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.
Respondents did not have to directly say, “I am a vegetarian,” or “I am an atheist,” so the researchers theorized that this removed any embarrassment or hesitance to admit to each statement.
Using this study, Gervais estimated that around 26 percent of Americans do not believe in God. “According to our samples, about 1 in 3 atheists in our country don’t feel comfortable disclosing their lack of belief,” Najle told Vox.
But the study has many flaws. The margin of error is approximately 9 percent. The study required an assumption that the two groups of 1,000 were equally representative of a host of variations, such as vegetarians, dog owners, and dishwasher owners. While the researchers repeated the study and found similar results, that does not prove the underlying assertion.
“I would be very reluctant to conclude that phone surveys like ours are underestimating the share [of] the public who are atheists to that kind of magnitude,” Gregory Smith, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, told Vox. He said he asked questions on religion on both the phone and online, and did not see much of a difference.
Worse, Gervais’s data has a serious problem. In one of the trials, instead of adding the “I don’t believe in God” statement, the survey added this phrase, “I do not believe that 2 + 2 is less than 13.” A full 34 percent of respondents agreed.
“It may reflect any combination of genuine innumeracy [lack of math knowledge], incomprehension of an oddly phrased item, participant inattentiveness or jesting, sampling error, or a genuine flaw in the … technique,” Gervais and Najle wrote. The researchers still believed their results were accurate, however.
Even if most surveys are underestimating atheism, that could mean a lot of different things.
Vox pointed to Pew data showing that 63 percent of Americans said they were “absolutely certain” of their belief in God, while 20 percent were “fairly certain,” and 5 percent described themselves as “not too at all certain.” A full 9 percent said they do not believe in God, and 2 percent said they do not know if they believe in God.
Indeed, belief in God is not a binary. As Smith told Vox, “there are gradations of belief.”
Hempell, of the Barna Research Group, highlighted data showing just how diverse Americans’ beliefs about God truly are.
According to a nationally representative survey of 1,021 adults in late January of this year, 52 percent of Americans agreed that “God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator of the universe who rules the world today.” Only 5 percent of Americans said, “There is no such thing as God.”
But a surprisingly large number of Americans agreed to a range of statements in between. Four percent said, “There are many gods, each with different power and authority,” while 6 percent said, “Everyone is god.” Five percent said, “God refers to the total realization of personal, human potential,” and 8 percent said, “God represents a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach.”
Agnostics made up a full fifth (20 percent) of Americans, saying, “No one can know if God truly exists.”
“These are counter to an orthodox view and represent a disbelief in the God of the Bible, which may be interpreted by some as a form of atheism,” Hempell told PJ Media.
Interestingly, she added that “even among self-identified Christians who would not consider themselves ‘born again,’ 16% express an agnostic view, and 1% an atheist view.”
Hempell explained that Barna has been tracking religious belief questions like this for three decades and has seen a rise in atheism and agnosticism, “but more substantially, ‘no faith.'” But she did add that people are “slightly more likely to give a ‘socially acceptable’ answer to an interviewer (usually 2 – 4% higher agreement with Christian belief statements),” so Barna increasingly conducts surveys online, “where anonymity produces more candid results.”
Whether or not most surveys underestimate the number of atheists in America, believers in the United States are both more religiously diverse and less committed to traditional beliefs. Is someone who says “everyone is god,” or that God is a “higher state of consciousness” an atheist or something else? Americans are leaving organized religion, but Christians are also undergoing something of a revival.