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Radical Religion

It's the number one religion (by proportion of adherents) in the states of Washington and Idaho; it's the number two religion in California, Utah, Massachusetts and Arkansas. In most states, in fact, it ranks as the #2 or #3 belief, and in only a few is it #4 or #5. Nationwide, it ranks #3 overall, just behind Baptist (#2) and Catholic (#1). Yet very few elected officials profess this faith, and a significant plurality of US voters say that they'd never vote for someone who believes this. What is this religion?

It's no religion at all.

Much to the surprise of both the very religious and the entirely irreligious, non-theism consistently shows up as the second or third most popular belief across most states. According to the American Religious Identification Survey (PDF), assembled by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2001, over 14% of US citizens profess themselves to be atheist, agnostic, humanist or secular; this compares to 16% Baptist, and 24.5% Catholic. This map from USA Today shows the breakdown by state (Flash required).

It's worth remembering this in light of recent statements by Sen. Barack Obama about the importance of religion to the Democratic party. Non-believers aren't just a tiny fringe element in American society, and they aren't just found in coastal "blue states." Non-religious people make up a higher percentage of the populations of Idaho, Montana, and Nevada than they do of those of California, Massachusetts or New York. This isn't the narrative we're given by popular culture or media, but it's reality.

I find this useful info for those of us thinking about the future for this reason: the stories we're told about how a society works may not match the reality, and we shouldn't build our models and scenarios based on what we assume to be true.


Excellent article, Jamais.

In historical terms, this level of professed non-theism is quite high. (I emphasize professed because there have always been many non-believers, but it wasn't always acceptable for them to admit it.) But it wouldn't surprise me if we reach a tipping point within the next few decades, after which non-theism will become the majority view. Say amen!

Actually, for me, the biggest surprise is the number of Catholics!

The number of Catholics looks higher than it is. They just happen to be the biggest minority in most places, so they get listed at the top.

The no religion category is huge here in Europe. I live in the UK and religious people under the age of 40 are a rarity. France and Spain once Catholic strongholds are now highly secular with a dwindling number of priests performing services to largely empty pews. I got press ganged by my family to attend a mass (the priest was a second of mine) just to fill out the attendance to a grand total of four people.

You must remember though, a huge number of people who claim to be atheist do believe in a god of some form.

Atheism is a term which is used very loosely. I've known self acclaimed atheists who, when questioned, have admitted to believing in a god and even praying.

"I'm an atheist", is what many say when they don't know how else to reply (if they do not follow a standard religion).

Such figures can't be relied on too much to begin with anyway. Just look at how many people marked there religion as "Jedi Knight" in the National Census here in the UK and in countries around the world.

Phil, bear in mind that an academic research poll differs in reliability from a self-reporting census.

As for atheists who actually believe in a god, given how negatively atheism is viewed in the United States, I'd suspect that the number of self-described atheists who actually pray is far lower than the number of self-described believers who don't really believe in a god.

hallelujah!! My home state of Colorado shows a little sense. It's just too bad that, no matter they profess, their true god remains money.


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