Friday, March 13, 2009

Religious Identification Survey

There has been a lot of talk lately about an American Religious Identification Survey, by Trinity College, that recently published its results and, in particular, its data regarding the rise of atheism and agnosticism in America.

What these articles fail to clearly mention is the huge difference between having no religion and not believing in god.

And that difference is vast.

It took me longer then I would have imagined to find an article that actually linked to the survey itself, but after hearing reports that non believers now made up 15% of the American population I knew I had to see the results for myself.

And I’m glad I did because these people are very very wrong.

Here’s why, this first chart clearly shows that even though “None/No Religion” make up 15% only 1.6% of people specifically consider themselves as atheist or agnostic.

Click to make larger.

The rise of the Nones has been one of the most important trends on the American religious scene since 1990. The overall rate of growth of those expressing no religious preference slowed after 2001 but the numbers offering a specific self-identification as Agnostic or Atheist rose markedly from over a million in 1990 to about 2 million in 2001 to about 3.6 million today. The historic reluctance of Americans to self-identify in this manner or use these terms seems to have diminished.

This is still a huge improvement from 1999 when atheism and agnosticism weren’t even considered separate view points, but its nowhere near 15%.

The most interesting data in this survey though is its findings regarding belief in god (different from Religious Self-identification above).

A new belief question was introduced in 2008. Table 4 shows that when asked about the existence of God less than 70 percent of Americans now believe in the traditional theological concept of a personal God. This question was not asked in 1990 and 2001. A surprisingly large proportion of contemporary Americans, just over 12 percent, believe in a deist or paganistic concept of the Divine as a higher power.

Whereas Table 3 showed that only one percent of Americans actually self-identify as agnostics, Table 4 reveals that 10 percent hold agnostic beliefs (5.7% a "softer" form and 4.3% a "harder form" of agnosticism). These findings about the "belief" aspect of religiosity tend to complicate our interpretation of some of the trends and findings in the earlier tables relating to "belonging." If 76 percent of Americans self-identify with Christianity and 80 percent with a religion then many millions do not subscribe fully to the theology of the groups with which they identify.

The fact that less then 70% of Americans believe in the tradition god is astounding, but the fact I find especially interesting is the schism between the first chart, where only 1.6% consider themselves atheist of agnostic, and the second chart showing 6.6% of people are actually atheists/agnostics.

This clearly shows a problem in the way people are taught to look at atheism and agnosticism if people are unable to identify themselves as such, but philosophically hold those beliefs.

Overall I thought the entire survey was informative and interesting, but I have one issue with the above information claiming, “Table 4 reveals that 10 percent hold agnostic beliefs (5.7% a "softer" form and 4.3% a "harder form" of agnosticism.” I don’t agree with this at all.

Answering “I don’t know” when asked your belief regarding the existence of god does not make you a “soft agnostic” any more then it makes you a soft theist.

Agnosticism seems to be one of the most misunderstood philosophical views and people tend to think all sorts of odd things about it. I’ve heard everything from people speculating it means you believe in a higher power but not organized religion to it being used as a label for people who just don’t give a shit.

It’s none of those things.

It simply means you believe the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities to be unknowable. It's actually not a religious statement in itself, but people tend to use it as one anyways.

Example: I am technically an agnostic atheist. That means I don’t know if there’s a god or gods and I don’t believe there is. Just like there are agnostic theists. They don’t know if there’s a god, but the choose to believe there is.

I hope I haven't lost you. :)

My point is the “I don’t know”s should be included with those who refused to answer and not combined with either group.

Still, it's great news (even if it is less then 15%) that 6.6% of people now consider themselves agnostic or atheist. We're talking about almost 200 thousand people!

Even looking at the straight percentage of people answering “there is no such thing” regarding the existence of god, 2.3%, is still almost double the Mormons (with 1.4%) and the Jewish (with 1.2%).

And the fact that these two groups have more political clout then atheists could ever hope to achieve says something seriously wrong about our nation’s political system. (Hopefully the 8.4% that are included with the "None"s but aren't atheist/agnostic will vote more secular overall.)

Either way it looks like the times are changing and I'm feeling just peachy about what lies ahead.

*You can find the full survey here. And I’m super sorry if I confused the crap out of you regarding agnosticism. You can find clear descriptions here.


  1. thank you alana for doing your research!! i will learn from this lol.

    really great post, i think i was being more optomistic about athiesm in America!!

  2. Thanks! Sometimes it pays to be a skeptic. lol

    We should all be optimistic! It can only get better from here. :)


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