Is the Number of Atheists Really as Large as Atheists Claim?

In a post I authored on Valentine's Day in 2009 entitled "Atheism by the Numbers: Going Nowhere Fast," I questioned the claim by atheists that their numbers were rising. I pointed out the following:

What do the polls tells us? Stark offers the numbers from leading polling organizations since 1944, for those who do not believe in God:

4% -- 1944 (Gallup)
6% -- 1947 (Gallup)
3% -- 1964 (American Piety)
3% -- 1994 (GSS)
4% -- 2005 (Baylor/Gallup)
4% -- 2007 (Baylor/Gallup)

The number of atheists in the United States appears to be unchanged for at least 63 years, despite advances in science and secularization. 
Since that time in 2012, the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project published a poll that suggested that the numbers of atheists were actually rising. According to Ecumenical News,

In October 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report finding that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans under the age of 30 had increased five percentage points in five years.
Now, the graphs that accompany the report show that the number of people who claim to be atheists is still quite low. According to the Pew Forum, the total number of self-identified atheists in the United States has risen from 1.6% of the population in 2007 to a meager 2.4% of the United States population in 2012. Now, this would be a significant increase percentage-wise, but the total number of people still represents a very small percentage of the population. In fairness, I should add that the number of self-identified agnostics has also grown from 2.1% to 3.3% during that time, and those who apparently hold a faith of "nothing in particular" rose from 11.6% to 13.9% as well. Adding the number of atheists in 2007 (1.6%) to the number of agnostics (2.1%) and rounding up from there gets to the 4% from the Stark numbers. Thus, the number of people who "don't believe in God" using the number of atheists plus the number of agnostics has risen to 5.7% (which rounds up to 6% - making that number the highest since 1947). But the increase of those who aren't sure or who are indifferent to faith really is not the position that the atheist evangelists have been promoting. They want people to come to believe that belief in God is irrational, primitive and even silly.

The problem for the atheists is that despite a significant growth in the percentage of atheists according to the Pew Forum, the total number of atheists remains less than 3% of the population. But now there is even question as to whether all of those who claim to be atheists are, in fact, atheists. According to an article from The Humanist entitled "Do You Believe in Atheists Who Believe in God?", not all self-identified atheists are atheists in the ordinary understanding.

The definition of an atheist is someone who lacks a belief in any kind of deity. Alternately, an atheist could be defined as someone who asserts that no kind of deity exists. With either definition in mind, how did the Pew Religious Landscape Survey discover that one in five self-identified atheists believe in God?

In a November 4 article for Religion News Service (RNS), Tobin Grant attempts to reconcile these findings with what atheism means, acknowledging first that the term “atheism” may mean something different to individual people and that their personal definition may not fit the conventional understanding of the term. For instance, someone may take an active dislike to institutionalized religion but believe in some sort of higher power, and may adopt the label “atheist” as a kind of protest against the bureaucracy and dogma that she or he associates with traditional faiths. Grant also considers the possibility that some survey respondents may consider themselves atheists but use the term “God” to refer to abstract laws of nature or the principles of the universe. Additionally, the article recognizes that issues of personal belief or nonbelief are often complex and cannot be communicated through simple survey options. An atheist might acknowledge that there is a social construction of an all-powerful being referred to as “God” without believing that this being objectively exists outside of society’s conception of it. However, this intricate view is difficult to convey in a survey response.

Grant’s analysis demonstrates that if atheism is a lack of belief in a deity or an assertion that there is no deity, then the deity being denied requires a definition as well. For example, when the term “atheist” was first used by the ancient Romans, who were polytheists, it referred to people who believed in foreign gods. By this understanding of atheism, someone could easily be both an atheist and a theist simultaneously. However, this meaning is far from atheism as it is recognized now. To fully understand how someone today might be able to reconcile the identity of atheism with belief in a higher power, using the philosophical concepts of “narrow atheism” and “wide atheism” might be helpful.

Okay, so now we need to worry about "narrow atheism" and "wide atheism" so that all of these additional atheists can be brought under the penumbra of atheism? That's interesting.

Of course, one could take this as more evidence that atheism as a religion because, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other world religions, atheism seems to have branched into denominations.  If people can have these different views, it is hardly the case that science can be said to demand God does not exist since even certain denominations of atheism appear to reject that claim in the absolutist sense that the loudest proponents of atheism (not sure if that's narrow or wide atheism) would have us believe. Still, the point remains that it is hard to take seriously that the number of atheists is growing when atheists don't really mean that they are atheists when they self-identify as atheists.

If you find that last sentence to be confusing, remember that it is not nearly as confusing as the juggling that has to take place for people who believe in a higher power to call themselves atheists.


suraj chandra said…
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