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The Greek word "atheoi" αθεοι ("[those who are] without god") as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on an early 3rd-century papyrus.

The Greek word “atheoi” αθεοι (“[those who are] without god”) as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians 2:12, on an early 3rd-century papyrus. Public domain

As the proportion Americans who identify themselves as having no religion has expanded, the religiously minded have consoled themselves with the observation that most of these so-called Nones say they’re spiritual and claim to believe in God. As my fellow RNS blogger Tobin Grant put it yesterday, “The ‘nones’ are a growing segment of the population, but in this stubbornly religious country, even those with no religion still hold to an identity that is tied to spirituality or belief.”

In fact, they’re quickly losing their grip.

Tobin bases his judgment on data from the 2012 American National Election Study, which shows that of the 16 percent of voters in the None category, 28 percent — or 4.5 percent of the voting public — identify as atheists (12 percent) or agnostics (16 percent). Also in 2012, Pew found  29 percent of Nones in that camp.

Since Pew’s number for the entire None population was 19.6 percent, this was equivalent to 5.7 percent of the adult population. That’s a pretty hefty increase over five years earlier, when atheists and agnostics constituted 24 percent of the Nones, and 3.7 percent of the population as a whole.

Now comes the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), with a 2013 survey showing atheists and agnostics comprising as much as 50 percent of the Nones. (It’s 50 percent when respondents answer online, 36 percent when they speak to a live interviewer on the telephone.) This suggests that self-identified atheists and agnostics are now approaching 10 percent of the population.

PRRI’s number is supported by a new survey of college students conducted by my colleagues at Trinity’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC). It finds that fully one-third are Nones, with 77 percent of them (22 percent of the total) saying they either don’t believe in God or that they don’t know whether there is a God and don’t believe there’s a way to find out. (Unlike the survey outfits mentioned above, the ISSSC doesn’t provide a checklist for religious self-identification, so the proportion of atheists and agnostics tends to be half of what the others find — in this case a quarter rather than half the college Nones, or eight percent of the entire college population.)

Are there more atheists and agnostics out there, or are non-believers just readier to admit it? The answer is probably both. Certainly there’s evidence that the stigma of atheism is waning. As Cathy Grossman noted the other day, over the past seven years Americans have become significantly more willing to vote for an atheist for president. In the new ISSSC survey, a large majority of college students — including religious ones — deny that atheists have less chance to succeed in the U.S.

The New Nones of the millennial generation are less spiritual than their predecessors. As they come to represent a larger portion of the adult population, they not only are moving the None portion of the population away from belief but also are secularizing American society as a whole.

Categories: Beliefs

Beliefs:

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life.

24 Comments

  1. samuel Johnston

    Hi Mark,
    I would avoid reading too much into this data. What we seem to have is a landslide change in the culture, akin to the recent sexual revolution. As soon as people have a choice, many will avail themselves of it. In my lifetime I have seen the non religious change status from outcasts, to unremarkable. Belief in God was synonymous with Christian or Jewish, now it may mean the person believes in some vague first cause or Karma. What is important is not whether one believes in some vague deities, but that one is socially accepted despite non conforming beliefs. This is real progress!

    • Lynne Newington

      Even the pope believes that in a roundabout way, stating atheists can by doing good get to Heaven.
      I’m sure there’s a place for Australia’s first woman prime minister Julia Gillard a self professed atheist, [accused of being unfit because she was barren and living in sin by an opposite political party member and Catholic at that], calling a royal commission into the plundering of lives of innocent children through sexual abuse, of which our Catholic ones suffered most at the hands of our own religious with connections to all walks of life, who did nothing for decades out of political correctness.

      • samuel Johnston

        Lynne,
        Why are you so mean spirited? Not everyone wants to go to that place you call heaven and/ or be with the Pope’s God. Are you so brainwashed that you think you and your sort (Catholics?) are the only ones who have an inkling of what life might offer? Do you agree with the Calvinists? The Mormons? What if their notion of God is more correct? Do you have a fallback plan?

        • Lynne Newington

          What’s of the Spirit is Spirit and what’s of the flesh is flesh……and we’re made up of both……that’s where I stand, whether interpreted as mean spirited or not.
          As far as the “Pope’s God”, is concerned, the pope as with those gone before him with a questionable past is hedging his bets don’t worry, that he has a special dispensation that came with the title, where as where I was reared God has no favourites.

          • The apostle Paul at 1 Corinthians 15:50 advises: “However, this I say, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom, neither does corruption inherit incorruption.” Also, at 1 Corinthians 15:39, Paul brings out that “Not all flesh is the same flesh, but there is one of mankind, and there is another flesh of cattle, and another flesh of birds. And there are heavenly bodies, and earthly bodies; but the glory of the heavenly bodies is of one sort, and that of the earthly bodies a different source. It is evident that spirit persons only reside in the heavens, also verified by the fact that God is a Spirit (John 4:24) and that his son, Jesus, became a life-giving spirit (1 Corinthians 15:45). Also, it is evident that earthly persons only reside on earth.

            The only ones who are humans who would become co-rulers with Jesus in God’s kingdom are referred to at 1 Corinthians 15:51,52: “Look! I tell you a sacred secret: We shall not all fall asleep in death, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised up incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” In other words, they would change from human bodies to spirit bodies.”
            These number 144,000 spirit-anointed (or born-again) Christians from the earth according to Revelation 14:1-5; Revelation 20:4-6).

    • …”that one is socially accepted despite non conforming beliefs.”….hmmm I wonder whether this dictum is universally applied…even to those with traditional religious beliefs…on issues such marriage..or is the only thing that is forbidden is to forbid.

      • @tz

        Nobody is shutting down traditional marriage – are you kidding?
        The only threat is against gay marriage. Gays should have the same rights as straights. It is only fair.

      • samuel Johnston

        Hi TZ,
        I was once told that “If your daddy stole, and his daddy stole, you have inherited the right to steal”. What gives you, me, or anybody else the right to forbid? Obviously due legal process has the right, and any organization can determine its own members conduct (unless by illegal discrimination), but how does an organization gain the moral right to forbid (sanction) those outside its membership (intolerance)?
        I was once told by a Catholic that I was subject to the Church and its sanctions
        because I was baptized as an infant! Not having been consulted in the matter, I feel I was taken advantage of – to say the least!

  2. mike in wisconsin

    I think of myself as a None, but that’s where the labeling ends. I’m not an atheist, I’m not a theist, I’m not an agnostic. It seems to me that all of our inherited religious categories of thought are obsolete. Without some explanation of what the terms are referring to, the story doesn’t say much to me. However, the story does tell me that we’re moving away from traditional ways of thinking, and that’s a very good thing.

    • @mike in wisconsin,

      1. As long as you are thinking at all, that is a fine thing.
      2. As long as I am completely free to reject your religion and not have your religion (whatever it is) pushed on me through government, that is a fine thing too.

      We must be wary of those who would destroy the wall between church and state – that is currently a national emergency as there are some evangelicals coming at it with a sledgehammer.

  3. The only hope for the world is for more people to abandon religion.
    Priests and preachers clearly have no idea how much trouble they are spreading with these ridiculous old fables.

    • Lynne Newington

      “The “fables”, are coming home to roost and those of us who are Catholic [me a convert] are expecting more than fables, the recent condemnation of the UN on how the they treated our most precious gift, our children universally is proof of that; in fact it cast’s no doubt now on how they could keep silent during the Holocaust and the historical treatment of the Jews and their children…..
      Life has been cheap until now, even in relation to their own clergy good or evil, all used as a means to an end, to further not the Kingdom of God, but their own personal power, political and financial.
      I presume you were aware it was the “dreaded” International Humanist and Ethical Union that originally brought the Holy See to account before the United Nations for breaches of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child….back in September 2009, John Porteous I believe it was who took the floor, that say’s something; and it was our Prime Minister Julia Gillard an “atheist, living in sin” thrown at her by those in opposition, and barren, all making her unfit for her role, eventually choking with what was coming to light, calling for a Royal Commission; she had to go of course, that audacious woman…….

  4. So who’s surprised? Religious belief can’t survive for long without a body–without holy things and holy places, ceremonies, and an institution to maintain them. “Spirituality”–religion disembodied and deinstitutionalized–is a miserable, impoverished, boring, fragile thing.

    Better religion without “spirituality”–conventional, superficial, routinized, institutionalized religious practice in which people engage without conviction–than “spirituality” without the institutional and ceremonial features of religion. Religion, however routinized, keeps an option open for people: they can “get religion.” Spirituality is dead, boring and ephemeral–and, like other self-help cults dies off within a generation.

    • Lynne Newington

      Wrong there…..it’s in the DNA, and with the way the church I refer to has dragged it’self into the pits, it’s the spiritual element that remains and rises up from generation to generation, including for athiests who have roots from somewhere, common decency and justice seekers are an indwelling element in us all, expressed one way or another, true athiest’s I’m referring to, not those calling themselves such for political expediency……

      • Lynne Newington – you do know that Atheists are non-believers right?
        They don’t have some sort of choice about this.
        They don’t disbelieve for “political expediency” as you say. In fact, there is nothing less useful politically than one’s lack of belief in a god.

        So…You are wrong to suggest that atheists can choose to believe or not.
        I don’t believe in God and I assure you, there is no choice in the matter.

        • Lynne Newington

          Yes, I do know atheists are non-believers…..many turning to athiesim because of the “fable element” per se lack of moral standing corruption all the opposite of what “believers’” are supposed to stand for. I also know of some for some reason have chosen another way and become the most devout….and again there are those saying they are athiests for expediency, especially when it comes to their business affliations.
          I for one have never separated myself from any one because of what they believe or not believe , in fact I never even knew of the word ante-semitism until I became a Catholic or the fear many were indoctrinated in of the dreaded Masons.
          So all power to you and yours.

          • samuel Johnston

            “… the fear many were indoctrinated in of the dreaded Masons.”
            When I was a dues paying member, our Lodge had both Jews and finally even admitted Catholics as members. As a matter of interest,
            when I joined I made point of the fact that I was neither Christian nor Jewish. I was a Diest prior to my conversion to Darwinism. Oh well, we all make mistakes.

        • samuel Johnston

          Hi H.S.,
          I know exactly what you mean. I liken it to seeing the hidden view in a child’s picture puzzle book. Once you see it, you cannot un-see it.

      • But it can only rise up if there’s something from which it can rise–the buildings, ceremonies and institution. Without that there is no religion, so spirituality, nothing from which to rise up. The institution is everything.

        • @H.E.Baber,

          The Parthenon still stands. Silent atop the Acropolis.
          But nobody remembers ATHENA. Nobody remembers the ceremonies.

          The myths die. Always. Bye-bye Jesus Christ.

          • samuel Johnston

            Hi Max,
            Would that you were correct, but I agree with Baber. Ceremonies and myths are forever reincarnated. Christianity, is mostly warmed over Myth of Hercules with the Second Century addition of the old testament. In fact, Myths have completely swallowed the historical Jesus AND his teachings.

  5. Lynne Newington

    Sam; re “the fear many were doctrinated….:
    Australia was way behind everyone else [just catching up today on many issues]. One family I knew well were involved with the Masons and before he was permitted the last rites, had to renounce them, which mortified me knowing full well their charitable works.
    In fact it’s only in recent times that Judas Iscariot received a make over, a little like burying the hatchet with the handle sticking out of the ground, as he’s still condemned in the Catholic Easter liturgy…..

  6. Lynne Newington

    Fran, if in some way you’re reflecting on my comment re what’s of the Spirit and the flesh , I would’ve thought you would’ve automaticaly distinquished the difference from cattle without me having to mention it, I unless I have misunderstood you and referring to something else…..my apologies if you are.

  1. […] Mark Silk has been trying but failing to understand conflicting “survey” data on religious beliefs among people who do not identify with a religion. He’s taken exception to my colleague Tobin Grant’s analysis of high quality data from US Voters, and favored instead data from a couple of online shit polls supplemented with loser level phone poll data. Garbage does not trump science. Tobin  in right, however the 2012 ANES data can say nothing about how increases in non-identification have impacted religious beliefs over time or across cohorts. Indeed, even in high quality surveys, there are not enough respondents in a single year to adequately address this question. In my forthcoming book, Changing Faith: The Dynamics and Consequences of American’s Changing Religious Identities,  I examine this in Chapter 3, along with other beliefs and behaviors available in the GSS. What I show is that younger cohorts of “nones” are less likely to be atheists or nontheists. In the older cohorts, nearly one in five “nones” are outright atheists, however in the youngest cohorts this falls to under 10%. Of course, for many reasons (lifecourse factors being central) there are many more “nones” in the younger cohorts, and many of them never had a religious identification—while most of the older “nones” rejected a former religious identification. If you lump together atheists, agnostics, and people who believe in a “higher power BUT NOT A GOD”, what I call “non-theists” then the proportions increase to over 50% across all cohorts, but non-theism is also higher in the earlier generations. I show in the chapter that not-believing and not belonging is a dominant trend, but that is because of higher rates of non-identification and unbelief. […]

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