40 Million Nonbelievers in America? The Secret Is Almost Out

As reported in yesterday’s New York Times, a South Carolina chapter of Habitat for Humanity prohibited a group of Secular Humanist volunteers from wearing their “Non-Prophet Organization” T-shirts; a Charleston-area teacher “came out” as a nonbeliever after years of church dinners and demurrals; and Humanist Loretta Haskell struggled over her role as a church musician. While such stories remain commonplace, a related story with a substantial bearing on these anecdotes is one of America’s best-kept secrets.

A recent Newsweek cover—in a bid to (finally) match the celebrated 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover of Time—read, in the shape of a cross: “The Decline and Fall of Christian America.” Editor Jon Meacham’s story highlights Newsweek’s latest poll results showing that 10% fewer Americans identify as Christian today than twenty years ago. But more importantly, and mentioned only in passing, is the growth among atheists and secularists of all stripes.

According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of more than 54,000 adults, between 2001 and 2008 the number willing to identify themselves as atheist and agnostic has gone from under 2 million to 3.6 million. Small numbers compared to the whole, of course, but most notably it’s a rise of 85% of those willing to describe themselves as living without God during the years of our most overtly religious presidency!

Even more newsworthy, when the widely-scorned labels “atheist” and “agnostic” are replaced with specifics about beliefs (“There is no such thing” as God, “There is no way to know,” or “I’m not sure,” and added to those who refused to answer) it turns out that over eighteen percent of Americans do not profess belief in a God or a higher power.

According to ARIS, then, there could be as many as 40 million adult nonbelievers in the United States!

Personal God Going the Way of the Dodo?

Consider: If these numbers are correct, nonbelievers amount to more than the highest estimates of African Americans or gays. Secularists are one of America’s largest minorities. It is no longer possible to proclaim, as the Gallup Poll announced fifty years ago: “Nearly all Americans believe in God.” That is today’s most significant change.

So what explains the impressive increase among those willing to identify as atheist or agnostic? For those who think that books and ideas simply don’t matter, it is dramatic tribute to the success of the “new atheist” writers—including Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. To paraphrase the title of Dennett’s book, their goal has been to “break the spell” of religion—and they have evidently helped more Americans “achieve” that goal.

If a new confidence is in the offing it is also visible in the American Humanist Association’s scandalous Christmastime bus ads in Washington DC (“Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”). No less striking is the “Out” campaign (“Come Out,” “Reach Out,” “Speak Out,” “Keep Out,” “Stand Out,”) especially among students and young people.

One of the few writers who has paid attention to these phenomena, Konstantin Petrenko, writing for Religion Dispatches, does so in order to dismiss them [see “Godless America? Say Hello to the ‘Apatheists’,” March 19, 2009]. He stresses the discrepancy between those embracing the “atheist” or “agnostic” label and those who describe themselves as not believing in God. “It appears that most of the unaffiliated individuals are not atheistic or anti-religious in any activist sense, but are rather apathetic toward organized religion and reluctant to join any particular denomination or sect.”

True enough, but the same can be said of most religious believers. This is no reason to downplay the fact that so many have clearly fallen away from religion—that is, they live their lives without any sort of God. Nor can we ignore ARIS’s statement that the six percent of Americans who refuse to answer the question about their beliefs “tend to somewhat resemble ‘Nones’ in their social profile and beliefs.” Which means, according to ARIS’s most striking conclusion: “The U.S. population continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one in five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity in 2008.”

Furthermore, among those who do, over 12% of the total sample describe their belief in ways that ARIS concludes are “deistic (a higher power but no personal God).” One in eight American believers are as religious as… Thomas Paine. Those who continue to believe in a traditional Jewish, Christian, or Muslim personal god have dropped to under seventy percent of the American population. Despite all efforts to ignore or minimize this, it is big news.

Moments of Prayer into Moments of Silence

And the discrepancy between those willing to be public and open about their religious disbelief and those who are not is also big news. Among nonbelievers, judging from my discussions with hundreds of them over the past several months, many are not “new atheists” (militantly doing battle with religion) but are, in Peter Steinfels’ terminology, “new new atheists.” These people are not primarily concerned with arguing against the belief in God, but are trying to find ways of coexisting in a society in which both nonbelievers and believers can expect to be around for a long time to come. They shy away from labels as they seek their own bearings and their own comfort zone in today’s America.

Secularists welcomed President Obama’s shout-out to nonbelievers during his inaugural address, but are painfully aware that when launching his campaign he criticized them for trying to keep religion out of the public square, but not the religious right for its attempts to erase the line between church and state.

They worry, along with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, that Obama’s renewal of the Bush Faith-Based Initiative in the new Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships has not ruled out proselytizing and discriminatory hiring for religious social service programs that are granted Federal dollars. And they wince when recalling that he subjected himself to the informal religious test of being drilled like a catechism pupil by Rick Warren on his own particular way of believing in Jesus Christ (the same Rick Warren who announced that he would never vote for an atheist for president).

Above all, rather than combating religious belief at every turn, many nonbelievers would cheer if the President initiated a genuinely multicultural approach to both believers and secularists in today’s America. This might entail, as was not done at the Democratic National Convention last August, inviting secularists as well as believers to platforms that normally exclude the irreligious (i.e. the “values and unity” event preceding the Convention that was exclusively for religious believers). It might entail as much political attention being paid to nonbelievers as believers at public events—transforming moments of prayer into moments of silence. In other words, it would mean abandoning the implicit assumption of so much of American public and private life that religious values, norms and practices apply to everyone—and show respect to American’s enormous nonreligious minority.