American might be closer to becoming a post-Christian nation than is widely believed. There is now data that indicates more than one out of four Americans might be a closet atheist.
By changing how they asked survey questions two researchers received answers showing that 26% of Americans probably do not believe in God, Five Thirty Eight reported. In an attempt to answer the provocative question: “How many atheists are there?” University of Kentucky psychologists Will M. Gervais and Maxine B. Najle used a strategy called Bayesian estimation.
They inserted the phrase “I do not believe in God” into a list of nine statements subjects were asked to agree or disagree with. By mixing the controversial statement with innocuous phrases; such as “I own a dog,” they were able to get an honest answer to questions about belief in God.
“Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability, and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability,” Najle and Gervais wrote. That means they concluded that more than two in 10 Americans are atheists or nonbelievers.
Atheists could be America’s Largest Religious Group
They published their results in a research paper that might have deep political and cultural repercussions. The paper; How Many Atheists are There?, contradicts the last Pew Religious Landscape Study which found that 3.1% of Americans identified themselves as atheists and 4% as agnostics.
If this research is accurate it would make atheists America’s largest religious group. The Religious Landscape Study found that Evangelical Protestants are the nation’s largest religious group composing around 25.4% of the population.
There would be around 84 million atheists in the United States if the researchers’ conclusions are correct. The population of the United States was 323.149 million on May 20, 2017, according to the US Census Bureau’s Population Clock. 26% of 323.149 million is roughly 84.02 million according to my calculator.
This means atheists would easily outnumber Roman Catholics who make up around 20.8% of the population and mainline Protestants that make up 14.7% of the population according to Pew. Even Pew’s numbers indicate that atheists already outnumber Jews, Mormons and Muslims in the United States.
Najle and Gervais’s claims would make atheists the dominant cultural and religious group in the nation if they are true. Their conclusions might explain the election of a blatantly secular figure such as Donald J. Trump to the White House. The twice-divorced Trump is a larger than life materialist and unrepentant womanizer; whose lifestyle celebrates greed and selfishness.
Why it’s So Hard to Count the Atheists
Despite that it would be almost impossible to prove or disprove the claims in How Many Atheists are There? for a simple reason. Many people simply lie or fail to answer when asked about their religious beliefs.
Around 50.39 million Americans; or 15.8% of the population, classify their religious beliefs as “nothing in particular” according to Pew. A large percentage of those people are probably atheists or agnostics who are afraid to state their beliefs.
The study; and the Pew data, indicate that most atheists and agnostics in America are still in the closet. It is also easy to see why, hostility towards atheism is still widespread in the United States. In June 2012, 46% of Americans admitted that they would not vote for an atheist for President, a Gallup poll found.
Many atheists hide their beliefs out of fear of offending family members or friends. Others might be afraid of losing jobs or opportunities. There are still many places in the United States where an open atheist would not be hired as a teacher or elected to the school board.
Despite that the times are changing with Americans becoming more tolerant of atheism and less respectful of religion. Some aspects of popular culture have become hostile to religion. A recent episode of The Simpsons showed Jesus as a drunken bum for example. South Park; one of the most popular animated TV shows, has been aggressively promoting atheism for two decades.
Will Atheism become Mainstream?
Najle and Gervais’s estimate indicates that our culture might be at a tipping point. Atheists and other non-believers might have the sheer numbers to break through into the mainstream and achieve political and cultural dominance.
Politicians will notice the sheer number of atheist voters and start catering to them at point. The entertainment industry has already noticed that atheism is a marketable product in America; and big corporations are beginning to take stands that put them into conflict with some Christians.
Pressure from companies like Walmart and Apple forced former Indiana Governor Mike Pence and his state legislature to gut a religious freedom law designed to curtail gay rights. The companies threatened to take business out of the state, which got Pence’s attention. Pence’s about face attracted severe criticism from conservative Christians but did not prevent him from receiving the Republican vice presidential nomination.
Atheists might be the most significant minority in America and they might be coming out of the closet. If the atheists do come out of the closet it will change American society beyond recognition.