Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Atheist on the warpath

Myers.jpegPZ Myers, biology prof and proud atheist, takes umbrage at what he see as a dishonest effort to reassure the public that all those Nones are not really Big Bad Unbelievers but mostly just skeptics about organized religion. No doubt, there are some who push in this direction–notably those (like Pew) who insist on referring to Nones as “unaffiliated,” as if they just happen not to be on anyone’s membership rolls at the moment. But Myers (& co.) need to understand that, just because they would like to believe that all the Nones are folks like them, it ain’t necessarily so.

Myers writes:

The results of yet another poll are out,
showing that the godless are rising and promise to rise for years to
come. In 1990, we made up 8% of the population; now in 2009, we’re 15%.
They’re extrapolating forward and estimating that we will make up 25%
of the country in 20 years.

In fact, the number of Nones is generated by asking respondents “What is your religion, if any?” The Nones are those who say they have no religion, which is not the same as saying they don’t believe in God. You’d think a scientist would take the trouble to understand the data.

In actual fact, as was made clear in the first Trinity ARIS report (which made such a splash last Spring), there are a lot more Americans who don’t believe in a god or higher power or say they don’t know if such exists than who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics–12 percent versus less than 2 percent. The latest report shows that among just the Nones, it’s 7 percent versus 5 percent for atheists; 25 percent versus 6 percent for the agnostics (don’t knows or unsures). Meanwhile, 27 percent of Nones say they believe in a personal God and 24 percent in a higher power.

So there’s no question that a lot of unbelievers decline to give themselves the conventional labels for such. As the first ARIS report noted:

The historic reluctance of Americans to self-identify in this manner or use these terms seems to have diminished. Nevertheless as Table 4 shows the level of under-reporting of these theological labels is still significant.

But it’s simply atheistic fundamentalism to regard it as some kind of theistic conspiracy to point out that most Nones hold themselves out as believers. And why, in a country where it has become commonplace to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” should this come as a surprise? 

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service