Times-Harris Poll: 1/4th of Us Could Be Atheists or Agnostics

Posted by John W. Loftus

Source: The Nation [from the June 25, 2007 issue]

"We commonly hear that only a tiny percentage of Americans don't believe in God and that, as a Newsweek poll claimed this spring, 91 percent do. In fact, this is not true. How many unbelievers are there? The question is difficult to assess accurately because of the challenges of constructing survey questions that do not tap into the prevailing biases about religion."

"According to the American Religious Identification Survey, which interviewed more than 50,000 people, more than 29 million adults--one in seven Americans--declare themselves to be without religion. The more recent Baylor Religion Survey ("American Piety in the 21st Century") of more than 1,700 people, which bills itself as "the most extensive and sensitive study of religion ever conducted," calls for adjusting this number downward to exclude those who believe in a God but do not belong to a religion."

"Contrast this with a more recent and more nuanced Financial Times/Harris poll of Europeans and Americans that allowed respondents to declare agnosticism as well as atheism: 18 percent of the more than 2,000 American respondents chose one or the other, while 73 percent affirmed belief in God or a supreme being."

"A more general issue affects American surveys on religious beliefs, namely, the "social desirability effect," in which respondents are reluctant to give an unpopular answer in a society in which being religious is the norm. What happens when questions are framed to overcome this distortion? The FT/H poll tried to counteract it by allowing space not only for the customary "Not sure" but also for "Would prefer not to say"--and 6 percent of Americans chose this as their answer to the question of whether they believed in God or a supreme being. Add to this those who declared themselves as atheists or agnostics and, lo and behold, the possible sum of unbelievers is nearly one in four Americans."

"All this helps explain the popularity of the New Atheists--Americans as a whole may not be getting too much religion, but a significant constituency must be getting fed up with being routinely marginalized, ignored and insulted. After all, unbelievers are concentrated at the higher end of the educational scale--a recent Harris American poll shows that 31 percent of those with postgraduate education do not avow belief in God (compared with only 14 percent of those with a high school education or less). The percentage rises among professors and then again among professors at research universities, reaching 93 percent among members of the National Academy of Sciences. Unbelievers are to be found concentrated among those whose professional lives emphasize science or rationality and who also have developed a relatively high level of confidence in their own intellectual faculties. And they are frequently teachers or opinion-makers."

Thanks to Edward T. Babinski for finding this.

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William T said...

This was a pretty good article, I think. Hopefully more people will realize the self-contradiction within Christianity and will leave the "flock", per se, to become wolves rather than pathetic sheep. One thing I always hated was the shepherd/sheep analogy they were so fond of using to show how Jesus/God *herds* the rest of us.

Bob said...

What a terrific post! I have long maintained that we atheists have existed in numbers far exceeding the oft stated 8-10% that is so often stated. There are so many closet atheists who are in marriage or family relationships who cannot openly admit to their atheism. I was once one of those.....

Anonymous said...

Thank you for clarifying a muddy issue!! I have often wondered about these recent "polls" which show atheists/agnostics at only less than ten percent!!

Chucky Jesus

Yukkione said...

Makes sense to me. I to wondered how the percentage of non believers has always been so low in many polls. It also poionts out that those with more education and those in higher decision making positions have a higher percentage of non belief...It kind of shows what liers our politicians are when it comes to religious pandering.

Anonymous said...

William: I'm with you on never liking the sheep/shepherd analogy. Those taking great comfort in Psalm 23, for example, forget what shepherds actually do if you are a sheep: they fleece you, then they eat you.

Huey said...

Bored Again said:

"(They) forget what shepherds actually do if you are a sheep: they fleece you, then they eat you."

And those are the ethical shepards. The less ethical ones do worse, as Catholic priests, ministers, youth minsters, etc, demonstrate on an almost daily basis! Glad I'm not a sheep!

Anonymous said...

John Loftus lied about promoting himself. Anything he says can't be trusted.

William T said...

To the cowardly anonymous jackass poster (again):

Despite the fact that I don't think what you said is true, your second sentence doesn't follow. For example, I can say "my name is not william", an obvious falsehood, but in the next sentence I can say "all bachelors are unmarried", an obvious truth.

Even if what he said about his own "self-promotion" is untrue, that doesn't mean the next thing the person says is false. I do trust the article, as it seems scholarly enough (as a matter of the fact, what's posted is from a relatively popular newspaper, you goof).

All we seem to get out of most of these anonymous posters is incoherent babble, it seems.

Anonymous said...

John Loftus lied about promoting himself. Anything he says can't be trusted.

Actually since it was a few years ago I forgot I had promoted my book. Hmmm. I guess that's wrong on both counts, eh? I'll try to remember from now on, but am I really NOT supposed to refrain from promoting my book? Hmmmm. And this means you cannot trust me when I link to another site? With logic like this I bet you believe Jesus arose from the dead too.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't surprise me. Anyway I remember reading an article by Billy Graham, fundamentalist Christian preacher, saying that most people in theis country were "practical atheists". Didn't pray much, said that "God loves him" but never went to church and other things. Maybe he had a point there.

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