Few 'No Religion' Americans Are Atheists

Even among Americans who claim no religion, atheism is unpopular

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Popular atheist/biology blogger PZ Myers, who seriously skewed my recent poll on "no religion" Americans, criticizes religion reporters like me for stressing that atheists account for a tiny share of the U.S. population, despite the surge in Americans claiming "no religion":

It's rather annoying. Every article I see on this subject makes this desperate rush to reassure their readers that this growing cohort of Americans aren't really those goddamned atheists—they're nice people, unlike those cold-hearted, soulless beasts called atheists, and they aren't planning to storm your churches and rape the choir boys and boil babies in the baptismal fonts, unlike the scary atheistic monsters. . . .

Oh, please. All the low frequency of self-reported atheists in the survey tells you is that the long-running campaign in American culture to stigmatize atheism has been highly successful—and it's an attitude that we still see expressed in reports like this. The most important news they try to transmit is not the increase in unbelievers, it's "Thank God they aren't atheists! They're just rational skeptics, instead!"

PZ has his facts wrong. We know that very few Americans are atheists not because pollsters call around asking "Are you an atheist?" but because they ask about specific religious beliefs. And when Trinity College recently asked "no religion" Americans what they believed about God, here's what they found:

7% said, "There is no such thing."

19% said, "There is no way to know."
16% said, "I'm not sure."
24% said, "There is a higher power but no personal God."
27% said, "There is definitely a personal God."
7% said they didn't know or refused to answer. Only 7 percent of "religion nones" hold a belief that can be categorized as atheism. All the rest have more nuanced beliefs; more than half believe in a higher power or a personal God. I've got nothing against atheists. But the fact is that they represent 2 percent of the American religious landscape.

Hat tip to Mark Silk.

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