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As I previously posted, the 2012 American National Election Study, atheist is not a popular identity among the “nones.”  Atheists made up less than one-in-five of those who did not belong to any religious group, never attended church, and said religion wasn’t important in their lives. So, who identifies as an “atheist”?

Gender and identity among the nones

Women opt for “spiritual but not religious” instead of “atheist” or “agnostic” Graph by Corner of Church & State, an RNS blog. Source: 2012 American National Election Study


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The first answer is simple: women rarely consider themselves to be atheists.  Gender problems well-known among those active in atheist or secular groups.  The survey found nearly half of secular woman eschew both “atheist” and “agnostic” in favor of “spiritual but not religious.” Men are nearly twice as likely to identify as “atheist” or “agnostic”.

Education and identity among the nones

With a little bit of college education, the chances of identifying as an atheist increases dramatically among the nones. Graph by Corner of Church & State, an RNS blog. Source: 2012 American National Election Study


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Atheists also face an education gap. “Atheist” and “agnostic” are rare among the “nones” who have not attended college.  It is only among college graduates that “atheist” and “agnostic” (together) outnumber the “spiritual but not religious.”

This is a different phenomenon than the gender gap.  For the gender gap, it’s a trade-off. women choose “spiritual but not religious” as an alternative to “atheist” or “agnostic;” men do the opposite.  For education, the situation is different. People don’t drop “spiritual but not religious” in favor “atheist” or “agnostic” (note that the percentage who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” doesn’t vary much by education). With more education, those with no religion are more likely to understand what the words “atheist” and “agnostic” mean and identify with them. They change from being people with no identity to being “atheist” or “agnostic.”

But even among highly educated men who have zip to do with religion, “atheist” and “agnostic” aren’t completely accepted. Among this group of nones, just over half identify as “atheist” (26%) or “agnostic” (56%).

4 Comments

  1. Okay, Larry and Max. These findings are right in YOUR ballpark. Care to explain why your fellow atheists don’t wanna be called atheists unless they have a college degree?

    And do atheists REALLY need a college degree to understand what the words “atheist” or “agnostic” means, as the second to last paragraph suggested?

    And why do some “highly educated” guys refuse to use the label “atheist” anyway, as the final paragraph pointed out? Is there perhaps something WRONG and UNPLEASANT about the label “atheist”? Please explain!

    • Nothing wrong or unpleasant about the word “atheist”. But in the context of the United States, still inexplicably mired in old superstitions in large quantity, it’s common to be a victim of discrimination. If you go to any other civilized country (Australia, Canada, England, Germany, France, Sweden, Switzerland, etc) you’ll find the word “atheist” nowhere near as taboo. But sadly, in the US, the religious bigots are still very much in power.

    • There is much confusion over ‘atheism’ and ‘agnosticism’.

      Let me clear it up. The problem is that people lump the two on the same spectrum, which is misleading because they are actually at one end of two completely separate spectra.

      Gnosticism and agnosticism deal with knowledge. if you are gnostic on a subject, it means you know something with absolute certainty. If you are agnostic on a subject, you don’t know something with absolute certainty.

      Theism and atheism, however, deal with belief. This is why you can add ‘gnostic’ or ‘agnostic’ to ‘theist’ or ‘atheist’. If you are a ‘gnostic theist’ you believe with absolute certainty in your religious beliefs. If you are an ‘agnostic theist’ you believe in your religion but you cannot say for a certainty. If you are an ‘agnostic atheist’ you believe there is no God but you cannot say with absolute certainty. If you are a ‘gnostic atheist’ you believe there is no God and you assert the claim with absolute certainty.

      Hope this clears things up. My thoughts on religion are that we should all essentially be agnostic because to take the position of gnosticism on the subject of whether there is a God or not is foolhardy to the point of impossibility. I am therefore an agnostic atheist as I find it impossible to believe in a God but it would be foolish to say with absolute certainty that there is no such being.

      To respond to the question of why some atheists don’t want to be called atheists, that’s mainly because many people don’t want to be labelled, along with the misconceptions flying about regarding its meaning.

  2. It’s pretty difficult to accept the “spiritual” as non-believers. Non believers in a Christian god I suppose but that doesn’t make them non-religious or non-believers in the super natural. The idea of karma and cosmic-life-force-energy is a super natural one with as little evidence as the existence of god (none) and easily discredited through reason (easily).

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