Survey Profiles Nonreligious Americans

A recent survey took a close look at the "nonreligious" population, offering a picture of what they are really like and determining whether stereotypes of nonbelievers are accurate.

Until now, little information has been gathered regarding nonbelievers' social relationships and mental well-being as well as their philosophical shadings, says Luke W. Galen, associate professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

But considering their growing numbers and increasing visibility in the public square, Galen sought out to determine who precisely constitutes the nonreligious group.

The Non-Religious Identification Survey, completed by more than 5,000 nonreligious individuals, is said to be the first study of its type with a full range of questions directed to the "nones," or nonreligious population, who make up around 16 percent of Americans.

The survey found the population to be less homogeneous than previous studies have typically portrayed them to be. Forty-eight percent described themselves as atheist, 12 percent identified themselves as agnostic, 22 percent chose the label humanist, 7 percent called themselves spiritual, and 5 percent chose other.

When given the option to choose multiple terms to describe themselves, 77 percent checked "atheist," 63 percent marked "humanist," 29 percent reported "agnostic," and 3 percent checked "spiritual." But when forced to choose only one label among the four, far fewer individuals identified themselves as humanist (24 percent). Meanwhile, 57 percent preferred the label "atheist."

More than three in four nonbelievers said they were somewhat, mostly or absolutely certain that God does not exist. Meanwhile, 15 percent reported they weren't sure and 8 percent said they were at least somewhat certain of God's existence.

Nearly a quarter of nonbelievers had childhoods with little parental emphasis placed on religion. A quarter of them experienced a moderately religious childhood and 35 percent reported being raised with a strong or very strong religious emphasis.

Interestingly, those who grew up with less religious childhoods were more likely to be "Generation X'ers." Those currently in their sixties reported greater religious childhoods.

When compared to churchgoers, surveyed nonbelievers were predominantly male, more highly educate, more likely to be never married or cohabiting, and had fewer children living at home.

Nonreligious individuals were also found to have greater "openness to experience," which involves a high need for cognition, intellectual engagement, and xenophilia (interest in new experiences), than religious individuals. Among the differences between believers and nonbelievers in regard to education, gender, marriage, and child-rearing, openness was the strongest predictor of lower religious belief.

Churchgoers, on the other hand, reported higher "agreeableness," or a quality of being amiable or nonconfrontational as opposed to skeptical of others. The low agreeableness among nonbelievers indicates that strong nonreligious individuals appear to be somewhat less likely to acquiesce to or to trust others, the report stated.

The survey found few differences between the religious and nonreligious group in regards to mental well-being. Contrary to popular belief, the nonreligious population is not any less happy or satisfied with life than the religious, the survey suggested. Reported life-satisfaction was well within the average range for both groups. Self-described spirituals, however, were less likely to report being satisfied with life.

In other notable findings, the survey revealed that more confident nonbelievers were the most emotionally healthy, relative to the "fence sitters" or religious doubters.

"[H]aving uncertainty regarding one's religious views appears to be associated with relatively greater emotional instability," the report stated.

The study, recently published in Free Inquiry magazine, was conducted in conjunction with the Center For Inquiry, a secular think tank.

Nonreligious participants were mainly subscribers of the Center For Inquiry e-mail and newsletter and thus not necessarily representative of all nonreligious individuals. Galen notes that the survey is likely to be skewed toward those who are actively involved in secular-related issues.

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