Who Are These Doubters Anyway?

Tom Flynn

We seem to be poised on the threshold of a bright new era in which nonreligious Americans will be properly studied by the social sciences. What better time to review what we know about the various flavors of religious nonaffiliation and nonbelief? And what better time to review the facts and fallacies that have shaped American assumptions regarding irreligion in the past?

First, how many of us are there? Writing in Free Inquiry In 1993, the philosopher and religion researcher William B. Williamson estimated the total population belonging to atheist or humanist organizations or subscribing to “movement” publications at 178,000.1 As minorities go, that’s vanishingly small. And if you listen to the religious Right, it’s about what you’d expect: a marginal fringe of village-atheist misfits whose concerns are hopelessly remote from the American mainstream. But maybe counting membership cards and subscriptions 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—what do the numbers show?

It depends on when you look. Sixty or seventy years ago, just 2 percent of Americans would confide to pollsters that they had no religious preference. By 1990, that figure had risen to about 8 percent.

Today the number claiming no religious preference (nonreligionists, popularly referred to as the “nones”) stands at 16 percent. Let’s see: as I write there are about 313,000,000 Americans. The Catholic church counts babies and children, so we should too, just to keep the comparisons even. So that’s roughly 50,080,000 American men, women, and children who live outside of conventional religion.

Now, are these people all atheists? Of course not. Some would say they’re not religious but they are spiritual—whatever that means. But the most important recent study suggests that we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics and freethinkers make up about two-thirds of all those people unaffiliated with any religious body (more on this below).

In terms of the larger culture, of course, we’re still a minority. Still, there are more people like us today than ever before. Religiously unaffiliated Americans are today more numerous than Hispanic Americans or African Americans . . . more numerous than the estimated gay and lesbian population . . . more than seven times as numerous as American Jews . . . more than fifteen times as numerous as religiously active American Jews!

How marginal are we, then? Can fifty million people form only a blip on the cultural radar scope that’s too small to keep in focus? If we form that large a community, it stands to reason that keeping track of our numbers is important, just as it’s important to keep count of religious Americans in their many creeds and denominations. So let’s take a chronological tour and see what the numbers have and haven’t shown about belief and unbelief in America.

Belief in God: What Do the Numbers Show?

Here’s an obvious place to start. How many Americans do—and don’t—believe in God? And where does this data come from?

Data on God-belief does not come from the United States Census. The Census has never asked whether people believed in God, and it stopped collecting data about denominational affiliation after the 1930 Census. The logic back then was that for the Census to collect information about religious identification would improperly entangle church and state. (The bureaucrats figured this out for themselves without anyone having to sue them! Ah, those were the days.)

So it’s important to remember that when we’re talking about how many Americans believe in God—or go to which church—we’re dependent on the private sector, for-profit and nonprofit, for our data.

For belief in God, the great granddaddy of all data sources is the Gallup Poll. We’ve all seen the figures endlessly repeated in the media: “Surveys show more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, a figure that’s held steady since the 1940s.” Well, not exactly. The Gallup Organization asked Americans “Do you believe in God?” on at least six occasions between November 1944 and August 1967. In 1976, Gallup changed the question, asking not whether respondents believed in God but whether they believed in “God or a universal spirit.” Broadening the question in this way perhaps served to keep the number of reported believers stable, even though their notions of God had grown more diverse. Interestingly, in May 2011 Gallup tested the old “Do you believe in God?” question for the first time in forty-four years. The last time Gallup posed that question, in August 1967, 98 percent of respondents reported believing in God. In May 2011, only 92 percent said the same.2 Hmm—no wonder they changed the question.

University of Cincinnati demographer George Bishop has shown that when surveys probe God-belief in greater detail, the results are very different. At a 1999 symposium convened by Free Inquiry at the New York Academy of Sciences, he reported on three tests in which the Gallup Organization offered more options beyond the traditional “Do you believe, answer yes or no.” Given more choices, 8 to 10 percent of respondents said “Don’t really think there is a God,” “Don’t really know what to think,” or “Don’t know.”3

When the evangelical-owned Barna Group offered even wider options in a 1994 poll, a mere 67 percent embraced traditional theism. Ten percent said God was “a state of higher consciousness that people can reach.” Eight percent called God “the total realization of personal human potential.” Three percent proclaimed that “everyone is God,” while 8 percent professed ignorance.4

To sum up, when polls say that x number of Americans believe in God, read the fine print. The numbers can vary, depending who is asking and what is being asked.

Unbelief among Scientists

The media have an insatiable appetite for news about religious belief and unbelief among scientists. This seemingly arcane statistic strikes a chord because fundamentalists hope to scare people away from Darwin by showing that atheism is so prevalent among scientists—while secular humanists hope to show what a smart option unbelief must be by showing that atheism is so prevalent among scientists.

The measurement of belief and unbelief among scientists began with pioneer sociologist James H. Leuba (1868–1946). He grew up in Switzerland, where his experience of the stern Calvinism in power there led him to atheism—and to lifelong curiosity about religion. He moved to the United States as a graduate student and stayed for life. From 1898 to 1933, Leuba was a professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College.5

In a famous 1916 study, Leuba surveyed the religious opinions of one thousand biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists. He attracted enormous attention with the then-scandalous finding that only about 40 percent of American scientists believed in God or an afterlife.6 Leuba repeated the survey in 1933, obtaining similar results.

In April of 1997, University of Georgia science historian Edward J. Larson and Washington Times reporter Larry Witham announced in a letter to Nature7 that they had replicated Leuba’s 1916
and 1933 studies. Restricting themselves to a sample of one thousand scientists in the same narrow selection of specialties Leuba had chosen, Larson and Witham also administered exactly the same now-archaic questionnaire in order to maximize intercomparability between Leuba’s data and their own.

What did they find? As in 1916 and 1933, about 40 percent of responding scientists believed in God or an afterlife. A media frenzy ensued, most of the headlines celebrating that scientists were no more atheistic in 1996 than they had been eighty years before. More interesting phenomena lurked among the details. In 1916 and 1933, professors of biology were the least likely to believe; by 1996, physics and astronomy had replaced them as the most skeptical specialties. Also, though belief in human immortality had not changed, reported desire for immortality (independent of one’s belief in it) had declined sharply across all specialties since the 1916 study.

One year later, Larson and Witham were back, advising Nature that they had replicated one of Leuba’s other studies—a survey of elite American scientists.8 In 1916 and again in 1933, Leuba had surveyed 400 so-called “greater” scientists, using as his source a contemporary reference work titled (warning: sexism alert) American Men of Science. For some reason this work is no longer published, so Larson and Witham constructed their sample of elite scientists by polling 517 members of the National Academy of Sciences. The results were stunning.

Where Larson and Witham’s previous study had shown that the level of unbelief among scientists in general had remained stable since 1916, their new study suggested that unbelief had made huge strides among elite scientists. The nation’s top scientists were far more atheistic than their less-accomplished peers. At the same time, top scientists were much, much more atheistic than their predecessors had been in Leuba’s studies.

In 1914, Leuba found that 27.7 percent of elite scientists had a personal belief in God. By 1933, that figure had fallen to just 15 percent. For Larson and Witham in 1998, only 7 percent of top scientists had a personal belief in God. By the way, this statistic is the source for that endless repeated sound-bite claim that only 7 percent of top scientists believe in God.9 (See figure 1.)

Though they were mere letters to the editor, not research papers, Larson and Witham’s two communiqués to Nature profoundly shaped later rhetoric about science and religion.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Belief in God Among Top American Scientists.

The Rise of the Nones

Another term often heard in demographic discussions of unbelief is Nones. “Nones” are people who, when asked by pollsters what religion they prefer, answer “none of the above.” This term seems to have been first used in 1987; in an article in Public Opinion Quarterly published in that year, researcher Norvall Glenn reported that so-called Nones had increased from 2 percent of the population in the 1950s to 7 or 8 percent in 1984.10

In 1990, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York published its American Religious Identification Survey, or ARIS. ARIS would grow into a series of surveys that provide some of our most reliable data for changes in patterns of religious belief over time. The inaugural ARIS attracted press attention for its provocative findings about the sizes of the Jewish, Muslim, and unaffiliated communities. Its 1990 finding that “Nones” were 8 percent of the population echoed Glenn’s figure for 1984.

It was in 2000 that researchers began to realize that the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation was skyrocketing. In that year a survey by the Scripps Howard News Service and the Ohio University E.W. Scripps School of Journalism reported that 11.24 percent of U.S. adults reported their religious preference as “none.” That was equivalent at the time to twenty-four million Americans. This data made nonreligionists the nation’s second-largest life-stance group, outnumbering members of any single sect or denomination except Roman Catholics.11,12

In 2001, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York published its second American Religious Identification Survey, ARIS 2001. ARIS 2001 closely replicated the 1990 ARIS study, permitting detailed study of how religious identifications had changed over eleven years. The 2001 study found that the “no religious preference” population had jumped from 8 to 14 percent—almost double. That result received widespread attention—and the “rise of the Nones” emerged as a topic for research and punditry alike.

Interestingly, these results came as no surprise to some social scientists. For some time the General Social Survey (GSS), the vast “everything survey” of U.S. residents conducted since 1972 by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, had been reporting a sharp increase in the number of respondents reporting no religious affiliation.13 But it was ARIS 2001 that packaged its own finding on this subject in a way that commanded national attention.

By this time, a debate was in full swing over what the “rise of the Nones” meant. If 14 percent of Americans were Nones, did that mean they were all—or mostly—atheists and humanists?

In a 2003 Free Inquiry article (his last published article before his death), the eminent sociologist Otis Dudley Duncan argued that as many as 60 percent of the Nones were probably denomination shoppers or eclectic spiritual seekers. Don’t make too much of the “rise of the Nones,” Duncan warned: the actual number of atheists, agnostics, and other “hard seculars” might not be growing that much, or at all.

That objection would remain an unanswerable—for about a year.

In 2004, a major survey cosponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life altered the demographic landscape. The Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics was conducted in the spring of 2004. The survey was directed by John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and director of the university’s Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.14 For convenience (and recognizing that these two words are seldom used together in secular humanist publications), I will refer to this study as Pew-Bliss.

Pew-Bliss was the first major study to peg the Nones—a group it called the “unaffiliated”—at a new high. It found that the Nones had reached 16 percent of the general population, equivalent to that famous fifty million Americans. Even more important, Pew-Bliss gave us our first detailed information about the demographic composition of the Nones. Otis Dudley Duncan’s speculative question on this subject could at last be answered.

Pew-Bliss found that the unaffiliated 16 percent are made up of 3.2 percent atheists and agnostics, 7.5 percent seculars, and 5.3 percent believers (all figures refer to percentages of the entire population). (See figure 2.) “Believers” label themselves as “spiritual but not religious”15; Green defined them as “people with no religious affiliation who nonetheless believe in God or the soul.” Combine the 3.2 percent atheists and the 7.5 percent seculars and that’s 10.7 percent atheists, agnostics, and seculars to 5.3 percent believers. Duncan’s hypothesis that the Nones are mostly believers stood refuted; Pew-Bliss had established that among the Nones, nonbelievers outnumbered believers roughly two to one

Figure 2
Figure 2. Composition of 16 percent of Americans, an all-time high, who declared themselves unnaffiliated with any religion (Pew-Bliss Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics, 2004). Atheists, agnostics, and seculars combined outnumbered believers (10.7% – 5.3%).

Is Religiosity Declining Generationally?

A 2006 telephone survey by the Pew Foundation focusing on eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds—the so-called Generation Next—found strong secularizing trends and suggested that the coming generation may be the least pious seen so far. Twenty percent of Gen Nexters described themselves as Nones—compared to 16 percent in the population as a whole. (By comparison, only 10 percent of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds self-identified as Nones in the late 1980s.) Nexters accept that humans and other living things evolved over time by nearly two to one, in marked contrast to their elders who, regrettably, split fifty-fifty on this question.

These findings harmonize with others that show American religiosity declining with each succeeding generation. While individuals can grow less religious over the course of their lives—many who read this magazine have done just that—this phenomenon is less statistically significant than the tendency for each subsequent generation to exhibit lower piety than its predecessors.17 This was confirmed by a 2007 survey by the Barna Group, which found that each progressively younger cohort of the population has more “no-faiths” (self-described atheists and agnostics)—and we’re not talking about a subtle effect. No-faiths are more than three times more common among eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds than they are among people aged sixty-one and over.18

As the generational torch passes, it is not unreasonable to hope that America’s anomalous levels of public piety will sink closer to those seen in Europe and elsewhere in the developed world (though more on that below).

Some Dubious Numbers

The demography of religion has given rise to its share of questionable data. September 2006 saw the release of a provocative but badly flawed study from Baylor University’s Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.19 To give you an idea what to expect, know that Baylor is the world’s largest Baptist university; that the study was partly funded by the highly pro-religious John Templeton Foundation20; and that one of its directors was Rodney Stark, famous for his erroneous proclamation of the death of secularization. Baylor researchers took joy in reporting that one in three Americans was a born-again evangelical, and that almost 92 percent of its respondents reported belief in God. Let’s analyze the second claim first. That 92 percent figure turns out to be a composite, combining four groups holding distinctively different conceptions of God (see figure 3):

  • Thirty-one percent believed in an authoritarian god who is engaged in world affairs and angry at humanity’s sins.
  • Twenty-three percent believed in a benevolent god who is less likely to judge but has nonetheless given us absolute standards of right and wrong.
  • Sixteen percent believed in a critical god who monitors world affairs with a judging eye but never intervenes—no miracles, no thunderbolts of judgment.
  • Twenty-four percent believed in a distant god, essentially the aloof god of deism.21
Figure 3
Figure 3. Composition of 92 percent of believers in God reported by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion in 2006. The suspect study also found one in three Americans was a born-again evangelical.

The Baylor study should have made news for finding that only a third of Americans hold the picture of God that fundamentalist evangelical Christians would consider “correct.” But are its findings even reliable? While the Baylor researchers described their study as the most extensive survey on American religion ever published, a scan of its notes reveals that it is actually based on just 1,721 respondents, some obtained by telephone and some by mail. That’s a modest-sized sample, and the mixture of survey methods makes precise data analysis difficult. Moreover, the questionnaire was written with such an overt evangelical-Christian bias that it likely discouraged many atheists and non-Christian believers who received it from completing it. Small wonder that it found smaller numbers of atheists and of devout non-Christians than other studies, and so much the worse for its claim that one in three Americans is “born again.”

Writing in Free Inquiry, a prominent religion scholar called the Baylor study “deficient in uncountable ways” and “all but useless.” As evidence, consider this astonishing factoid: the study found that 86.5 percent of evangelical Protestants have “no doubt that God exists,” which would imply that 13.5 percent of evangelical Protestants do have doubt that God exists. Make of that what you will.22

But we haven’t heard the last from Stark and his Baylor colleagues. In 2008 they released another Templeton-funded study,23 this time seeking to refute the idea that the number of American nonreligionists was increasing.

Yes, you read that correctly. Though numerous other studies have been unanimous in documenting sharp growth in both the unaffiliated population and the overtly nonreligious population since the 1990s, disagreeing only as to exact percentages, the 2008 Baylor study would seek to prove that the idea that the nonreligious population is increasing was all a silly mistake. For example, it maintained that America’s atheist population has remained essentially unchanged at about 4 percent from 1944 through 2007.

Independent scholar Gregory S. Paul analyzed the 2008 study in a lengthy report released early in 2009 by the Council for Secular Humanism.24 Paul described numerous alleged errors and instances of bias in the Baylor group’s interpretation of its data.

For example, the Baylor group published one chart, its Table 52, purporting to show that 4 percent of Americans did not believe in God in 1944 and the same number disbelieved in 2007. In between, the chart showed data points from 1947, 1964, 1994, 2005, and 2007 in which the number of atheists never dipped below 3 percent and never went above 6 percent—the latter result being a 1947 Gallup result that the Baylor researchers were willing to dismiss as an outlier. Paul wrote at length about the process by which he believed this most counterintuitive result had been generated. First, 4 percent is an unusually high number for self-described atheists in the 1940s; 2 percent is the usual number for this period. Sure enough, in 1944 Gallup indeed found 2 percent of respondents who self-identified as atheists. But according to Paul, another 2 percent had declined to answer; the Baylor group simply assumed without evidence that all the respondents who didn’t answer were atheists, and added them to the 2 percent of avowed atheists to get the 4 percent result.

Though polls including questions about belief in God were conducted frequently after 1944, only three more twentieth-century results were included: from 1947 (three years later), 1964 (seventeen years later), and 1994 (thirty years later). Why these specific data points, and why such idiosyncratic spacing between them? Paul speculated that these particular data points may have been chosen in preference to others that less well supported the Baylor group’s thesis that the rate of atheism has been constant over time. The suspicion of cherry picking is difficult to resist.

Finally, two twenty-first-century data points are provided: one from 2005, eleven years after its immediate predecessor, and 2007, just two years later than its predecessor. These are both drawn from Baylor studies and show atheism still floating at 4 percent. However, the Baylor data measures only self-described atheists. Agnostics and “seculars” (respondents who didn’t choose a label but who, based on lifestyle questions, effectively lived without religion) were not included. Neither were respondents who declined to answer, even though including “no answer” respondents was precisely how the Baylor team had arrived at their figure of 4 percent atheists for 1944!

Paul’s lengthy study for the Council alleged multiple weaknesses in the 2008 Baylor study; space permits me to describe only one here. At the very least, there seem to be ample grounds to dispute the accuracy of Baylor’s 2008 religion study.

ARIS Rides Again

In March 2009, the third American Religious Identification Study appeared—ARIS 2008—this time from Trinity College’s Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture, still helmed by demographers Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Though it didn’t have the “blockbuster” impact of ARIS 2001, ARIS 2008 still offered provocative findings: “The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions,” it found, “but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion,” a trend of which more will be said below.

Based on their responses to questions about God, if not on the labels they choose to describe themselves, an astonishing 24 percent of ARIS 2008 respondents were effectively atheists, agnostics, or deists. This closely tracks another finding, that an arresting 27 percent of Americans do not expect a religious funeral when they die.25

The Trouble with Self-Reporting

Religion surveys almost invariably count church attendance, usually by asking respondents whether they attended a service last Sunday. Almost invariably, 40 percent of Americans say they did. (The figure is even higher among Roman Catholics.) How reliable is such self-reporting? Back in 1992, Kirk C. Hadaway, a sociologist employed by the United Church of Christ, had his suspicions. For one thing, the reported level of church-going would probably exceed the capacity of the nation’s churches!

Hadaway adopted an audacious research strategy. He assembled an army of researchers large enough to barge into every Protestant church in Ashtabula County, Ohio, one fine Sunday and count noses at every single service. Based on this unprecedented direct count, only 20 percent of adult church members were there, about half the number Gallup would predict. A companion count in selected Catholic churches revealed a slightly higher percentage—still exactly half the percentage of Catholics that regularly report having attended mass in the past week.

It’s not Gallup’s fault; when you ask people whether they went to church last Sunday, lots of them lie—presumably in order to look like better Christians. In a landmark 1993 paper, Hadaway and fellow researchers Peggy Long Marler and Mark Chaves announced that church-going was “probably one-half what everyone thinks it is.”26 On a typical Sunday, researchers now estimate that only 20 to 25 percent of Americans darken the doorway of a church.

Secularization: Are Reports of Its Death Exaggerated?

This brings us to one of the most controversial principles in religious demographics: the so-called secularization hypothesis. This is the theory, originally formalized by the nineteenth-century sociologist Max Weber, that religion should diminish in influence as education, prosperity, and public understanding of science spread. Since the 1970s, it has been fashionable for mainstream demographers to pronounce the secularization hypothesis a failure, at least as regards the United States. The aforementioned Rodney Stark did so with gusto in a 1999 paper titled “Secularization, R.I.P.,”27 which was adapted into a chapter of his 2000 book Acts of Faith coauthored with Roger Finke.28 I criticized “death-of-secularization theory” in a retrospective 2007 Free Inquiry op-ed, noting that since 2000, both internationally and even across the United States, signs are growing that the process of secularization is proceeding after all. I noted the rapid rise in nonreligionist Americans, flattening growth trends among evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches across the United States, and signs that America’s fast-growing Hispanic population is beginning to surrender to the “secularizing tug of American life.”29

Independent scholars Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman have examined the state of secularization today in depth. Paul is the author of two Free Inquiry cover stories, the mammoth entry on “Demography of Unbelief” in the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, and the previously mentioned critique of the 2008 Baylor religion study. Zuckerman, now at Pitzer College, is author of Society without God (2008), which profiles life in highly secularized Norway and Scandinavia,30 and Faith No More, a collection of interviews with largely American apostates.31

In a sweeping online survey article, Paul and Zuckerman provided a stunning demonstration that despite reverses—among them, the rise in American fundamentalism in the final quarter of the twentieth century—secularization is actually alive and well.32

Among their findings: contrary to what you might have heard, the world religions are not enjoying conspicuous growth spurts (with one exception). Christians made up about a third of the global population in 1900, and they still do today. Hindus are static at one-seventh despite strong population growth in India. Buddhism shrunk by a quarter in the twentieth century and is predicted to shrink by about as much in the next fifty years. Only Islam has gained ground, moving from one-eighth to one-fifth of the global population in the twentieth century. By 2050, it is projected that one human in four will be a Muslim. But conversion has little to do with it; Islam is growing solely because of very high birthrates across the Muslim world.

“What scheme of thought did soar in the twentieth century?” Paul and Zuckerman asked. It was (choose a label) “secularity,” “atheism,” or “irreligion,” which during the century ballooned by a few hundredfold while the great world religions were stagnant. Viewed even from the perspective of the fastest-growing sects, the explosion of secularity is still unprecedented, dwarfing the Mormons’ climb to twelve million during the century and even the growth of Pentecostalist Protestantism from nearly nothing to half a billion. Moreover, secularity has made its spectacular gains almost entirely through the mechanism of adult choice. No faith or sect has grown as rapidly by conversion alone. Doubters like us seem to be piling on the numbers as millions of men and women worldwide examine and reject the religions of their childhoods. Paul and Zuckerman call it “the first emergence of mass apostasy in history. No major religion is expanding its share of the global population by conversion in any circumstances. . . . Disbelief in the supernatural alone is able to achieve extraordinary rates of growth by voluntary conversion.”33 This conclusion would be echoed by the previously discussed ARIS 2008.

Why Is America So Different?

Even so, the phenomenon called American exceptionalism must be accounted for. Though religiosity is not ballooning in American life as widely supposed, public piety is nonetheless far more widespread in America than in Europe, Canada, or Australia. In fact, the United States is the only first-world country that displays high levels of religiosity seen otherwise only in third-world countries.

Why might this be? The well-known demographers Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart offered a hypothesis with distinctly political overtones. In their landmark 2004 book Sacred and Secular34 they hypothesized that first-world countries other than the United States differ from American society in having such attributes as stronger handgun control, a rehabilitative approach to incarceration, vigorous sex education, and until quite recently, greater leisure time and a much stronger social safety net. Largely protected against misfortunes that might upend a comfortable middle-class life, citizens of first-world countries other than the United States may well have felt that they could afford to dispense with the dubious protections that religion provides.

In contrast, American life is significantly more uncertain, particularly (but far from solely) as regards the risk of bankruptcy in the event of catastrophic illness whose costs exceed an individual’s or family’s insurance coverage, coupled with the fact that once an American becomes poor, the resources available for relief are far more limited than in other first-world countries. Agreeing with Norris and Inglehart, Paul and Zuckerman declared it unsurprising that so many Americans “look to friendly forces from the beyond to protect them from the pitfalls of a risky American life, and if that fails, to compensate with a blissful eternal existence.”35

I suspect that Paul and Zuckerman are right in suspecting that Norris and Inglehart are right—and that American exceptionalism as regards popular piety is largely explainable a result of the other ways in which American society diverges from social practices until quite recently typical across most other first-world nations.

Whatever your own political orientation may be, the data genuinely seem to show that if, as a people, Americans took better care of each other, they might feel less need for a caregiver in the clouds—and presumably become more like their counterparts elsewhere in the first world.

It also suggests that if Norris and Inglehart’s hypothesis is correct, the rest of the first world may be due for a tragic resurgence of popular piety. In the wake of the global financial crisis, other first-world nations are adopting austerity programs that fray social safety nets—perhaps reintroducing levels of risk to life in Europe, Canada, and Australia like those previously common only in the United States. In that event, citizens of formerly highly secularized first-world nations may begin to display a heightened demand for “invisible means of support.”

Religion Behind Bars: The Great Cover-up?

I’ve saved the best digression for last. I am often asked what numbers show about the prison population. If believers are correct that morality is impossible without religion, then our prisons and jails should be overflowing with atheists. First impressions would suggest the opposite—namely, that jails and prisons are awash in zealous believers at a rate far outstripping the general population—in which case religion’s boast as a guarantor of morality might seem questionable. But what do the numbers tell us? Not much, it turns out, because hard numbers are amazingly hard to come by. I suspect this is because from the believers’ point of view, the numbers are really, really bad.

The perceptive reader will notice the dates of the studies I am about to cite and, perhaps, begin to form an opinion about where the problem may lie.

In his 1895 book, The Criminal, pioneer psychologist Havelock Ellis reported that “It seems extremely rare to find intelligently irreligious men in prison.” Writing in 1928, criminologists Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith said that only one-tenth of 1 percent of convicts had had no religious training. At around the same time, University of Pittsburgh psychologist W.T. Root found that less than one-third of 1 percent of those executed at Sing Sing Prison were nonreligious. A study by the researchers Steiner and Swancara found almost no agnostics among a multistate sample of prisoners. In 1936, three Franciscan priests who were also prison chaplains released a book titled Crime and Religion. They noted sadly that “Convicts as a class seem to be the most religious people in the country. . . . Therefore, what use religion?”

The most recent work in this area is apparently a body of surveys mailed to prisoners in 1961 by ex-priest and bombastic radio commentator Emmett McLoughlin. McLoughlin found that Roman Catholics were drastically overrepresented in the prison population . . . and unbelievers were drastically underrepresented. It’s all summed up—along with the best summary of prior religion-in-prison studies in print, from which the previous items in the series were drawn—in McLoughlin’s cranky 1962 book Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church.36

And there the data ends. After McLoughlin’s widely publicized report, wardens apparently added direct-mail surveys to the list of things routinely screened out of prisoners’ incoming mail. In the half-century since, no prison I know of has permitted researchers to catalogue inmates’ religious affiliations. No such data has been kept by any department of corrections—or if kept, no such data has been released.

In the so-called freest country in the world, there’s been a fifty-year embargo on information about the religious status of prisoners—and it’s worked. Perhaps officials know that the pattern hasn’t changed, and that—even allowing for the pressures for inmates to affect religious conversions in order to obtain privileges and seek parole—the overwhelming overrepresentation of religious believers among the prison population would stingingly disprove the notion that belief fosters morality.


With that, we’re roughly up to date and ready to move into a future in which a growing number of social scientists will be measuring secularity, nonreligiosity, and overt unbelief as phenomena in their own right.37 After a few decades during which many researchers had given up on the secularization hypothesis, it seems clearly to be coming true across most of the developed world. Even in the anomalously pious United States, such phenomena as the rise of the Nones and the unprecedented irreligiosity of Generation Next give hope that the religious-right high tide that saturated U.S. culture and politics for so long is beginning now to ebb.

In the meantime, “people like us” are wise to follow closely what pollsters and social scientists have to tell us about nonreligiosity and unbelief—both for the valuable information their work can offer, and in order to help keep them honest!


  1. William B. Williamson, “Is the U.S.A. a Christian Nation?” Free Inquiry, Spring 1993:33.
  2. http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx. Accessed November 15, 2011.
  3. George Bishop, “What Americans Really Believe, and Why Faith Isn’t as Universal as They Think.” Free Inquiry, Summer 1999.
  4. Frank Pasquale, “Unbelief in Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect of.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn (A
    mherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007).
  5. Frank Pasquale, “Leuba, James H.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, edited by Tom Flynn (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2007).
  6. Tom Flynn, “Faith Steady Among Scientists—Or Is It?” Free Inquiry, Summer 1997.
  7. Nature, April 1997.
  8. Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Nature, July 23, 1998.
  9. Tom Flynn, “Unbelief among Top Scientists Growing.” Free Inquiry, Fall 1998.
  10. Pasquale, op. cit.
  11. Tom Flynn, “Non-religious Now America’s Second Largest Lifestance Group.” Secular Humanist Bulletin, Spring 2000.
  12. Occasionally one sees it reported that nonreligionists are the nation’s third-largest life-stance group. This result obtains only if all Baptists, ranging from theologically conservative Southern Baptists to liberal American Baptists who typically champion the separation of church and state, are combined into a single category. If fundamentalist and nonfundamentalist Baptist denominations are treated as separate groups, as seems far more reasonable in view of their theological differences, then nonreligionists outnumber every denominational group but Roman Catholics.
  13. See for example http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss10. Enter “relig” in the row window, enter the year in the column window, and select “Line Chart” in the “Chart Options” window at lower right and watch the trend appear. Thanks to independent researcher Frank Pasquale for bringing this to my attention.
  14. The American Religious Landscape and Politics, online document from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, accessed 5/17/2007. See also John C. Green, The Faith Factor: How Religion Influences American Elections (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger, 2007).
  15. Steven Waldman and John C. Green, “Tribal Relations.” The Atlantic Monthly, January–February 2006.
  16. The American Religious Landscape and Politics, online document from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, accessed 5/17/2007.
  17. Matt Cherry, “Religious Decline in U.S. Follows Europe.” Humanist Network News e-zine, January 24, 2007.
  18. “’No Faith’ Group Grows,” Voice of Reason (Americans for Religious Liberty). No. 3, 2007.
  19. Baylor Institute for Studies in Religion, “American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US.” Available online at http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/
  20. For more on the Templeton Foundation, see Alexander Saxton, “The Templeton Agenda,” Free Inquiry, June/July 2007.
  21. Cathy Lynn Grossman, “View of God Can Predict Values, Politics.” USA Today September 12, 2006.
  22. R. Joseph Hoffmann, “Speaking of God . . .” Free Inquiry, December 2006/January 2007.
  23. Rodney Stark, What Americans Really Believe (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2008).
  24. Gregory S. Paul, “Is the Baylor Religion Study Reliable?” (Amherst, N.Y.: Council for Secular Humanism, 2009). Available online at http://www.secularhumanism.org/greg-paul-baylor.pdf.
  25. Available at http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris.
  26. Mark Chaves, Kirk C. Hadaway, and Peggy Long Marler, “What the Polls Don’t Show: A Closer Look at U.S. Church Attendance,” American Sociological Review, 1993.
  27. Rodney Stark, “Secularization, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 1999, 60:3.
  28. Rodney Starke and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (University of California Press, 2000).
  29. Tom Flynn, “Secularization Resurrected.” Free Inquiry, August/September 2007.
  30. Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment (New York: NYU Press, 2008).
  31. Phil Zuckerman, Faith No More (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  32. Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman, “Why the Gods Are Not Winning.” Available at http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/paul07/paul07_index.html, accessed 5/17/2007.
  33. Paul and Zuckerman, op. cit.
  34. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
  35. Paul and Zuckerman, op. cit.
  36. Emmett McLoughlin, Crime and Immorality in the Catholic Church (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1962).
  37. For an able survey of the past era’s shortcomings in regards to research into nonreligion, a situation from which we are now emerging, see Pasquale, “Unbelief in Irreligion. . . .”

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

We seem to be poised on the threshold of a bright new era in which nonreligious Americans will be properly studied by the social sciences. What better time to review what we know about the various flavors of religious nonaffiliation and nonbelief? And what better time to review the facts and fallacies that have shaped …

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