The Undercounted Nones: ‘Free Inquiry’ on America’s Overlooked Atheists


January 15, 2020

Survey after survey shows that the religiously unaffiliated are growing as a share of the American population, but a closer look suggests that the “Nones” aren’t just rising, they’re dominating. In the latest issue of Free Inquiry, the leading journal of secular humanism, Gregory S. Paul digs into the data and finds that atheists, agnostics, and all manner of nonbelievers are allowing themselves to be severely undercounted.

Compared to the religious right, which boasts of a claimed majority status while also bemoaning its imagined marginalization, nonreligious Americans are prone to underestimate their numbers and hedge when discussing their own lack of religious belief with pollsters. Also confounding matters is the confusion about the definitions of the myriad terms and subdivisions among the nonreligious.

“Calculating what people actually think and do when it comes to religion/nonreligion is more accurate than directly asking whether or not one is an atheist,” writes Paul, revealing how a calculation by Pew Research estimates that half of Americans are nonreligious and adding that other major polling firms agree that “somewhere in the area of a third [of Americans] are atheists of at least the light, agnostic variety, and a tenth or more have little or no doubt any gods exist.” And why is this important? Declares Paul, “To normalize American atheism, humanism, and secularism requires presenting our true large numbers.”

As though proving this point, Barry Kosmin, the scholar credited with coining the term “Nones,” explores survey data showing how Americans’ feelings toward the nonreligious have remained consistently negative as they purport to see religion as an overall positive force, while clergy from distinct religious denominations cast atheists and secularism as their “common enemy.”

Plus, Adam Neiblum explodes a popular trope among the irreligious: the idea that all humans are “born atheists,” only to be overwhelmed by religious indoctrination as we grow. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the human brain has evolved, says Neiblum, who argues, “We have evolved a suite of characteristics … that incline us toward theistic interpretations of the cosmos. Indoctrination determines the form and structure of these religious beliefs.”

Also in this issue: Hannah Wallace reports on the rise of atheism in Saudi Arabia and the subsequent backlash by the regime; Sara Myers opens up about her own schizophrenia to dissuade skeptics from dismissing the rational side of those who suffer from this mental illness; Free Inquiry editor Tom Flynn calls upon readers to tell their stories of “pivot points,” those crucial moments of crisis that led them to make the turn away from religion; and much more.

The February/March 2020 issue of Free Inquiry is coming soon, with both print and digital subscriptions available.

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The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and the Council for Secular Humanism. The Center for Inquiry strives to foster a secular society based on reason, science, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at centerforinquiry.org.

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