|Chapter 4. Who are those guys?
Who are those guys? Screenplay, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
“Agnostic” is but “Atheist” writ respectable and “Atheist” is only “Agnostic” writ
aggressive. Edward Aveling
Let us start by looking at a few statistics about American atheists. First, they are more
likely to be guys, by a ratio of 70% male to 30% female. Second, they tend to be
younger, 37% of atheists are under age 30 and 73% are under 50. Although atheists in
the general population are younger, those who join atheist organizations tend to be
older. Perhaps older people have more time, perhaps years of bearing with religious
falsehoods spur them to action, or perhaps young people who are working their way up
the career ladder are nervous about being identified as atheists.
The reason that the percentage of male atheists is larger than the percentage of males
in the general population (70% of atheists are male, while 48% of the general
population is male) is open to speculation. A similar trend is found among those with no
religious affiliation, 59% of “nones” are male and 41% are female. It is possible that
women are more inclined to be religious because of some physical or cultural
difference. It is also possible that prejudice against atheists and the somewhat negative
and confrontational nature of atheism in America today makes men more likely to say
they are atheists.
The racial group with the highest proportion of atheists is Asians, followed by Whites.
Blacks have the lowest proportion, followed by Latinos. Oddly, 33% of the people
responding they had no religion in the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey
(ARIS 2008) study claim Irish ancestry, even though they comprise 10% of the U.S.
Atheists tend to have more education and higher income than the general population.
Atheists are less likely than the general population to be married, and more likely to live
with a partner. However, if married, atheists are less likely than the religious population
to divorce. Gays and lesbians are more likely to be atheists than the heterosexual
The states with the largest number of nonreligious people are in the East and the
West. The most religious states are located in the Southeast, commonly called the
“Bible belt.” Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas
and Georgia are the most religious states. Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine,
Massachusetts, Alaska, Washington and Oregon are the least religious states.
Contrary to the saying there are no atheists in foxholes, nonbelievers comprise 21% of
the active duty American military. However, atheists are only .08% of the federal prison
Scientists seem to be the group with the largest number of atheists. A 1996 study of
U.S. scientists found only 7% expressed belief in a personal god, while 72.2%
reported disbelief and 20.8% reported doubt or agnosticism. The 1996 study updated
one from 1914 that found a 58% rate of disbelief or doubt in the existence of god
among all scientists and a 70% rate of disbelief or doubt among top tier scientists.
Disbelief in the scientific community has a long history.
In summary of the statistical profile so far, if you find yourself a young, male, Asian,
gay, scientist from the East or West coast, you will most likely be dealing with an
Looking at some of the political and social characteristics of atheists, only 13% would
like to see abortion be illegal and only 14% disapprove of gays and lesbians, making
atheists appear more liberal than the general population. Fifty percent of atheists label
their political ideology “liberal,” while only 14% call themselves “conservative.” One
study showed the greatest personality distinction between atheists and religionists is
that atheists are more open to new experiences and that atheists are a bit less
agreeable than religionists. Not surprisingly, nonreligious people are more likely to
have a nonreligious spouse and a nonreligious peer group.
Keeping in mind that the sole definitive factor of atheism is having no belief in religion,
generalizations can still be made. Hunsberger and Altemeyer note that atheists
typically score low on a right-wing authoritarianism scale and predict atheists will have
the traits listed in Figure 1. As I read the list, it seems a pretty fair description of the
atheists I know.
Many atheists cite polls showing the number of people in the United States with “no
religion” has increased to 16% of the U.S. population. Such numbers are impressive,
but ignore the core statistic that self-identified atheists are only .7 to 1.6% of the
population. Though low, these figures still show there are more atheists in the U.S.
than Muslims, and that the number of atheists is roughly equal to the number of Jews
or Mormons. And if the question is asked differently, “do you believe in god,” from 3%
to 10% of respondents say “no,” depending on which survey you choose.
Part of the problem may be the negative view of atheism, polls show the general public
rates atheists below Muslims in approval. Some nonbelievers may wish to avoid the
negative connotations of “atheist.” Another part may be the lack of a clear atheist
identity. When I was a teen, I was unsure of the difference between an atheist and an
agnostic and I applied both terms to myself indiscriminately. I knew I did not believe in a
god or scripture, I was just not sure what to call myself. Later chapters contain thoughts
about improving the public’s perception of atheists.
The religiousness continuum.
Instead of picturing exclusive blocks of religiousness, it helps me to picture the various
categories of belief on a continuum. If you will imagine a line, with one end being
complete atheism and the other end being radical fundamentalist religionism, you can
place all the other groups along the line (see Figure 2). The scale on this continuum
runs from 0 to 100, representing the cumulative percentage of the U.S. population.
On the left side of the chart are the self-identified atheists. Following them are the
“nones,” who, when added with atheists and agnostics, form about 16% of the U.S.
population. Instead of labeling themselves atheists or agnostics, “nones” simply say
they have no religion. “Nones” are the largest group of nonreligious people. Some
“nones” believe in god, while others do not. On either side of the “nones,” I put the
agnostics. “Agnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” to know. Agnostic means
without knowledge, or without the ability to know. Thomas Huxley invented the term in
1869 to represent his position that it is impossible to know if god does or does not
exist. I have split the agnostic group to fit like slices of bread on either side of the
nones. Agnostics who lean toward atheism are on the left side of the graph next to the
atheists, agnostics who lean toward religion are on the right, next to the deists.
Another 12% of the chart is covered by what ARIS 2008 calls “deists.” Like the
founding fathers, deists reject the idea of a “personal god.” They do not believe there
is a bearded man in the sky who answers their prayers. They do not believe in the
scriptures. I think of them as people who say, “god is nature and nature is god.”
Perhaps, similar to their agnostic brothers, they feel it is easier to acknowledge the
possibility of there being a god, even to call themselves Christian, and then be let
alone to get on with their lives.
If you add together the atheists, agnostics, nones and deists, almost one in three
Americans has no belief in a personal god, no belief in the infallibility of the scriptures
and is likely to make decisions based on facts instead of ancient traditions. Suddenly
the religious block no longer looks like an inapproachable monolith.
The remaining 70% of the graph is dedicated to those who say they believe in god. But
not all people believe equally. A number of religious people reject the scriptures as the
word of god and favor the general philosophy of their religion. For example, only 31%
of the American people think the Bible is the word of god, only about 42% of religious
Americans report attending church over the last seven days, 36% do not belong to a
church or religious organization and 70% believe that religion is losing its influence on
I think it is safe to say that at least half of the religious block is “soft” in its belief (see
Chapter 23 for a more extensive discussion of the depth of belief). That leaves less
than 35% of the American population as strong believers–a statistic that provides some
encouraging balance to the scant percentage who call themselves atheists.
At first glance, the situation for atheists is bleak. Only a tiny minority of Americans call
themselves atheists and the bulk of the American public calls themselves religionists.
But on further examination a substantial number of people reject the notion of a
bearded man in the sky. Looking at the ARIS 2008 data, atheists, agnostics and deists,
plus those who do not know or refuse to answer, combined make up more than 30% of
the U.S. population. Added to this significant number are the “soft” religionists,
probably about 35% of the U.S. population, leaving only 35% or less of the population
feeling strongly about religion.
Looking at these statistics takes me back to why I have written this book. First, I want
to support the strong few who are willing to swim against the current and declare
themselves atheists. Second, I want to encourage the agnostics and deists to closely
examine their beliefs, I would like them to stop agreeing with the religionists just
because it is easier and instead to acknowledge the truth, and move toward atheism.
Third, I cannot believe that 70% of Americans, or even 35% of Americans, truly believe
the religious doctrine they claim to follow. Perhaps like Daniel Dennett says, they
believe in belief, that is they think it would be good to believe so they say they do. Or,
perhaps as I see it, they go to church to get along, to get business, to please their
parents or please their spouse or because they always have. But they do not really
believe. They are like the crowd in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes (see
Chapter 24). They know the emperor is naked, but the whispers have not spread and
they do not yet feel comfortable acknowledging that religion is a lie. I hope to reach a
few of them and to encourage them to say what they know in their hearts is true. With
small steps the tide of atheism will rise and the influence of religion will decline.
The next chapter continues the look at atheists. It examines some of the labels atheists
apply to themselves, some of the groups they join, and some of the symbols they have
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