Atheism on the upswing in America

Atheism – The absence of theism. So if you doubt the existence of any gods more than you believe in … Continued

Atheism – The absence of theism. So if you doubt the existence of any gods more than you believe in one or more of them, you’re an atheist.

Kyle Robertson


A June 21, 2011 photo shows a billboard at 417 North James in Columbus, one of several put up by Freedom From Religion Foundation around Columbus.

Some years back Washington Post Magazine ran a then-rare story on a strange and scarce species. A kind of person most Americans are so bigoted against that they refuse to vote for them, marry them, or even allow them into the Boy Scouts. These unusual creatures are American atheists, which the old joke said could all fit into a Manhattan phone booth. That was then, this is now.

As the survey results come in, as the irreligious best-sellers sell, and as the scientific analysis gets published, it is increasingly clear that Western atheism has evolved into a forward-looking movement that has the wind at its back, is behind the success of the best run societies yet seen in human history, and is challenging religion as the better basis of morality. Even in the U.S., a religious anomaly in the Western world, atheists are making major gains while Christianity withers, already having lost the mainstream culture to secularism. The least religious regions of the nation are enjoying superior societal conditions.

Religious conservatives commonly contend that only a transcendent supernatural intelligent designer can provide the absolute and perfect morality and the wisdom necessary to run successful societies – it’s become the de facto position of the GOP. Many religious liberals and atheists agree that both theism and atheism are sufficiently moral and practical to generate similarly successful cultures. This series will show that both views are errant. The science-based evidence leaves no doubt that, although very human in its flaws, democratic atheism is proving superior to faith-based mythical doctrines in practical societal and moral terms.

Before we proceed further, we need to take a look at where the planet is concerning the changing status of popular opinion on the reality or non-reality of the gods. According to the tabulations of the World Christian Encyclopedia, the globe was fairly consistently religious circa 1900. It no longer is. The WCE concludes that atheists from committed to agnostic currently number about a billion. Pew calculates that some 1st world countries are only a quarter or a third as religious as are the most pious 2nd and 3rd world nations. In some of the secularized democracies large pluralities and even strong majorities qualify at atheists–including agnostics, while the devoutly religious are small minorities, and those churches that are not nearly empty on most Sundays have been converted to other uses.

The still-common claim that nine out of ten Americans still believe in God is an outright falsehood. When asked if they believe in God or not, about 90 percent say yes, but when asked about whether or not they believe in God or a higher power or universal spirit, the actual God-believing theists drop to eight in ten. Two Harris polls also show that a fifth of Americans are atheistic to a greater or lesser degree. These results accord with Pew’s estimate that America in general is half as religious as the most theistic nations. Up to the 1960s only a couple of percent told Gallup they did not believe in God or a universal spirit, all out atheists have since quadrupled to the upper single digits. That’s why Bible skeptics have doubled to one in five since the 1970s, and those who accept evolution are at an all time high while creationism shows signs of slipping. Bible literalism is in strong decline, and the religious right, always a minority, is showing signs of distress as an internal report by the Southern Baptists bemoans that “evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernible deterioration.” That’s because the churches are losing the digitally connected, traditional organization-averse youth; today’s twentysomethings are twice as irreligious as was the same cohort in the 90s. (Further details here.)

The future of American faith is grim as the nation undergoes the secularization process that has already pretty much wrecked the churches in the rest of the West. So what will happen to American society as it too becomes as non-theistic as, say, Canada? My next essay will show how the loss of religion is not the big social/moral deal many make it out to be.

Gregory Paul is an independent researcher in sociology and evolution. He frequently writes on atheism and American culture. He wrote this post for

Written by

  • gwcross

    If you think atheism is on the upswing now, just wait til you see how many converts we get during the next presidential election.

    I have a hard time imagining anything that will discredit in-your-face christianity more than a Perry GOP candidacy. Ironically, the best hope for this form of christianity in 2012 would be the two candidates that are mormons. They belong to one of the loopiest religions, but the individual candidates themselves are the only grownups in the room.

  • lufrank1

    Organized Religion = Mankind’s Bane!

  • Rongoklunk


    “Rongo, again that assumes that the only possible personality for a god is compassion and love. That’s like saying that the only possible color is orange. The ancient Greeks and Norse believed in gods who had human flaws and who were powerful but not omnipotent.”
    I’ll tell you what I assume, I assume there are no gods and never were. I imagine that you don’t believe in Zeus, or Shiva, or Huitzopchtli. Well, neither do I, but I also don’t believe that Allah exists, or Rama, or your God either. That they are all characters of the imagination I have no doubt; created out of fear and ignorance by the ancients – and passed on down to us by our culture. I cannot prove that your god doesn’t exist anymore than I could prove that Zeus doesn’t exist. But otherwise I am an atheist who drops in on threads like this to say my piece because I’m appalled that so many still believe such obvious nonsense.
    I’ve noticed on these threads there are usually more and more comments from atheists as time goes on. That’s a good sign, and I feel a need to join them in the fight against superstition. This is the age of science and amazing technology, and time for religious superstitions to join astrology and alchemy on the fringes of society where it belongs. Truth is more important than any religion. We can only discover the truth through scientific endeavor, and religion has no place in that kind of world because it’s a lie – a scam, the king of scams.

  • LFW101

    It is silly to think that theists, agnostics, or atheists are inherently moral or immoral. The whole debate is a complete waste of time.

  • dockennedy

    More than a billion of you count the Communists and those who have never heard of either choice. Having been an atheist I feel for all of them and pray for their souls. A great surprise is coming a the split second of passage from this world…late but with a Great and Good God…maybe He has a plan for them to learn, even then that He is. Either way, if they simply do what they think they will do, DIE and become dust, wow what an awakening! Bless them all and I would think that any Christian that does not pray for them needs prayer themselves

  • peterroach

    Now, how much warfare have be had in the past 100 years ?
    What percentage of deaths versus all time has occurred in this period versus the total recorded history of mankind ?
    Our nation has been at war most of the time since about 1964.
    Think about it.
    The major nations you cite have most of world’s resources and power, but what peace is there ?
    It is by action, if most of organized religion follows or believes its teachings, and so others follow. We may be in the sixteenth century on steroids.

  • Dupree7

    As i understand it the catholic church teaches anyone who is not Catholic is going to hell. Hell must be a very large, full of a lot of very nice people.

  • Dupree7

    So if you live an evil life but repent on your death bed you go to heaven. But id you live a completely moral and caring life as an atheist you go to hell. God does work in mysterious ways.

  • LovesPurple

    God doesn’t send people to hell. They choose to go there when they reject His offer of heaven.

  • IGiveup1

    atheistic is so ‘last season.’ Let’s hear it for the growth of anti-theism.

  • IGiveup1

    looks like someone has been patronizing Pascal’s bookie.

  • crane5

    God likes ’em dumb, I guess.

  • thebump

    You are misinformed.

  • randykyle7

    Actually, these Hegelian puppets are not “atheists”. They are (in ignorance) secular humanists, which is officially a (gasp) RELIGION! It is a belief system, complete with a “manifesto” stating those BELIEFS. Their “god” is the state, their morality convoluted to the point of irrelevance and their zeal murderous. Mr. Paul is either himself a socially engineered drone, or worse, aspires to be a social engineer. None of his assertions or arguments are new or even particularly clever. He will not “expunge” religion from society, he will only succeed in propagating a civil war which history shows the liberal humanist to be ill equipped in courage and conviction to engage in. You see, we “religious” simpletons are of the mind that our God imbued us with certain rights and responsibilities. We tend to take it rather personally when a psuedo-intellectual Darwinist deems to take it upon himself to encroach on those rights and responsibilities. Of course, if “nature” is god, and the “law of nature” is survival of the fittest, then the humanist should have no problem whatsoever with the “natural” struggle he seeks to initiate. I wish him……luck.

  • crane5


  • crane5

    Do these religious fantasies of yours always end with everyone killing everyone?

  • crane5

    Yeah! You’re _misinformed_! Because _this_ _guy_ said so. And that’s all you need to know, heathen. Consider yourself gainsaid. Ouch.

  • thebump

    It’s easy enough to look up. That is, for those with at least a fifth-grade reading level and access to the interwebs.

  • crane5

    It’s easy enough to recommend all your own posts, too.

  • crane5

    “Let them hear Lactantius crying out: “The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this the house of Faith, this the temple of God: if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation.”

  • thebump

    And why would one NOT recommend their own posts? Why bother posting if you don’t recommend that anyone read them?

  • wildfyre99

    “The WCE concludes that atheists from committed to agnostic currently number about a billion.”

    Atheism is different from agnosticism. An agnostic is someone who neither believes nor disbelieves there is a God (there being no proof either way), whereas an atheist disbelieves there is a God.

  • ExiledinBali

    Thank god for this trend

  • Carstonio

    Rongo, your reference to “your god” is mistaken since I take no position on whether any gods exist. My larger point is that many (not all) atheists focus on the Christian concept of deity at the exclusion of other ones. This is valid if one is looking at the morality of that religion’s teachings. But from an empirical standpoint, we have no basis for judging whether one religion’s claims about gods are more likely or less likely to be true than those by any other religions. The question of whether gods exist is not a referendum on any particular religion that claims the existence of gods.

  • crane5

    Stop it–you’re making your fake god cry.

  • aaronweiner

    Considering the vast variety of religions and religious beliefs, practices, rituals and morals, it’s pretty clear to me that all religion is hypothesis. Including atheism.

  • em71

    Interestingly enough, Robert Putnam just released a study showing that religious people (statistically speaking) are more altruistic and civic minded. I wouldn’t say that a turn to atheism is a good thing per se, but I would say that a turn from fundamentalism is a wise move.

  • pritchardity

    You were doing so well until you got to ‘Why We Are So Much Better Than Everyone Else’. Guess things don’t change, after all.

  • thebump

    God believes in you.

  • weeeezzll

    @aaronweiner – Atheism is a religion about as much as not-collecting-stamps is a hobby.

    @MrFusion – Atheism is defined as “the rejection or absence of belief in the existence of deities.”, not the absence of religion….