3. Who Are America’s Atheists and Agnostics?

Ariela Keysar

Atheism: from Greek atheos, godless, a disbelief in the existence of a deity. Atheist: one who denies the existence of God. Agnostic: from Greek agnostos, unknown, one who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary)

A

theists and Agnostics are fringe populations in U.S. society. Considered by many to be deviant,1 Atheists are a distrusted group. According to a Gallup Poll from September 2006, a vast majority of the public (84 percent) thinks that Americans are not ready to elect an Atheist as president.2 Although Atheists and Agnostics are tiny minority groups, the attention they attract, particularly from the religious right, warrants a better understanding of exactly who they are in terms of social characteristics such as gender, age, educational level, ethnicity and political preferences. This chapter provides a demographic and social profile of three distinct groups: self-identified Atheists, self-identified Agnostics, and those who answered “none” to a survey question, “What is your religion, if any? ” The first two groups are quite small, together amounting to about 1 percent of the U.S. adult population. The third group, called the no-religion group, is about 13 percent of the population. All are growing. Together, the three groups increased from about 14 million in 1990 to over 29 million in 2001, according to Religion in a Free Market: Religious and Non-Religious Americans, Who, What, Why, Where.3 It takes a very large sample of the population to develop a reliable portrait of minority groups as small as Atheists and Agnostics. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001 is perhaps the only survey large enough.
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With its random sample of 50,281 adult respondents, it estimated the number of American adult Atheists as 900,000 and adult Agnostics as 990,000. This data set presents a unique opportunity to distinguish between three groups previously lumped together—Atheists, Agnostics, and those professing no religion. Drawing on the fine detail available from the ARIS, this chapter is the first to show the differences as well as the similarities among these three distinct groups.

Gender
Both Agnostics and Atheists are predominantly male. In the U.S. population as a whole, 48 percent of adults are male, as are 47 percent of Catholic adults. By comparison, males account for 56 percent of the no-religion group, 70 percent of Atheists, and 75 percent of Agnostics, as shown in Figure 3-1. This may reflect men’s greater tendency to disbelieve and reject authority.

Age
Atheists are young. Fully 55 percent are under age 35. Only 20 percent are 50 and over, as opposed to 37 percent of all Americans. Interestingly, Agnostics are older than Atheists, though still younger than the general population, as shown in Figure 3-2. Beyond the numbers shown here, ARIS data show that one-third of Atheists are under age 25. Half of them are age 30 or under. This age structure has major demographic consequences. It helps explains their marital status—41 percent are singles never married and only 40 percent are married. Among Agnostics and “no religion” adults, about 30 percent are singles never married and about 50 percent are married. Once again, the Agnostic and “no religion” are similar to one another while the Atheists’ marital status is more distinct. Comparing this 2001 data with the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI)4 provides clear evidence of a recent trend towards secularization among the younger American population. The diffusion of secular messages aimed at young people on TV and over the Internet may explain the correlations between popular youth culture and the demographic characteristics revealed by the ARIS. Of course, it is possible that this is an “age” rather than a “generational” effect, so that some of these young people may “convert” and become believers as they get older, and thus reassert the belief patterns of their parents and grandparents.

3. Who are america’S athieStS and agnoSticS?
Figure 3-1

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Percent Male Among Atheist, Agnostic and No Religion Adults
U.S. Total 48

No Religion

58

Athiest

70

Agnostic

75

0

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

percent Source: American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001 Figure 3-2

Age Composition of Atheist, Agnostic and No Religion
18-34 80 70 60 50 35-49 50-64 65+

percent

40 30 20 10 0

55 40 24 9 11 Atheist 29 18 13 Agnostic 46 30 16 No Religion 8 U.S. Total 32 31 21 16

Source: American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001

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Education
Agnostics clearly have the highest educational attainment, with 42 percent being college graduates or having post-graduate education. This is far higher than Atheists and the “no religion” group, as shown in Figure 3-3. The relatively low educational level of Atheists may come as a surprise, because various researchers have argued that Atheists are concentrated among the intellectual elite. BeitHallahmi has called academia and science “the Atheist bastions.” Youth may be one reason that fully 47 percent of Atheists have no more than a high school diploma, vs. the national average of 41 percent. Some Atheists may not yet be old enough to have earned a college or post-graduate degree. Atheists may also have a bimodal distribution in terms of education, with large proportions at the top and the bottom of the educational ladder. The attribute of high educational level among Agnostics sets them apart from Atheists and adults who profess no religion. One possible explanation is that “Agnostic” is a sophisticated technical term; thus for someone to selfidentify5 as such suggests a well-educated person. Overall, Americans who profess no religion or self-identify as Atheist or Agnostic are more likely to be white non-Hispanic or Asian and less likely to be African American, as compared to the general adult population. The small sample size by ethnicity precludes detailed tables.

Geography
Where are Atheists, Agnostics, and people who profess no religion to be found? Atheists concentrate in the West and the Northeast and are scarce in the South. Agnostics and the no religion group also concentrate in the West, but are comparatively less common in the Northeast, as seen in Figure 3-4. The Pacific Northwest has been identified as the “None zone” by Killen and Silk.6 Pasquale7 focuses on a special group of religiously unaffiliated Americans, which includes but is not restricted to Atheists or Agnostics. He calls them “Nots” and finds they are most common in the Pacific Northwest.

Political Party Preference
The general U.S. population is about evenly distributed among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. In contrast, a clear majority of Atheists are politically independent, as seen in Figure 3-5. Atheists are far less likely than the general public to be Republicans. The percentage who are Democrats is about the same as that among the total U.S. population for all three of the irreligious groups under discussion. Agnostics and the no-religion group lie between

3. Who are america’S athieStS and agnoSticS?
Figure 3-3

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Educational Level of Athiest, Agnostic, and No Religion
High School Grad or Some College 80 70 60 50 College Graduate or Post Grad

percent

40 30 20 10 0

68 58 42 32

66 34

66 34

Atheist

Agnostic

No Religion

U.S. Total

Source: American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001 Figure 3-4

Regional Distribution of Atheist, Agnostic, and No Religion
Northeast 60 50 40 North Central South West

percent

30 20

36 27 19 18 17 23 28

32 19 24

28 29

36 19 23 22

10 0

Atheist

Agnostic

No Religion

U.S. Total

Source: American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001

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Atheists and the general public in their political leanings, but are considerably closer to Atheists. Not only are Atheists disenchanted by the divine power, but they are also the most likely to detach themselves and so be alienated from the two main political parties.
Figure 3-5

Party Political Preferences of Atheist, Agnostic and No Religion
Republican 80 70 60 50 Democrat Independent Don’t Know & Refused

percent

40 30 20 10 0

50 26 10 Atheist 11 33 16

43 30 17 6 Agnostic

43 30 32 30 8 U.S. Total 7

No Religion

Source: American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2001

Summary
Both academic research and public opinion polls have a tendency to blur distinctions among Atheists, Agnostics, and what has come to be called the no-religion group, or Nones. But the large sample from the 2001 ARIS allows distinctions to be made. ARIS data show that Atheists are by far younger, more likely to reside in the West, and more politically independent than Agnostics. Both Atheists and Agnostics are predominantly male. And Agnostics are by far the most educated group. In political preferences, age composition, and geographical residency, Agnostics and Nones are similar. On educational attainment, on the other hand, Atheists are more similar to Nones than Agnostics. By gender, Atheists and Agnostics are more male than the Nones. This illustration of clear inter-group distinctions should discourage the practice of lumping together Atheists, Agnostics, and the “no religion” population into an undifferentiated mass.

3. Who are america’S athieStS and agnoSticS? EndnotEs
1.

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Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. Atheists: A Psychological Profile. In M. Martin (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. For comparison, 38% of the public believes Americans are not ready to elect a woman as president, 42% to elect a Jew and 91% to elect a gay or lesbian (the only other group to attract more negative feelings). Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar. Religion in a Free Market: Religious and NonReligious Americans, Who, What, Why, Where. New York: Paramount Market Publishing, Inc, 2006. See, Kosmin, Barry A. and Seymour P. Lachman, One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society. New York: Harmony Books, 1993. Note, ARIS 2001 methodology was based on self-reporting and an open-ended question: What is your religion, if any? Respondents chose their own category of religion and were not read a list of pre-coded religious groups. Killen, Patricia O’Connell and Mark Silk. Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest: The None Zone. Alta Mira Press, 2004. Pasquale, Frank. The Non-Religious in the American Northwest. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, 2007.

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