Triple Play

Tom Flynn

It seems that it was just the issue before last when we devoted a cover feature to the demographics of unbelief—to what we know, statistically speaking, about America’s unbelievers and how we know it. Wait, that was the issue before last (“Bridging the Gulf: At Last, Social Science Measures Secularity,” FI, February/March 2012). Perhaps it merely reflects that topic’s importance that there have already been two significant new developments.

Nonreligious Americans: A Huge New Number

For several years now, we’ve been relying on the multiply attested statistic that 15 to 16 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation. Though all such persons can be called “nonreligious” or simply “nones,” a significant number of them reject such labels as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “secular humanist.” A study released by the Gallup Organization late in March may change that discourse dramatically. It was based on polling performed in 2011 according to a new methodology (which unfortunately makes its findings hard to compare against previous studies). Mainstream media spun it as a new ranking of America’s most- and least-religious states, but it was far more than that.

In fact, Gallup has soft-pedaled what may (if it holds up) be a dramatic new finding. Respondents had been asked how important religion was as a part of their daily lives and how frequently they attended religious services. Gallup classified 40 percent of respondents as very religious based on their claims that religion was very important to their daily lives and that they attended services weekly or almost every week. But here comes the bombshell: Gallup classified 32 percent of Americans as nonreligious! That’s how many respondents disclosed that religion was not important in their daily lives and also that they seldom or never attended religious services.

This is a wholly new statistic, based on an approach to the questions that Gallup has not taken in the past. For that reason, point-to-point comparisons to previous studies of religiosity by Gallup or others are difficult or impossible. Still, if this finding holds up, it suggests that America’s nonreligious population—which had seemed “stuck” at 15 to 16 percent for some eight years—is continuing to swell, almost certainly at the expense of the devout.

To understand how big a deal this is, consider two things: (1) Gallup reports a number of “nonreligious” Americans almost exactly double the largest number previously reported, and (2) Gallup’s definition of “nonreligious” is actually more rigorous than that used in “gold-standard” studies like the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008 and recent Pew Foundation surveys. Gallup bases its measure of irreligion on both an attitudinal question and a behavioral question: to be counted as nonreligious, respondents must rank religion as unimportant in their lives and report little to no church-going. By contrast, all one had to do to join the “no preference” population tracked in older surveys was to state no religious preference. So Gallup seems to be measuring a more outspoken kind of irreligion than previous studies, and despite that greater stringency, it is measuring irreligion at double the previously reported rate.

Maybe Gallup has discovered a new spike in the growth of American unbelief that previous studies did not detect. Or maybe it reflects as-yet undiagnosed problems with the survey’s novel methodology. Time will tell how this finding survives the scrutiny that pollsters and demographers are bound to give it.

Faith Behind Bars, Measurement in Chains

Some readers found surprising the claim in my February/March article on demographics (“Who Are These Doubters, Anyway? A Look Back at the Demographics of Unbelief”) that the measurement of religious affiliation among inmates in America’s state and federal prisons has been deliberately suppressed for roughly half a century. In the world’s greatest information society, no one seems to know what America’s prisoners believe, or in what numbers they believe it. Another March survey, this time from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, confirms this phenomenon while further illuminating it.

“Little information is publicly available about the religious lives of the approximately 1.6 million inmates in the U.S. prison system,” states the survey’s executive summary. “The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics routinely reports on several characteristics of the U.S. prison population, such as age, gender and racial/ethnic composition, but it does not usually report on the religious affiliation of inmates, and independent surveys of inmates rarely are permitted.” A footnote expands on the problem: “Prisoners are rarely allowed to participate in research studies of any kind, partly because of prior abuses of their involuntary availability for such studies. To be permitted, studies usually must demonstrate a clear cost-benefit calculation in the prisoners’ favor, such as the benefit from receiving a specific medical treatment. The possible ‘psychic rewards’ to inmates of being able to express their opinions and describe their experiences on a survey questionnaire, or the value of the information to the public, generally are not considered sufficient by correctional authorities to justify a survey of inmates.”

Pew’s new survey couldn’t survey inmates’ religious views either, so it settled for the next best thing: surveying prison chaplains from all fifty states. Pew polled 1,474 chaplains, of whom 730 returned finished questionnaires, a most respectable response rate. As a group, responding chaplains are 85 percent male, 70 percent white, and fifty-seven years old on average. Some 62 percent hold graduate degrees; 85 percent identify themselves as Christian, about half of them as evangelical Protestant.

Six in ten espouse conservative theological views. They perceive religious extremism among inmates as most common among Muslims and members of pagan or earth-based religions. They think that the religions growing most rapidly among the incarcerated are (in order) Islam, Protestantism, pagan or earth-based religions, and Native American spiritualities.

Pew even resorted to asking chaplain-respondents to estimate the religious affiliations of the prison populations they served, while sternly warning that this provides “only an impressionistic portrait of the religious environment in which chaplains work.” That’s right, data on inmate religious affiliation is so deeply buried that the nation’s largest pollster finds it worthwhile to ask chaplains to guess about it!

According to those chaplains, the prison population is roughly two-thirds Christian. Protestants are estimated to constitute about half of all inmates, Catholics another 15 percent, and other Christians below 2 percent. Muslims are thought to compose on average 9 percent of inmates. Meanwhile 10.6 percent of inmates were guessed to hold no religious preference, while the religious views of another 5 percent were believed to be unknown.

By the way, more than three-quarters of chaplains report that the prisons where they work have “formal systems” for documenting inmates’ religious affiliations and recording when inmates switch religions. So the elusive information exists inside most prisons—it is simply withheld from the public. Call it “Do ask, don’t tell.”

I suspect there’s another reason that this data is withheld, aside from a perhaps-excessive reluctance to “exploit” inmates by harvesting their personal data for public view. If the chaplains are guessing correctly that 10.6 percent of inmates are nonreligious, that’s well below the accepted 15 to 16 percent rate outside prison walls. (It’s even further below the accepted rate of unbelief for a population that skews as young as prisoners do.) If Gallup’s new 32-percent figure holds up, then convicts as a group are markedly more devout than the society that locked them up.

As I detailed in my demographics article two issues ago, this is the very pattern that emerged in early-twentieth-century surveys of inmates’ beliefs conducted before prisons slammed their doors on inmate surveys. If it is true that prisoners are more devout than the population at large—and have been so for decades—that is at the very least problematic for religious conservatives who like to claim that faith is necessary for morality. If anything, this data would suggest that the opposite might be true.

Unconscious Exclusion

Okay, enough with the weighty demographics. What follows is a small thing. Radio advertising by my city’s premier non–church-affiliated cemetery got under my skin. Forest Lawn Cemetery is a rolling sylvan preserve modeled on Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, Buffalo’s Gilded Age titans raised their lavish obelisks and mausoleums—U.S. president Millard Fillmore is among the eminent figures buried there—but it still accepts new “residents” today. In fact, it advertises for them fairly vigorously. Forest Lawn’s usual commercial on the area’s top AM news-talk station declares that it is open “to all faiths.” That set me to thinking: Does that mean the cemetery turns away people without a religious faith?

So I sat down and wrote them an e-mail. “A policy that restricts the availability of your services to persons of ‘faith’” would bar the nonreligious from doing business with Forest Lawn “as overtly as an ‘Irish need not apply’ sign in the window or a ‘Whites Only’ sign over a drinking fountain,” I wrote. “If I, as an open atheist and a person who has published numerous articles confirming that I am not spiritual and do not have a faith, inquired at Forest Lawn regarding burial or other interment arrangements, would I be refused service? If not, given the claim made in your radio advertising, why not?” I closed by adding, “Saying that Forest Lawn is ‘nonsectarian’ may convey what I suspect you’re really trying to convey without the appearance of telling fifty million Americans to go die and be buried somewhere else.” Yes, my e-mail was a little snarky.

A spokesperson for the cemetery graciously wrote back, saying: “For more than 163 years, Forest Lawn has welcomed anyone who wishes to be buried within our gates, without exclusion, and we will continue to do so until there is no longer space available” [underline in original].

“I’m glad to see that Forest Lawn’s policy is inclusive,” I replied. “Can I expect, then, that the phrase in your advertising that suggests otherwise (‘of all faiths,’ implying exclusion of those who live without faith) will be removed?”

As I write, it’s weeks later, and I’ve still received no response.

I’d appreciate hearing from readers who’ve clashed with businesses or institutions in their own localities that—inadvertently or otherwise—communicate with the public using language that is exclusionary or offensive toward the nonreligious. Has anyone scored a victory by eliciting an explicit apology or change in advertising copy? Does anyone have a war story about some flinty merchant who won’t apologize for a “If You’re Not My Kind of Christian, You’re Doomed to Hell” sign in the front window? E-mail me at tflynn@centerforinquiry.net or write me at Free Inquiry, P. O. Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226-0664.

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).


It seems that it was just the issue before last when we devoted a cover feature to the demographics of unbelief—to what we know, statistically speaking, about America’s unbelievers and how we know it. Wait, that was the issue before last (“Bridging the Gulf: At Last, Social Science Measures Secularity,” FI, February/March 2012). Perhaps it …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.