolution for Future Presidents, Climate Science for Future Presidents, Sex Education for Future Presidents, Ethics for Future Presidents,…

          Wasn’t there a Greek chap who wanted only the smartest people (philosophers in the classical sense) to go into government?

          Maybe those who pass will contradict everything that they learned when they reach the White House 🙂

          • peterschaeffer
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

            I propose a simple science test. Anyone who can’t answer yes to following question is barred from political office.

            “Is evolution responsible, in whole or in part, for the different roles men and women play in our society?”

            Easy question. What percentage of Democrats would pass? Zero is a good guess.

          • peterschaeffer
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

            Here is another question that aspiring holders of high office might be required to answer.

            “Is sex mostly/almost entirely binary or a spectrum?”

            Does anyone care to guess how many prominent Democrats, Academics, Media types, etc. would publicly answer with the former?

      • rickflick
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Obama might well have been a closet atheist. Historically, I suspect there were others. Abe Lincoln might have been one.

        • peterschaeffer
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

          Obama and Lincoln are good guesses. The actual list is probably quite a bit longer.

        • Murali
          Posted May 17, 2019 at 8:11 am | Permalink

          How about JFK and Clinton?

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Leonhardt’s piece in the Times has a link to an even better piece about atheism by Max Boot in the Post.

    • BJ
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Hey, Ken. Since I missed yesterday’s post about Alabama’s idiotic bill, could you answer a question for me here? Even if Roe is overturned, why wouldn’t PP v. Casey still hold? Every first year law student who has read Roe knows it’s a terrible decision from a legal standpoint, in which Blackmun basically pulled a whole framework on which to support the Constitutional right to abortion out of his ass. Regardless, why would Casey still not stand in the way of states making their own bills outlawing abortion, since that case affirmed the right of women to have access to abortions and curbed state’s abilities to put any restrictions on abortions that place an undue burden on a woman who wants one?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        The Alabama law was designed to present a facial challenge to Roe v. Wade. To uphold the AL statute, the Court would have to abandon the essential premise of Roe — that the constitution guarantees a “right to privacy” that encompasses a woman’s reproductive decisions. If that goes, Planned Parenthood v. Casey and every other abortion-rights case decided since Roe go with it, since they would be without constitutional foundation.

        If the constitution has nothing to say about women’s reproductive freedom (as the opponents of Roe v. Wade maintain), then the states are free to enact any statutes they see fit regarding abortion or contraception. Hell, they are as free to enact laws forcing women to have abortions as they are to enact laws prohibiting women from obtaining them.

        It’s possible the Court could consolidate review of the Alabama law with review of other, less restrictive abortion statutes from other states and chart some middle course (as it did in Casey). But I think there are four justices — Thomas and Alito, for sure, and probably Gorsuch and Kavanaugh — who are ready to overrule Roe outright. The question mark here is Chief Justice Robert (who is himself a staunch abortion opponent) and whether he’s prepared to have “the Roberts Court” engage in such a radical, contentious change in social policy and such a wholesale abandonment of a half-century of Supreme Court precedent.

        As for the Alabama statute standing alone, the Court’s only two options would be to invalidate the statute entirely, or to uphold the statute by overruling Roe in its entirety, given that it is an outright ban on abortion.

        • BJ
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

          So, even if a decision explicitly reaffirms a previous holding (as Casey did), only the original holding needs to be overturned for all opinions that explicitly reaffirm it to no longer be in effect?

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

            All cases that depend on an earlier opinion as their basis for decision (as their ratio decidendi, if we’re gonna get all OG Latin 🙂 ) are no longer good law once the case they relied upon has been overruled. This is especially true where the Court finds (as it would have to in overruling Roe v. Wade) that the original decision had no basis in the US constitution.

            The only exception would be if there were an independent, alternative constitutional basis for the subsequent decision, which isn’t the situation with the Casey line of cases.

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

              Let me state the principle in a slightly different way: the Court could overrule Casey without overruling Roe — by, for example, finding that Casey misinterpreted Roe in giving it a too narrow interpretation.

              But there’s no way the Court could overrule Roe without also explicitly or implicitly overruling Casey, since the former provided the sole constitutional foundation for the latter.

              • BJ
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

                Interesting. Thanks for the info, Ken. I can always count on you to answer these questions (I tried searching the internet first, but I couldn’t come up with anything).

              • BJ
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

                Here’s a good question that I wonder if anybody can answer definitively: considering how ill-conceived (no pun intended…you’ll see what I mean) the Roe decision was, why didn’t Blackmun simply say that the right to abortion arose from the same right to privacy a woman has when it comes to contraception — as decided in Griswold just a few years before (which was based in addition on other cases asserting similar Constitutional right to privacy) — and leave it at that? Why add things like the trimester framework, which seems to have no legal basis? I understand he was laying out a way in which to balance the interest of the private individual versus the interest of the state, but there was no need. Blackmun’s various prescriptions in the opinion seem to far exceed what was necessary to reach the desired decision and weigh down the opinion with what is easily construed as overreaching.

                It’s very unfortunate that Roe is such a poor decision from a legal standpoint, as it makes overturning it much more easily justified; in fact, it’s hard to justify the opinion on its own, as it does seem like the epitome of “legislating from the bench.”

              • Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

                “Blackmun …. Why add things like the trimester framework, which seems to have no legal basis? ”

                Perhaps because so total a ruling would put beyond question the right of a woman to have an abortion right up to the day of birth for any reason whatsoever.

                Trying to sell that an abortion – of a healthy baby in the womb with no danger to the mother – is not the murder of a baby would have been … difficult.

              • rickflick
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

                I often get the feeling that legal history is like a drunk weaving along the street, unsure of his destination, working his way farther from home.

              • BJ
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

                For the higher courts, it’s more like a drunk who knows where home is, but doesn’t remember how to reach it, so he takes the daftest route possible and eventually makes it.

                He already knows where he wants to go; he just has to figure out how he’s going to get there.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 7:17 am | Permalink

                I think the primary reason for the seemingly lurching nature of the law is that courts are constitutionally limited to deciding “cases and controversies.” They are, that is, wholly dependent upon the issues brought before them by the parties.

                Unlike legislative bodies, courts cannot conduct ad hoc hearings on any matter they feel needs addressing, or appoint committees to study complex issues for months or years and then propose solutions for society’s ills. They merely decide the cases that come before them, one at time, based on the specific set of facts presented.

                In this limited sense, at least, our caselaw proceeds a bit like evolution, with the issues presented by the parties in the role of random mutation and court decisions in the role of natural selection. That’s why some legal doctrines develop as circuitously as the recurrent laryngeal nerve, why others disappear from view like vestigial tails. 🙂

              • rickflick
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 10:04 am | Permalink

                I often think of law as codification of our ever advancing morality. Since it is fundamentally a political process, it reflect imperfectly and wabblingly the zeitgeist of the culture.

              • BJ
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

                @John Donahue:

                But surely Blackmun would know that, had he left it out, the Court would very soon be forced to address the interests of that state versus that of the private individual in another case.

  7. Roo
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    “I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13” seems unnecessarily complicated, unless they are also testing to see how carefully people are reading the questions. (I think scientists underestimate the mild math phobia that many have developed by adulthood, lol. “Aaaa! Numbers!! C, the answer is C! I’ll just fill in C!”) Adding the negative (and then asking that the answer be framed in the negative – “Wait, I do not NOT believe that, so I should answer ‘no’, right?”) makes the wording very awkward and I’m thinking many people skimmed it and read it as “2 + 2 is less than 13” or “I don’t believe that 2 + 2 = 13” or simply got tripped up on the double negation required to answer “no”. I wonder if they wanted to make sure people were really pondering the questions? If not, having something very straightforward like “I believe that 2 + 2 = 4” seems like an easier route to go.

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      That was my thought also. People get confused easily with such choices.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

      Yes! I tripped up on that and said “No”.

      Why would they complicate the question? What’s wrong with “I do not believe that 2+2=4” which is the obvious question to ask, since “2+2=4” is the usual formulation of the concept. (“2+2=5” is a meme for ‘drawing the wrong conclusion’).

      It’s not a matter of mathematical ability, it’s a matter of ones instinctive ‘feel’ for the answer being misled.


      • rickflick
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

        What’s wrong with: I believe 2 + 2 = 13?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 17, 2019 at 4:09 am | Permalink

          As a question? Nothing wrong with it. It’s obviously mathematically untrue and quite straightforward to mentally analyse it and answer instantly, ‘false’.


  8. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    The question “I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13” is too complex. Most adults don’t have to navigate that level of language construction day to day. Also large numbers of people emotionally tune out for maths type questions/propositions.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      It also sounds like a trick question because of the juxtaposition of how stupid the question is vs it appears in a reputable “proper” context, not to mention the awkward grammar.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Something of an academic bias. Those who made the test questions would maintain a high level of numeracy. They could have run it by me.

    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Surely you’re not saying you don’t think they didn’t consider whether that wasn’t a poorly-constructed question!

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Even PCC got the wording wrong:

      “One weakness of the study is that the control question, which should show 0% of people rejecting the statement “I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13”, actually gave an estimate of 34%.”

      The expectation was that 0% would accept the statement (count it as true), and 100% would reject it (count it as false).

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        Cascading negatives there…

        I’ve just been reading the bit of Pinker’s “Language Instinct” about how we parse sentences. “I do not believe that 2+2 is less than 13” has a couple of implied negatives in it which derail ones normal line of instinctive reasoning. Nothing to do with mathematical ability (other than that the fact that the mere suggestion of mathematics causes a sort of mental panic in some people).

        Our brain has to work out that 2+2 (which is NOT equal to 13, that’s a mental distraction;
        the brain has first to recall that 2+2=4) and 4 IS less than 13 – therefore the proposition is true; so not believing it is false.

        Compared with the other questions like “I have visited NYC” which have an immediate true/false answer without even thinking about it, this one is complex and so people ‘guess’ what the answer should be (and often guess wrong).


      • Mark
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

        “Even PCC got the wording wrong:”

        I noticed that, too. I thought I must be missing something, but after reading your comment, I don’t think I did.

  9. Jonathan Dore
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    The maths question is foolishly phrased, requiring respondents to affirm a double negative.

    • Mark
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      How is it a double negative?

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        The correct response of False requires

        “It is not true that I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13.”

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

          Triple negative, really – “It is *not* true that I do *not* believe that 2 + 2 is less than (i.e. *not* equal to) 13”.


        • Mark
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

          “I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13” contains two parts:

          1. “I do not believe that”
          2. ” 2 + 2 is less than 13″

          There’s one “negative” part – “do not (believe).”

          “2 + 2 is less than 13” is not, in and of itself, a “negative.” It’s simply math – 2+2<13, and it's true.

          I agree the negative wording (do not) is confusing in the context of a true/false statement.

          When a true/false statement contains a negative, ignore the negative word(s) and then evaluate the statement.

          If the sentence (without the negative) is "true," then the correct evaluation is "false."

          It's true that (I believe that) 2+2<13.

          So, it's false that "I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13."

          • GBJames
            Posted May 17, 2019 at 8:19 am | Permalink

            Only a poorly worded question could offer us as much entertaining analysis as this one does!

            • Mark
              Posted May 17, 2019 at 8:25 am | Permalink

              “Only a poorly worded question could offer us as much entertaining analysis as this one does!”

              Poorly worded – yes. But still simple to evaluate.

              • GBJames
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 8:30 am | Permalink

                By some definitions of “simple”.

              • Jonathan Dore
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 11:14 am | Permalink

                The point is that many people will answer it wrongly even though they know the right answer, simply because it *is* poorly worded. Its purpose in the survey (as a control) is thus negated.

              • Mark
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

                My point is that it’s actually simple to evaluate despite people (here) overthinking it.

                Ignore “do not,” evaluate that, then the result is the opposite – simple.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

                It is simple to evaluate if you have the mental tools & you know how to use them. If you’re out of academia [or were never exactly in academia] & rusty it’s easy to make mistakes with cold propositions set up in an unrelatable [to most people] mathematical/logical framework. IF these types of complex questions are reframed as a social relations ‘equation’ it is evaluated correctly at a much higher rate.

                A very good example of this is the WASON SELECTION TEST [AKA the four card task].

              • GBJames
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 11:32 am | Permalink

                The fact that it took you ten sentences to “simply” explain the question is evidence that “simple” has more than one meaning.

              • Mark
                Posted May 17, 2019 at 11:41 am | Permalink

                “The fact that it took you ten sentences to “simply” explain the question is evidence that “simple” has more than one meaning.”

                It actually requires one sentence to explain – “Ignore “do not,” evaluate that, then the result is the opposite.”

                It required more sentences to explain how and why some misunderstood it.

              • Jonathan Dore
                Posted May 20, 2019 at 1:12 am | Permalink

                Sorry Mark, but any question that requires a respondent to ignore part of it, then do the opposite, is not well-framed for a survey of the general population. Surely that is self-evident?

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Since we’re on the topic of out atheists, let me give a quick plug to a cool new documentary I saw a couple nights ago, Hail Satan?, about the (non-theistic) Satanic Temple’s battle against he evangelicals to keep prayer out of government meetings and to keep concrete Decalogues off of public property. It’s smart and funny and entertaining as all get out.

    You can watch the trailer here.

    • darrelle
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      Well God Damn! I’ve got to look into joining this religion. Or at least sending them a donation. The trailer had me laughing. I’ll have to watch this with the kids. They’ll love it.

      • Bruce Lilly
        Posted May 17, 2019 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        The Satanic Temple has been recognized by the IRS as a church. You can read more, join (free), and find out how to support them at

  11. Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    The real issue: how many humans are theists?

    Since all children are born atheist, to count the theist adults amounts to counting the number of people who have been indoctrinated into full-fledged conviction of a living, personal, involved Supreme Being who lives in a supernatural realm and controls the fate of your Soul.

    Is a philosophically-inclined Zen Buddhist a theist?

    Is a secular teenager who does not worship but “feels there is something greater than myself” a theist?

    Is an “agnostic” who does not worship a theist?

    They are not.

    Only humans who live and breathe [fill in name of Supreme Being} are theist.

    Not much of humanity is theist.

    • Murali
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      ‘Since all children are born atheist…’

      I’ve wondered the same thing. Many children are brought up in religious households.

      I wonder how many children, from those brought up in religion-free households, go onto become religious.

      • Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        A massive longitudinal study of sorts on 17 million subjects was conducted in East Germany. Today, residents of the former DDR are the most areligious in the world, with 52% declaring themselves atheist and only 8% expressing no doubts about the existence of god. And belief in god there continues to fall. Interestingly, the generation born after the fall of the Wall displays the lowest belief in god of all.


        • Murali
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          Why do you think Germany and the US are so different? They are both modern countries with excellent educational institutions. However, Germans have more a progressive view of religion compared to the US people.

          • Murali
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

            Well, East Germany had a communist government — that is a significant difference. So I see your point. The younger generation was brought up in an areligious environment.

            • GBJames
              Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

              But, so did Poland before the USSR collapsed. Poland is chock-a-block full of Catholicism.

              • Murali
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

                Yes, thank you; you are absolutely right. I wonder how the Polish government treated the Catholic Church of Poland during the communist era.

          • Posted May 17, 2019 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            I’ve given a lot of thought to this, having lived in both countries (and having spent time with Catholics in the BRD and atheists in the DDR.)

            In Europe, the very ubiquity of one or two main Christian denominations, spread uniformly across all demographics, led to a sudden & precipitous collapse. (Okay, maybe not in Bavaria.)

            Dozens of denominations exist in the US. In addition tens of thousands of local, non-denominational congregations have sprung up, many offering religious services that more resemble pep rallies with exhilarating music and deepities.

            Religious faith in the US — or at least a surface profession thereof — has increasingly become linked with a set of social values. This phenomenon was disparagingly recognized as ‘bitter-clinging’. Faith symbolically encapsulates what Haidt, et al. call the “Binding Cluster” of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity values. Atheism (‘secular humanism’) is increasingly seen as a marker of those with radical leftist views who wish to overthrow traditional values. Indeed, that image is overtly promoted by the Atheism Plus crowd and fellow travelers like Hemant Mehta of TFA (cf. )

            The growing polarization of American society has dragged religiosity and non- into two antagonistic camps, where shared group beliefs are strongly reinforced.

            I believe this is also what has happened with climate change denial.

    • GBJames
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Although I myself have used the “Since all children are born atheist…” argument, I’m not entirely convinced. I think belief in deities somehow emerges from our evolved relationships with parental authority and in that sense, at least, we “believe” in some “god-like-thing” from birth.


      • yazikus
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        Anecdata ahoy: I’ve got the predicament of having been religious when kiddo was born. He was baptized in the orthodox church, and we went regularly when he was small. I had him in a private orthodox school as well, for the first few years. During that time, I deconverted and as the years have gone by I no longer attend services or observe traditions (fasting, confession, etc). Kiddo is ten now, and we talk about religion somewhat often. My parents are Evangelical (to the extreme, imo) and partner is still orthodox. Kiddo self-identifies as religious (while at the hospital recently, he updated his chaplain preference from Greek to Russian orthodox unprompted). He’s also interested in Norse pagan religions, shamanism and Buddhism. I’ve encouraged his exploration of other faith traditions and will continue to do so. He knows I’m an atheist, and doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. At the end of the day, I’d love to have raised a freethinker, religious or no, and I’ll always try my best to answer his questions openly and honestly.

        • Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:03 am | Permalink

          You did raise a freethinker! The evidence is that he has a different opinion than his father. As far as his current religiosity, don’t worry about it. He’s only 10 and stuff changes fast, especially after puberty.

          • Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:05 am | Permalink

            I realized right after I hit send that perhaps I should have said “mother” or just “parent”. My apologies if I got it wrong. 😉

        • darrelle
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

          How to approach religion with our kids was also one of the many things my wife and I struggled with. We were both atheists when they were born. I’ve never been religious and my wife is a lapsed, or perhaps never quite taken into the fold, Catholic. Her mother is a very devout Catholic.

          We decided to be as neutral as possible about religion, answer any questions as unbiased and straightforwardly as possible and try not to “train” them to be anti-religion. We never brought up religion ourselves but any time they did we talked freely with them about it. They’ve gone to church on occasion with grandparents and friends and we never inhibited them from doing so. When they would ask about anything involving religious belief I’d often ask questions in return with the purpose of getting them to assess the validity of the religious belief. They are teens now and both seem to be untroubled atheists.

          One of my favorite memories of the kids when they were little was my son teasing my mother-in-law, the very devout Catholic, about Jesus. The kids of course had their grandmother wrapped around their little fingers. The same woman who spurned our marriage because it didn’t take place in a RCC. One day while we were visiting Grandma my son, about 3 at the time (?), was rooting through Grandma’s purse and showing us each item when he came across a locket with a picture in it. He asked my wife who it was and she told him it was a picture of Jesus. he paused to process that for a moment then grinned mischievously and said, “Grandma and her Jesus!,” in exactly the same way one might say to a toddler they were affectionately teasing, “Joey and his blankey!” My wife and I both froze with blank looks on our faces and waited for whatever might come. It was extremely difficult for me not to burst out laughing. He didn’t get this from us! We had never in the slightest way criticized Grandma’s religious belief or religion in general. I didn’t even realize at the time that he had any idea who Jesus was. But he could do no real wrong in Grandma’s eyes. She merely lowered her head a bit and laughed a bit sheepishly. If my wife or I had done anything remotely resembling that it would have been fire and brimstone!

          • rickflick
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

            How old are they now, and what are their beliefs?

            • darrelle
              Posted May 16, 2019 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

              Mid-teens now. Neither of them hold truck with religion of any kind. My daughter borders on contempt for religion at the moment. But neither of them are ever rude in any way to people due to religious expression or their beliefs. They take religious beliefs as the full measure of a person. They dearly love quite a few people, family and friends, that are religious ranging from very devout to not quite sure what.

              • rickflick
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

                When my daughter, raise as a Catholic by her mom, which I tolerated, since I felt that she’d grow out of it under my influence. I taught her to be a critical thinker. She (and her mother) did grow out of it. When she was about 16 she said she sometimes wished she could be religious since her religious friends seem to have been spared the need to think. 😎
                I assured her she’d be pleased with her skepticism in due course.

              • darrelle
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

                A very insightful . . . , uh, insight by your daughter. I feel proud when my kids share an observation like that with me. Like I did at least one thing in life at least partly right. Even if it was just not getting in their way or maybe even just donating some genetic material.

              • rickflick
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

                We do our best.

              • darrelle
                Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

                Wholly cow, big mistake. I meant they DON’T take religious belief as the full measure of a person!

      • rickflick
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        we “believe” in some “god-like-thing” from birth.

        When my daughter was in her crib, there was a gyrating mobile mounted above here head and a helium balloon stuck to the ceiling. I’ll ask her about that.

        • GBJames
          Posted May 16, 2019 at 12:19 pm | Permalink


    • Posted May 16, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      “Since all children are born atheist, to count the theist adults amounts to counting the number of people who have been indoctrinated into full-fledged conviction of [theism].”

      The fallacy behind this construction is that it could be applied to any belief or non-belief whatsoever and is therefore essentially useless. I.e., you could as readily say, “Since all children are born non-believers in evolution, to count adult believers in evolution amounts to counting the number of people who have been indoctrinated into full-fledged conviction of [evolution].” What’s the point?

      • Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        I agree that all children are not born with knowledge of evolution. They have to be shown proof of it, which can be done, and then they have to accept facts, which hopefully they will.

        No such factual, rational persuasion takes place with the indoctrination of theism. It is simply imputed with faith.

        • Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

          “They have to be shown proof of it [evolution]. . . .”

          Not necessarily. They could come to believe it because their parents believe in it, just as with religion. Beyond that, even the great proportion of people who believe in evolution without being indoctrinated have not been “shown proof of it,” but accept it based on their faith in the authority of science generally and are by no means sophisticated enough to regurgitate any “proof” they’ve been shown.

          Not denying that there’s a difference between a belief based on indoctrination and one based on empirical evidence, but in practical terms the difference is not as clearly defined as it would seem.

          • GBJames
            Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

            This talk about “proof” and “believe it” regarding evolution gives me the queeezies.

            Evolution is something you understand, not something you believe. It involves evidence, not proofs. It ain’t mathematics!

            • Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

              “Evolution is something you understand, not something you believe.”

              And my point is that most people, myself included, do in fact accept it based on the authority of science without understanding it, which amounts to a “belief.” But you’re right, of course, about the “proof” business. I was taking my lead from John’s comment.

      • GBJames
        Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        The only “point”, as far as I know, is to counter the idea that children are inherently members of a religion based on the faith of their parents.

        Not an irrelevant point.

      • Posted May 16, 2019 at 3:22 pm | Permalink


        Per the roolz, I am not going to keep countering. I’ll just say: your point is rejected.

  12. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    System 1 and system 2 of the thinking process seem to be worth considering here – having just watched this Veritasium video

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 17, 2019 at 4:52 am | Permalink

      Very interesting video. Particularly about the ‘thinking-about-it’ process being necessary for learning.

      I once tried explaining where some facility was to a workmate who had lived in Auckland for six months (at that time) and driven round the city every day – using GPS. I found he just had no idea where any suburb was in relation to any other. He ‘knew’ the suburbs all right, but not how to get there (other than, ‘follow the GPS’).

      The mention of ‘muscle memory’ rings a bell too. This is habit doing something with minimal conscious thought. Walking is an example, or changing gear in a car; your conscious mind initiates the gearchange and the rest is ‘automatic’ while the rest of your conscious brain is occupied braking and steering round the corner.


      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 17, 2019 at 5:53 am | Permalink

        Because of this video I finally watched Destin’s (Smarter Every Day) reverse steering wheel bicycle. Chris Hadfield tried it. It looks very interesting to try.

        The System 1 – System 2 idea I’m still trying to observe IRL. I think Kahneman’s book discusses it some also.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 17, 2019 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

          Re the bicycle – in the old days when aircraft were fully manual (like say World War 2), a sure way to cause an instant fatal crash was for a rigger to (inadvertently) ‘cross’ the control cables from the stick to the elevators.

          Even if the pilot realised his controls were ‘crossed’ it was almost impossible to remember to reverse his control inputs.

          I’ve experienced system 1 – system 2 when trying to do simple arithmetic.

          13 x 13 = 169 – I know that instantly

          13 x 14 = …… 182 That takes me far longer, I have to ‘engage brain’ and work it out (easiest way is 13×13, then add another 13, but it still takes several seconds)


          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted May 19, 2019 at 9:10 am | Permalink

            I’m interested in these moments where system 1 flounders. I suppose the simplest thing to do is rehearse/ practice the known problem, pay attention to what process / step is slowing the works down, and – perhaps the hard part – exercise that specific process again and again. Will it always get faster? Don’t know.

  13. Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    One weakness of the study is … the control question … “I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13”….

    “It may reflect … incomprehension of an oddly phrased item….”

    I had to read it twice.

  14. Mark
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    “Do you own a dog?”

    No – dog owns you.

    • ltunmer
      Posted May 16, 2019 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      And cat owns both dog and you.

  15. Roger
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    How come nobody ever asks, “Are you an atheist but it’s a socially sensitive trait and you don’t want to disclose it in a direct self report?” Just cut to the chase.

  16. Posted May 16, 2019 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Did you mention that the indirect method gives only a minor difference in atheism prevalence between females and males (24 vs 28%) while by the direct method it differs almost twice (13 vs 22%)? I.e. women are not that much religious, but rather are trained to be people pleasers! Such nasty little facts make me angry at the world in general.

  17. Roger
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    Did they factor in that people don’t like trick questions? Actually we don’t know that for sure, so they should take a poll, “Do you like trick questions?” Unfortunately everyone would immediately be suspicious of the question.

  18. Bruce Lilly
    Posted May 17, 2019 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    The survey and results are mildly interesting, but also somewhat disappointing. Those that do not believe in capital-G God may well include those that DO believe in (for some definition of “believe in”) Allah, Yahweh, Zeus et al., Ganesh et al., Osiris et al., witches, homeopathy, “crystal power”, astrology, etc. And that means that the proportion who are capable of critical thinking and rational thought is depressingly small.

%d bloggers like this: