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About Atheism and Atheists:

Number of Atheists in the U.S.,
Canada, and the rest of the world.
Innovative polling technique finds
that 26% of U.S. adults are Atheists!

A new, tongue-in-cheek, name for Atheists:

Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell of California decided to create a new word for "Atheists," in order to encourage them to come out of the closet in spite of the heavy prejudice against them. Taking a cue from persons with a homosexual orientation and their embracing of the term "gay," Geisert and Futrell suggest that "bright" become a synonym for "Atheist." Richard Dawkins wrote in The Guardian: "People reluctant to use the word 'atheist' might be happy to come out as 'bright'." 9

Numbers of Atheists, mainly in the U.S. and Canada:

Most estimates of the numbers of Atheists are hopelessly inaccurate and almost meaningless:

bulletAccording to the 2001 World Almanac, Atheists numbered at the time:
bullet 121 million in Asia
bullet 56 million in the former USSR
bullet 23 million (3.5%) in Europe
bullet 2.7 million in Latin America
bullet 1.6 million (0.5%) in North America
bullet 0.4 million in Oceania
bullet 0.4 million in Africa 8
 
bullet American Atheists have claimed that almost 30 million Americans are Atheists. They define "Atheist" broadly to include those who firmly believe that no God exists, those that have no belief in God, and those for whom the term "God" has no meaning. This is a broad enough definition to include what some others call Atheists and Agnostics. 30 million individuals would amount to about 9% of the total population.

bullet

According to the 1991 Canadian Census, there were only 13,515 Atheists in Canada out of a population that was almost 30 million! This would be on the order of 0.045% of the total population! However, this number cannot be an accurate value. Many Atheists probably identified themselves to the census taker as Humanists, Free thinkers, Unitarians, Ethical Culturalists, persons of no religion, as NOTAs (NOT Affiliated with a religion) etc. Other Atheists probably lied and identified with an organized religion because they did not want to reveal their true beliefs to a stranger asking very personal questions over the telephone.
 

bullet A Canadian Angus-Reid poll taken in the mid-1990's studied people's religious beliefs. They found that about 14% of Canadians admit to being Atheists. That would include about 4 million adults in the country. The pollsters found out, apparently to their embarrassment, that Atheists formed the largest single faith belief in Canada. So they split the group into two sub-classifications: real Atheists, and Atheists who attend religious services. By this trick, they made certain that a Christian classification became the largest category.

bullet The Graduate Center of the City University of New York conducted the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2001. It was a massive study involving the interview of over 50,000 adults. They estimate that 902,000 (0.4%) of Americans identify themselves as Atheists. The number of Atheists makes them the fifth largest religious classification, after Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.
 
bullet The Gallup Organization regularly finds that about 93% of the 228.2 million American adults (excluding those in Alaska and Hawaii) believe in either a personal God or some "higher power." This source is often quoted incorrectly by the some media outlets as stating that over 90% of Americans believe in a personal God.
 
bullet The ARIS study was repeated during 2008. They asked American adults with which religion, if any, they identified themselves. Only 1.6% of American adults call themselves either Atheist or Agnostic. The pollsters then asked the respondents about their belief, if any, in God. They found:

bullet Only 70% of Americans believe in a personal God.

bullet 12% are either Atheists (do not believe in God's existence) or Agnostics (do not know whether a personal God exists). This totals about 27 million adults, which is close to the American Atheists' inclusive estimate for Atheists.

bullet 12% are Deists; they believe in a distant higher power but not a personal God. They view God as the creator who established the physical laws of the universe, started it up, left the scene and hasn't been seen since. It is worth noting that the vast majority persons with Deist beliefs have never heard of the terms "Deist" or "Deism." They represent a great, untapped opportunity for some publicity agency to exploit.

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2005 & 2012 worldwide survey of Atheists living in 45 countries:

A massive study of religiosity and Atheism was conducted during 2005 and again during 2012 by WIN-Gallup International. 11

Pollsters asked the question:

"Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious persons, or a convinced atheist?

The question is somewhat ambiguous because:

  • Some Atheists consider themselves religious, as in some Unitarian Universalists, Wiccans and other Neo pagans. How they answered is anyone's guess.

  • Agnostics -- those who neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of a deity do not fit neatly into any of the three classifications.

The world-wide average responses to the question were:

  • 59% consider themselves to be "a religious person;"
  • 23% "not a religious person;"
  • 13% "a convinced Atheist;"
  • 5% didn't know or didn't respond.

The percentage of Atheists varied greatly by education:

  • 7% of those with no or only basic education, and
  • 10% of those with secondary school education, and
  • 19% of those who had post-secondary education admitted that they are Atheists.

The percentage of Atheists was also sensitive to income:

  • 7% of those in the bottom quintile (20%),
  • 9% in the second quintile,
  • 15% in the third quintile,
  • 20% in the fourth quintile, and
  • 19% in the highest quintile are Atheists.

Age was not a significant factor, until people exceed 65 years-of-age when perhaps end-of-life issues became a major personal concern:

  • 12% of those under 30 years-of-age, and
  • 14% of those 30 to 65, and
  • 8% of those over 65 are Atheists.

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2017: An innovative, more accurate polling technique estimates that 26% percentage of U.S. adults are Atheists!

It has long been suspected that public opinion polls do not give an accurate estimate of the number of Atheists in the U.S. and elsewhere. There is so much discrimination and dislike of Atheists that many of them are reluctant to reveal their personal religious beliefs to a total stranger over the phone who claims to be from a polling agency.

All of the above polling data is thus believed to greatly underestimate the percentage of Atheists in the country and the rest of the world.

Polls that attempt to estimate the percentage of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender persons (LGBT) are also believed to be underestimates, and for the same reason.

Pamela Whissel, the Editor in Chief of the American Atheist, wrote an article in that journal about the number of Atheists in the U.S. It is titled "Hiding in Plain Sight" and has a catchy subtitle:

"If you let them stay in the closet, atheists just might let you know they exist." 13

In her article's first paragraph, she writes:

"In 2014, the Pew Research Center and Gallup both conducted phone surveys to measure religious demographics in the United States. Pew reported that 3% of Americans are atheist, while Gallup’s results pointed to 11% of Americans not believing in God. So who’s right? Quite possibly neither.

  • Pew used the "self identification" polling method in which the individual was asked their religious affiliation, given a list of 14 categories, and asked to select the one that is closest to their beliefs:

"Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, something else, nothing in particular, non-denominational Christian, Unitarian, and Jehovah’s Witness."

Those who selected "nothing in particular" were then asked a second question: whether they considered themselves atheist, agnostic, or literally "nothing in particular." Atheists were thus required to admit directly and unambiguously that they were Atheists.

  • Gallup used the "binary response" method, asking the subject "Do you believe in God?" The person only had to give a yes or no.

Pamela Whissel commented:

"This comes as no surprise to Will Gervais, an evolutionary and cultural psychologist at the University of Kentucky. His research focuses on the cognitive, evolutionary, and cultural forces that facilitate supernatural beliefs and how these beliefs in turn affect cognition, evolution, and culture. For his doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia, he researched how atheists in the U.S. are perceived  by the general population. What did he find? The title of an article in Pacific Standard magazine about his work said it best:

'Americans Intuitively Judge Atheists as Immoral.'

His research has produced some of the best evidence we have of the widespread prejudice against atheists. Given what he knew about the prejudice, Gervais couldn’t help but think that the Gallup and Pew numbers were low -- not from faulty polling, but from the unfounded yet pervasive mistrust felt toward atheists."

Will Gervais commented in the Pacific Standard magazine:

"Social pressures favoring religiosity, coupled with stigma against religious disbelief, might cause people who privately disbelieve in God to nonetheless self-present as believers, even in anonymous questionnaires."

He joined with another University of Kentucky psychologist Maxine Najle. Together, they conducted a survey using the "unmatched count" polling technique which finds more accurate data by using an indirect technique:

  • Step 1: Rather than ask subjects directly whether they believe in God, a "control" group of 1,000 randomly selected adults was asked how many of a list of six innocuous statements applied to them -- statements like: "I can drive a stick shift" "I have visited New York City" "I have played Scrabble," "I eat meat." "I exercise regularly." I’ve been to the South Pole." Presumably subjects would be quite willing to accurately reveal how many apply to themselves. The polling agency does not learn which of the statements were true; only the total number.

  • Step 2: The pollsters also collected data from a second randomly selected "test" group with 1,000 adults. They were asked same six questions with a seventh one added: "I believe in God." Presumably, the second group would also be willing to reveal how many applied to them because the questioner would not have any way of knowing whether or not the "God question" applied to them.

From the differences between responses of the the two groups Gervais was able to estimate that 26% of the second random group were Atheists. This is far more than previous polls conducted by large polling agencies who used more traditional, direct questioning methods that asked Atheists to reveal their religious beliefs.

Finally, they conducted:

  • Steps 3 & 4: They replicated the first two steps with a different sample of 2000 participants. The only difference was that the Step 4 question was "I do not believe in God."

They found that the number of Atheists was slightly lower than was found with Steps 1 & 2. They suggest that people were more anxious about denying God's existence even though the polling agency would not be able to know whether they were an Atheist.

This poll means that in 2018:

  • Christianity remains the most popular religion/belief system in the U.S. at about 67% of adults. It is declining at almost 1 percentage point per year. At this rate, it will become a minority religion by the mid 2030's.

  • Atheism is currently the second most popular belief system with about 26% of the adult population -- a percentage that is probably growing. 14

Dr. Gervais said:

"There’s a lot of atheists in the closet, and ... if they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance." 15

Hopefully, this polling technique will be replicated regularly in the future in order to determine the rate of change in the percentage of adult Atheists in the U.S.

Pamela Whissel concludes:

"According to the definitive authority on the English language, [the Oxford English Dictionary,] if you don’t believe in Zeus, you’re an atheist. If you don’t believe in Allah, you’re an atheist. If you don’t believe in  Vishnu, you’re an atheist.

"This word [atheist] describes everyone, yet almost everyone is afraid of it. Atheists who do believe in a god are afraid because they don’t understand that the word applies to them. Closeted atheists  who believe in no gods at all are afraid of it because other types of atheists are afraid of it. No one needs to be this afraid, and no good can ever come of this ridiculous motif of fear."

"Religion has hijacked one of the few words that accurately describes every person on Earth, but religion can also be used to rescue it. The starting point for most people of the Judeo-Christian persuasion is the Ten Commandments. The very first, and most important, is 'Thou shalt worship no other god.' This is nothing if not a mandate for atheism. Helping religious people understand that good atheists make good believers could break open the doors of a lot of noxious closets."

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Numbers of Atheists by country are shown on the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Introduction," American Atheists, at: http://www.atheists.org/
  2. "Webster's New World Dictionary; 3rd college edition," Page 86
  3. "Atheism," American Atheists, at: http://www.atheists.org/ 
  4. Liz Burcin, "American Atheists in Pennsylvania," at: http://www.geocities.com/
  5. "Atheist and Agnostic Quotes" at: http://www.math.unl.edu/
  6. "George Bush: Citizen's quote," at: http://bennyhills.fortunecity.com/
  7. "Supreme Court Cases: Emerson v. Board of Education, 1947," at: http://www.phschool.com/
  8. The World Almanac and Book of Facts (2001), Page 692.
  9. Michael Kesterton, "Social Studies: A daily miscellany of information..." The Globe and Mail, 2003-JUL-2. Online at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/
  10. American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS 2008]," Trinity College, 2009-MAR, at: http://b27.cc.trincoll.edu/
  11. "Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism - 2012: Press Release: Table 4: Trends in Atheism index among 39 countries surveyed in both waves," WIN-Gallup International, 2012-JUL-25, at: http://redcresearch.ie/

  12. Book cover image Sam Harris, "The moral landscape: How science can determine human values," Free Press, (2011). Read hundreds of reviews and/or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  13. Pamela Whissel, "Hiding in Plain Sight," American Atheist, 2nd Quarter 2017, Page 31. Can be downloaded at no cost at: https://www.scribd.com/
  14. "American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/faculty/research_studies/aris.pdf
  15. Brian Resnick, "How many American atheists are there really?," Vox, 2017-MAY-17, at: https://www.vox.com/

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Copyright 1996 to 2018, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2018-SEP-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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