Sunday, December 15, 2013

50 Million Atheists in the U.S.? Unlikely...

David Silverman, president of the American Atheists organization, is a prolific speaker and debater on the question of God and religion, as well as the appropriateness of religious sentiments in the political sphere. 

I'm not interested in attacking the integrity of Silverman (for all I know it's an honest mistake), but he very often makes the spurious claim that roughly 50 million Americans are atheists.  Well, the stats prove just the opposite.  He gets this figure by recent statistics that state between 15 to 25% of Americans are unaffiliated with any particular religion.  Take, for example, this Pew Forum article.  Even more striking is a recent Pew poll in which 21% of self-proclaimed "atheists" believe in God!  An additional 55% of agnostics believe in God.  92% of the total American population believes in God. 

Now let's do some basic math.  Let's round up and say the total American population is 315 million.  92% of 315 million is 289,800,000.  That leaves the remaining unbelieving 8% at 25,200,000 - half of Silverman's claim.  What he would need to rely on in order to back up his claim is a (currently unsupported) psychological factor in which an additional 25 million people just won't admit they're atheists, even on an anonymous survey.

Moreover, that's Silverman's best case scenario.  It's not that a full 8% are atheists, but simply lack a belief in God.  The new atheists like to define atheism as a mere lack of belief in God, but as even Antony Flew conceded in the 1970's (when he was still an atheist), who popularized this definition, such a definition is entirely novel.  And of course, agnostics don't necessarily identify themselves as atheists.  Atheism, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy is: "The theory or belief that God does not exist."


  1. As a person who has been trained in creating surveys to gauge religious belief, I think a lot of the inconsistencies and weirdness to be found in surveys (the percentage of atheists who believe in God, for instance) should just show us that we ought to have a healthy skepticism of self-report surveys to begin with. A survey doesn't measure a person's attitudes or beliefs, it measures what people say their attitudes and beliefs are. This is a big difference.

    And that is not even getting into the reductive nature of questions themselves. If I say I believe in God but it doesn't have any measurable effect on my behavior, then what exactly is the survey question measuring? Some sort of flat assent to the truth-value of the question perhaps, but not much more than that. Furthermore people are fickle - on some days they might be full-hearted believers, but the next day fall back onto some kind of weak Pascal's Wager and nothing more.

    So ironically perhaps, knowing more about the process and procedures of social science makes me way more skeptical about the results that we obtain from those processes. That's why I envy philosophers like you who can focus on deductive arguments and not aggregates of questionable data from fickle human beings!

  2. Well, there's a recent poll out on this which may shed more light on the claims. 9% and 7% either somewhat certain or absolutely certain there is no God. If you'd take those to be atheists, it looks like 50 million comes pretty close.

    On the other hand, they may not take themselves to be atheists.

  3. Thanks for your comments, guys. Saintsandsaints, I agree with you about the uncertainty of scientific surveys. My point was just that folks like Silverman misuse (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the results of these surveys. And yes, deductive arguments are a much better way of assessing truth than any survey. :)

    Crude, I hadn't heard of that survey. Do you know who did the analysis? I'm just curious because that's a huge discrepancy from virtually every other survey, which conclude that atheism has only maintained 2 to 3% of the U.S. population's views since the beginning of these surveys (early 1900's).

    1. I believe it was the harris online poll, which tends to get different numbers from other polls.

  4. I don't really think it's necessary to attempt to impugn Silverman's integrity; he seems to be quite apt at doing that himself vis-a-vis his debates and public persona. He is nothing more than a village atheist that happens to be famous to a certain degree.