The American Religious Identification Survey was released a couple of weeks ago, to much publicity – and with good reason. The survey confirmed what many had taken to be an error measured in its last installment, in 2001. Religious America is shrinking, as the percentage of nonreligious Americans rises in every state in the Union – even in the deep South.
Of course, there are many different ways to be nonreligious. There are people who identify themselves as atheists, and those who identify themselves as agnostics. There are secular humanists and brights. There are people who are not religious, but don’t have any label for their identity. They just regard themselves as individuals, free of any religious or irreligious associations.
There’s a blurry range of territories that exists somewhere between religion and nonreligion too, and that’s an ambiguity that seems to have tripped up the creators of the survey. They point to what seems to be an inconsistency in the survey’s results: 0.7 percent of respondents identified themselves as atheists, but when asked about what they think about God, 2.3 percent agreed with the response, “There is no such thing.” (6.1 percent of Americans refused to even answer this question.)
So, it appears that there are several million Americans who don’t believe that there is such a thing as the Jewish-Christian-Islamic character God, but still don’t identify themselves as atheists. This discrepancy can be interpreted in a couple of different ways.
First, there’s the possibility that most Americans who don’t believe in God don’t like the label “atheist”. This interpretation would suggest that there is something distasteful about the reputation of atheists that many Americans want to disassociate themselves from, even though they don’t believe in God.
The other possibility is that most people who don’t believe in God simply chose some other designation for themselves on the survey. They may have identified themselves as Unitarians, or as Buddhists, or as the member of some other group that does not include the belief in the God deity as among its core principles. Perhaps many of these people, if asked, are you an atheist?, would answer “yes”. Then again, for many of them that might not be a question that is relevant to how they think about themselves.
I suspect that a combination of these two possibilities have shaped the survey’s results. There are probably some Americans who share the basic philosophical ideas are alienated by the image of atheists as created by a mixture of atheist activities and religious condemnation. There are also probably some Americans for whom the debate between atheists and believers in God isn’t very important, although they’d come down on the side of the atheists, if they had to take sides.
The important lesson from these survey results is that not all people who are atheist (without belief in God) are atheists (people who identify themselves with the term “atheist”). In fact, the majority of atheist Americans seem not to be atheists.
These results discredit the notion that some religious preachers put forward that “atheism” is really some kind of religion, and that atheists really do believe in God after all, or else they wouldn’t go to the trouble to identify themselves as not believing in God in the first place. These were illogical arguments to begin with. Now they appear to be illogical arguments that are also contradicted by the evidence of how nonreligious Americans actually think of themselves.