Percentage of atheists

What is the breakdown of atheists in the population of America, various other countries and in prison?

Atheists In America

  • 2007, Pew Research Values Study: Percentage of people identifying themselves as atheist, agnostic or "no religion" by year of birth:[1]
    • Date of birth <1946 : 5%
    • 1946-1964: 11%
    • 1965-1976: 14%
    • 1977+: 19%
It's worth noting this study was conducted between Dec. 12, 2006 and Jan. 9, 2007, over the course of the most religious time of the year (Christmas, Hanukkah, Qwanza, etc.) - This seems the absolute worst possible time to poll for average religious affiliation and not receive exaggerated results! If during Christmas time, almost 20% of people under the age of 21 don't believe in God, can you imagine how much larger the percentage may likely be normally, when all of society isn't celebrating a religious season? --Pile 12:13, 2 September 2007 (CDT)
  • 2006, Harris Interactive poll, United States, France, Germany, Italy, England & Spain: US - 4% atheist, 14% agnostic [sic], [2]
  • 2004, University of Akron poll: 16% non-religious, 11% "atheist or secular"[3]
  • 2002, Pew Research: identified 13.2% of Americans as "non religious/secular"[4]
  • 2001, American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), NY City Univ: 14.1% identified as "non-religious"[5]
  • 1995, Encyclopedia Britanna: 0.3% atheists, 8.8% "non-religious" (also according to Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1900 there were "0%" atheists in America)[6]

Atheists In Prison

1997 Federal Bureau of Prisons Statistics

  • 1997, Federal Bureau of Prisons, 0.21% of inmates were atheist[7]

The Federal Bureau of Prisons does have statistics on religious affiliations of inmates. The following are total number of inmates per religion category:[8]

    • Catholic 29267 39.164%
    • Protestant 26162 35.008%
    • Muslim 5435 7.273%
    • American Indian 2408 3.222%
    • Nation 1734 2.320%
    • Rasta 1485 1.987%
    • Jewish 1325 1.773%
    • Church of Christ 1303 1.744%
    • Pentecostal 1093 1.463%
    • Moorish 1066 1.426%
    • Buddhist 882 1.180%
    • Jehovah Witness 665 0.890%
    • Adventist 621 0.831%
    • Orthodox 375 0.502%
    • Mormon 298 0.399%
    • Scientology 190 0.254%
    • Atheist 156 0.209%
    • Hindu 119 0.159%
    • Santeria 117 0.157%
    • Sikh 14 0.019%
    • Bahai 9 0.012%
    • Krishna 7 0.009%

Miscellaneous penal religion statistics

  • In "The New Criminology", Max D. Schlapp and Edward E. Smith say that two generations of statisticians found that the ratio of convicts without religious training is about 1/10 of 1%. W. T. Root, professor of psychology at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, examined 1,916 prisoners and said "Indifference to religion, due to thought, strengthens character," adding that Unitarians, Agnostics, Atheists and Free-Thinkers are absent from penitentiariers or nearly so.[9]

The following information has been circulating on the Internet but no additional references have been found - if you can back up this information, please update this page:

    *  During 10 years in Sing-Sing, those executed for murder were 65% Catholics, 26% Protestants, 6% Hebrew, 2% Pagan, and less than 1/3 of 1% non-religious.

    * Steiner and Swancara surveyed Canadian prisons and found 1,294 Catholics, 435 Anglicans, 241 Methodists, 135 Baptists, and 1 Unitarian.

    * Dr. Christian, Superintendant of the NY State Reformatories, checked 22,000 prison inmates and found only 4 college graduates. In "Who's Who" 91% were college graduates, and he commented that "intelligence and knowledge produce right living" and that "crime is the offspring of superstition and ignorance."

    * Surveyed Massachusetts reformatories found every inmate religious, carefully herded by chaplins.

    * In Joliet, there were 2,888 Catholics, 1,020 Baptists, 617 Methodists and 0 non-religious.

    * Michigan had 82,000 Baptists and 83,000 Jews in their state population. But in the prisons, there were 22 times as many Baptists as Jews, and 18 times as many Methodists as Jews. In Sing-Sing, there were 1,553 total inmates with

855 of them Catholics (over half), 518 Protestants, 177 Jews and 8 non-religious.

    * Steiner first surveyed 27 states, and found 19,400 Christians, 5,000 with no preference, and only 3 Agnostics (one each in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Illinois). A later, more complete survey found 60,605 Christians, 5,000 Jews, 131 Pagans, 4,000 no preference, and only 3 Agnostics.

    * In one 29-state survey, Steiner found 15 unbelievers, Spirtualists, Theosophists, Deists, Pantheists and 1 Agnostic among nearly 83,000 inmates. Calling all 15 "anti-christians" made it one half person to each state. Elmira reformatory overshadowed all, with nearly 31,000 inmates, including 15,694 Catholics (half), and 10,968 Protestants, 4,000 Jews, 325 refusing to answer, and 0 unbelievers.

    * In the East, over 64% of inmates are Catholics. In the national prison population they average 50%. A national census found Catholics 15%. They count from the diaper up. Hardly 12% are old enough to commit a crime. Half of these are women. That leaves an adult Catholic population of 6% supplying 50% of the prison population.

    * Liverpool, England produces three percent as many young criminals as Birmingham, a larger city, 28% coming from Catholic schools.

Individual Demographic Studies

Harris Interactive 2006 US & European Study

A Financial Times (FT)/Harris Poll conducted among adults in the United States and in five European countries (France, Italy, Germany, Great Britain and Spain) shows that Americans are more likely than Europeans to believe in any form of God or Supreme Being (73%). Of the European adults surveyed, Italians are the most likely to express this belief (62%) and, in contrast, the French are the least likely (27%).

Among those adults who stated they do have religious beliefs, almost two-thirds (62%) of Italians say they have the same religious beliefs as both their parents. In stark contrast, just under two in five (39%) British adults share the same religious beliefs as either of their parents. In the U.S. about half (48%) of adults who stated they have religious beliefs say they share the same as both of their parents.

This FT/Harris Poll was conducted online by Harris Interactive® among a total of 12,507 adults (aged 16 and over), within France (2,134); Germany (2,127); Great Britain (2,090); Spain (1,991); the United States (2,078), and Italy (2,087), aged 18 and over, between 30th November and 15th December 2006.

Majorities in all five European countries favor separation of church and state. However, majorities in only three of five countries favor the teaching of religion in state schools.

Across the five European countries surveyed, large majorities believe that the church and state should be kept separate in modern Europe. Adults in France (86%), Spain (84%) and Germany (77%) are more likely to say this, while British and Italian adults are somewhat less likely to agree with this sentiment (70% and 71% respectively).

Modest majorities in Germany (56%) and in Britain (56%) and a larger majority in Italy (68%) favor the teaching of religion in public schools. However, many people in the United States (59%) and France (72%) are opposed to this, as are half (49%) of adults in Spain.

Humphrey Taylor, Chairman of The Harris Poll®, Harris Interactive, states, "Given that the Queen is Head of the Church of England, and that Italy and Spain are usually thought of as Catholic countries, this is a remarkable finding."

French and U.S. adults show a large difference in their attitudes toward the wearing of religious symbols and veils while in school.

While just one in 10 French adults believe children should be allowed to wear religious signs or articles of clothing at school, more than three-quarters (77%) of Americans believe that this should be allowed.

Among other European adults, Italians (61%) are significantly more likely than British (48%), German (40%) or Spanish (44%) adults to agree that children should be allowed to wear religious signs or articles of clothing.

Slightly more than two in five (43%) of all respondents indicated they were aware that the Dutch government has plans to draw up legislation that will ban the public wearing of all Islamic veils such as burqas, which cover the body and face. British, French and Italians are most likely to believe that the Dutch government should have the right to ban all Islamic veils which cover the body and face in all public places (39%, 39% and 35% respectively). In contrast, Americans are most likely to state that Islamic women should have the right to wear the Islamic veils if they wish to do so (59%).

More than half (58%) of Italians believe that governments should legislate against forms of religious blasphemy, such as depriving something of its sacred character (for example, burning a bible or the Koran). This view was less prevalent in Spain (46%), France (42%), Germany (41%), Great Britain (37%), and the U.S. (31%)

Other notable findings from the survey include:

  • Only 35 percent or fewer adults in all five European countries think the European Union (EU) is predominantly a "Christian club," while majorities or pluralities in all of the countries surveyed think it is not. Italians are significantly more likely than all other Europeans surveyed to feel that religion is no barrier to entry to the EU (62%).
  • Minorities across six countries favor making non-Christian holy days public holidays. However, Germans are most likely to believe that no other religions’ holy days besides Christian holy days should be officially recognized as public holidays (63%).
  • Half (50%) of all adults in Pope Benedict’s home country of Germany think that he has been successful in promoting a dialogue with other religions. However, in most of the other countries, adults are not as confident in the Pope’s success. A majority in both France and Spain think the Pope has not been successful in promoting a dialogue (58% & 57% respectively) while British (44%) and U.S. (41%) adults say they are not sure. In Italy, attitudes are more mixed – three in 10 (29%) say Pope Benedict has been successful, while 43 percent say he hasn’t and 28 percent are unsure.
  • Only small minorities in all six countries would object to their children marrying outside their religion. One in five (21%) Italian adults would object to their child marrying someone of a different faith. The Spanish and French are the least likely of the nations surveyed to object (each 7%).[10]

Among scientists

The popular media balyhoo the fiction that science is supportive of religion. One issue of Newsweek (July 20, 1998) featured a cover story "Science finds God" which gave many innocent readers the impression that scientists in droves were finding scientific "evidence" allowing for God and an afterlife and were jumping on the religion bandwagon. Some of these 1998 reports were stimulated by a June 1998 Science and the Spiritual Quest Conference organized by Robert John Russell, and sponsored by The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS) at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Since this is an organization devoted to the reconciliation of science and religion it's no surprise the the speakers were supportive of the idea of the possibility of god and/or an afterlife, though some of the papers were so speculative and abstruse that it's hard to tell whether they were profound philosophy or mere moonshine. One wonders whether some speakers came just for the stipend provided by the John Templeton Foundation. Several Nobel-Prize winning scientists gave papers at this meeting. The papers were mostly philosophical and speculative. No new hard evidence was produced. News reports failed to put these wishful speculations in perspective by pointing out that most scientists are, in fact, not religious. And the percent of "leading" scientists who hold religious beliefs has been declining from around 30% in 1914 to less than 10% in 1998.

[Summary of a paper that appeared in the 23 July 1998 issue of Nature by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham: "Leading Scientists Still Reject God." Nature, 1998; 394, 313.]

Larson and Witham present the results of a replication of 1913 and 1933 surveys by James H. Leuba. In those surveys, Leuba mailed a questionnaire to leading scientists asking about their belief in "a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind" and in "personal immortality". Larson and Witham used the same wording [as in the Leuba studies], and sent their questionnaire to 517 members of the [U.S.] National Academy of Sciences from the biological and physical sciences (the latter including mathematicians, physicists and astronomers). The return rate was slightly over 50%.

The results were as follows (figures in %):

    BELIEF IN PERSONAL GOD          1914   1933    1998
    Personal belief                 27.7    15       7.0
Personal disbelief 52.7 68 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism 20.9 17 20.8
    BELIEF IN IMMORTALITY           1914    1933    1998
    Personal belief                 35.2    18       7.9
Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3

Note: The 1998 immortality figures add up to more than 100%. The misprint is in the original. The 76.7% is likely too high.

The authors elaborated on these figures:

Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality).

Larson and Witham close their report with the following remarks:

As we compiled our findings, the NAS issued a booklet encouraging the teaching of evolution in public schools.... The booklet assures readers, 'Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral'. NAS president Bruce Alberts said: 'There are many very outstanding members of this academy who are very religious people, people who believe in evolution, many of them biologists.' Our survey suggests otherwise."

There is a review of earlier studies of the religiosity of scientists at pp 180ff of:

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London & New York: Routledge, 1997. ISBN: 0-415-12330-5 (hbk) or 0-415-12331-3 (pbk).

On the subject of eminent scientists, they mention unpublished data collected by one of the co-authors: "Beit-Hallahmi (1988) found that among Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences, as well as those in literature, there was a remarkable degree of irreligiosity, as compared to the populations they came from." The reference is to: Beit-Hallahmi, B. (1988). The religiosity and religious affiliation of Nobel prize winners. Unpublished data.

ARIS 2001 Study

Fifty-two percent of adults in America are Protestant, 24.5% are Catholic, and 14.1% adhere to no religion, according to the latest American Religious Identification Survey, 2001 ("ARIS 2001") just released by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Those giving their religion as Jewish are 1.3% and those as Muslim or Islamic are 0.5%.

With a sample of over 50,000 randomly selected respondents aged 18 or over, ARIS 2001 is the most comprehensive portrait of religious identification in the U.S. today. First conducted in 1990 and repeated this year, the survey fills a gap left by the Census, which does not ask about religion. Nearly 95% of those interviewed were willing to indicate their religious identification and views on important questions about their beliefs. The findings, weighted to be representative of the 208 million U.S. adult population, include national and state-by-state examinations of religious identification in relation to racial/ethnic identification, education, age, marital status, voter registration status and political party preference. [11]

Last updated by Nelson Mar 5, 2009.

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