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Atheism More Common Than Assumed, But It’s Complicated

Summary: New research suggests atheists may represent between 20-35 percent of the US popluation. Findings challenge prevailing theories that atheism is rare in the population.

Source: SPSP.

It’s tough to figure out just how religious or nonreligious different populations of people are. Widely-cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest U.S. atheist prevalence ranging from 3% to 11%. But in the US, there’s heavy stigma leveled against religious disbelief, which might make people reluctant to disclose their lack of belief over the phone to a stranger. Using a subtle, indirect measurement technique, psychology researchers have found that atheists may represent anywhere from 20% to 35% of the U.S. population.

The study, “How many atheists are there?,” appears in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Based on the results, “Just as there are, and have historically been, closeted gay men and lesbians out there, there are probably lots and lots of closeted atheists out there, who don’t even identify themselves as such in anonymous polls,” says lead author Will Gervais (University of Kentucky).

The authors surveyed 4000 people across two studies of 2000 people each in nationally representative samples. They used an indirect sampling method, which gives participants a list of things to look at and then record how many of the statements, but not which specific statements, are true for them. This technique lets researchers infer overall prevalence of things people might not want to admit, and has previously been used to estimate the prevalence of various undesirable or criminal behaviors.

“Within our sample, one in three atheists in our online survey did not disclose their lack of belief, highlighting the level of stigma associated with lack of belief,” says coauthor Mazine Najle (University of Kentucky).

Gervais says he was “surprised by just how far the indirect measurement diverged from established polls of religious disbelief. Our best estimate is more than double what Gallup telephone polls estimate.” Gervais and Najle expected a much more modest gap between self-reports and indirect measurements.

The findings also have potential impact for science. For decades, researchers have been developing and testing theories about how religion works, but they focus on belief being prevalent and atheism a rare occurrence.

“If it turns out that atheism isn’t all that rare, it might challenge a lot of prevailing theories,” says Gervais, “Basically, it’d mean that those of us who study the natural foundations of religion need to question our bedrock theories and assumptions.”

Image shows a woman in a sunny field.

Using a subtle, indirect measurement technique, psychology researchers have found that atheists may represent anywhere from 20% to 35% of the U.S. population. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

It’s important to note that their results weren’t crystal clear and perfect. Their estimates are “pretty noisy,” says Gervais, “It’s 26% as a best guess, but it could be quite a bit lower…or higher. Could be 20%, could be 35%. We also had some findings that made us question the validity of the very task we employed.”

The authors appreciate that even with the “noise” their research was accepted for publication.

“Social psychology has been taking a beating lately for producing results that are too good to be true, and it’s a real feather in the cap for this journal that they didn’t pressure us at all to put out the “perfect” paper, rather than just transparently communicate what we found, including the good, the bad, and the ugly,” summarizes Gervais.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: This work was funded by The John Templeton Foundation.

Source: Annie Drinkard – SPSP
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Abstract for “How Many Atheists Are There?” by Will M. Gervais and Maxine B. Najle in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online May 16 2017 doi:10.1177/1948550617707015

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
SPSP “Atheism More Common Than Assumed, But It’s Complicated.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 16 May 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/atheism-growing-psychology-6694/>.
SPSP (2017, May 16). Atheism More Common Than Assumed, But It’s Complicated. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved May 16, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/atheism-growing-psychology-6694/
SPSP “Atheism More Common Than Assumed, But It’s Complicated.” http://neurosciencenews.com/atheism-growing-psychology-6694/ (accessed May 16, 2017).

Abstract

How Many Atheists Are There?

One crucible for theories of religion is their ability to predict and explain the patterns of belief and disbelief. Yet, religious nonbelief is often heavily stigmatized, potentially leading many atheists to refrain from outing themselves even in anonymous polls. We used the unmatched count technique and Bayesian estimation to indirectly estimate atheist prevalence in two nationally representative samples of 2,000 U.S. adults apiece. Widely cited telephone polls (e.g., Gallup, Pew) suggest U.S. atheist prevalence of only 3–11%. In contrast, our most credible indirect estimate is 26% (albeit with considerable estimate and method uncertainty). Our data and model predict that atheist prevalence exceeds 11% with greater than .99 probability and exceeds 20% with roughly .8 probability. Prevalence estimates of 11% were even less credible than estimates of 40%, and all intermediate estimates were more credible. Some popular theoretical approaches to religious cognition may require heavy revision to accommodate actual levels of religious disbelief.

“How Many Atheists Are There?” by Will M. Gervais and Maxine B. Najle in Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online May 16 2017 doi:10.1177/1948550617707015

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