Closet atheists

A US poll based study claims that the number of American atheists is under reported because many people aren’t up front about admitting it.

Pew and Gallup polls have both recorded a slow increase to about 10% of Americans saying they do not believe in good, but estimate from this study claims it is closer to 26%.

Vox: How many American atheists are there really?

Pew and Gallup — two of the most reputable polling firms in America — both come to a similar figure. About 10 percent of Americans say they do not believe in God, and this figure has been slowly creeping up over the decades.

But maybe this isn’t the whole story. University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle have long suspected that a lot of atheists aren’t showing up in these polls. The reason: Even in our increasingly secular society, there’s still a lot of stigma around not believing in God. So when a stranger conducting a poll calls and asks the question, it may be uncomfortable for many to answer truthfully.

Gervais and Najle recently conducted a new analysis on the prevalence of atheists in America. And they conclude the number of people who do not believe in God may be even double that counted by these polling firms.

“There’s a lot of atheists in the closet,” Gervais says. “And … if they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance.”

Recent polling:

Most recently, Pew found that around 3 percent of Americans say they are atheists. It also found that a larger group — around 9 percent — say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit. (Which goes to show that you may not believe in God but could still be uncomfortable calling yourself an atheist — because that term implies a strong personal identity and an outright rejection of religious rituals.)

Gallup also regularly asks the question point blank — “Do you believe in God?” The last time it asked, in 2016, 10 percent of respondents said no.

More than just believing in God or not is involved. Perceptions or morals also plays a part.

Study after study has shown that most people (even other atheists) believe atheists are less moral. “We’ll give participants a little vignette, a story about someone doing something immoral, and probe their intuition about who they think the perpetrator was,” Gervais says. “And time and time again, people intuitively assume whoever is out there doing immoral stuff doesn’t believe in God.”

Therefore “People are embarrassed to tell strangers they don’t believe in God”. In the US at least.

So they tried a different approach with dual polls.

Gervais and Najle set up a very subtle test. They sent a nationally representative poll to 2,000 Americans, who were randomly assigned to two conditions.

The first condition asked participants to read through a bunch of statements like, “I am a vegetarian,” “I own a dog,” and, “I have a dishwasher in my kitchen.”

All the participants had to do was simply write down the number of statements that were true for them.

The value of this method is that participants don’t have to directly say, “I am a vegetarian,” or, “I’m a dog owner” — they only have to acknowledge the number of statements that apply to them. That alone should zero out any embarrassment or hesitance to admit to a particular item.

That’s important because the other 1,000 or so participants saw the exact same list — but with one statement added: “I believe in God.”

By comparing the responses between the two groups, Gervais and Najle could then estimate how many people don’t believe in God. (Because both groups of 1,000 poll takers should, in theory, have the same number of vegetarians, dog owners, and so on in each group, any increases in the number of agreed-to statements from the first group to the second should be reflective of the number of people who don’t believe in God.)

Because two polls with different sets of responders is involved could affect accuracy and margins of error. However:

One thing is clear from the results: Much more than 10 or 11 percent of the country (as assessed in Gallup and Pew polling) does not believe in God. “We can say with a 99 percent probability that it’s higher than [11 percent],” said Gervais.

His best estimate: Around 26 percent of Americans don’t believe in God. “According to our samples, about 1 in 3 atheists in our country don’t feel comfortable disclosing their lack of belief,” Najle explains in an email.

Gervais admits this method isn’t perfect, and yields an answer with a wide margin of error. (On the other end of the margin of error, around 35 percent of Americans don’t believe in God.) But the most fundamental question he and Najle are asking here is do polling firms like Gallup and Pew undercount atheists? And it seems the answer is yes.

So they think that instead of about 10% non-God believers it could be more like 20-35%.

This still seems relatively low compared to New Zealand. And it doesn’t deal with different degrees of belief.

For comparison here: How many New Zealanders believe in God?

61% of New Zealanders believe that there is ‘a God or some sort of universal spirit’

The full numbers from the SAYit survey were:

  • 28% absolutely certain it is true
  • 13% fairly certain it is true
  • 9% believe it’s true but are not too certain
  • 11% believe it’s true but are not at all certain
  • 6% believe it’s not true but are not at all certain
  • 5% believe it’s not true but are not too certain
  • 11% are fairly certain it is not true
  • 16% are absolutely certain it is not true

This shows 40% willing to say they are absolutely certain or fairly certain, while the majority say they have some uncertainty or don’t believe there is a God.

I think one thing this shows that whether you believe in God or not is a big deal in the US but doesn’t matter here.

In New Zealand devout God believers and atheists and a big bunch of maybes in the middle intermingle largely without caring what the beliefs of each other are.

I think this is a major plus for our country, a general tolerance of different religious beliefs. This is in contrast to the US.

I think that some people have odd beliefs about religion and politics and other things but they have as much right to think I may have some odd beliefs. We can express and discuss and debate these things openly without fear. This is a good thing.

Leave a comment


  1. Corky

     /  6th May 2017

    The true test for atheists is on their death bed. What fascinates me regarding this topic is the heavy flow of people moving from one camp to another. I know ex gang bangers who are very nasty individuals, do a 180 and become model god fearing citizens. Conversely, I know life long Christians who wake up and curse wasted years believing in some chap in the sky who never answered any of their prayers. I find many of these are from the Catholic faith, or more repressive sects. Anglicans are so liberal, many of their clergy don’t believe in adherents have nothing to run from.

  2. ” … the number of American atheists is under-reported because many people aren’t up-front about admitting it.”

    Makes sense to me. Does one admit to being a witch … in Salem?

    The USA is the nearest thing to a ‘Conservative Christian Society’ on Earth …. and happens to be where the [Conservative] New World Order emanates from …

  3. Ray

     /  6th May 2017

    And of course this explains why aspiring US Presidents feel obliged to take on the outward signs of being religious even when all the evidence of their past and present shows quite the contrary.
    Looking at you Trump.
    But he is not the first.

  4. Alan Wilkinson

     /  6th May 2017

    It would be interesting to survey how tolerant each camp is of the other.

    I suspect atheists would be more tolerant of god botherers than the reverse but I may be wrong. And it would certainly vary widely from country to country.

    • Brown

       /  6th May 2017

      I think it’s a draw in the civilised west but both camps have zealots that can make life miserable. The atheist regimes like communist countries are dangerous for Christians who do not pose any threat except being a large number of individuals.

  1. Closet atheists – NZ Conservative Coalition

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