American Atheists Are Surprisingly Diverse and Complicated

Illustration for article titled American Atheists Are Surprisingly Diverse and Complicated

A mere 3.1% of American adults identify themselves as atheists. But as a recent survey shows, this increasingly important demographic consists of surprisingly diverse, and even contradictory, subsets of non-believers.


Estimating the number of atheists in the U.S. isn’t easy. As Michael Lipka of the Pew Research Center writes, “Some adults who describe themselves as atheists also say they believe in God or a universal spirit,” while “some people who identify with a religion...also say they do not believe in God.”

No doubt, our individual beliefs and disbeliefs get quite complicated when culture, cosmology, metaphysics, religion, and spirituality get thrown into the mix. To make sense of this intra-atheist diversity, Lipka analyzed the findings of the Religious Landscape Study, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center about a year ago. His ensuing article, “7 Facts about atheists,” reveals much about the complex state of atheism in the U.S. today. Here’s a summary of his findings.

  • Atheism is on the rise: The portion of Americans who self-identify as atheists has doubled in the past several years. That may be the result of changing sociocultural values, and/or the increased willingness of Americans to come out as atheist.
  • Atheists are more likely to be male and young: Some 68% of atheists are men, and at a median age of 34. Atheists are also more likely to be white and well educated.
  • Politically, atheists lean towards the Democrats and political liberalism: They overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, legal abortion, and government aid to the poor.
  • Surprisingly, 8% of atheists say they believe in God or a universal spirit: Clearly, “atheism” means different things to different people—a definition that likely changes depending on a given context or cultural background.
  • Atheists differ when it comes to their existential awareness: As Lipka writes: “Three-in-ten (31%) say they feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least weekly. A similar share (35%) often think about the meaning and purpose of life. And roughly half of all atheists (54%) frequently feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe.”
  • Atheists share their convictions unevenly: Less than 10% share their views on God and religion weekly, while 65% refrain altogether. That means about 35% of atheists will, at one time or another, make their views known publicly.
  • Atheists turn to different sources for questions of morality: Some 32% look primarily to science, while 44% cite “practical experience and common sense.” Only 1% turn to religion for guidance on questions of right and wrong.

Some commonalities, for sure, but definite differences as well.

As already noted, much of this diversity may have something to do with the way people frame and define their atheism, and how they make it fit within their existing beliefs and cultural norms. What’s more, many atheists, like myself, are also agnostic, which complicates things even further. It’ll be interesting to watch this demographic as it continues to grow.


Much more at Pew Research Center.

Email the author at and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image by Fibonacci Blue/CC



Wow, I thought it would be much higher than 3.1%. Maybe it’s just much more prevalent in my generation.

I also wonder how many people just won’t admit to it in a survey, because it’s not the “norm.” Atheism seems to have some parallels with homosexuality in terms of societal acceptance, but has been much less sensational, likely because there is no fight over basic rights.

My point is, I could see there still being many “closet” atheists out there who were raised in Christian households, and just don’t feel comfortable admitting it.