10 facts about atheists

By Michael Lipka

Estimating the number of atheists in the U.S. is complicated. Some adults who describe themselves as atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit. At the same time, some people who identify with a religion (e.g., say they are Protestant, Catholic or Jewish) also say they do not believe in God.

But one thing is for sure: Along with the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans (many of whom believe in God), there has been a corresponding increase in the number of atheists. As nonbelievers and others gather in Washington, D.C., for the “Reason Rally,” here are key facts about atheists and their beliefs:

1) The share of Americans who identify as atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years. Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that 3.1% of American adults say they are atheists when asked about their religious identity, up from 1.6% in a similarly large survey in 2007. An additional 4.0% of Americans call themselves agnostics, up from 2.4% in 2007.

2) Atheists, in general, are more likely to be male and younger than the overall population; 68% are men, and the median age of atheist adults in the U.S. is 34 (compared with 46 for all U.S. adults). Atheists also are more likely to be white (78% are Caucasian vs. 66% for the general public) and highly educated: About four-in-ten atheists (43%) have a college degree, compared with 27% of the general public.

3) Self-identified atheists tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party and with political liberalism. About two-thirds of atheists (69%) identify as Democrats (or lean in that direction), and a majority (56%) call themselves political liberals (compared with just one-in-ten who say they are conservatives). Atheists overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage (92%) and legal abortion (87%). In addition, three-quarters (74%) say that government aid to the poor does more good than harm.

4) Although the literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who believes that God does not exist,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, 8% of those who call themselves atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Indeed, 2% say they are “absolutely certain” about the existence of God or a universal spirit. Alternatively, there are many people who fit the dictionary definition of “atheist” but do not call themselves atheists. About three times as many Americans say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit (9%) as say they are atheists (3%).

5) Unsurprisingly, more than nine-in-ten self-identified atheists say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives, and nearly all (97%) say they seldom or never pray. At the same time, many do not see a contradiction between atheism and pondering their place in the world. Three-in-ten (31%) say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly. A similar share (35%) often thinks about the meaning and purpose of life. And roughly half of all atheists (54%) frequently feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe, up from 37% in 2007. In fact, atheists are more likely than U.S. Christians to say they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe (54% vs. 45%).


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10 COMMENTS

  1. Atheists, in general, are more likely to be male and younger than the overall population;

    I’m an outlier then! ( had to add “outlier” to the dictionary here! )

    Self-identified atheists tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party and with political liberalism.

    Again I do not fit! I do not align with political parties (ideologues ) and I am classically liberal, not politi9cally liberal. My politics are eclectic to say the least!

    Although the literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who believes that God does not exist,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary

    Literal! Sounds like a definition fallacy to me. I have no beliefs in gods, a subtle but real difference from believing gods do not exist.

    Unsurprisingly, more than nine-in-ten self-identified atheists say religion is not too or not at all important in their lives

    I should hope so!

    In the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, self-identified atheists were asked how often they share their views on God and religion with religious people

    Only when put upon by a dyed-in-the-wool faith head!

    I did not find the rest of the points worth commenting on.

  2. @OP – The “Religion Important” category includes those who say religion is “very” or “somewhat” important, in their lives.

    I’m uncertain how clear this question is in seeking to identify personal philosophies!

    Religion is probably “important” to atheists, who are surrounded by interfering and proselytising faith-heads at work, in their communities, and in their families – in the sense that they regularly have to cope with its effects.

  3. Although the literal definition of “atheist” is “a person who believes that God does not exist,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary

    This bothers me. It makes a strong statement that a Belief is held that god Does Not Exist

    I don’t think it is possible to attach such a strong definition to the word Atheist

    For me the word atheist describes a position, not a belief, that in the absence of evidence that god exists, or doesn’t exist, it is pointless question. It is a NULL question.

    On a different question as to the Probability of god existing, such an entity would be highly improbable, given there is zero trace or evidence.

    What is arrogant is the theist, who, in the absence of any evidence for the existence of god, and with the high probability that gods do not exist, presumes to read the mind of god, and knows with certainty what he is thinking and commanding us to do. And that’s where the trouble begins.

  4. Yes David, the a-theist definition bothers me too.

    Still lacking a good term for someone who doesn’t do religion. Separating “religion” from “god” seems to me to be worthwhile. Makes sense, many religions say there’s only one god. So they’re clearly sharing. And the religion isn’t the god (many vs one). And it’s the religion I’m dissing.

    I don’t do religion, so what’s that then? Irreligious? Unreligious? Areligious? Asked about “god”, I’d have to answer that’s a religious notion, and I don’t do religion. Faithless? Can’t use Unfaithful, that’s got other baggage.

    Can we blend apathy and atheism to get Apatheist? I don’t believe your religion and I don’t care for your notion of a god.

  5. I’ve pondered this for a bit…

    Self-identified atheists tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party and with political liberalism. About two-thirds of atheists (69%) identify as Democrats (or lean in that direction), and a majority (56%) call themselves political liberals (compared with just one-in-ten who say they are conservatives). Atheists overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage (92%) and legal abortion (87%). In addition, three-quarters (74%) say that government aid to the poor does more good than harm.

    I can only speak for myself, and a few fellow travellers I know well enough, but I suspect this alignment is not because atheist (Broad definition) are inherently ideological, its just that the things that tend to be of the left, tend to be more evidence based, and have a social justice content.

    I myself abhor ideologies. All ideologies. To hold to an ideology means you’ve outsourced your thinking to a third party, and just use that third parties drop down box of answers when issues come up, instead of working it out for yourself. So I suspect that atheism runs parallel to left leaning ideology while not adhering to that ideology, because rational people, who tend to be atheists, have come to the same conclusions as the left, but via a different methodology of self inquiry and conclusion.

  6. @david

    I’d have thought that the whole spectrum of political viewpoint would be represented among self-professed atheists as much as any other group. Harsh “social darwinist” free-market Thatcher attitudes aren’t incompatible with atheism. Psychopathic CEOs and politicians are as likely to be atheist as anyone. Just they’d be more likely to lie about it.

    Nobody’s lying when they say they’re an atheist, where’s the incentive?

    The liars are to be found among those who profess some religion, where it confers an advantage.

    Maybe in China or the USSR back in the day, people might lie and say they were atheist even when they weren’t. But in the west, and in the moslem world, there’s no incentive to be a pretend atheist.

  7. My definitions work like this.

    theist- a believer in god or gods or the condition of possessing such a belief.

    atheist- someone lacking a belief in god or gods or the condition of lacking a such a belief. Not a word usually to be used about yourself (I rarely describe myself as caucasian), but possibly a word to be used by others about you.

    Atheism- (Capital A) the political activity regarding Atheists (and sometimes those who are atheist) to protect or promote their various interests.

    Atheist- (Capital A) A subscriber to Atheism.

    so,

    atheism (lowercase a) is not a term that has any meaning in my lexicon.

    When I write I write with this in mind. Note this is not a definition of “Atheism” which is a rather fluid thing. The term “atheist” is rock solid simple in its definition and needs robust defence against others attaching additional concepts.

    Defending Atheism as being rock solid simple, doesn’t work as cleanly as people sometimes want. This would be improved if the political ambitions were exported to more generral political terms like secularism and egalitarianism.

    Myself, I would like an -ism related to promoting informed personal moral authorship as the primary moral act. But what to call it……?

    Is this an idealism? No, it could be pants, but its worthy of the experiment….

  8. Continuing a little.

    Here’s my definition of a religion-

    “A religion to be so, must contain at least one nominally immutable, superempirical hypothesis about the nature of existence, where a choice of such hypotheses are known (empirical or superempirical), the which becomes reflected in personal and cultural values and behaviours.”

    I take the theist belief in gods to be as much about an aesthetic-type response to the Universe (typically a fearful/cautious one) and the cleaving to a religion (whatever is culturally available) as an idealistic one that stably feeds the aesthetic need by shutting off uncertainty.

    Some religions or at least a few of their their sub-brands are starting to fail my test.

    As an anti-idealist (for David’s reasons) I loathe religion most for its morally anaethetising dogmatism, far more than people’s universe-fearful aesthetic that drives them towards it. The shamans, popes and clerics, concentrate/focus/use this poison and should be the sustained target of our moral outrage.

  9. @phil rimmer,

    Myself, I would like an -ism related to promoting informed personal moral authorship as the primary moral act. But what to call it……?

    Sounds a bit like stoicism.

    (Has Rimmerism been taken?)

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