In general, I’ve been dismissive of atheists’ claims that the movement is growing. There really hasn’t been much information to back that up. Certainly, it has been clear that “nones” — people who aren’t affiliated with any religion — were growing in numbers. But that seemed to have more to do with people who just don’t care: neither agnostic nor atheist. But this recent Pew Research Center poll shows an enormous jump over the last seven years — not just in terms of “nones” but also in terms of agnostics and atheists.
What we see is that the number of “nones” has gone from 16.1% to 22.8%. That’s enormous. But we should be clear on just what the “nones” are. Pew subdivides this group into three parts. First, there are the explicit doubters: atheists and agnostics. Second, there are those who don’t follow any particular religion, and for whom religion is not important. And third, there are those who don’t follow any particular religion, and for whom religion is important. Over the last seven years, there has been big increase in the explicit doubters: from 25% to 31% of the “nones.” The second group has stayed proportionally the same. So the relative increase in the doubters came at the expense of the third group (not that they were the same people, because as you will see, their absolute numbers have also increased).
The atheists have seen themselves grow from just 1.6% of the population in 2007 to 3.1% in 2014. That’s almost double — truly amazing. What’s more, the agnostics have seen themselves grow slightly more in an absolute sense, but less in a relative sense: from 2.4% to 4.0%. The rest of the “nones” have also seen their numbers rise: from 12.1% to 15.8%. Again, that’s a larger increase in an absolute sense, but a much smaller relative change. But if we break out these “nones” into those who value religion and those who don’t, we find that those who don’t have increased a lot more: from 6.3% to 8.9%. Those who do value religion have only gone up from 5.8% to 6.8%.
Bottom line: the “nones” are getting less religious, even as their total numbers are increasing. At the same time, Evangelicals have dropped almost a percentage point: from 26.3% to 25.4%. Catholics have gone down over three percentage points: from 23.9% to 20.8%. And mainline protestants have, as expected, taken the biggest hit (both absolutely and relatively): from 18.1% to 14.7%. So what is going on?
As regular readers know, I’m pretty hard on the New Atheist movement — especially given that I am an atheist. But I have to give them credit. I think this is partly due to them. But I think it works differently than many people might think. I doubt that Christians are reading Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation and renouncing their faith. Rather, I think that there are a whole lot of people who are religious for purely cultural reasons. I think this is even true of regular churchgoers. The New Atheist movement has made it easier to abandon the pretense. It’s pretty simple: look at all those smart people who don’t believe in God and yet aren’t killing, cooking, and devouring babies.
One place where direct New Atheist argumentation probably helps is in the third group of “nones.” I’ve never found atheistic arguments against God all that compelling. This is primarily because “God” is about as poorly defined a concept as you can get. For some it means a loving father figure while for others it just means a first cause. So what exactly is an argument against God? An argument against the guy with white hair and beard? Or an argument against the first cause? My ontology tends to come down on the side of: there is no first cause — the multiverse isn’t like an animal that is born, lives, and dies. But regardless, this is not exactly something that Richard Carrier and William Lane Craig are going to debate about.
But the New Atheist arguments do make a profound case for giving up religious dogma. And that has an effect on every level in the chain. Once people give up the dogma, religion tends to become less important to people. So people go through these five stages:
- “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
- “There’s got to be some reason for it all, and I’m gonna find out!”
- “There’s got to be some reason for it all, but I have better things to do.”
- “There might be some reason for it all, but who cares?”
- “There is almost certainly no reason for it all, and I would be better off looking for that teapot.
So good work New Atheists! I still think you could tone it down, a bit. But you obviously shouldn’t look to me for advice about growing a movement. On the other hand, I would caution you that growth like this is unusual in any movement. I don’t ever see atheists as being a large group. The focus should be to grow the “nones” generally. I think that could eventually become a majority. And that could be a great improvement. It could also be worse if people replace religious impulses with nationalistic ones or with the deification of the free market. But thus far, it looks fairly good.