Pew Study Finds One in Five Atheists Believe in God
Washington, DC – The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a second report from its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey on Monday concluding that Americans are highly religious and tolerant of other religions and that religion is politically relevant. While none of this is news, the study’s findings about nonreligious Americans are.
Pew reported that 21 percent of atheists in their survey said they believed in God or a universal spirit, that six percent of them considered it a personal god, and that 40 percent of agnostics feel certain that God exists. Conversely, among respondents who say they are affiliated with a religious tradition (Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, etc.), a surprising number said they actually do not believe in a god or universal spirit.
“When atheists are telling you they believe in God and Catholics are admitting they don’t, that’s evidence of the stigma our society puts on nontheists,” said Lori Lipman Brown, Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “Americans repeatedly tell pollsters that an atheist is the last person they’d want their children to marry, the last person they’d vote for as President. This prejudice also appears in the widespread impression that atheists lack ethics and values.”
A 2007 Newsweek study* indicates that surveys putting the number of Americans without a god belief at anywhere between 21 to 63 million are probably low: half of Newsweek’s respondents last year reported personally knowing an atheist. “Unless these small numbers of atheists have unusually vast social networks, those respondents tell us that nontheists make up a lot more than just eight or 12 percent of the U.S. population,” said Brown. “It says a lot about the difficulty of coming out of the closet, whether it’s to family, pollsters or fellow parishioners.”
The Pew Center’s press release also announced that religion in America is politically relevant; however, says Brown, so is its absence. “When you look at the results, you see the secular vote is much larger and more up for grabs than other groups who receive an awful lot of attention from politicians and pollsters. And yet with both major parties pandering to religion, our constituency is feeling more and more like outcasts in our own democracy.”
According to the Pew survey, there are more than twice as many atheists and agnostics (a combined 4.0 percent of all respondents) as there are Jews (1.7 percent), and about four times as many as there are Muslims (0.6 percent). Atheists and agnostics also have higher ratios of independent voters than most other groups in the study. The overall percentage of voters with no religious affiliation, which includes atheists, agnostics, and secular and religious unaffiliateds, too, is nearly equal (16.1) to the percentage who are mainline Protestant (18.1).
The Secular Coalition for America represents nine national coalition partners who share the view that a secular government offers the best guarantee for freedom of thought and belief for all Americans. In this election year, the Coalition will continue to amplify the voices of atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nontheists, and will advocate for all secular voters and help boost their visibility even as pollsters, politicians and pundits are silent about their place in American public life. The Coalition’s website is www.secular.org.
* Newsweek Magazine, April 9, 2007, “Is God Real?” by Jon Meacham.