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The numbers game: who counts?
By George A. Ricker

One of the questions that gets asked frequently by nonbelievers and believers alike is: “How many atheists are there, anyway?”

The answer is difficult to find, especially here in the United States. It depends very much on who gets asked, how they are asked and who is doing the asking.

It’s a difficult answer to find because there are many atheists who don’t call themselves atheists, either because they are confused about the meaning of the word or because they are unwilling to own up to it for various reasons—not least of which is the potential of such admissions to create problems at home, on the job or in society at large.

Obviously, if atheism is the dogmatic denial of any possibility of the existence of any god, then the number of atheists is going to be smaller than if atheism is simply the absence or lack of god-belief, which seems to be the preferred definition among most atheists these days.

Counting nonbelievers

Some atheists like to quote the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), last done in 2001, and make the claim that about 14 percent of the population are nonbelievers. However, that’s not what the survey says.

In fact, less than 1 percent of those asked identified themselves as either atheists or agnostics. The majority of that 14.1 percent in the “no religion” category (13.2 percent to be precise) was made up of people who simply said they followed no religion and made no declaration about god-belief one way or the other. While it’s true that the “no religion” group was the fastest growing category in the survey, it’s erroneous to claim, as some do, that all of them are nonbelievers.

On the other hand, there seems to be evidence that the percentage of atheists and agnostics in the population is much greater than is suggested by the number who identified themselves as such in the ARIS survey.

According to the Cambridge Companion to Atheism—edited by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK (2005), from 3 to 9 percent of the U.S. population falls into the category of atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers in a god. It’s a modest percentage compared to most modern states (even at the high end) but still amounts to a sizable number of people, from almost 9 million to almost 27 million individuals.

Other surveys put the number even higher. Harris Interactive’s Online Survey for 2005 reports that 8 percent of American adults “don’t believe” in “God” and an additional 10 percent “aren’t sure.” This online survey typically reports the number of believers as lower than most other opinion surveys (82 percent in this one), but that may simply reflect a reduction of what Harris Interactive calls the “social desirability” bias. When other people are asking questions about god(s) and religion(s), interviewees may be more concerned about appearing in a favorable light to the interviewer than they are when completing an online survey that does not involve direct interaction with another person, whether on the telephone or in person.

A social bias

Clearly there is a social bias in favor of religion in the United States. It is a bias that is promoted politically and culturally. Those who openly reject gods and religions are viewed negatively, regardless of their values and contributions to society. They may suffer penalties in both their professional and personal lives unless they are willing to go along with the majority view and suppress their own opinions.

In any event, it seems reasonable to think there are millions of nonbelievers in our society. Whether they call themselves atheists, agnostics, freethinkers or go by some other label, they do make up a minority that is probably not less than 5 percent and may be as large as 18 percent of the adult population.

It’s still a minority to be sure, but it may be a more substantial one than is commonly supposed.

That said, I suggest it is a mistake to get caught up in the numbers game anyway. We should neither exaggerate the number of nonbelievers nor minimize it. If our cause is just, our numbers ought not to matter.

Principle counts too

Most atheists ask for nothing more or less than equality before the law. The same constitutional provisions that protect the right of believers to exercise their religions must protect the right of nonbelievers to be free to reject all religions. The requirement that all citizens deserve equality before the law and before their government requires that government agencies take no position on religious matters.

Rights of conscience are uniquely individual rights. Religious freedom is the business of individuals and of the religious establishments with which they choose to associate. Government’s role as the protector of individual rights of conscience cannot and should not extend to the effort to influence anyone’s decision about whether to exercise a religion or not.

Consequently, government must stand mute on religious questions. It has no right or responsibility to make religious declarations, to endorse religious concepts or to dress itself in the trappings of religions. A constitutional democracy must respect the rights of conscience of all of its citizens. It cannot do that if it is favoring one class of believers over another or believers over nonbelievers.

Being practical

As a practical matter, it is often argued that we atheists must tread softly lest we anger the religious majority. The fear of a backlash that may lead to greater repression of religious freedom is a real one. However, it cannot be allowed to make us timid.

Certainly, we should not go out of our way to be offensive to the religious. But it must be clearly understood that for some religionists our very existence is sufficient cause for them to be offended. Atheism itself offends them because it challenges a hierarchy of belief in which they have invested a great amount of emotional energy and not a little treasure as well. It challenges them because it threatens to upset a world view they find comfortable.

However, the notion that we should weaken our demand for equal justice before the law and the clear recognition of the secular nature of government is dangerous not only to the rights of conscience of nonbelievers but also to those who follow religions that are not part of the orthodox Christian tradition in this nation.

It is also important for nonbelievers to recognize that we have allies among the faithful. There are many among the religious who also believe in the secular nature of government and the protection of the rights of conscience for all Americans. Members of minority religions and those who belong to liberal and progressive strains among traditional religious fellowships are also fearful of the actions of the fundyvangelists of the Religious Right.

But it is a fundamental error to insist, as some do, that because our numbers are small we must soften our criticism of religions or downplay our own nonbelief in order to cultivate allies among the religious. We ought not be needlessly belligerent. However, we cannot be dishonest either. That some religionists ally themselves with us in the fight to maintain separation between government and religion does not mean they agree with us in other areas. We should approach one another with mutual respect, but that respect must include a respect for the right to disagree as well as the need to make common cause on some issues.


Playing the numbers game is dangerous. The numbers themselves depend not only upon the purpose of those who do the counting but the candor of those who are counted.

Touting exaggerated numbers to promote an agenda is foolish at any time. It is especially foolish for nonbelievers to do so in a vain attempt to strengthen our case. It is foolish because it gives those who oppose us ready ammunition to use against us and because, even under the most optimistic projections, nonbelievers are a decided minority in our society. That status is unlikely to change in the forseeable future.

Though it is wrong to exaggerate our numbers, it also is a mistake to minimize them. The more nonbelievers are willing to stand and be counted, the more those who have been afraid to do so will be encouraged. One of the reasons atheists are misunderstood and feared in our society is that many Americans don’t realize how many of us there are.

The proverbial “Village atheist” no longer should be thought of as existing in isolation. There are many of us. Our numbers grow stronger every day, as men and women who live without worshipping gods or following religions step forward and speak out. And as more of us are willing to do so, more and more will follow suit. The courage of a few may encourage many.

It matters not, however, whether there is one atheist, one hundred or one hundred million. What matters is the principle of equal treatment before the law and by the government of all citizens and equal protection of the rights of conscience of each of them.

We should demand nothing more than that. We can accept nothing less.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker

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