Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


The Schisms of the Religiously Unaffiliated

I recently unwittingly touched the third rail of religious research. In a post about Catholic reverts I noted in passing that Atheists have a comparatively low retention rate at 30% (percentage of children raised with an identity/affiliation maintaining this identity/affiliation as an adult).

As others blogged or wrote articles about what I had mentioned in passing I started to see people in related comments and tweets seeking to discredit the retention rate. Some responded with anecdotes (…“all my friends are Atheists and they’ve never left”), others tried to discredit the survey data (…but it is one of the largest surveys about religion ever conducted making it possible to say something about groups, like Atheists, that make up a small percentage of the population… the margin of error sampling error for Atheists in Pew’s Religious Landscape survey is ±4.3 percentage points), some said the research was obviously biased coming from CARA. Others noted that some Atheists grow up to become Agnostics or Nones (those without a religious affiliation) and that this should not be counted as a “loss.” Then it struck me. Some may not realize how different Atheists are from Agnostics and Nones. 

Pew, ARIS, and the GSS have all shown the religiously unaffiliated population overall is growing rapidly in the United States. Many seem to think this means that Atheism, being a part of this broader religious unaffiliated category, is growing quickly in the United States as well (...they may also be confused by statistics showing Atheism is growing rapidly in other countries). Yet, recent estimates from the largest surveys available put the self-identified Atheist population percentage in the U.S. at somewhere between 0.7% and 1.6% (ARIS and Pew, respectively). Differences in other surveys (with smaller samples) from recent decades are within margin of sampling error making it difficult to know if any growth is occurring in this specific population at all. As shown in the figure above, Pew found that the unaffiliated were 16% of the U.S. adult population in 2007. According to the GSS, the unaffiliated were 5% of the population in 1973 and were 18% in 2010. Nones, the unaffiliated who do not self-identify as Atheists or Agnostics, are the most numerous of the unaffiliated (75%) and they tend to believe in something no Atheist is supposed to believe in—God (83%).  

You’ll notice something else odd in the figure above as well. One in five self-identified Atheists (21%) believe in God. This finding has already been acknowledged by Pew (...they may deserve credit for being the first to document “Cafeteria Atheists”). The researchers note that  “atheists and agnostics are defined here as all respondents who described themselves as being atheist or agnostic, even though some of them may believe in some notion of God” (pg. 6). This is the same standard used for other religious affiliations (as well as other social identities and labels) in social science research. If someone identifies as Catholic they are treated as such, even though they may not go to Mass or hold important core beliefs of the faith.  

Overall 74% of the unaffiliated—Nones, Agnostics, and Atheists—believe in God. If social scientists only counted Atheists as “real” if they say they do not believe in God, the Atheist population percentage would be even smaller. My hunch would be that some Atheists would want to count anyone of any religious affiliation or non-affiliation who does not believe in God as “one of them” even if that individual does not consider themselves to be an Atheist. In that case, nearly one in 20 Americans (4.7%) could be considered an Atheist. This just means there are Atheist-Catholics, Atheist-Buddhists, Atheist-Black Protestants, Atheist-Muslims, Atheist-Evangelical Christians, Atheist-Mormons. It will also be difficult to make the case that those who are members of a religion are also opposed to organized religion ( would also be strange to label these people as Atheists when they personally reject the label and identity of “Atheist”).

What many call “New Atheism” has sold a lot of books and is remarkably visible in the media. This is a movement that appears to be most successful in Europe and is primarily a combination of 1) denial of existence of God or a creator and 2) active opposition to organized religion. Nones are presumably not big fans of organized religion because they do not seek any membership, affiliation, or identity with one. But it is on the first point that Nones have so little in common with most Atheists. What is the core aim of New Atheism? Is it to oppose organized religion or deny the existence of God? If it’s the former some of the Nones may be a part of your movement. If it’s the latter many are not fit.

Nones do not appear to be as hostile toward religion as many assume. As the figure below shows, half of adult Nones say religion is “somewhat’ or “very much” important in their life. Even one in ten Atheists (11%) respond as such.

Need more evidence? Are one in five Atheists (19%) going to Heaven or headed for some other form of afterlife? Apparently six in ten Nones (61%) believe it’s a possibility. 

Perhaps the Atheists who attend religious services have the best chance of getting to Heaven? Fourteen percent attend at least once a year (other than for a wedding or funeral). Three in ten Nones would likely be at church to welcome them.

Why would an Atheist go to church? Family ties. The one thing that all the unaffiliated have in common is that about one in five are in households with a religious membership.

My biggest concern with New Atheism is in its attempt to take ownership of science. There are many people now (Michio Kaku, Francis Collins, Werner Abner, Francisco Ayala, John Polkinghorne...) and certainly in history (Athanasius Kircher, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, Max Planck, Georges Lemaître...) who loved and practiced science who also expressed religious beliefs. I will defend the right of anyone to be a non-believer and not be discriminated against in any way because of that point of view or identity. I’m not alone. The Catholic Church includes Atheists among the faculty at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that advises popes and cardinals on the latest findings of science. 

One’s religious beliefs or lack thereof have nothing to do with the science they practice. When I review a paper for journal publication I don’t have a clue who the author(s) is (let alone their religious affiliation). It’s not part of the process. It would be foolish to question the science of someone based solely on their religion. The evidence is all that matters.

It’s interesting that so much of the rhetoric of New Atheism seems to really be directed at Evangelical Christians—those specifically who take the Bible literally word for word. Many New Atheists seem to think anyone who is religious holds similar beliefs. Yet, this cannot be equated with the mainstream Catholic point of view. After all St. Augustine wrote about allegorical interpretations of Genesis in the 4th Century CE. As Pope Benedict XVI has argued much more recently:

Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called "creationism" and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.

I have to admit that in light of the quote above those Darwin fish on some Atheists’ cars make me laugh because I am a fan of both God’s and Darwin’s works (...I first learned of evolution in a Catholic school). In my opinion, the latter is simply revealing the work of the former. As a scientist (and a Catholic) I seek the truth. If I was a biologist I would probably be hunting for evidence of the origin of life just as Lemaître sought to understand the moment of the universe’s creation. But I’m a social scientist and I instead study how people practice their religions—mostly Catholics but apparently now also the self-identified Atheists who believe in God, go to church, and look forward to an afterlife. There are so many mysteries to study...

Above photo courtesy of Caro's Lines at Flickr Creative Commons.

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