Atheists, Nonbelievers, and Nones, Oh, My

I’ve been digging into the statistics on atheists, nonbelievers, and “nones” lately, so the release of the latest Pew Research report on religious affiliation was inordinately exciting. (What can I say? I, geek.) The big news continues to be the growth of the religiously non-affiliated and the decline of Catholicism and Mainstream Protestantism. Bigger news in our community is the proportionally rapid growth of atheists, at 94% over the last seven years.

As usual, however, it’s worth remembering that Pew doesn’t necessarily use these words the way we would. So who are these groups?

“Nones” is a collective term for the religiously nonaffiliated. These are the people who, if you asked them their religion and they felt like answering a personal question, would likely tell you, “None.” These are people who don’t identify with any religious sect or church.

What they are not is nonbelievers, or at least not all of them. It’s important to remember that surveys about religious identification often don’t ask about people’s beliefs. When that does happen, we find that nones are split roughly evenly between firm believers, believers with some degree of doubt (the largest group), and nonbelievers. It isn’t that the bulk of them don’t believe; it’s that religion is unimportant to them or that they’re disaffected with organized religions. In fact, nones find community and affiliation in general less appealing.

There are a few other things we know about the religiously disaffiliated. We know that they tend to hew more secular than people who identify with a religion. We also know, however, that they’re not very politically active. They’re the least likely surveyed religious group to vote. When they do vote, they tend to be very socially liberal but quite split on economic questions.

We also know they tend to have a better attitude toward atheists than the religiously affiliated, but that isn’t necessarily saying much.

Atheists are where the biggest disconnect happens between lay definitions and categorizations for the purposes of the Pew surveys. We tend to rely on definitions of atheists that hinge on what we do or don’t believe. Affiliation surveys measure what people call themselves, and they only measure someone’s primary identification.

This means, for example, that if your Jewish or Buddhist affiliation is more salient to you than your identity as someone who doesn’t believe in a god, surveys like this will never consider you to be an atheist. For these surveys, “atheist” and “agnostic” are only subcategories of the religiously unaffiliated.

This has implications for how we count women, ethnic minorities, and other groups who receive substantial benefits from belonging to communities. Whether they believe or not, they are less likely to be counted as atheists in these surveys. 2014 is the first year of reporting, for example, that the shift away from religion in black and Hispanic communities has reached statistical significance compared to 2007 levels, though the trend has been apparent in an inspection of the data.

This is the group we usually think of when we say, “atheists”. Belief is harder to study well than religious affiliation, though it is done. In 2012, Pew found that 7% of the U.S. didn’t believe in a god or “universal spirit”. At the same time, only a third of those identified themselves primarily as atheists. That’s up from a quarter in 2007, but the majority of nonbelievers still don’t primarily identify as atheists.

Who are the nonbelievers? Pew hasn’t written up this portion of their 2014 data yet, but in 2007, a full third of them simply didn’t identify as anything in particular. They’re lumped into the big, amorphous portion of the nones category. Presumably, religion wasn’t important enough to them to affect how they identify. Another 15% identified as agnostic, whether to reflect their own uncertainty or because of stigma attached to the label of “atheist”.

The remainder, however, identified with another religion. Judaism and Buddhism accounted for 4% and 3% respectively, but 14% of nonbelievers identified as one flavor or another of Christian, mostly Catholic or mainline Protestant. Religiously identified people accounted for nearly a quarter of all nonbelievers.

We’ve mostly cured our communities of talking about the religiously nonaffiliated as though they were atheists. Hopefully this will help make sense of what Pew really means when they talk about atheists.

Atheists, Nonbelievers, and Nones, Oh, My

7 thoughts on “Atheists, Nonbelievers, and Nones, Oh, My

  1. 1

    […] This post by Stephanie Svan (surveying the Pew results about religious belief and lack thereof) brought to mind this old post of mine about what it means to be a nonbeliever in a religious culture, and why atheists already had a rep for being arrogant knobs way before Dawkins, Maher, etc. etc. started doing their best to prove that right.When I was a young impoverished guy in a large bland mostly inoffensive suburban high school, I was fiercely proud of my defiance of religion. I was the kind of dude who would have said something like, “wake up, sheeple!,” if that had been a thing back then. As it is, I wrote a few cranky letters to the school paper about my feelings re: pervasive xtian horseshit in public schools. I used the word “penitent” (as in what I refused to be) and those spell-check drones changed it to “pertinent.” Vendetta! But I digress. […]

  2. 2

    Just out of curiosity — how would this poll have seen someone like me? Due to various family reasons, I go to church every Sunday — it’s just that I don’t believe any of the stuff they’re talking about there.

  3. 3

    If I understand it correctly, brucegee, a lot of it would depend on how you answered the ‘affiliated’ question. You would be a non-believer in any case, but you could be a Christian, an atheist, an agnostic or simply a none, depending. If the affiliation is based on attendance, then you’re a non-believing Christian–which puts you in the same company as about 14% of non-believers overall.

  4. Ed

    I’m a member of a Unitarian Universalist church which includes liberal Christians, atheists/humanists, Buddhists, etc. So I’m technically affiliated with a religion, but I might not say that on a survey so as not to confuse the issue.

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