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Nonreligious Now America's Second Largest Life Stance Group

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 1.

In a new study, more than 11% of survey respondents—equivalent to 24 million Americans—report no religious preference. That would make irreligion the nation's second-largest life stance, outnumbering members of any sect or denomination except Roman Catholics.

The result was announced by Scripps Howard News Service and the Ohio University E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, which analyzed seven national public opinion polls conducted in the late 1990s by Ohio University's Scripps Survey Research Center.

In all, 754 people out of 6,705 U.S. adults (11.24%) participating in the various surveys responded to a question about religious affiliation by volunteering the answer, "None." Irreligion was highest among Asian-Americans, at 21%, and lowest among African-Americans, at 9%. Irreligion was higher among males, singles, marrieds without children, and residents of large cities, especially in the Northeast or on America's Pacific Rim. The irreligious tend to be more politically liberal and less inclined to belong to the GOP than Americans as a whole. Encouragingly, religious disaffiliation is higher among the young. Only 7% of respondents 65 and over reported no religion; a strapping 17% of young adults reported no religious affiliation.

Freethinkers have sometimes accused pollsters of skewing their surveys in order to inflate statistics on religious belief, church attendance, and the like. In 1996 Free Inquiry conducted a national survey of its own, painstakingly designed to eliminate pro-religious bias. Its results were comparable to those obtained by Gallup, Roper, Barna, Scripps Howard, and other national polling organizations, suggesting that survey statistics on religion and irreligion in American life may be fairly accurate after all. Throughout the 1990s, surveys have pegged the nonreligious—self-described atheists, agnostics, humanists, and without religious affiliation—at between 8 and 13% of the population.

These results suggest that we nonreligious are a substantial minority group—approximately as numerous as African Americans or homosexuals, significantly more numerous than Baptists, Mormons, or ethnic Jews, among others. If we remain, as many say, the last minority against whom discrimination remains socially acceptable, it cannot be because our numbers are too small. Minorities far smaller than our own have organized, engaged in activism, and successfully pressed for better treatment. If we have failed to do the same, maybe it's because of how we've tackled the problem—not because there aren't enough of us to get the job done.

Tom Flynn is coordinator of the Council for Secular Humanism's First Amendment Task Force and a senior editor of Free Inquiry.

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