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Guest blog: Parsing Pew data: Are 4 percent or 18 percent of U.S. atheists?

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Cragun Pew Data BG Guest blog: Parsing Pew data: Are 4 percent or 18 percent of U.S. atheists?

By Ryan T. Cragun
Professor of Sociology
University of Tampa

In the recently released article titled, “8 facts about atheists,” researchers at the Pew Research Center did something strange. While the characterization of atheists was not particularly problematic, the way Pew selected atheists was. 

Pew reported that atheists make up just 4 percent of the U.S. adult population. But in its own surveys, Pew asks a separate question, “Do you believe in God?” (from the 106th wave of the American Trends Panel). The response options are simply “Yes” or “No,” although they also allow people to refuse to answer the question. In April 2022, 18.2 percent of Americans chose “No,” 80.4 percent chose “Yes” and 1.3 percent refused to answer. Based on this question alone, at least 18.2 percent of Americans are atheists.

There are at least two ways to ascertain who is an atheist in the United States. One is to ask people their religious affiliation and include “atheist” in the list of options. The other is to ask the question in a way that reveals their views about whether a god exists. The first approach is wrong for both methodological and conceptual reasons. The second approach is much more efficacious.

Why is the first approach wrong? Atheism is not a religion. Atheism is the lack of belief in a god. It’s the equivalent of trying to classify someone’s car’s make by the following question: 

Who is the manufacturer of your car? 

  • Toyota
  • Honda
  • Ford
  • BMW
  • I don’t have a car
  • I object to the concept of driving
  • Other (write-in make)

One of those response options doesn’t belong in the list. Can you guess which one? 

From a validity standpoint (meaning: Is the question measuring what it is supposed to be measuring), the purpose of the question is to ascertain the make of someone’s car. The question doesn’t ask whether someone drives or whether they reject cars as a mode of transportation. The question assumes that the survey participant drives and has a car. For those who don’t have a car, they do have the option of responding, “I don’t have a car.” Rejecting the concept of driving is not an answer to this question. It’s an answer to the question, “Do you think people should drive vehicles?” Including that option in response to this question allows participants to answer a different question, which makes this question conceptually invalid. 

Additionally, from a purely methodological perspective, including the option “I object to the concept of driving” is problematic because the option is not exclusive. Someone could own a BMW and drive it regularly but still object to the concept of driving because they want all vehicles to be autonomous. Thus, technically, they could answer this question by selecting BMW and “I object to the concept of driving” but are forced to choose just one of those options. Good survey design means that, with a single response option question, just one option should apply to a survey participant. The options should be exclusive. 

Considering how Pew asks participants about their religious affiliation: Included in the list of options are “atheist,” “agnostic” and “nothing in particular.” As the above example makes clear, atheist and agnostic are not religious affiliations. They are positions on the existence of a god (atheism) or the ability to gain knowledge of a deity (agnosticism). There is no religion of atheism or agnosticism. There are no clergy. There are no tithes. These are philosophical positions, not organized religions, like the other options in the list (e.g., Roman Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, etc.). Additionally, these introduce an exclusivity problem. Most atheists are also “nothing in particular” when it comes to their religious affiliation. Relatedly, many Jews are atheists when it comes to their belief in a god. Which response option does a secular or atheistic Jew choose: “Jewish” or “atheist”?

In Pew’s follow-up to its question about whether or not a god exists in the American Trends Panel, there is a series of questions about whether people believe in a higher power or the god of the bible, eventually categorizing people into one of four groups: 57.8 percent “believe in the God of the bible,” 31.7 percent “don’t believe in God of the bible but believe in something else,” 10.2 percent “don’t believe in anything,” and 0.4 percent are “unclear.” While these labels are problematic, what this final categorization shows is that at least 10.2 percent of Americans are atheists in the sense meant by the word itself — not believing in a god. In short, the recent article claiming that just 4 percent of Americans are atheists underestimates the number of atheists in the United States by at least half, according to Pew’s own data. And, if we go off of the first question that asks just about belief in a god, it would suggest there are at least four times as many atheists in the country as is claimed in the recent Pew article: 18.2 percent versus 4 percent.

This raises a second issue: It is not at all clear what people mean by a “force or higher power.” In the “8 facts about atheists” article, Pew’s last point is that 23 percent of these atheists believe in a higher power and 1 percent believe in “God as described in the bible.” This finding is bizarre but makes sense when you realize that Pew selected participants as atheists based on their claiming it as their religious affiliation and not based on their lack of belief in a god or higher power. Had Pew used the question that actually measures atheism, then they could have accurately reported that 100 percent of atheists are atheists.

Disregarding the problematic way that Pew researchers selected atheists, we do not currently know what people mean by “higher power” or “force.” For at least some of those people, that higher power or force may be completely secular, as in “nature” or “life.” This is less a problem with the work that Pew has done, which we value and appreciate, and more a future direction that scholars need to take. By suggesting that a large percentage of Americans believe in a higher power when we don’t know whether that higher power is supernatural or natural, the implication is that a large percentage of Americans are at least spiritual, if not religious, when, in fact, they may be quite secular in their understanding of the universe.

Ryan T. Cragun, a professor of sociology at the University of Tampa, focuses on both Mormonism and nonreligion. Cragun was born and raised in Utah as a Mormon and served as a Mormon missionary. He is the author or co-author of many books, including Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, What You Don’t Know About Religion (but should), Christianity and the Limits of Minority Acceptance subtitled God Loves (Almost) Everyone, the intriguingly titled book, How to Defeat Religion in 10 Easy Steps, and From One Missionary to Another.

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