A new study has revealed that there could be quite a few more atheists in the general population than most polls have been indicating. In fact, instead of there being somewhere between one-out-of-33 or even one-out-of-ten Americans that are atheists, numbers reflected in surveys and estimates over the years, the actual number of atheists could be as high as one-out-of-four. And there is a simple reason believed to be behind the under-reporting of the actual percentage of atheists as many atheists claim to follow a form of religion due to societal pressures and fear.
The study, conducted by University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle, concluded that the fear of social stigma and the potential for ostracism associated with being a non-believer had caused a good portion of respondents to various population surveys over the years to be dishonest regarding their personal belief systems. In short, many atheists have intentionally misrepresented themselves in polls and surveys in order to mask their true beliefs as atheists.
“There’s a lot of atheists in the closet,” Gervais told Vox recently in an interview with Vox.
The actual number of atheists, Gervais and Najle determined, could be higher than a quarter of the American populace, or about 26 percent.
The duo’s findings stand in contrast to surveys conducted by reputable polling organizations. For example, a 2014 Pew survey revealed that the percentage of Americans that responded that they were atheists was just over 3 percent. At the same time, 9 percent of adults said they didn’t believe in God, which is the actual definition of atheism.
A 2016 Gallup poll determined that 10 percent of Americans claimed they did not believe in God.
But, as Gervais told Vox, he thought the survey results were too low. “We shouldn’t expect people to give a stranger over the phone an honest answer to that question,” he said.
So, how to derive a more accurate percentage of atheists among the general American population? Gervais and Najle, using what is known as the “the unmatched count technique,” sent out surveys to two groups of 2,000 individuals. Only one of the groups had the statement “I believe in God” included in their list.”
The team worked on the assumption that the respondents, who were asked to record all the statements that were true for them, would be fairly equal in number in selecting that they were dog owners and art lovers. However, if there were a considerable variance, this would account for those who did not believe in God.
Gregory Smith, associate director of research at Pew Research Center, warned that the magnitude of difference between polls like Pew and Gallup with that conducted by Gervais and Najle was worrisome. Skeptical, he told Vox he did not think such a large differentiation could be accounted for because of the use of phone surveys.
But social stigma does exist with regard to atheists, according to various studies. A 2017 Pew survey revealed in a “feeling thermometer” survey, where respondents were asked to rate different social groups with scores ranging from 0 to 100. Atheists received an average rating of 50, which was the second-lowest rating for a religious group (categorized as such even though, technically, atheism is not a religion). The only group that fared worse were Muslims.
A 2016 study on atheism and “cultural outsiders” conducted by University of Minnesota sociologists revealed that many Americans define ethics and morals and value systems through an individual’s religious affiliation. The study found that 40 percent of Americans disapprove of non-religion (often referred to as religious “nones”) and 27 percent of Americans claim that atheists “don’t share my morals or values.”
“Given the centrality of religious belief to many societies, and the degree to which many equate religious belief with morality, there are profound social pressures to be ― or at least appear ― religious,” Gervais and Najle wrote in the report, “How many atheists are there?,” which will be published in the next issue of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
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