Are one-quarter of Americans atheists?

New study puts number of nonbelievers much higher than previously thought

Trying to figure out how many Americans who don’t believe in God is a tough undertaking for any researcher.

Asking people simply if they are atheists doesn’t generate a correct number, researchers say, because many people think the word “atheist” is too negative and don’t want to be associated with it. But even asked if they don’t believe in God, the number of respondents is still likely highly under-representative of the actual number, because people, in general, aren’t willing to divulge that information openly.

But two psychologists from the University of Kentucky think they have found a better method. And their results are surprising.

Will Gervais and Maxine Najle have determined, with a somewhat high margin of error, that 26 percent of Americans are atheists.

“We can say with a 99 percent probability that it’s higher than 11 percent,” Gervais said.

Most reputable polls have shown that about 10 percent of Americans don’t believe in God, and that number has been growing every year. But no poll has ever made the leap to say that a quarter of the population are atheists, although a quarter identifies as “nonreligious.”

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

Gervais and Najle have submitted their results to the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

To get a more accurate reading on the number of atheists, Gervais and Najle set up a test of 2,000 people.

Half of the participants were asked to read through a list of statements such as “I am a vegetarian” or “I own a dog.” Instead of answering yes or no to each, the participants only had to write down the number of statements that were true for them. Using this method, participants don’t have to directly acknowledge any specific condition.

The other half of participants got the same list, but with one statement added: “I believe in God.”

By comparing the responses between the groups, the researchers could then estimate how many people don’t believe in God. (Because both groups should, in theory, have a similar number of vegetarians, dog owners, etc., 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.)

Gervais and Najle replicated the study with a second sample of 2,000 participants, and got similar results to the first study.

As for the veracity of this research, the psychologists admit that it does have a wide margin of error, but they do stand by their contention that the number of reported nonbelievers around the country has been continually underreported.

“In time, we’ll hopefully be able to refine our methods and find other indirect measurement techniques,” Gervais says.

Freedom From Religion Foundation