‘Closet Atheists’ Abound in America

by | November 15, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

Atheists are disliked in America – constantly denigrated in public surveys – which may explain why many doubters conceal their lack of belief.

However, a 2017 poll by University of Kentucky researchers found that perhaps one-fourth of Americans are either overt skeptics or “closet atheists” – a far higher ratio than previously thought.  Here’s the background:

Two-thirds of Americans say they have negative opinions about disbelievers.  More than one-third think atheists shouldn’t be allowed to teach in public schools, or hold office, or even hold rallies.  Revealing doubt about the supernatural can cause a storm within a family, and maybe jeopardize one’s career. Therefore, atheism is hidden by some.

“A 2016 PRRI survey found that more than one-third of atheists reported hiding their religious identity or beliefs from friends or family members out of concerns that they would disapprove,” wrote Daniel Cox, research director of the Public Religion Research Institute.  He added:

“There are Catholics, Jews and Muslims who do not believe in God – their connection to religion is largely cultural or based on their ethnic background.”

Polls that ask directly about belief in God usually find that under 10 percent are bold enough to declare themselves atheist.  However, two UK scholars, Will Gervais and Maxine Najle, devised an indirect survey method called “the unmatched count technique.”  It asks bland general questions of two control groups, and asks participants in one group if they agree with the statement: “I believe in God.”  Authors say it reveals a lot of clandestine nonbelievers.

Results, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, estimate that 26 percent of American adults actually are atheist.

“There’s a lot of atheists in the closet,” researcher Gervais told Vox. Their report says:

“Obtaining accurate atheist prevalence estimates may help promote trust and tolerance of atheists – potentially 80 million people in the USA and well over a billion worldwide.”

Frankly, I suspect that the rate of American doubters is higher still.  I think most churchgoers don’t really believe the supernatural dogmas they sing about.  Remember the old joke saying no Christian wants to go to heaven “right now.”

Also, ideas about God are blurry.  Some believe in a miracle-worker who answers prayers, while others have much-vaguer notions.   PRRI director Cox wrote:

“Does a belief in mystical energy, for example, constitute a belief in God?  When Gallup recently asked a yes-or-no question about belief in God, 89 percent of Americans reported that they do believe.  But, in a separate poll, only slightly more than half (53 percent) of Americans said they have an anthropomorphic God in mind, while for other believers it’s something far more abstract.”

Some sophisticated theologians try to shift religion away from supernatural spirits.  They contend that God actually is the human capacity to feel compassion and empathy – that “God is love.”  Or they postulate that God is the awesome, mysterious power in every atom of the universe.

But those approaches don’t fit the father-creator deity of most churches.  I don’t see how churchgoers could worship part of their own psychology – or pray to E=MC2.  That would turn religion into something quite different.

Actually, those who would reinterpret God in a manner far removed from traditional religion are almost “closet atheists” of another sort.

As America relentlessly turns more secular, I think the stigma against skeptics will fade, and many more may come out of the closet.

This essay appeared in the United Coalition of Reason newsletter, December 2017.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: James Haught.

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