Over the course of the last few days, many writers have congratulated or condemned President Obama for his inclusion of “nonbelievers” in his inaugural address. Though there is disagreement even within like-minded communities as to how important or meaningful the mention was, there seems to be from my anecdotal perspective a fairly universal acknowledgment that part of the reasoning for the shout-out was raw numbers. And that raw, magic number is 16.1 percent.
16.1 comes from the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life which sampled over 35,000 adults to see how many people believe what in the United States. Atheists are included in that very sizable number, and according to Pew, it is the fasted growing segment of all! Hooray!
But 16.1 percent of the country are not atheists. This number actually signifies those who are “unaffiliated.” That means exactly what it sounds like, and I’m just going to quote the Pew website here to clarify exactly how this breaks down:
Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).
So what we really have is a 12.1 percent segment for whom organized religion doesn’t float their arcs as well as those who don’t seem to give religion enough thought to warrant an affiliation. It does not imply atheism. Then we have the 2.4 percent who are agnostics, and they are not atheists either. Out and out atheists are relegated to a meager 1.6 percent. Might there be atheists within these larger groups? Sure, there might be! It may very well be that most of this 12.1 percent (including, for that matter, the 0.8 percent who said they didn’t know or refused to answer) are what we would consider atheists for all intents and purposes. But if so, it’s not in the data, and we cannot infer it.
(At the same time, it may even leave out atheists who happen to attend Unitarian Universalist and similar churches because they, according to Pew, are religious by virtue of church membership versus God-belief. Pew’s own survey of Congress’s religious makeup shows this flaw by showing no atheists in Congress, and classifying Rep. Pete Stark, R-Calif., a nonbeliever, as a Unitarian only.)
So, for example, when Obama or anyone else talks about “nonbelievers,” I don’t imagine that they’re thinking of people who are religious but not part of an organized sect (the 5.8 percent). Likewise, I think it might be unwise and disingenuous for atheists to wield the 16.1 number as though all within it were of like mind as to the existence of a supreme deity. If anything, I think it would be safe to use 10.3 percent (atheists plus agnostics plus the secular unaffiliated) when talking about a bloc of Americans who do not feel beholden to said deity. But we should make no mistake; that 16.1 number does not mean nonbelievers, it really means “other.”
Do not misunderstand me. That “other” is still a sizable share of the population and it is of great importance that so many Americans do not subscribe to any particular religious organization or dogma. And in matters of public policy, it is essential that a bloc that rejects dogma or revealed word as a foundation for policy be heard loudly and clearly; not as cranks or gadflies, but as a demographic with electoral veto power.
Also, one should not underestimate atheists’ 1.6 percent. As I have noted before, the same survey shows that Jews and Mormons each make up only 1.7 percent of the population, and no one would claim that these groups are political ineffectual. But if 1.6 is not enough, different polls can show different numbers, especially when the question is reworded. Therefore, atheists might take more solace from a 2007 Gallup poll that differentiates belief in the following manner:
There are a number of ways to ask about belief in God. Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs poll, conducted May 8-11, used a question structure that gave Americans three choices concerning their belief: a) You believe in God, b) You don’t believe in God, but you do believe in a universal spirit or higher power, or c) You don’t believe in either. The inclusion of the middle alternative has the overall impact of lowering the percentage of those interviewed who say straight-out that they believe in God.
Rather than deal with labels that can confuse and blur, Gallup asked 1017 adults exactly what it is they think is “out there,” and the numbers are a little better for us secular types (keeping in mind margin of error for a far smaller sample than Pew). The measly Pew 1.6 percent jumps to 6 percent of Americans who believe neither in God nor any supernatural force. And if you like the idea of building coalitions with those “universal spirit” folks (and why wouldn’t we?), you have a voting bloc of 21 percent of the electorate.
Now we’re talking.
But again, we have to be careful when we use these numbers in our rhetoric and when dealing with the press and politicians. As champions of facts over faith, we have to be honest about which numbers correspond to what group, without allowing for venial sins of omission (“Well, if they infer that 16.1 percent of Americans are atheists, so what?“). Rest assured: our voices are worth heeding, our opinions are worth sincere consideration, our votes are worth courting, and our citizenship is worthy of fully honoring, all regardless of whatever our exact numbers might be.