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There Are More Atheists Out There Than You Think

A recent study suggested that the common figure for atheism in America — about one in ten — is likely an underestimate. Operating on the theory that there are many atheists "in the closet," the study tried to sneak in questions about belief in God that would reveal those hesitant to identify as atheists. A Barna Group researcher confirmed that atheism is likely underreported, but not exactly in this way.

"If, by atheist, we mean a lack of belief in God or gods, then yes, there would be many more people who are atheistic than the small percentage who say they believe 'there is no such thing as God,'" Brooke Hempell, vice president of research at the Barna Group, told PJ Media.

Atheists may not be willing to identify themselves as such or to respond point blank that they do not believe in God, University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle suggested. "There's a lot of atheists in the closet," Gervais told Vox. He argued that "if they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance."

Data for disbelief in God prove quite hazy. The Pew Research Center found that around 3 percent of Americans say they are atheists, but around 9 percent say they do not believe in God or in a universal spirit. When Gallup asked the question bluntly — "Do you believe in God?" — in 2016, it found 10 percent of respondents said no.

But there is a stigma against atheism, or so Gervais and Najle suggested. Even atheists tend to believe that people who do not believe in God are less moral. "We'll give participants a little vignette, a story about someone doing something immoral, and probe their intuition about who they think the perpetrator was," Gervais told Vox. "And time and time again, people intuitively assume whoever is out there doing immoral stuff doesn't believe in God."

Due to this stigma, "we shouldn't expect people to give a stranger over the phone an honest answer to that question," Gervais added.

The University of Kentucky psychologists have submitted their results to the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. In their study, Gervais and Najle polled two separate groups of 1,000 Americans each.

The researchers asked the first group to identify how many statements like "I am a vegetarian" or "I own a dog" or "I have a dishwasher in my kitchen" were true for them. Respondents merely wrote down the number of statements that fit them.

For the second group, the researchers included the statement "I believe in God."

By comparing the responses between the two groups, Gervais and Najle estimated how many people did not believe in God. Their study assumed that the two groups of 1,000 had roughly the same number of vegetarians, dog owners, and so forth. Therefore, the difference in the numbers of statements applying to each group would reflect the number of atheists.