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About Atheism and Atheists:

A new name. Estimates of number of Atheists.
45 country worldwide survey of their number.

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 homosexuals 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 essentially 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 claim 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.

bulletAccording to the 1991 Canadian Census, there are only 13,515 Atheists in Canada out of a population that was approaching 30 million. 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 over the telephone who claimed to be from a polling agency. In order to obtain an accurate number of Atheists, pollsters cannot simply ask what label a person uses to describe their religion. The pollsters would have to ask them about their specific beliefs, if any, about the existence of deities. To our knowledge, this is never done by any country's census bureau.
bullet A Canadian Angus-Reid poll taken in the mid-1990's studied people's religious beliefs. They found that about 14% of Canadians are 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 religious category or faith group of Canadians. 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. If one were to count the number of Atheists among the Humanists, Unitarian Universalists, Free thinkers, and those who refused to answer the pollster, they would probably outnumber all of the organized religions in the country, except for Christianity.
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 media 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."

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2005 & 2012 worldwide survey of Atheists among 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 Neopagans. 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 are Atheists.

The percentage of Atheists was also sensitive to income:

  • 7% of those in the bottom quintile (20%), and
  • 9% in the second quintile, and
  • 15% in the third quintile, and
  • 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: Innovative poll estimates percentage of Atheists in the U.S. to be 26%!

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 they are reluctant to tell the truth to a stranger over the phone who claims to be from a polling agency.

Will Gervais and Maxine Najle at the University of Kentucky



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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:
  2. "Webster's New World Dictionary; 3rd college edition," Page 86
  3. "Atheism," American Atheists, at: 
  4. Liz Burcin, "American Atheists in Pennsylvania," at:
  5. "Atheist and Agnostic Quotes" at:
  6. "George Bush: Citizen's quote," at:
  7. "Supreme Court Cases: Emerson v. Board of Education, 1947," at:
  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:
  10. American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS 2008]," Trinity College, 2009-MAR, at:
  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:
  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 online book store

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Copyright 1996 to 2012, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-AUG-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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