Wednesday, October 10, 2012

7% or more of US population are atheists (some just don't know it)

UPDATE: It would appear that I am not having a very insightful day! I think I was too caught up crunching numbers that I didn't see that the numbers were actually there in front of me. It says right on that second chart that the percentage of those affiliated with a religion but are neither spiritual nor religious is 8% of that group. This would be around 6% of the overall population, a couple points more than my conservative estimate of 4%. /UPDATE

UPDATE_2: To be fair and honest (at least as much as I can be since I am working with somewhat contradictory data), I must also note that a portion — 18% — of the nones describe themselves as "religious." Much like I wondered if those who are affiliated with a religion but don't consider themselves religious should be counted as part of the nones, I must likewise wonder if this group should not be counted. In which case, perhaps the 20% estimate is, overall, a reasonable estimate since there could be both additions and subtractions of people who were incorrectly categorized. /UPDATE_2

   Many blogs have been covering the news yesterday from the Pew Forum about the rise in those who are "unaffiliated," which will be henceforth referred to as "nones." It is cool news, as far as I am concerned. One thing that has been pointed out (as it has in the past) is that not all of the nones are atheists. It is correct to point this out. But I find it odd that no one seems to actually proclaim what the overall percentage of atheists is. From the survey, it would seem that number could be 7%.

   If you look at the chart below, it says that the number of atheists is 2.4%.  But this is based on the number of people who identify as atheists.  This does not include the number of people who are atheists but may not identify as such or not be aware that they are atheists.

   Something I wrote a long time ago was about what an atheist is. Simply, and atheist is someone who does not believe in a god. In the survey, Pew Forum apparently collected data on the question of the existence of a god (or "universal spirit"):

   7% said they don't believe in a god*, and that should be the minimum number of atheists. I say should and minimum because there are the data:
  • 27% of the nones are atheists, based on this data. But this only accounts for 5.4% of the overall population at most, assuming 27 comes from rounding down from near 27.5. This leaves at least a full percentage of atheists that are affiliated. This, though, is not necessarily unheard of as there have been atheists who affiliate themselves with a religion for cultural reasons. The main example are Jewish atheists, who are atheists that come from a Jewish family background. There have been suspicions that there are a number of atheists who are culturally Catholic and label themselves as Catholic. This may account for this discrepancy.
  • This same chart notes that 15% are "neither spiritual nor religious." This would suggest that there could be as many as half of the people who make this claim who may also believe in god. This isn't necessarily a contradiction and, even if it were, doesn't mean people cannot hold contradictory beliefs, but it is still a seemingly high percentage in my opinion. The key may be that one of the answers for the god belief question is "Yes, but less certain." Perhaps there are some people who are very much less uncertain that they would have been better off to answer "No."
    But this discrepancy is even harder to explain as it also has much the same discrepancy as under the first bullet. In this case, the nones that are neither spiritual nor religious only account for 8.3 of the overall population at most. There could be 4%** of this neither spiritual nor religious group that are affiliated with a religion! Now that is contradictory. Once again, it could be that there are people culturally affiliated with a religion, but don't really believe what the church is selling them.
   Could this then mean there is a good size of the population that is very close to becoming atheist? I suspect the answer could very well be "Yes," and this could put the atheist population at as much as 13%. At the very least, it may be that the actual percentage of nones could be closer to 23-25%. What I would like to see in future surveys is a question (or questions) for that affiliated group relating to whether or not they affiliate for cultural reasons or because they actually believe the church doctrine, much like what the Richard Dawkins Foundation did in the UK.

* May there be a need to note that they capitalize the word "god"? What about polytheists who believe in multiple gods? I would suspect such people would still answer "Yes" to the question, so this is likely not an issue.

** On the math: This assumes "worst case scenario" in which the 15% is rounded up from 14.5%. It is noted that 2% of the population answered "Don't know" to the question of affiliation and then it is assumed (worst case scenario, again) that all 100% of these are neither spiritual nor religious. Assuming this number was rounded down from just less than 2.5, this gets us to 8.3 + 2.5, or 10.7%. This is 3.8% away from 14.5%, or about 4% when rounded.

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