How many atheists are there?

I ventured a few days ago that there are more agnostics and atheists among us than generally recognized.

I feel confident, too, that there is a far-greater percentage of atheists and agnostics in the general population than suggested by polls tabulating ‘nones’ and what-have-you. After all, the churches have spent 20-centuries orchestrating disdain for those who don’t believe in Our Invisible Friend, with the result that many people who don’t believe the Christian narrative wouldn’t dream of saying so aloud. After all, it would just be too upsetting to mom, dad, grammy, et cetera, et cetera, and it would be too blatantly hypocritical to get the kids out of the house during summer vacation by bundling them off to Vacation Bible School.

Why fight it? Why not just keep quiet?

What do you know? Jerry Coyne has come across a study that undertakes to estimate the ‘hidden’ atheists, and comes up with the result that 26% of the population are atheists.

I’ll try to be brief. The authors estimated the frequency of atheists among Americans by surveying people using two YouGov samples of 2000 people each. They also did their estimates using Bayesian techniques: seeing what proportion of atheists in the public was most likely to yield the survey results. The composite result was, as I said, 26%.

How did they indirectly estimate the proportion of atheists? They used a clever technique in which people were asked to list how many statements were either true or not true about them, with one list adding an atheist belief and the other missing it. The difference in the number of statements that people agreed or disagreed with in the two lists can be used to estimate the proportion of atheists. They also had a control question that you’ll see in on the second list, which should yield a 0% estimate of people who think that 2 + 2 is more than 13. The authors say that this indirect method of estimation has been showing in other studies to be revealing in that it gives a higher percentage than self-report, but only for socially sensitive traits which people don’t want to disclose in a direct self report.

I’ve believed for years that the number of atheists is higher than the commonplace estimates, because of social pressure. I can’t judge, however, whether this technique yields an accurate estimate; ‘ballpark,’ for what that’s worth, it sounds about right to me.

Some of the difficulty arises from the way we define the word ‘atheist.’ If we use it to mean non-theist, as coined by Thomas Huxley (a-theist = non-theist), meaning lack of belief in the personal god of the Abrahamic religions, then much of the world’s population is atheistic. If we use it to mean lack of belief in any all-powerful supernatural being, then that number goes way down, for there are a great many religions in the world that believe in powerful supernatural beings that don’t care a hoot about personal relationships with people.

‘Agnostic’ means … “Beats me; I don’t know jack about supernatural stuff.”

Strictly, I am an agnostic; I don’t know whether or not there are any supernatural beings. I do know that nobody has ever adduced a scintilla of objective evidence in favor of thinking so, and so I also think the likelihood of it is so vanishingly small that it’s silly to worry about it. I also think that Abraham’s Invisible Friend was a fraud, which makes me an atheist, a non-theist, according to Huxley’s definition. I also think, if the Bible is to be believed, that Abraham’s Invisible Friend consistently exhibits bad character, and it baffles me that anybody wants to spend eternity with Him.

It’s nice to know I’ve probably got more company than I had supposed, even if it’s too weenie-ish to speak up.

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