[Link] One in five American adults say they are atheist, agnostic or "nothing in particular"

post by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2012-10-10T23:45:17.260Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 35 comments

A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life [executive summaryfull reportNew York Times cover story] found that 19.6% of adult Americans answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”  In 2007, the figure was 15.3%; in 1972, it was about 7%.

Long-Term Trends in Religious Affiliation

Some relevant quotes from the executive summary:

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones. A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

[T]he percentage of Americans who say they never doubt the existence of God has fallen modestly but noticeably over the past 25 years. In 1987, 88% of adults said they never doubt the existence of God. As of 2012, this figure was down 8 percentage points to 80%.

The growth of the unaffiliated has taken place across a wide variety of demographic groups. The percentage of unaffiliated respondents has ticked up among men and women, college graduates and those without a college degree, people earning $75,000 or more and those making less than $30,000 annually, and residents of all major regions of the country.

When it comes to race, however, the recent change has been concentrated in one group: whites. One-fifth of (non-Hispanic) whites now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, up five percentage points since 2007. By contrast, the share of blacks and Hispanics who are religiously unaffiliated has not changed by a statistically significant margin in recent years.

[T]he ranks of the unaffiliated [are not] predominantly composed of practitioners of New Age spirituality or alternative forms of religion. Generally speaking, the unaffiliated are no more likely than members of the public as a whole to have such beliefs and practices.  

For example, roughly three-in-ten religiously unaffiliated adults say they believe in spiritual energy in physical objects and in yoga as a spiritual practice. About a quarter believe in astrology and reincarnation. In addition, nearly six-in-ten of the religiously unaffiliated say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth; about three-in-ten say they have felt in touch with someone who is dead; and 15% have consulted a psychic. All of these figures closely resemble the survey’s findings among the public as a whole.

On the other hand, the religiously unaffiliated are less inclined than Americans overall to say they often think about the meaning and purpose of life (53% vs. 67%). They also attach much less importance to belonging to a community of people with shared values and beliefs; 28% of the unaffiliated say this is very important to them, compared with 49% of all adults.


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comment by Exiles · 2012-10-11T00:00:24.379Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do not attempt to transform Less Wrong into r/atheism. Just do not even try.

Replies from: Pablo_Stafforini, palladias, RobertLumley, Zaine
comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2012-10-11T00:05:11.878Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the feedback. I wondered whether I should post a link to the Pew study. I decided in favor of it because I assumed that news about changes in religious belief over time would be of interest to rationalists, but if others agree that articles of this sort do not belong here I'd be happy to remove it. Thanks again.

Replies from: KPier
comment by KPier · 2012-10-11T02:04:49.915Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think there's anything wrong with the topic, if it comes with a little bit of discussion along the lines of palladius's comment below, or along the lines of "What evidence would convince us that the sanity waterline is actually rising, as opposed to just more people being raised non-religious?"

It would be very interesting to see this study in the context of trendlines for other popular sanity-correlated topics, such as belief in evolution, disbelief in ghosts, non-identification with a political party, knowledge about GMOs, etcetera, even though there are lots and lots of confounding variables.

One alone, though, without commentary about rationality, probably does not belong on LessWrong.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-12T00:20:57.132Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Indeed. At least where I am, ISTM that the main factor in determining whether one is a theist is where and when their parents grew up. (And I suspect that once you control for that, the oft-mentioned correlation between atheism and high IQ would be much weaker.) And the fact that theists are more likely to be anthropogenic global warming sceptics is likely mediated by political affiliations --right-wingers are more likely both to be theists and to be AGW sceptics-- and maybe it would disappear once you control for position on the Political Compass.

comment by palladias · 2012-10-11T01:20:03.422Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think this topic is a mindkiller. Atheism isn't a guarantor of good reasoning, especially as the number of atheists grow, and you end up with more people raised atheist who haven't necessarily had experience with actually changing their mind. The demographic expansion points to the weakening power of atheism to signal the correct contrarian circle.

comment by RobertLumley · 2012-10-11T06:34:37.612Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If we're going to become a subreddit, can we become r/nongolfers?

comment by Zaine · 2012-10-11T01:27:14.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't America also more religious than other developed countries across the world? Regardless, a comparison would be welcome, if the article were posted at all.

comment by advancedatheist · 2012-10-11T14:43:42.708Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The evidence from the social sciences suggests that people hold religious beliefs as superficial opinions which help them to manage anxiety. When they grow up in safe living conditions, they lose interest in religion, even in liberal societies where people can freely practice whatever religion they want consistent with public order. Psychologist Nigel Barber discusses this phenomenon in his ebook, Why Atheism Will Replace Religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky:


Barber's blog on the website of Psychology Today:


comment by DanArmak · 2012-10-11T18:11:24.963Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yay affiliation signalling?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-10-11T01:37:34.662Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm faintly surprised that Protestantism seems to be where all the new unaffiliated people are coming from. Few or no Catholics are leaving?

Replies from: buybuydandavis, None, prase, Douglas_Knight, fortyeridania
comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-10-11T02:11:00.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think one of the older studies delved into the demographics of individuals switching between faiths in detail.

Some of what you're seeing instead is that the youngest cohort is the least protestant, while the oldest is the most. Project that out 5 years with new young people and a loss of older people, and just constant percentages in each cohort makes a dent, though I'd guess that there must be some switching as well, for such a large jump in the whole population.

Catholic membership across cohorts is relatively constant, so it doesn't show that effect, but white catholics are disappearing, while hispanic catholics grow to keep the overall numbers constant. So white catholics are likely leaving too.

Replies from: Unnamed
comment by Unnamed · 2012-10-11T03:14:10.397Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is correct. Here is an article based on that earlier survey which includes a cool chart of faith switching. A plurality of "nones" were previously Catholic.

Replies from: BlazeOrangeDeer, buybuydandavis
comment by BlazeOrangeDeer · 2012-10-13T03:51:13.268Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've heard before that if you count denominations, catholics have the most and former catholics are more numerous than any other individual religious organization.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-10-11T03:32:40.575Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


That article contains more good links from Pew.

The 2007 Religious Survey, with interactive analysis. http://religions.pewforum.org/

Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. http://www.pewforum.org/newassets/images/reports/flux/fullreport.pdf

I like it. I had just tracked down the previous Millenial analysis the other day, and now I've got all the links for the recent info in one place.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-13T12:27:35.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At least judging from my model of American Protestants (which is mainly based on stereotypes, and hence likely to be inaccurate), Catholics say more reasonable things than Protestants (e.g. few Catholics deny evolution anymore), so the amount of compartmentalisation needed to stay a Catholic while supporting the mainstays of modern science is smaller than that needed to stay a Protestant.

Replies from: MileyCyrus, None
comment by MileyCyrus · 2012-10-13T12:59:48.965Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

e.g. few Catholics deny evolution anymore

When I went to Catholic primary and middle school, I was taught evolution. It wasn't until I went to a liberal secular university that I was taught evolution denialism.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-13T14:17:56.550Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It wasn't until I went to a liberal secular university that I was taught evolution denialism.

Taught evolution denialism? (Rather than taught about evolution denialism?) o.O

Replies from: MileyCyrus
comment by MileyCyrus · 2012-10-13T15:07:10.246Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My Sociology and English courses were barrages of political correctness where evolution was not tolerated. If you thought that sexual desire was a reproductive adaption, or that certain immoral behaviors might have been been advantageous in prehistoric times, or that sexual selection is instinctual and systematic, then you were oppressing the professor.

My Women's Studies course was good though. And I met some pretty cool professors at the feminist events I went to. It was only the English and Sociology departments that turned social justice into a caricature.

Replies from: fubarobfusco
comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-10-13T15:51:53.595Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you distinguish between the claims "X is not an evolutionary adaptation" and "Evolution does not happen"?

Replies from: MileyCyrus
comment by MileyCyrus · 2012-10-13T16:10:04.640Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure, but if you believe that "X is not an evolutionary adaptation" for too many X's, you don't believe in evolution. My Sociology and English professors in something they called "evolution", but a scientist would not call the thing that they believed in "evolution." And the thing that scientists call "evolution" my professors didn't believe in.

Replies from: fubarobfusco, None
comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-10-13T17:55:15.010Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hmm ... it seems likely to me that many non-biologists' "belief in evolution" amounts to signaling membership in one social group and opposition to another. (But then, the same occurs to me regarding Eliezer's recent remarks about "postmodernism" ...)

If you don't use evolutionary theory, then what does it profit you to have accurate beliefs about it? And further, many folks' "belief in evolution" comes with a heaping spoonful of naturalistic fallacy — if my sexual behavior evolved that way, then I can't be faulted for it. (I notice you touch on this in passing above in the remark about "certain immoral behaviors".)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-14T09:23:50.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

if you believe that "X is not an evolutionary adaptation" for too many X's, you don't believe in evolution

I don't think that follows. First, the last few hundred thousand years are a tiny part of the evolutionary history of life, and second, you might believe that humans were selected for plasticity (e.g. by rapid climate changes) and so their behaviours nowadays are more due to nurture than to nature.

(But denying that “sexual desire was a reproductive adaption” does sound quite bad to me.)

Replies from: MileyCyrus
comment by MileyCyrus · 2012-10-14T16:07:02.278Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, definitely. You can make a scientifically respectable case for social justice -isms. But my professors in English and Sociology chose not to.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-10-25T18:32:51.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A recent post on Yvain's blog seems relevant.

comment by prase · 2012-10-11T17:43:05.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Or Catholics are becoming atheists and Protestants are converting to Catholicism. (Other possible explanations involving birth rates and immigration have been mentioned in other subcomments.)

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2012-10-11T02:07:16.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The percent of Catholics has been steady for the past 40 years, but the study says this is because they are replenished by hispanic immigrants. But the percent has been steady for the past 5 years as well, despite net zero hispanic (mexican?) immigration. I didn't notice if the study directly answered your question. Also, 1/3 of US hispanics are protestant, so that's one form of leaving Catholicism.

Also, much of the effect is people leaving the religion of their parents that they never identified as, so, as fortyeridania says, relative fertility is relevant. But I don't think there's much of that in the US these days.

comment by fortyeridania · 2012-10-11T02:03:26.026Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't looked at the study.

However, the graph presented by no means entails that Protestants are becoming atheists more than Catholics are. In fact, it could be that Catholics are significantly more likely to turn atheist than Protestants are.

Suppose Catholics have many more children than Protestants. If those Catholic children are more likely to eventualy become atheists than Protestants are, it could produce a graph such as the one shown--a flat line for Catholicism (which experiences strong positive and negative changes, from the kids and deconversions), and a rising line for atheism.

As for Protestantism, even if the decrease is explained totally by flights to atheism, the magnitude of Catholic apostasy could just outstrip that of Protestant apostasy. As long as Catholic fertility matches Catholic apostasy, the graph will not change.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz
comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-10-11T01:25:08.483Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's the online version: http://www.pewforum.org/Unaffiliated/nones-on-the-rise.aspx

Here's a link to the previous latest US religious demographics from PEW. Seemed more focused on age demographics, and has more detailed breakdowns within each age bracket. http://www.pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millennials.aspx

The increases for unaffiliated are most pronounced in the youngest, and most unaffiliated age bracket. See page 16. Younger millenials are up to 34% unaffiliated. It was 25% in 2007 for 18-29 yr olds.

Atheists up to 2.4% of the general population, which should put them past Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, per the numbers the new and previous report.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight, Pablo_Stafforini
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2012-10-11T01:57:38.851Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The increases for unaffiliated are most pronounced in the youngest

No, increase in unaffiliated is the same 3 points for older millenials, gen X, and boomers, with no change in older people. It is much less pronounced in any cohort than in the population as a whole. Younger millenials are not "up to 34%," but have only been measured once, at 34%.

Over the past 5 years, half of the effect is due to "young" people, including boomers, becoming less affiliated, but the other half is a cohort effect as old people dying off and are replaced by young people with a much lower rate of affiliation.

Replies from: buybuydandavis
comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-10-11T02:19:06.163Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, the youngest cohort in each study are different cohorts, and I was comparing those two different cohorts.

But thanks for bringing to my attention the 2007-2012 cohorts graph.

Replies from: Douglas_Knight
comment by Douglas_Knight · 2012-10-11T02:51:08.263Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The graph on the page you mentioned?

Replies from: buybuydandavis
comment by buybuydandavis · 2012-10-11T03:22:17.742Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Recent Trends in Affiliation, by Generation, pg. 16. contains the 2007-2012 cohorts graph.

That's a five year update to the first graph in the previous report I cited (Graph: Young People Less Religiously Affiliated). The fact that it is only a 5 year cohort is somewhat hiding how fast the numbers are changing at the low end.

Also, this new graph is the first to show a change within each cohort, and in only 5 years. The previous report showed that the percentage had generally stayed constant across decades for each cohort.

The times, they are a changing.

comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2012-10-11T01:30:11.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The original post already included a link to the online study ("executive summary"), but thanks anyway.