Statistics Reveal Freethinkers Highly Educated (Jan/Feb 2000)

The typical member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a 58-year-old male who grew up in a Catholic or Methodist household where both parents were religious, attended secular schools, strongly supports population control, abortion rights, environmental protection and death with dignity, has at least one college degree, and feels somewhat alone in his disbelief.

The level of higher education pursued by Foundation members is one of the more striking findings. Nearly three-quarters (72.97%) have one or more college degrees, while this is true of less than a quarter of the population at large.

More than a third (38%) have one undergrad degree (compared to 14.9% of the general population), more than a third (36.6%) have a Masters (compared to 4.7% of the general population), and 9% have a Ph.D. (compared to .9% of the general population), meaning Foundation members are ten times more likely to have earned a doctorate. More than a quarter (29%) of the membership have at least two degrees. Two members reported having earned five degrees. Of course, “self-education” is an essential factor for many Foundation members of whatever level of education.

In keeping with the higher level of education, 16% are in the teaching profession–the highest single profession listed including 57 professors. The second highest profession listed was engineering, followed by “computer,” and physicians, comprising 4% of the Foundation membership.

Foundation members represent a diversity of professions: nurses, government and postal workers, psychologists, dentists, pilots, artists, actors, farmers, scientists, factory workers, editors, journalists, secretaries, accountants, musicians, professional photographers, homemakers, students, truckers, attorneys, librarians, and seven identifying as “minister or former minister.”

Nearly half of Foundation members (48.12%) are retired and nearly 40% do regular volunteer work.

Foundation members are twice as likely to be male as female, but two-thirds actively support organizations working for women’s rights.

Two-thirds belong to environmental causes and population control groups.

Of the nearly three-quarters with religious backgrounds, the highest number (nearly 30%) were raised Roman Catholic (consistent with the Catholic Church being the single largest U.S. denomination). Protestant sects and splinters would outnumber Catholic if combined, as is also true of the general population. Runner-up rejected religions: 19% Methodist, 14.5% (unspecified) Baptist, 12% Lutheran, 9% Presbyterian, 7% Jewish, 6.7% Episcopalian. Former Southern Baptists comprised only 4%, “Pentecostal” a lowly 1.14%, Mormon 1.03% and Jehovah Witness 0.8%.

A significant minority, 17%, were raised in “freethought homes.” Also significant is the fact that slightly more than a third who considered themselves raised in religious homes said one parent was religious and the other was not, suggesting some healthy cognitive dissonance and role modeling.

Freethinkers, according to this survey, tend to be fairly feisty but lonely. Although 56% agree “I speak out freely about my lack of religion,” one-third concur with such statements as “I am wary of letting others know I reject religion,” and “I often feel like the only ‘infidel’ in my area.” Only a third report that their “immediate family members are also freethinkers.” Two-thirds feel they do not have “an adequate freethought ‘support system.’ “

A question about the primary catalyst prompting rejection of religion provoked a wide variety of responses. Some lighter responses included: “learning to read,” “having an IQ of 135,” being “miffed by the statements in my confirmation certificate.”

Several members put prayer to the test, including one whose awakening came after “praying to pass a spelling test at about 10 years but flunking anyway.”

Most raised serious issues: “Birth control was not allowed. After 10 children I began to think. Enough!”

“At age 13,” wrote another member, “I overheard a description of a brutal rape and figured out that Jesus didn’t suffer as much as that woman.”

Although a few cite such a life experience ephiphany, most common catalysts were reading, education, intellect, science and other thought processes. Four percent of members credit “reading the bible” with their deconversion! Reading in general was cited by another 9%, many of whom named secular authors (Bertrand Russell the most influential, followed by Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Paine, and the Foundation’s own Dan Barker). “Education” was listed by 9% and science and evolution by 7%.

Feminist issues and religious sexism were the final straw for 3%. Some 10% cited various other disillusionments with religion and the harm it causes, such as religious hypocrisy, black collar crimes, wars and divisiveness, and even the observed conduct of religious people. Twelve presumably ex-Catholic freethinkers cited “Catholicism” as the main reason for their nontheism. Others simply credited maturity.

Freethought is very strongly correlated with the wisdom of age. People in their seventies comprised the single highest grouping by age (at 22%), closely followed by those in the 60-69-year subset (19%); 50-59 year-olds (18%); 40-49 year-olds (16%); 11% “thirtysomethings,” and 3.4% “twentysomethings.” This appears to coincide with lower participation in memberships and causes in general by young adults, who don’t tend to be joiners.

Several “in house” questions were asked. The membership overwhelmingly (93%) indicated satisfaction with the current policy of alternating national annual conventions between the Midwest and other regions. Top vote-getters of the 701 convention sites promoted by members: Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Portland, OR; San Francisco; Atlanta, and Florida in some location or another.

A whopping 79% of membership responded “yes” to the following question:

“The world has reached 6 billion in human population. Do you think the Foundation should be more vocal in working for population control since the major opponent is organized religion?”

Foundation members are definitely activists. Asked which of the Foundation’s two functions is most important–challenging abuses of separation of church and state, or education regarding nontheism–more than two-thirds called them of “equal importance.” Of those preferring one purpose over the other, 28% chose challenging First Amendment violations, compared to only 6% choosing “education about nontheism.”

More than a third (1,328 so far) of the Foundation’s 3,800-plus Foundation membership, ranging in age from 10 to 97, returned a questionnaire, which was enclosed last year with the Foundation’s newsletter “Private Line.” Surveys are still trickling in. A national survey of 1,000 people is considered significant.

The general population educational statistics used for basis of comparison come from the Digest of Education Statistics, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Education, 1997.

Freedom From Religion Foundation