Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 25 issue 1

Battling Over the Nones

Tom Flynn

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 25, Number 1 (Spring 2009).

I have seen the future, and it contains a battle among sociologists over the fast-growing minority of Americans who list their religious affiliation as “none.” At least the argument about whether this minority is growing is over. Now sociologists argue about what the 45,900,000 to 49,266,000 religiously unaffiliated Americans do—or don’t—believe. Specifically, does the rapid growth in the ranks of the unaffiliated indicate similarly rapid growth in the ranks of the nonreligious—atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, freethinkers, and so on?

It doesn’t if you listen to Rodney Stark, codirector of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, a Baptist institution. He told one journalist that the religiously unaffiliated “tend to be unchurched, but they are believers and prayers.” And yes, Dr. Stark will happily produce research results in which a significant number of atheists and agnostics hold religious beliefs and even pray. On the other hand, Dr. Stark also has research in which the percentage of Americans who are atheists or agnostics has barely moved since (hang on tight now) the 1940s.

Sociologists of religion and public-opinion pollsters are forming two camps. In an essay for the Washington Post online, I called the two camps “meerkats” and “ostriches.” “Consider the meerkat, standing vigilant astride its burrow,” I wrote. “Then the ostrich—well, everyone knows what ostriches do.”

The meerkats have been tracking a marked rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated and unbelieving Americans since around 1990. First to note the phenomenon were Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, then with the City University of New York, whose original American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 1990) found a then-surprising 8.2 percent of respondents claiming no religious affiliation. When Kosmin and Keysar re-ran their study in 2001, that number had skyrocketed to 14.2 percent. Now based at Trinity College, they ran a third study last year: ARIS 2008 found that the number had edged yet higher, to 15 percent. Studies by the Pew Forum, Harris, and other organizations have shown similar results using a range of methodologies. A 2004 study by Pew and the University of Akron found the highest number yet recorded: 16.1 percent unaffiliated. (Thus the figures 45,900,000 and 49,266,000 I threw around above. The smaller figure represents ARIS 2008’s 15 percent of all Americans and the larger one Pew/Akron’s 16.1 percent.)

The ostrich camp is smaller: it consists essentially of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion and its director, Rodney Stark. You may recognize the name: Stark has authored best sellers analyzing how Christianity spread under the Roman Empire, why America is so much more religious than Europe, etc. (Thanks to Stark, most people you encounter at cocktail parties believe that American religion is so robust because unlike those European countries with their state churches, America has a free market in religious ideas, hence invigorating competition among sects and congregations. Never mind that professional sociologists discredited that theory starting around 2003.) Stark and his Baylor collaborators have conducted their own series of studies of American religion in conjunction with the Gallup Organization; some of this work has been funded by (three guesses) the John Templeton Foundation. Instead of issuing a stuffy research report, Stark reported his group’s latest findings in a book, What Americans Really Believe. In its pages you will find those claims about unbelievers who pray and atheism not growing since the 1940s—alongside “proof” that over the same period, belief in God has held rock-steady at nearly 90 percent.

The Baylor group’s methodology is, to say the least, questionable. In fact, the Council for Secular Humanism has released a research paper by independent scholar and frequent Free Inquiry writer Gregory S. Paul that dissects this research in vast detail. I can give you only a taste here. In order to show that atheism was not growing, Baylor workers handpicked Gallup polls from the forties and fifties and lumped those merely unsure God existed in with the atheists. That way they could boost the percentage of atheists back then. They used other methods to minimize the percentage of atheists in later studies. Plot these mutually incompatible data points on a graph, and presto: the percentage of atheists does not grow over time.

But back to our main question: granted that the population of religiously unaffiliated Americans is way up, does that tell us anything about the number of actual unbelievers? Rodney Stark will take his head out of the sand long enough to say no, and he has numbers to prove it (depending on your definition of “proof”). Unfortunately for Dr. Stark, the meerkats (which is to say, almost everyone in the field who doesn’t work at Baylor University) have relevant—and far more impressive—data of their own.

That 2004 Pew/Akron study analyzed the 16.1 percent of its respondents who were unaffiliated in considerable detail. About two-thirds of them emerged as atheists, agnostics, or “hard seculars” whose stated beliefs and lifestyles left no room for religion. The merely unchurched and spiritually searching—the folks Rodney Stark would have you believe predominate among the unaffiliated —made up only a third. As for ARIS 2008, though Kosmin and Keysar found only a small percentage of declared atheists and agnostics (1.6 percent), a whopping 12 percent of their respondents qualified as atheists or agnostics based on their stated beliefs, though they didn’t embrace the labels. Another 12 percent held beliefs that qualified them as deists: that is, they believe in a vague higher power but not in a personal God. Let’s see: 1.6 percent plus 12 percent plus 12 percent—that’s 25.6 percent. In other words, there are more atheists, agnostics, and deists than there are religiously unaffiliated Americans!

With that, I guess I owe Rodney Stark a small apology. If not quite in the way his data shows, yes, some number of American atheists, agnostics, or deists (specifically, 32,436,000 of them) state a denominational affiliation. I suppose some of them go to church, and who knows? Maybe a few of them pray.

But I’m going to reserve judgment until these folks show up in some meerkat’s numbers.

Tom Flynn is the newly appointed executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism. Ronald A. Lindsay stepped down after being named chief executive officer of the Center for Inquiry. Flynn is also editor of Free Inquiry and director of the Ingersoll Museum in Dresden, New York. He has most recently published The New Encylopedia of Unbelief (Prometheus Books, 2007), of which he was the editor.

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