Pay no attention to headlines ... they lie! (PsiCop original)It’s not news that the numbers of “Nones,” or the religiously-unaffiliated, are growing in the US. It’s been documented for several years now, particularly after Trinity College’s ARIS 2008 project generated a report in 2009 about what they called “the Nones,” or the religiously-unaffiliated. This week, the Pew Forum released the results of their own survey on the matter. They find that “the Nones” are growing in number (WebCite cached version):

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

This part of the report has generated any number of mass-media stories trumpeting the growth of “atheists”; for example, this one from Canada’s National Post, whose headline reads as follows (cached):

Rise of the atheists: U.S. Protestants lose majority status as church attendance falls

The NP article itself fails to mention atheists or atheism very much, only noting that they’re merely a subset of the “religiously unaffiliated.” So where does this headline come from?

The truth is that this survey doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about atheists or atheism specifically. The folks at Pew are, themselves, quite clear on this:

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

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.

The fact is, the majority of the religiously unaffiliated as identified in polls such as Pew’s and the earlier ARIS survey, are believers. They simply don’t belong to any religious organization and don’t attend services regularly. But they remain religious people.

The Pew data itself shows that those designated as “Atheist” has grown only 0.8% since 2007, and “Agnostic” has grown only 1.2% in that time. These results can hardly justify any of the media headlines (such as the above) declaring that “Atheism” is growing astronomically. It isn’t. Non-believers are assuredly a minority in the US, and they’re likely to remain so, for quite some time to come. Only paranoid religionists would fear they’re going to be outnumbered and have their beliefs outlawed.

P.S. The full report is available on Pew’s Web site (cached).

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  • I would venture to say that a goodly portion of those claiming no religious affiliation are actually agnostics/atheists with no balls.

    • I'm not too sure about that. If you read the report you'll see that Pew asked people questions such as about their prayer habits. I'd say people who pray can't really be called non-believers with no balls. They clearly are believers because praying is something only believers would do.

      There really is a large segment of people who think of themselves as "spiritual but not religious." This is, of course, a non sequitur, since there is nothing "spiritual" which doesn't also meet the definition of "religious." Nevertheless, they're into metaphysics, they believe in deities, angels, devils, spirits, ghosts, karma, "higher power(s)," etc. and are most assuredly "believers."

      You're probably right about at least some of them. But how many? You'd have to ask the folks at Pew. They did at least attempt to tease them out (using the behavioral questions I mentioned). Maybe some more such questions in the next survey would be needed to provide a more exact proportion.

  • See! That's what I get for spouting off without actually doing the research. I am properly admonished.

    Religion? Pew! What's that smell? 😉

    GO TIGERS! Sorry. My 1st and 2nd choices couldn't hack it.

    • I'm looking forward to a sweep of the pinstriped villains from the Bronx, myself.

  • They got a reprieve from the rainless rain out last night. 😉

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