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Why More Nonbelievers Are Openly Identifying

It's not unusual to hear commentators, especially religious conservatives, dismiss secular activism by citing numbers, pointing out that only one or two percent of Americans identify as atheists. Though technically correct, such numbers only tell half the story.

The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)—probably the most comprehensive study of American religious demographics—confirms that only about 1.6 percent of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic. This may seem like an insignificant group, but even just 1.6 percent outnumbers the population of American Mormons (1.4 percent), Jews (1.2), Episcopalians (1.1), Muslims (0.6), and many other groups. Much more importantly, however, we should realize that the 1.6 percent figure is deceiving, because ARIS also shows that the actual number of nonbelievers is much higher.

We see this when we compare the ARIS numbers relating identity to the corresponding ARIS numbers for religious belief. That is, although just 1.6 percent of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic, only 81.6 percent of the overall population affirms a belief in God. (Some 69.5 percent said they believe in a personal God, and 12.1 percent in a more vague "higher power.") Thus, 18.4 percent of Americans—almost one in five—do not claim a belief in God.

This inconsistency between identity and belief leads to the inescapable conclusion that millions of Americans, despite their disbelief, simply do not feel comfortable openly identifying as nonbelievers. The "atheist" identity is so stigmatized that even most atheists avoid the label.

The numbers can be analyzed and debated, but there is no escaping the clear disconnect between identity and belief. One could argue, for example, that some of the 18.4 percent who do not affirm God-belief are nevertheless believers (since about one-third of them refused to answer the question). But even assuming that all of those who "refused" are believers (highly unlikely), we are still left with over 12 percent who either affirmatively state disbelief or who are agnostic, a number incompatable with the mere 1.6 percent who openly identify as such.

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