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By the Numbers
The nonreligious may be America's largest minority

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 21, Number 1.

Believers and nonbelievers in religion don't agree about much. Sadly, one thing the devout and the debunkers do seem to agree on is that unbelief occupies an increasingly marginal position in American life. Each day secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers feel more firmly on the outside, looking in through thicker, murkier windows. In the worlds of politics and the media, public displays of piety that would have raised hackles two decades ago are now the norm. Through-out American life, expectations that one will affirm the supernatural, or at least the spiritual, grow more explicit. Even seasoned humanist activists feel tempted to say, "What can we do? We're too small a group to make a difference, too small even to defend ourselves effectively against a whole society determined to re-adopt the sacred."

Don't believe it!

First, it isn't true that the whole of American society has embarked on a mission to re-adopt the sacred. That is rather the agenda of well-funded, well-organized minorities on the Right-admittedly, minorities who have done a superb job of raising money and playing the games of special interest politics. We should be concerned about their successes, but we needn't fear that they'll turn every American into a fundamentalist bigot. For instance, much has been made of the August Gallup poll showing that fewer Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate than for a woman, a Jew, an African American, or a homosexual. What's forgotten is that 49% of respondents said they would vote for an atheist candidate-and that number is the highest it's been since Gallup started tracking that question in the 1950s.1

The second reason not to despair is simple: there are a hell of a lot more of us out there than many activists think. In 1993 Williamson estimated the total population belonging to atheist or humanist organizations or subscribing to the movement's publications at 178,000.2 As minorities go, that's vanishingly small. And if you listen to the Religious Right, it's about what you'd expect: a trifling fringe of village-atheist misfits whose concerns are hopelessly remote from the American mainstream.

But perhaps counting membership cards isn't the best way to gauge the size of our movement. If we take the whole spectrum of nonbelievers, from hard-bitten atheists to those self-described "religious humanists" who nonetheless hold no transcendental beliefs—the population that a coalition of humanist and atheist groups recently dubbed "the Community of Reason"—how many Americans might we be talking about?

In 1995, Free Inquiry decided to find out. Suspicious that Gallup and other pollsters under-reported unbelievers, we hired a national polling organization to conduct our own telephone survey. We labored over the questions to remove pro-religious spin. For example, in 1976 Gallup started asking not whether respondents believed in God, but whether they believed in God or a universal spirit-a good way to keep the number of reported believers stable even as their notions of God grew more diverse.3  In contrast, the FI poll's principal "God question" was designed to count only believers in a traditional anthropomorphic deity and to exclude deists, pantheists, and those who view God as an impersonal spirit. On this question 88.6% of our respondents said they believed in a personal God who answers prayers.  Sure enough, instead of Gallup's stereotypical finding that 95% of Americans believe in God, our poll identified 11.4% who don't believe in the classical idea of God.

A 1999 Scripps-Howard study using different methodology replicated that number almost exactly. Scripps Howard News Service and the Ohio University E.W. Scripps School of Journalism analyzed seven national public opinion polls conducted in the late 1990s by O.U.'s Scripps Survey Research Center. Respondents were asked to choose their religious preference from a list of sects. "None" was not a menu item; nonreligious respondents had to volunteer that response. Despite that obstacle, 11.24% reported no religious preference. Scripps's own summary said it plainly: the nonreligious must now be considered the second-largest single belief group in America, second only to Roman Catholics.5

From this I conclude that the Community of Reason is significantly larger than most people-even many humanist activists-previously thought. If Free Inquiry's numbers are correct and 11.4% of Americans do not believe in a god who answers prayers-if the Scripps numbers are correct and 11.24% of Americans will go out of their way to deny any religious preference-then something between 30,996,687 and 31,437,921 Americans belong in our camp.6 That's roughly as many Community of Reason members as there are African Americans . . . a few more Reasoners than the estimated gay and lesbian population . . . roughly five times as many nonbelievers as American Jews . . . ten times as many nonbelievers as religiously active American Jews!

How marginal are we, then? Can 30 or 31 million people form only a blip on the cultural radar scope that's too small to keep in focus? I'd suggest that numbers like that give us all the bodies we need to defend the civil rights of the nonreligious and carve out a place of respect for secular humanism in an increasingly diverse America. Our challenge is to recruit a larger fraction of that vast population into the Council for Secular Humanism and indeed into all of the nation's atheist, freethinker, secular humanist, and humanist organizations. We need to learn from our better-organized opponents on the Religious Right, in the gay and lesbian movement, and elsewhere. Unbelievers need ways to act-and organize-that take advantage of the social leverage our real numbers represent. 

1. New York Times, August 13, 2000.
2. William B. Williamson, "Is the U.S.A. a Christian Nation?" Free Inquiry, Spring 1993, p. 33.
3. George Bishop, "Poll Trends: Americans' Belief in God," Public Opinion Quarterly, 63 (1999): 426.
4. "Religious Belief in America: A New Poll," Free Inquiry, Summer 1996, p. 34.
5. Tom Flynn, "Nonreligious Now America's Second Largest Lifestance Group," Secular Humanist Bulletin, Spring 2000.
6. U.S. Census estimate as of September 21, 2000, 11:01 a.m. ET: 275,771,234. See http://click.hotbot.com/director.asp?id=1&target=http://www.census.gov/main/www/

Tom Flynn is Editor of Free Inquiry.

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