Things like this always do my heart good. A new study in the U.S. suggests that religious faith is dropping like a stone and atheism is on the increase. The poll, conducted by Winn/Gallup, shows that since 2005, the number of people who self-report as religious has dropped from 73% to 60% and the number of people who self-report as atheists has risen from 1% to 5%. Now notice I’ve said people who self-report for both numbers because that is important. In fact, it skews both results. For the former, we still have the problem that I’ve written about many, many times before, the “social Christian” problem, where people report being Christian, not because they understand or believe any of the elements of Christianity, but because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re trying to fit in. They claim to believe for social, not religious reasons. This inflates the self-reporting religious numbers, likely dramatically. By the same token, I’m sure there are lots of people who are wary of self-reporting their status as atheist because atheism remains the most distrusted minority in America. There are lots of people who may report non-religious, the “nones” which make up 30% of the total population, a number that likewise is dramatically growing, but are afraid of being disliked or looked down upon for coming out publically as an atheist.
While this is certainly good news for the non-religious in America, we really do have to face facts that these polls will never give us truly accurate numbers so long as they rely on people to self-report their status. Because social pressures will always skew the data, even in truly anonymous polls, you’ll never get good information, just trends. Yes, the trends are in the right direction, but they aren’t causing the theists to be nearly as worried as I think they ought to be. Theists still hold the majority, according to studies, but really, I don’t know that they actually do anymore. In fact, I don’t think they really have in a long time. Sure, you have plenty of very vocal religious people out there, it’s hard to miss, but how many of those people actually buy into the religious mumbo-jumbo and how many are just playing along, pretending to believe, because they think it’s what’s expected of them? Even the “nones”, who deny affiliation with organized religions, but still believe in something, be it a deity or a “spiritual feeling” are likely over-represented and the actual atheists, the ones who don’t believe in anything supernatural, are probably severely under-represented. This adjustment, since 2005, is probably just that, an adjustment. There were probably just as many atheists in America then as today but after the widespread “New Atheism” movement, they’re more willing to admit to it. In another 5-6 years, who knows how much farther things will go? Will American atheists reach the worldwide average of 13%? Wouldn’t that be nice?