More Atheists In The U.S.
Than You'd Think
I would firstly like to say what a pleasure it has been reading the materials on your site. I found the articles on logic and reasoning (under "Thoughts on Thinking and the Group-Think Process") to be both thought-provoking and empowering.
Unfortunately, I don't have anything very substantial to add (it does seem to be a very thorough site). I am only writing in response to a common statistic that I see often throughout "Positive Atheism," and that is the percentage of Americans (citizens of the United States of America) that are atheist, agnostic, or otherwise non-religious.
The statistical figure is rarely quoted precisely, but is often suggested to be at the very least "more than ten percent" and sometimes as high as "almost twenty-five percent." In a subjective sense, I get the idea from "Positive Atheism" that this number is around fifteen percent.
I decided to verify this number. According to the U.S. Census, as of 1999, eight percent of U.S. citizens are non-religious. This number also includes respondents who did not designate a religion. This statistic was obtained from this Census Bureau PDF file, see section "No. 75. Religious Preference, Church Membership, and Attendance: 1980 to 1999."
Please don't feel that I am nit-picking or trying to split hairs, as it were. My concern over this is merely grounded in the idea that inaccuracies, no matter how small or obviously trivial, will quickly become cannon-fodder for fundamentalist attacks on the credibility of "Positive Atheism."
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "D.J. Brown"
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: September 24, 2001 8:30 AM
Fundamentalist Christian apologists have been known to take perfectly good facts, disregard them, and fire away at us with falsehood no matter how careful we try to be. Of course, you knew that.
We do well to first to work with the rest of the general public and popularize the concept of "nontheism" (Michael Shermer) or "weak" atheism (George H. Smith, myself) or negative atheism (Michael Martin; Anthony Flew). This is, of course, the simple lack of a god belief, the absence of theism. Once we have defined the concept, it matters little what we call it. Then we could speak in terms of numbers and percentages and people would know what we were talking about.
If I want atheist to mean those who assert that no gods exist, then the figure for the U.S. drops to about two or three percent, with the World being slightly higher. Many others ought to be in a category such as this, but would slip through on a technicality. For example, a noncognitivist cannot say "God does not exist" because she or he does not understand what we mean when we say "God." Nevertheless, the noncognitivist stands a higher chance of having studied the issue and made a decision. With the "weak" definition for atheism, the noncognitivist fits neatly into the category of "people who lack a god belief." The noncognitivist would also fit squarely into the category of "philosophical atheist" (one who has studied the question, and is not simply an atheist by default of not having developed a god belief or of being agnostic). Thus, the noncognitivist is as much a "hard" atheist as is the person who insists that all gods are make-believe.
You can see why we need lots of public awareness work in this area, considering that those who write the questionnaires have little or no understanding of what questions they're even asking when it comes to determining how many of us are atheists (or nontheists or whatever). Likewise, those who write the questionnaires must be exactingly careful in how the word these things, considering that, for example, Twelve Steppers cannot agree with the rest of the world that religion and spirituality are pretty much the same thing.
Amidst all this, we use the ten percent figure pointing to those Americans who lack a god belief. Worldwide, we use a figure of 21 percent (Encarta).
The problem I see with the Census figures to which you point is, again, the language of the questionnaire and the language in the graph. To say "None" under "Religious preference" is to invite any non-denominational Christian Fundamentalist who thinks that all the other guys practice "religion," which is by definition phony, but his is a bona fide "relationship" with The Lord (I've seen this! it's not as obscure as you'd think). Ditto for the very theistic Twelve Stepper who won't put down a "Religious preference" because what she does is not religion but is, rather, spirituality. I promise you that this and similar problems in wording the questionnaire is where a lot of these "None" answers come from.
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