Poll shows atheism on the rise in the U.S.

(RNS) Religiosity is on the decline in the U.S. and atheism is on the rise, according to a new worldwide poll.

The poll, called “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was conducted) to 60 percent.

At the same time, the number of Americans who say they are atheists rose, from 1 percent to 5 percent.

The poll was conducted by WIN-Gallup International and is based on interviews with 50,000 people from 57 countries and five continents. Participants were asked, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”

The seven years between the polls is notable because 2005 saw the publication of “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, the first in a wave of best-selling books on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other so-called “New Atheists.”

(RNS) Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett is the co-author, with Linda LaScola, of a recent study, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. RNS file photo courtesy Tufts University.

“The obvious implication is that this is a manifestation of the New Atheism movement,” said Ryan Cragun,  a University of Tampa sociologist of religion who studies American and global atheism.

Still, Cragun does not believe the poll shows more people are becoming atheists, but rather that more people are willing to identify as atheists.

“For a very long time, religiosity has been a central characteristic of the American identity,” he said. “But what this suggests is that is changing and people are feeling less inclined to identify as religious to comply with what it means to be a good person in the U.S.”

Another possible factor may be the number of atheists within organized efforts by American atheist groups to encourage those who do not believe in God to say so publicly. The Out Campaign, a project of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, was launched in 2007 and has since been endorsed by several national atheist groups.

The current poll confirms a declining religiosity — both at home and abroad — that's been detected in other polls. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 15 percent of Americans said they have no religion — different from being a “confirmed atheist,” but nonetheless up from 8 percent in 1990.

Barry Kosmin, the principal investigator for the ARIS report, said he's skeptical of the new study.

“The U.S. trends are what we have found and would expect, but the actual numbers are peculiar to say the least,” he said. “The drops in religiosity seem too sharp for the time period — people just don’t change their beliefs that quickly. Most of the trend away from religion has demographic causes and demography moves ‘glacially.’”

Specifically, he points to the poll’s finding that Vietnam, while showing a sharp 23 percent drop in religiosity since 2005, also shows no atheists. “Eight million Communist Party members but zero atheists?” he said. “That statistic makes me very doubtful of the accuracy of the survey overall and some of the international comparisons.”

Other findings from the poll include:

— Besides Vietnam, Ireland had the greatest change in religiosity, down from 69 percent to 47 percent.

— China has the most “convinced atheists,” at 47 percent, followed by Japan (31 percent), Czech Republic (30 percent) and France (29 percent)

— The most religious countries are in Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya), South America (Brazil, Peru) and Eastern Europe (Macedonia, Romania, Armenia).

— Countries with the same percentage of atheists as the U.S. are Poland, Moldova and Saudi Arabia.


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Click here to post a comment
  • This poll’s wording of the question about belief is a good example of our motivation for launching the American Secular Census. “Convinced atheist” will be seen by many nontheists as too strong a claim, similar to “There couldn’t possibly be a god.” Yet “not a religious person” is too weak a choice for many others. I suspect many nonbelievers wouldn’t have known how to self-identify in this survey, so I agree with Barry Kosmin’s cautions about it. On the American Secular Census we ask not just what label people choose but what they mean by it, whether they belong(ed) to religious congregations, and whether they participate in secular organizations as well, for a more nuanced understanding of those with a secular worldview.

  • This might be the reflection that pulpits are becoming more atheistic without knowing it? We need more preachers like Billy Graham to wake up the USA? His son will never fill the shoes of his father; or so it seems to me. Is is the fact of life also, that our USA today in its actions at home and abroad insults the Almighty God as has never been done by previous nations! When one considers that all its actions are always followed by asking God to Bless America, when in reality it is the devil that has a feast. Look how many innocent people in many parts of the world pay the ultimate price with our horrendous war machinery! Yes, and when one also brings up the Founding Fathers hopes and dreams; these men would immediatly wish to go back to their graves were they to rise and see their America. The above are my own opinions and conclusions on the matter at hand. Scripture is very clear that soon God Almighty will make and end and will take us to a place where we will never grow old, where happiness will reign forevermore! I am ready, are you?

  • I would like to echo the American Secular Census’s comment. The qualifier of “confirmed” puts an extra burden on atheists. It would be like asking if someone is absolutely convinced of the claims of Christianity vs. just asking if someone identifies as a Christian. A better wording would be simply to ask if someone believes in any deities and if so, which ones?

  • I haven’t found any empirical evidence for any of the gods Man created.Beliefs are simply opinions,but facts are facts.Science is really all we have,not Bronze age beliefs.Religion and religious beliefs are for those people who are afraid of death,hence an afterlife was created,but that too offers no scientific evidence,just a silly infantile superstitious belief.

  • Like too many polls of this type (along with many political ones), the questions and categories seem malformed and designed to force an answer. It should not be that hard to craft a question on religious stance that allows respondents to choose a reasonably natural, unforced option.

    The other problem is that the pollsters have fallen into the trap of treating atheism as an alternate or peer to religion, instead of a “none of the above” opt-out. There should be no difference between “atheism” and “no religion” unless you make the latter choice more specifically “I have not made a religious choice of any kind.” There is a difference between “None” and “I don’t know (or haven’t really thought about it).”

  • Also, the poll should take into consideration that many Buddhists are also atheists. There are some religious beliefs that don’t have a belief in deities.

  • It seems that in the interest of full disclosure the Religion News Service should include a statement that they have received a grant of $50,000 from an activist atheist for the sole purpose of generating “better coverage” of the atheist “movement.” To date, it appears all of these related articles have been written by the same RNS author. Whether that directed “donation” affects the article is then left to the reader.

  • “Convinced atheist” will be seen by many nontheists as too strong a claim, similar to “There couldn’t possibly be a god.” Yet “not a religious person” is too weak a choice for many others. I suspect many nonbelievers wouldn’t have known how to self-identify in this survey

    I wouldn’t know how to identify. If I had to give odds I’d say the existence of God was less than 50-50, but I’d still consider myself a religious believer. Anyway, I’ve been asked to post because some of us are getting error messages and they’re trying to fix it. So…here goes…