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Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers

06/02/2013

This is a very short book on the sociology of atheists, gathered from surveys sent to a few atheist groups in the San Francisco Bay Area (253 people), Alabama and Idaho (28 people). The results from these surveys were contrasted to “religious fundamentalists” from Manitoba, Canada to look for similarities/differences.

There’s a significant section devoted to the way the data was gathered, as well as the limitations that the study is subject to, mostly in the first chapter. There’s always the problem of self-reporting, self selection of those who decided to return the surveys, a relatively low sample size, and comparisons across a wide geographic area. The atheists were also from groups, which means they are likely to be systematically different than atheists who do not attend atheist groups, or do not consider themselves members. That makes all the conclusions very tentative, and I hope to at some point compare this data to the work of Phil Zuckerman, Gregory Paul, and Luke Galen, who are the only sociologists of religion I know of. Tomas Rees reports on a lot of similar stuff on his blog as well.

Here’s a brief, unqualified list of the results.

  • Atheists age hovered around 60 years old (median).
  • About 2/3 of the atheists were male.
  • About 75% believed in God at some point of their lives.
  • Doubts typically arose in the mid to late teen years (15-18)
  • The source of doubt was usually intellectual (reading the Bible and finding it horrible, problem of evil, learning science)
  • Most (55-65%) express difficulty with relatives or family due to their beliefs.
  • There was a low childhood emphasis on religion/religious beliefs by the atheists’ parents/family.
  • Atheists scored relatively high on a dogmatism scale, typically saying hypothetical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection would not sway their beliefs at all, and that little to nothing conceivable could change their minds. Compared to Manitoba fundamentalists, they were still significantly less dogmatic.
  • Atheists scored low on zealotry, i.e. atheists were opposed to to requiring atheism taught in public schools, a desire that their kids “make up their own minds” on religion rather than following directly as atheists. Manitoba fundamentalists scored very high on zealotry, wanting their beliefs taught in public schools, and wanting their kids to believe exactly as they do.
  • Atheists viewed other atheists more favorably than religious people.
  • Atheists were very accepting of homosexuals and low racial and ethnic prejudice.

That’s a quick summary. Atheists looked pretty good on reasons for disbelief, zealotry, and racial prejudice. They looked a less good on dogmatism. I was personally astounded by how resistant some of the atheists were to thinking of ways to falsify their beliefs. I mean really, you can’t think of any conceivable way that you would change your mind?

The book was published in 2006, so it has been about a decade. Maybe things have changed, and based on my even less reliable anecdotal evidence, I feel like the atheists I know are less dogmatic. They’re certainly less old.

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