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About Atheism and Atheists:

A new, Innovative polling
technique finds that 26%
of U.S. adults are Atheists!


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2017: An innovative, more accurate polling technique:

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 conventional 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 journal, wrote an article 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 to be an 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." Unfortunately, this question is also ambiguous. Some people regard the word "God" to only refer to the Christian Trinity. Others believe that it can refer to any all-powerful supernatural being or pair of deities or panethon of deities in any religion.

Pamela Whissel further 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 openly their religious beliefs.

Finally, they conducted:

  • Steps 3 & 4: They replicated the first two steps with a different sample of 2,000 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 directly 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

Webmaster's comment:

We use the term "belief system" here rather than "religion," because many people only regard belief systems as religions if they advocate belief in one or more deities.

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. Annual polls. That would be very helpful to many people working in the field of relgion!

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."

The first Commandment is located at Exodus 20:3. Various Bible translations render it as:

  • 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me." in the King James Version, or
  • "You shall have no other gods before me." in the New International Version, or
  • "You may worship no other god than me." in the Living Bible, or
  • "Worship no god but me." in the Good News Translation, etc.

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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
  13. Pamela Whissel, "Hiding in Plain Sight," American Atheist, 2nd Quarter 2017, Page 31. Can be downloaded at no cost at:
  14. "American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at:
  15. Brian Resnick, "How many American atheists are there really?," Vox, 2017-MAY-17, at:

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Copyright 1996 to 2019, by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2019-APR-03
Author: B.A. Robinson

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