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Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Before delving into this topic, I should let you know that much of my information is coming from this publication by the Pew Research Center.  The slated release date was October 9th of this year, so it is quite current.  I’m going to be pulling various numbers from it, but if you’re interested I strongly recommend reading the article itself.  The Full Report is also available, though it is quite long.  I will also warn you that I may use some of these numbers in other posts in this series.
Overall, the numbers in this study are relatively good news.  As the very first paragraph notes, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans is currently the highest ever recorded by the Pew Research Center.  Though if you actually look into it, this doesn’t represent a terribly long time frame.  Still, the last five years have seen a dramatic decrease in religious affiliation, and the vast majority of these unaffiliated Americans are not simply between churches.  This is not a matter of catching Americans in the midst of transitioning from extreme sects to moderate sects.  The polls clearly indicate that a growing number of Americans aren’t just currently unaffiliated.  Instead, we see that most of these people don’t want to be affiliated with any religious group.

Of course most of you already knew this, or at least guessed it.  But what I want to point out are the things that many of you, especially those who are mostly against being outspoken, are likely to have missed.  And the first is the fact that this data very clearly demonstrates the central point of this entire series: If you fail to pass your religion on to your kids, that religion dies.  The relevant data here is in the third infographic: Religious Affiliation by Age.  The younger the age group, the lower the rate of affiliation.  The source of the unaffiliateds’ growing numbers is not the deconversions of religious people – the removal of their core beliefs through confrontational criticism.  Rather, the main benefit of criticizing religion is showing the next generation that it’s okay not to buy their parents’ unwarranted assumptions.

(There is also a graph that shows this quite clearly: Recent Trends in Affiliation by Generation.  The graph may also indicate that in addition to the generational shift in flat unaffiliation, deconversion-type effects are also more common in the newer generations.)

Second, I wish to draw your attention to the pie chart labeled “Religious Composition of Democratic/Democratic-Leaning Registered Voters” (which I’ll just call ‘democrats’).  The figure is a bit dishonest, as it separates all but the unaffiliated by race.  If you look just along religious lines, you’ll find that ‘unaffiliated’ democrats are the second (maybe third, depending on how many ‘other’ are catholic) largest ‘religious group.’  But how many democratic candidates push secularism to the forefront of their platform?  Why didn’t Obama simply scrap the ill-guided ‘faith-based initiative’ program, if a full quarter of his voter base is religiously unaffiliated?

Part of the problem lies with the fact that ‘unaffiliated’ rarely means atheist and doesn’t even always mean secular.  A full 33% of the unaffiliated still think religion is at least somewhat important in their life.  And only 27% say they don’t believe in anything worth calling a god (which is in jarring contrast to the 42% who claim to be neither spiritual nor religious.  More on this later.)  And 77% of unaffiliateds still believe that religion plays an important role in community and charity.  So does this indicate that despite the fall of organized religion, atheism isn’t actually making much progress?  Well, no. 

You see, while the unaffiliated are still a bit religious, and very supportive of religion, the extent of this behavior among unaffiliateds is still significantly less than the extent among affiliateds (the only exception is new-agey beliefs, which is mostly equal between the two parties.  So it’s also not the case that we’re simply replacing established religions with modern mysticisms).  So while it’s true that a fast glance at the jump from 15.3% unaffiliated to 19.4% unaffiliated is going to overestimate the growth rate of rationality, there is still a growth. 

So what does all of this data have to do with the pillar of Presence?  Quite a bit, actually. 

First, it is important to note that our presence is indeed growing.  And I don’t just mean that there are more atheists, but that a larger percentage of the US population is atheist.  This percentage has climbed from 1.6 in 2007, to 2.4 in 2012.  For those who like wild extrapolation, this trend of +50% of the current value (which I’m not betting on holding up, mind you) would have atheists making up half of the US by 2050.  Still, it’s a substantial jump in recent years.  The new atheist movement isn’t just a bunch of old atheists who are getting more vocal.  It represents a genuine increase in proportion of atheists within the general public.  While the age demographics are not presented for atheists specifically, I strongly suspect that as in the case of the unaffiliateds, much of this growth is coming from generational displacement.  This tells us just how important it is that the next generation sees that it’s okay to be an atheist.

So let’s try and focus this presence.  Yes, there’s plenty of atheism directed at teenagers and young adults.  That’s fine.  But I want to see some directed at kids.  I want to see an atheist character on Spongebob, and one that’s not a caricature or a strawman.  I want to see more books like The Golden Compass.  I want to search ‘Atheism’ in amazon’s children’s section and find more than sheer educational books.  I want to see atheists pressing for atheist role models in fiction just as feminists are pressing for female role models.  I’m going to talk about this need more explicitly in the Art pillar, but there’s a lot of overlap here because we really do need to show kids that there are plenty of atheists out here, and that we aren’t horrible monsters.

I also want to address those atheists out there who are against criticizing religion.  Because this is one of those areas where you can help the drive for rationality without having to launch any attacks.  I’m not going to ask you to go yell at your theist friends, or engage in public debates, or even initiate conversations about religion.  I already know you’re not going to do that.  But I will ask two things of you.

First, you need to understand that for those of us who do take the offensive, the goal is very frequently not an attempt to deconvert the person we’re talking to.  Sometimes, like the RRS forums, we’re trying to create a safe space where atheists can vent their frustration on religions, or engage in genuine discussion without having to worry about taboo questions.  At other times, like in Harris’ public debates, we’re intentionally humiliating a particular religious person in order to convey a message to the audience.  In a one-on-one conversation where the objective is to deconvert the person you’re talking to, even the most extreme atheists will readily admit that insulting them is rarely a good tactic.  But in public debate that’s not what we’re doing.  We’re insulting a punching bag, a single religious person or group, in order to show a much wider audience the extreme ridiculousness of the beliefs in question.  And if you watch some of Harris’ debates, particularly the ones where a question was voted on both before and after the debate, you’ll see that this is actually a very effective tactic.  I understand if you, personally, don’t want to engage in it, but it is working, and it is working particularly well with the younger members of the audience, those people who are in fact not the target of the insults and are increasingly appalled at the laughability and depravity of the religious positions.  Moreover, pretending that this tactic is causing more harm than good despite the clear evidence that the new atheist movement has been accompanied by a substantial increase in atheists is only going to impede the fight against religion. 

Second, I want to ask you to publicly and unambiguously identify yourself as an atheist.  I do not mean that you need to go out and shout it in the middle of campus, from your balcony, or at your local church.  But I do mean that when someone else initiates a conversation about religion, and especially when they solicit your input, you need to clearly identify yourself as a non-believer.  You don’t need to be argumentative about it, and you don’t even necessarily need to continue the conversation for very long.  But you need to say something.  Why?  Because that’s the only way to send the right message to the next generation!

Feminists want to make it okay to be female, and that’s a great goal.  But telling next-generation girls that it’s only okay to be female if you aren’t also feminine is not going to get us anywhere.  Similarly, a gay rights movement that tells the next generation that it’s okay to be gay as long as you keep it in the closet will literally drive gay kids suicidal.  And a civil rights movement that tells the next generation that it’s okay to be black so long as you cover all your skin is insane.  And when you jump through hoops to avoid bringing up your atheism, when you take great pains to keep it hidden, and especially when you harp on atheists who are outspoken, you send the message that it’s only okay to be an atheist if you shut up about it.  And that is going to cause a lot more harm than good.

(Active atheists, please take note of this line of refutation of the “Don’t be a meanie” school of thought.  It’s not the kind of response I see very often.  There are plenty of people who bring up the actions of other activists, but this response shifts the focus to the message of the actions, rather than the actions themselves.  I think it may help to explain why the actions are useful, instead of just pointing out where other activists have used similar tactics.  Give it a try the next time you’re told off by an atheist who still believes in belief.)

There is one last piece of information I want to talk about in this very long post, and it is a piece that I think is most pertinent to the combative types.  It pertains to a certain set of numbers in the ‘General Public’ column of the “Unaffiliated, But Not Uniformly Secular” table, combined with the 2012 column of the “Trends in Religious Affiliation” table.  Note that all percentages are in terms of the US general population.

Neither Spiritual Nor Religious:         15%
No Belief in God/Universal Spirit:        7%
Atheist:                                          2.4%

Now I have found that most self-proclaimed atheists, and especially those of us who are active, use the term ‘atheist’ to refer to someone who lacks belief in a god or god-like entity.  With this in mind, we can draw the following interesting conclusions:

1: Less than half of the people who consider themselves neither spiritual nor religious still cling to some sort of god-like belief.
2: Nearly two-thirds of people we would call atheists do not identify themselves as such.

From these conclusions I’m going to offer two pieces of advice.  First, if you really want to focus on the task of deconverting people, I recommend you look into those folks who are don’t consider themselves religious yet still cling to a god belief.  While I’ve no hard evidence that they would be easier to deconvert, the fact that their religion is not crucial to their life makes it seem like a hypothesis worth investigating.  For what it’s worth, I have previously used the term “might-as-well-be-atheist” to describe this group.

And second, we need to be careful in how we present our numbers.  While it’s true that 2.4% of Americans self-identify as atheist, I think we also need to spread the fact that a full 7% of Americans don’t believe in anything god-like.  I suspect a great many people are using the term ‘agnostic’ to avoid the atheist label.  It would be great if we could get these people to start self-identifying as atheists.  But even if we can’t, we can honestly use the 7% figure when we are clear that we are talking about ‘people who don’t believe in god’ rather than 'people who self-identify as athiests.'  It may also be useful to describe this as twice the number of LGBT adults (Gallup puts LGBT adults at 3.4% of the US adult population).

I could definitely say a lot more about the Presence pillar, but this post is already really long, and it's also already really late.  So I'll just end by once again stressing the overal theme of this series, the next-generation angle.  When you talk about being an atheist, and work to gain recognition for atheism, keep in mind one very important goal in this endeavor: Telling our kids that not only is it okay to be an atheist, it's also okay to be openly, obviously atheist; that it's okay to flaunt your atheism every bit as much as people flaunt their various religions.


  1. Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful blog post, Zaq. I only follow your work tangentially, but this one is close to my heart. I identify publicly as an atheist, and though you and I live our atheism very differently, I strongly agree with the positions you've laid out here. The line I walk with being verbal and visible my atheism is very close to the line I walk with my sexuality.

    Being an atheist and eschewing objective doctrines of morality, I feel strongly that the only values I can speak to are my own personal values. One of those values is honesty. I don't feel the need to preach to anyone or to try to convert them; after all, the answers I find about the big questions in life may not be theirs. But it's very important to me to be honest about who I am when the subject comes up. I don't have to walk around broadcasting "queer" to people; for the most part, what I do in my personal life is none of their business. But if the conversation comes up about significant others, or vacation plans, or what I did this weekend - and I intentionally duck the subject - then I have been dishonest to myself. And the same is true for my atheism: it's important to me not to preach, but it's equally important not to hide.

    It can be a tough line to walk sometimes, and it's all too easy to fall into just letting things pass without speaking up or into trying to justify myself all the time. But it's worth attempting to me, because it is a conscious exercise in self-honesty. And that self-honesty is the root of my atheism.

  2. Thanks for the reply. I think you should look into the philosophy of echics. There are plenty of proposed ethical systems which are objective without being dogmatic. And when you get right down to it, you really do need one in order to argue about what should or should not be done. If you don't find morality objective than there's not much you can reasonably say about fundamentalist rejections of gay marriage other than "I don't like it."

    I am very glad that you don't hide yourself. Too many atheists don't follow that practice, but it's exactly the kind of attitude we need to pass on to future generations. It's also exactly the kind of problem the LGBT community faced several years ago. If you don't mind my asking, were you always this open about being gay/atheist? And if not, was there something in particular that caused you to become more open? For me, it was the introduction to The God Delusion that caused me to 'come out' as an atheist, but I always like to hear about things that have had a similar impact on others.