Gregory Paul on the rise of nonbelief in the U.S.: it’s happening faster than you think

June 3, 2019 • 9:15 am

This article by Gregory Paul in the new journal Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism (click on screenshot for pdf) argues, based on polling data, that the proportion of Americans who are atheists is rising by 5-10% a decade, leading to the conclusion that within a century America will comprise mainly nonbelievers. (Note that the essay is not written very well and has a lot of typos; it may be a draft.)

Of course we know about the rise of “nones”: Americans not formally affiliated with a church A 2015 Pew poll estimated that American “nones” rose from 16% to 23% in only 7 years—between 2007 and 2014. Pew notes that in their survey, “nones” comprised “people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is nothing in particular’”.  While many of these might still believe in a higher power or a deity, I count these, as does Paul, as nonbelievers. The Pew link also shows that the proportion who say their religion is “nothing in particular” among all nones is also declining while atheists and agnostics within that category are increasing.

Those data are in line with Paul’s thesis that nonbelief increases 10% per decade, which he bases on several surveys.

What, unfortunately, did not catch the public’s eye the same year was the more remarkable result from the lesser known RedC’s “Global Index of Religion and Atheism” (http://www.scribd.com/document/136318147/Win-gallup-International-Global-Index-of-Religiosity-and-Atheism-2012). They recorded that Americans who deemed themselves religious nosedived from 73% in 2005 to 60% in 2012 – ouch for the churches.

That result was not a statistical oddity, as verified by another event little noticed even in the atheist community, next year the Harris survey released next “Americans’ Belief in God, Miracles and Heaven Declines: Belief in Darwin’s Theory Rises” (http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/mid/1508/ArticleId/1353/Default.aspx). It measured a consistent rise in four pollings from 2007 to 2013 who did not consider themselves very or somewhat religious from 31 to 42%. Three World Value Survey results track the nons rising from a fifth to a third in a little over a decade.

So three surveys showed an extraordinary tenth of the total population losing their religion in just ten years in the nation that was supposed to never lose its religion.

Furthermore, a 2015 Pew report (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape) again observed a rise of the unaffiliated at a decadal rate of about a tenth of Americans, to nearly a quarter of the population.

In 2016 the Public Religion Research Institute (https://www.prri.org/research/prri-rns-poll-nones-atheist-leaving-religion) produced nearly the same result. And this year, ABCNews/Washington Post (https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/protestants-decline-religion-sharply-shifting-religious-landscape-poll/story?id=54995663) measured a one in ten rise in those who lack religion in about a decade and a half. Starting in 2015 the annual Latter Day Saint based American Family Survey is tracking a one or more percent rise in nones each year, and finds that only 43% of Americans consider being religious a core part of their identity (http://religionnews.com/2018/12/10/religion-declining-in-importance-for-many-americans-especially-for-millennials) – in view of such stats continuing to label America a religious nation rings increasingly hollow; although it remains more theistic than most or all other advanced democracies.

So we have seven polling organizations agreeing that freethinking Americans who are not interested in religion or theism are currently going up by around one out of ten of residents in about a decade. That gross value is not, therefore, a statistical fluke limited to one or even two samples. One way or another it is real pattern. The next question is what is actually happening.

Paul considers several alternatives, including that the pattern isn’t real, but in fact it’s more likely that the increase in nonbelief is even more rapid than the surveys show, as people are loath to assert that they’re nonbelievers.  Along with this comes an increase in those who reject creationism and theistic evolution, accepting purely naturalistic evolution. Paul suggests, as I have, that efforts to convert those who reject evolution into those who accept it are not very effective, and it’s better simply to wait for the inevitable rise in secularism that will bring an equally inevitable rise in acceptance of evolution. That’s because once you give up your faith, the main impediment to rejecting evolution—religious belief—is gone.

Why is this happening? Secularism has almost gone to completion in parts of Europe, including Scandinavia and Iceland, and is proceeding apace here. It seems to be a trend in all Western countries save, perhaps, parts of South America. Here are some reasons Paul suggests (I’ve paraphrased them and added my take).

  • The rise of science, which makes supernatural explanations untenable or hard to believe.
  • An increase in people reading the Bible, which, if you read that book rationally, is a great eraser of faith. But Paul gives no evidence that Bible-reading is on the rise.
  • The development of middle-class prosperity via industrialization and capitalization. Paul, oddly enough, sees this effect as drawing people away from church attendance and into open-on-Sunday chains like Walmart.  I think that while the connection between rising well-being and rising secularism (adumbrated a while back by Marx) is real, it’s more likely to happen through the elimination of a need for the supernatural when you have money, healthcare, and other perquisites that reduce your need to accept a god.
  • A self-perpetuating system whereby atheists bring up their children as nonbelievers. That itself wouldn’t increase the proportion of nonbelievers in the U.S. unless we’re outbreeding the faithful, but there may be a ratchet effect whereby the more atheists there are, the more become public, encouraging others to either become nonbelievers or to confess their nonbelief. This, to Paul, is the key to making America a secular nation.

As for what we can do to increase rationality and reduce dependence on religion, Paul suggests this:

Because the rise of proevolution atheism is a largely automatic, casual lifestyle conversion in response to subtle but powerful socioeconomic forces usually done without deep thought, it will remain true that neither side can do much to alter the course of events one way or another.

In view of that future probability, it is advisable that the emphasis of the activist atheist-secular movement (as small as it is and will be) should shift to a substantial but not total degree. The main focus need not to be to promote conversion to rationalism for the simple sake of increasing the number of the nonsupernaturalists, seeing as how modernity is already doing that job about as fast as can be done. Actively convincing those in one tribal worldview to switch to another is very difficult and will produce modest results. Secularists are often criticized for living in their own bubble and not paying sufficient, respectful attention to, and reaching out to, the white heartlander theocons. I personally know a fair number of such people via familial relationships, and believe me they are noncurious folk who care little if at all about the research, opinions or hopes of the intellectual, scientists, or anyone else outside the confines of their bubble which is much tighter than ours. Nor is debating whether aggressive or nonconfrontational tactics are best important because many techniques work depending on the circumstances – let a Darwinian freedom of means of presentation reign. The primary effort should move more towards further changing the political culture, both at the national level, and within the atheist portion.

Regarding the national scene, atheism needs to come out into the open to maximize its societal influence. That in turn requires individuals to come out of the atheocloset enmass. They way to do that is to make atheism increasingly less culturally out of the norm until it is a norm, by boosting comfort and indeed pride in not being a supernaturalist – after all, there should be nothing wrong with thinking and coming to conclusions scientifically, it’s those who delve into irrational speculations about mysterious powers who have issues. All the more so because the best off societies are never highly religious.

Well, yes, we should be doing that, but I think we should be doing a number of things, including teaching evolution and criticizing religion. After all, Richard Dawkins and the other “horsepersons”, through both of those activities, have had an enormous influence in converting people away from faith and towards science. Of course, they do this by coming out publicly as loud and proud atheists, but just saying “I’m a nonbeliever” is, I think, far less powerful than making that statement by arguing why evolution is true and why religion is a crutch made of gossamer.

Atheism as a public movement is waning: I notice far fewer atheist conferences these days. But I think that’s fine. The heavy lifting is done, and the rest—the rise in secularism—is inevitable, for it comes with the rise in well being that Pinker writes so much about. All we should do, as Paul suggests, is to not be hidden about our nonbelief.

 

 

33 thoughts on “Gregory Paul on the rise of nonbelief in the U.S.: it’s happening faster than you think

  1. ‘An increase in people reading the Bible, which, if you read that book rationally, is a great eraser of faith. But Paul gives no evidence that Bible-reading is on the rise.’

    Do US high schools teach such courses? It is an important book from a historical point of view.

    1. I don’t think it’s necessary to read the Bible in order to become an atheist, that’s only helpful for those who have been indoctrinated with Christian fundamentalist views. I love to read, that is my pastime, but I have not read the bible, it’s too boring.

      1. It’s probably particularly unimportant to read the Bible in order to become an atheist if your “originating religion” is non-Christian. For example, if you’re under the age of about 8.

        Given the Bible’s levels of sex, violence, bigotry and mass murder, shouldn’t it have a “PG-13” rating, or whatever the rating system for snuff-porn is in [insert name of country].

  2. I would add the rise of religious extremism to the list of possible causes of the rise of the nones.

    Islamist and Christian fundamentalism and their link to terrorism, and the RC Church cover-up of child rape and abuse, have been pretty compelling reasons to question all religious authority.

    1. Yes, and I’m sure people are looking on with dismay at how the Evangelicals regard Trump as the second coming of king Cyrus or anointed by god. The Liar in Chief, Pornstar President being propped up by the religious right is the height of hypocrisy, and I know a lot of people see through this and are repelled by it.

      1. Disbelief in gods isn’t a “worldview” – unless your disbelief in leprechauns is also a “worldview.”

        “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

        -Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)

      2. Disbelief in gods isn’t a “worldview” – unless your disbelief in leprechauns is also a “worldview.”

        “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”

        -Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (2006)

          1. Disbelief in gods isn’t “an informed choice.”

            The opposite is true – BELIEF in gods is a “(mis)informed choice.”

            Once it’s understood that gods are imaginary, the choice made to believe in them is rejected, and the natural state of disbelief in them is resumed. Just as it is with children and Santa Claus.

  3. “Of course we know about the rise of “nones”: Americans not formally affiliated with a church A 2015 Pew poll estimated that American “nones” rose from 16% to 23% in only 7 years—between 2007 and 2014. Pew notes that in their survey, “nones” comprised “people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is nothing in particular’”. While many of these might still believe in a higher power or a deity, I count these, as does Paul, as nonbelievers.”

    Many of the polls include a specific question that removes any ambiguity, e.g. https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org/variables/1076/vshow
    That small-sample (N=2348) 2018 poll shows about 4.6% atheists with about a +/- 1.5% margin of error at the 95% confidence level.
    The 2007 and 2014 Pew polls showed 1.6% and 3.1% atheists with a smaller margin of error due to larger sample size (as discussed in Appendix C of the report: https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/appendix-c-putting-findings-from-the-religious-landscape-study-into-context/). The more recent 2018 CCES large-sample (n~53000) poll shows about 6.8% atheists.
    Note that Pew Research also examined “new-age” beliefs (https://www.pewforum.org/2018/08/29/the-religious-typology/), finding that 22% of self-declared atheist believed in at least one form of woo, such as healing power of “crystals”, astology, “psychics”, or reincarnation. That leaves about 2.4% of the population (i.e. 78% of the 3.1% who are atheists) as possible naturalists.

    I strongly suspect (from having looked at the GSS and CCES response data, which are publicly available), that a great many of the so-called “nones” fall into a few categories:
    1. those who are simply clueless about their own religion and its history, e.g. the ones who wrote in “why isn’t Christianity listed” (the survey options include Roman and Orthodox Catholicism as well as generic Protestant and specific Protestant sects).
    2. those who believe in “new-age” or revivalist (often not church-based) religions, such as Wicca and Norse Pagan religions.
    3. genuinely unaffiliated believers, sometimes called “Sheilaists” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheilaism)

    The most effective means of countering religion and other forms of superstition is to teach critical thinking (http://www.criticalthinking.org//). I was recently reading another blog that mentioned this (https://www.atheistrev.com/2019/06/religion-as-human-need.html), specifically stating “Spend any time at U.S. colleges and universities, and you will find that the majority of first-year students have not yet learned these skills.” I’d be interested to hear our benevolent host’s take on that.

    Learning critical thinking isn’t difficult; Schick and Vaughn’s “How to Think About Weird Things” (https://www.amazon.com/How-Think-About-Weird-Things/dp/0078038367) is an easy read, and has been in print for decades.

  4. I do not doubt the studies but I do wonder where they are taking them. If you live in the really big cities or on the coasts these changes may be correct. However, I do not live there and do not see this decline nearly so much. I lived in small town Iowa for several years and in larger city Wichita, Kansas and religion does not seem to diminish much over the years. I do not see vacant churches, I see more and bigger ones. These big ones are jammed packed on Sunday and the parking lots are full. That is as close as I get to them but just saying, this needs to looked at by region. As I mentioned before, the religious schools in Wichita handles more than 10 thousand of the kids here verses 50 thousand in the public school system.

  5. “They way to do that is to make atheism increasingly less culturally out of the norm until it is a norm, by boosting comfort and indeed pride in not being a supernaturalist”

    How about comfort in being a naturalist? That is, put a positive spin on non-belief by offering naturalism as an evidence-based, non-supernatural worldview. Not everyone needs or wants a worldview, but for those who do naturalism (nothing new, of course, but often unnamed) is a possible next step beyond mere atheism.

  6. Though the article was published well over a year ago, the devious, parasitic folks at the Templeton funded Understanding Unbelief group* at the University of Kent must be feeling the heat of the rising secularism because they’re out with another tendentious report being touted in the press, including New Scientist and The Times of London (both behind paywalls but here’s one that isn’t https://www.medicaldaily.com/vatican-hosts-atheism-conference-understand-universe-meaningless-435681), putting forward the thesis that despite trusting science, most atheists are really believers supernatural and/or spiritual phenomena.

    The Understanding Unbelief program is “a major research programme aiming to advance the scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of so-called ‘unbelief’ around the world.” results of this study were presented at a conference sponsored by the University of Kent and the Vatican. Can there actually be a “scientific understanding of atheism”?

    The results of the UU study aren’t necessarily false, and atheism means different things to different people. However, the study was conceived and carried out not to gain a “scientific understanding…” whatever that might be, but expressly, if deceptively, in order to undermine atheism. I’d like to see how they conducted the study, what the questions were and how they were asked; certainly, from what I can read, the the evidence presented to the public is unquestionably biased against atheism contextually.

    *PCC(E) posted about this group a few years ago, when they got the Templeton money https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/templeton-grants-nearly-3-million-to-study-why-people-are-atheists/. Additional posts can be found using the search box.

    Their website states that the group is scheduled to disband this year, but surely another will supplant it.

  7. An Easter time e mail from the British Columbia Humanist association informed that only 3% of BCers attended church regularly and 2/3 never attend.

    1. Could you get some of these folks to move to Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana. I am pretty sure the anti-abortion people are very much religious and they seem to control these states at the present time. Just put a few of them on our Supreme Court would help a lot.

  8. Beat me to it! I too would like to know much more about the methodology of this study, particularly how they selected the subjects and exactly what the questions were. The reports are unbelievably patronising: they graciously accept that atheists might actually have a real sense of morality, despite not being believers! Who would have thought it?

    The U of Kent have a reputation for being soft and uncritical about religion. This study may burnish their image among the faithheads but it won’t cut much ice with the rest of us. Especially given that they’ve got into bed with the Vatican.

  9. I think the internet might have something to do with the rise of non-belief.

    It’s not youtube edutainment, but the overall “climate” online, which in the english speaking world is largely shaped by people from the US coasts, and by people from non-religious countries or from countries where religion has been “tamed”.

    Religious Americans are not surrounded by their usual pious peers, and those who are moderately religious are probably more likely exposed to atheists.

    I don’t know this, though, it’s merely a reasonable guess.

    1. However, at the same time, I attribute the rise in doofus beliefs (astrology, homeopathy,supernatural manifestations), ignorance and impatience with rational thought, moral and epistemic relativism (as in find ‘your’ truth), etc., to the Internet.

      I think both trends somehow coexist, but I don’t know the how of somehow.

  10. “Atheism as a public movement is waning: I notice far fewer atheist conferences these days.”

    I wonder how much the political climate in the U.S. and UK is affecting this?

    Hypothesis: Religious belief is no longer as important or urgent a matter to sceptics as antiscientific political ideologies. Thus, the energy that was put into atheist conferences is better directed into political activism.

    🐜

  11. Thanks to JC for helping getting this analysis out to the community. The below comments are meant to clarify and high light some matters.

    In my essay I take the opportunity to emphasize something that goes oddly under appreciated. That the profit obsessed, materialism promoting capitalism that the American religious right likes to believe is the alleged creator’s preferred expression of human economics is in real world reality an obvious leading contributor to the very implosion of popular religion that same said theocons decry. JC indicates that another effect of industrial capitalism, the unprecedented level of secure prosperity it provides to middle and upper class populations, is at least as important when it comes to suppressing mass piety. I agree, that being a core argument in my work including at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/147470490900700305 and http://www.gspauldino.com/Healthofnations.pdf. But that the religious right that owned the culture a century ago and has since been reduced to a societal minority in a sea of is cultural modernity, is ironically having the long term demographic stuffing beat out of it by its politically convenient allies of capital should be a normal matter of the national discourse.

    Note that I do not contend that Bible reading is on the rise – I cannot find a long term survey on the subject and doubt it is – but it is true that lots of atheists used to be Judeo-Christians until they got around to reading the damn thing and were aghast to discover how internally contradictory, gravely immoral, and just plain boring much of it is. It’s a common factor that atheists cite for their loss of theism at atheist get-togethers.

    Atheoparents raising atheokids who beget more atheists does not require that nontheists outbreed the theists. It can be in part based on superior rates of conversion in which an increasing proportion of the reproducing population is atheistic either because they were raised that way or became that way on their own, which results in yet more faith free kids who produce more of the same.

    JC says that atheists should do more than just come out of the closet as I propose, and forcefully advocate for nonsupernaturalism. I completely agree. Remember how many were wringing their hands when the hardline atheist best sellers came out in the wake of 9/11 in fear that being so openly hardcore would scare off folks from going atheist? Instead the rise of nontheism accelerated and shows no signs of stopping. What is needed is a shotgun approach in which different people do different things in the expectation that an array of approaches will produce the widest results. It’s been working for decades so let’s keep it up. Not that it matters that much. As JC notes Ameroatheism has moved beyond being a small scale advocacy movement to a mass scale demographic trend that is out of control of anyone.

    In the comments Lambert makes the common claim that the negative aspects of religious extremism are contributing to the overall decline of theism. While that seems to make sense, one needs to be careful about the thesis. There is instead a solid positive correlation between the presence of a large religious right and more theism in nations, which is not surprising in that if a big chunk of a nation are fundamentalists then the population is going to be significantly religious. And consider that theism collapsed most quickly and the farthest in democracies with small religious rights. It is popular to blame the theocons for the decline of theism because liberals and centrists theist and non don’t like them and enjoy going after the theocons, but that is opinion rather than statistics.

    I am going to strongly disagree with the comment that “Returning to atheism isn’t just going back to that naïve state. It would be an informed choice of worldview rather than simple unawareness of religion.” Atheism is merely the absence of theism, and it does not matter how or why one is an atheist. These days hundreds of millions are wandering about who are casual atheists who give little thought to the matter. Ardent atheists who like us think a lot about it are likely to be a distinct minority of the athoecohort.

    The specific survey results concerning those who acknowledge being atheists cited by Lilly are problematic because, as detailed in my analysis, many Americans are reluctant to admit their irreligion, and also because many people think being an atheist requires being ardently against theism, when all it requires is merely not being a theist.

    Schneck questions whether irreligion is making gains out in the boonies. The answer is often yes, as noted in an NPR story on how many withering rural churches are having to pool resources including ministers https://www.npr.org/2019/05/30/728198760/with-attendance-down-rural-churches-pool-resources-to-keep-doors-open. One of the reasons nonreligion is expanding so fast is because it is no longer limited to the urban coastal elites, it being a growing phenomenon of the white working class, and even blacks which have long been a bastion of Christianity. This does not mean that theosupernaturalism is all of a sudden vanishing into thin air and at the same pace everywhere, but it is has become a major part of the American scene that is freaking out ardent theists across this land.

    As for my writing some like my quirky style, others not so much.

    1. Note that GSS and Pew surveys include questions that do not entail specifically embracing the “atheist” label; indeed, those other questions serve to better distinguish atheists, agnostic fence-sitters, Sheliaist theists, and those theists that are affiliated with some sect. I provided a link to the GSS “confidence in the existence of god” question (q.v.); Pew’s Religious Typology survey supplemented the belief question with several others pertaining to matters such as church attendance, impact of religion, etc., however the Pew questions are marred by use of undefined nebulous terms such as “higher power”. The CCES survey questions include participation in rituals (church attendance and prayer) and self-identification (including attempts to narrow to sects), but not belief per se.

      1. Postscript: the GSS also uses “Higher Power” (unnecessarily capitalized that way).

        If one takes the Pew Typology survey response “Don’t believe in any higher power” as indicative of atheists, that provides an estimate that 10% +/-2.3% of the U.S. population may be atheists (questions and responses are broken down in Appendix A of the report; Appendix B discusses sample size (4729 respondents) and methodology). Otherwise, the CCES data provides the highest estimate at 6.8% based on self-identification.

    1. Damn it… as i was typing…. respect to religion, the position it demanded of us. I liken it also to doctors in my boyhood they were like authority figures in our community, not any more when we learnt they were as fallible as the factory floor worker. They make mistakes and it was what they were like as caring humans that mattered not the status.

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