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Results of past U.S. public opinion polls

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Tolerance towards Atheists:

Although adults in North America exhibit reasonable tolerance towards persons belonging to different Christian denominations and other organized religions, this acceptance does not necessarily extend to Atheists.

This is a serious concern to many Atheists and other non-Christians. It has every likelihood of becoming more intense in the future, because of the rapid increase in the numbers of Atheists, Agnostics, and NOTAs (Those persons who are NOT Affiliated with any religious denomination). 

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Public opinion survey of the 1980s:

In her book, "The Last Taboo," Author Wendy Kaminer referred to an unidentified survey published in the 1980's. It showed that almost 70% of Americans agreed that freedom of religion applies "to all religious groups, regardless of how extreme their ideas are." But only 26% agreed that Atheists should be given freedom of speech to ridicule religion and God, "no matter who might be offended." 71% believed that Atheists "who preach against God and religion" should not be permitted to rent or otherwise use civic auditoriums i.e. lecture halls that are supported by general taxation. 1

In recent years, the definition of religious freedom has been expanded to include the religious freedom to discriminate.

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Barna Research Ltd. study of 1995:

Barna Research Ltd. is the most active evangelical polling organization in the United States. They conduct telephone polls about a variety of topics -- mainly involving Christianity. 2

Barna asked a random selection of American adults during 1995-JUL whether they thought that various religions had a positive or negative effect on U.S. society. The survey's margin of error is ±3 percentage points. Responses were only counted from those subjects who were familiar with the religion in question. 3 The study estimates that 50% of non-Christian adults in the U.S. view Atheism as having an negative impact on society. Fewer than 25% viewed Islam and Buddhism negatively. Among born-again Christians, this level of rejection reached 92% -- the highest of any religious belief system.

George Barna, president of Barna Research commented on the "us vs. them" mentality of many adults:

"While many Americans are not practicing Christians, they retain some identity with the Christian faith and remain protective of it. They are suspicious of other faith groups because they are unknown but different -- and we are generally uncomfortable with those who are not just like us. ..." 

Since the vast majority of American adults believe in a God or some type of higher power, they probably feel some level of kinship with believers of other theistic religions, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. But an Atheist -- a person with no belief in God or who believes that no God exists -- may be perceived as very strange indeed.

If similar results were found in a survey about other races, other genders, other sexual orientations, to those who are transgender, or other nationalities, then one could attribute the response to simple racism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia. But the above survey is in a different class; it indicates fear, rejection, and loathing on the basis of religious belief.

Decades ago, we coined the term "religism" to refer to "the expression of hatred towards, or discrimination against, persons of a specific religion affiliation, usually a minority faith."

Since most of the conflicts in the world have religism as a main cause, we suggest that it is a badly needed addition to the English language and encourage its use.

Unfortunately, this word never became widely used. Also, an article in Wikipedia, which does not cite any sources, defines Religism very differently as:

"the tendency to believe in religious ideologies as opposed to rational facts. In many countries religism is preventing development towards a more modern society in either material living conditions or human freedom.

Hatred of other people's religious beliefs do not bode well for the immediate future of religious tolerance in the U.S. and for the future of religious freedom, religious speech, religious assembly and religious practice. However, on a positive note, there appears to be a long-term trend towards acceptance of Agnostics and Atheists there.

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The "American Religious Identification Survey," (ARIS) by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in 2001:

Polling data from the 2001 ARIS study has revealed that the percentage of American adult NOTAs -- those who do not follow any organized religion -- has almost doubled between 1990 and 2001 -- from 8% to 14% of the adult population. Many of the latter are Atheists, Agnostics, Non-believers, Secularists, Humanists, etc. Many American adults -- 81% of whom say that they identify with a specific religion -- seem reluctant to extend elementary freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly to this growing minority of fellow Americans.

The ARIS study also showed that the number of American adults who identify themselves as Christians had declined from 86% to 76% over the same interval -- a loss of almost 1 percentage point per year. This could promote a siege philosophy among some Christians, and increase their fears of a growing influence by non-believers. Fortunately, few Christians appeared to be aware of the drop in popularity of their religion at the time.

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University of Minnesota study of 2006:

University of Minnesota researchers conducted a nationwide telephone survey of over 2,000 households in early 2006. 4 They found that:

"...Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry."

Lead researcher, Penny Edgell, noted that Atheists:

"...offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years. ... It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common 'core' of values that make them trustworthy -- and in America, that 'core' has historically been religious. ... Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens — they share an understanding of right and wrong. Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good'." 4,5

It would appear that Atheists had a major public relations job ahead of them before they can be widely accepted and valued.

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The ARIS study by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in 2008:

The study found that the percentage of American adults who do not follow any organized religion rose from 14.1% in 2001 to 15.0% in 2008 -- an increase of 0.9 percentage points over 7 years or almost 0.1% per year. There are more U.S. adults who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. 6

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Problems with past public opinion polls:

There are serious problems with most public opinion polls that deal with religious topics.

  • A classic case involves a poll to assess the percentage of adults who attend religious services on most weeks. U.S. polls have generally found that about 40% of those polled "say" that they attend frequently. But actual body counts show that the real value is about 25%. Why do almost half of people lie to polling agencies? In this case, attending Church is often viewed as a "good" and honorable thing to do, and they want to appear to be a "nice person" to the polling agency. A poll that asked whether the subject voted on the last federal election would probably be similarly biased for the same reason.

  • Another classic case involves Atheists. Two recent polls by different agencies using different questioning techniques found that 3% and 11% of those polled "say" that they are an Atheist. However, these estimates widely believed to be serious underestimates. That is because of the fear that many Atheists have about admitting their beliefs to strangers over the phone.

  • A new innovative polling technique used a third questioning technique that allows Atheists to reveal their beliefs confidentially. That poll determined that about 26% of U.S. adults are Atheists! More details.

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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. Wendy Kaminer, "The Last Taboo," (1995)
  2. Barna Research has a home page at:
  3. "Christianity has a strong positive image despite fewer active participants," Barna Research, 1996-FEB-5, at:
  4. The study was published in the 2006-April issue of the American Sociology Review.
  5. "Atheists identified as America’s most distrusted minority, according to new U of M study," University of Minnesota, 2006-MAR-20, at:
  6. "American Religious Identification Survey 2008," at:

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Copyright © 1996 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2019-FEB-27
Author: B.A. Robinson

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