According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of more than 54,000 adults, between 2001 and 2008 the number willing to identify themselves as atheist and agnostic has gone from under 2 million to 3.6 million. Small numbers compared to the whole, of course, but most notably it’s a rise of 85% of those willing to describe themselves as living without God during the years of our most overtly religious presidency!
Perhaps more importantly
Even more newsworthy, when the widely-scorned labels “atheist” and “agnostic” are replaced with specifics about beliefs (“There is no such thing” as God, “There is no way to know,” or “I’m not sure,” and added to those who refused to answer) it turns out that over eighteen percent of Americans do not profess belief in a God or a higher power.
According to ARIS, then, there could be as many as 40 million adult nonbelievers in the United States!
Does this mean the United States is on track to become a nation of the godless? Not at all. As Gary Laderman pointed out in his recent feature here on RD, religious change is far too complex to be captured in a single sociological study or perspective. Surely this is the case with the growth of the “nones” in America. What complicates the issue is that few of the “nones” self-identify as atheists or agnostics.
In the ARIS survey, over 12% of respondents said they either did not believe in God or were uncertain about God’s existence, another 12% said they believed in a higher power rather than a personal God, but only 1.6% chose the atheist or agnostic label. The 2008 Pew Forum survey showed that about half of the “nones” actually considered themselves religious. In other words, it appears that most of the unaffiliated individuals are not atheistic or anti-religious in any activist sense, but are rather apathetic toward organized religion and reluctant to join any particular denomination or sect. Perhaps an appropriate term to describe such individuals is “apatheist,” a person who is not interested in trying to prove or disprove God’s existence or any other religious dogma.
To complicate things even further, the alleged decline of Christianity is largely occurring within mainline denominations, while many of the theologically conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches are thriving. If this trend continues, the American society may find itself increasingly polarized between evangelical Christians and the “nones,” creating a fascinating, albeit potentially explosive, cultural dynamic.