How many Americans believe in God? Well, according to Pew and Gallup polling, about 10% of the population does not believe in God, and that number has been growing steadily over the last few decades.
But a new study recently conducted by two psychologists at the University of Kentucky, Will Gervais and Maxine Najle, has lead the two researchers to conclude that other surveys may have under-reported the number of atheists in the general population. They believe that social pressure, fear of being ostracized, and the stigmas associated with non-belief have lead many survey respondents to hide their true beliefs.
The results of their study indicate the number of non-believers in the American population could be up to 26%, more than double the amount that previous surveys have indicated. In an interview with Vox.com, Gervais stated, “There’s a lot of atheists in the closet. And if they knew there are lots of people just like them out there, that could potentially promote more tolerance.”
Gervais and Najle conducted their study by sending a poll to 2,000 Americans. Many statements were on the poll, such as “I am a vegetarian” or “I am a dog owner”. The respondents only had to write down the number of statements that were true for them. They did not have to write down which ones were true of them. This was done to eliminate any embarrassment associated with identifying with a particular statement.
Half of the surveys sent out had the additional question of “I believe in God”. By comparing the responses from the two groups, the researchers could find out how many group members do not believe in God (since both groups of 1,000 respondents should have the same number of vegetarians and dog owners, etc.). By employing this method, Gervais, regarding the percentage of the population that is atheist, said that with “99 percent probably it’s higher than [11 percent.]”
Gervais and Najle ran a second study that duplicated the first, except in the second study the statement “I believe in God,” was replaced with “I do not believe in God,” in half the polls. They got similar results to the first test, although the number of atheists in this second test was just slightly lower. But Gervais believes that could be a result of people being more prone to apprehension about definitively stating “No, there is no God.”
The director of Pew’s polling of religious beliefs, Greg Smith, thinks that the study conducted by Gervais and Najle is flawed. Speaking with Vox, he finds it unlikely that the Pew and Gallup polling could be wrong by such a wide margin. Smith said that Pew has asked religious questions both on the phone and with online surveys and have gotten very similar results. If people were hesitant to tell a stranger on the phone that they were an atheist, they would probably be slightly more likely to enter it into a computer. Although, Pew asks the question directly, rather than having respondents simply identify the number of statements that apply to them, so perhaps even online, people are still uncomfortable answering the question directly.
Despite Smith’s doubts in their method, Gervais and Najle are confident in the validity of their test. When they ran the test with a group comprised solely of previously self-identified atheists, their method found that 100 percent of respondents did not believe in God, which is correct. Gervais and Najle wrote that they do not think a flawed method would have so accurately identified all the atheists in the atheist-only group.
I think more studies and polls should be done either way. Asking the simple “Do you believe in God?” question makes it difficult to place some of the more nuanced believers. And while I personally identify as an atheist, I do have some friends who identify as an atheist one day, and an agnostic the next. So the fickleness of certain people comes into play, as well.
One thing is certain though, Pew and Gallup polls have been showing a slow, but steady increase in the number of atheists for the last several decades. That trend will hopefully continue, or even accelerate. The more people who are vocal about their lack of belief, and the more believers get to see that atheists are moral, decent people, the better off we will be.