New study finds nontheists a larger segment of the religiously unaffiliated

After the Pew Forum study earlier this month that indicated 19.6 percent of Americans are religiously unaffiliated, we didn’t expect another study on the “nones” quite so soon. However, last Tuesday a new study from the Public Religion Research Institute was released, called The 2012 American Values Survey: How Catholics and the Religiously Unaffiliated Will Shape the 2012 Election and Beyond.

Considering that the nones are now the fastest growing “religious group” in the country, public interest is growing–especially in this election year, as it relates to the nones political leanings.

In many ways the Pew study seemed to marginalize the atheist/agnostic and secular segment of the nones, stressing that the group overall is not “uniformly secular.” At a press conference for the release of the Pew study, Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, seemed to be offering reassurance to the crowd in both tone and rhetoric when he said, “atheists and agnostics are still a very small minority,” noting that many nones still believe in a god (read: religious people, don’t panic!).

Interestingly, the American Values Survey paints a different picture. The new study found that atheists and agnostics make up a larger percentage of the unaffiliated population and thus a larger percentage of the general population overall. Based on the American Values Survey statistics, approximately 6.8 percent of the general population is atheist or agnostic, compared to the 5.7 percent of the population that the Pew study found. The American Values Survey also indicates that a full 75 percent of nones are in fact either secular/non-religious or atheist/agnostic.

Although more conservative in their accounting of unaffiliated Americans than the Pew study (for example, the American Values Survey found that 19 percent of Americans are nones, compared to Pew’s 19.6 percent findings), the American Values Survey found that a larger percentage–36 percent–of nones are atheist or agnostic, while the Pew study put that percentage much lower at 29 percent. In the Pew study, the remaining 71 percent who did not identify as atheist or agnostic were labeled “nothing in particular”.

The American Values Survey also broke down the unaffiliated “bloc” further than Pew, dividing us into three groups, “atheist/agnostic” (36 percent), “secular/non-religious” which accounts for 39 percent, and “unattached believers” which make up 23 percent.  This allowed the demographers to take a closer look at the beliefs and political leanings of the nones.

The American Values Survey found that the religiously unaffiliated overall tend to be less politically engaged than religiously-affiliated Americans. But when they looked at each demographic closer they found that this was not the case for atheists and agnostics. In fact, 73 percent of atheists and agnostics said they were absolutely certain they would vote in the 2012 election, compared to 53% of both secular Americans and unattached believers. 

The American Values Survey also delved a bit deeper into the nones by age. We knew that 35 percent of Millennials were religiously unaffiliated from the Pew study. The American Values Survey also found that 35 percent of 18-29 year olds were nones, but went further, identifying 40 percent of them as atheist or agnostic and another 39 percent as secular.

Click chart to enlarge:

Finally, whereas the Pew study noted that there were no major differences in education levels between the religious and the nones, the American Values Survey found that wasn’t quite the case when they examined atheists and agnostics specifically.

The American Values Survey found that atheists and agnostics are “significantly better educated than Americans overall.” Nearly 45 percent of atheists and agnostics have at least a four-year college degree. More than 1-in-5 (22 percent) have a post-graduate degree.

The release of both of these studies shows that the religiously unaffiliated are a fast-growing segment of society and one people are starting to pay attention to–and for good reason because politicians should absolutely be looking to engage these voters.

Whether we comprise 5.7 or 6.8 percent of the population, atheists and agnostics constitute a serious voting bloc–one that does tend to vote together on the issues and is passionate about political involvement. That becomes clearer when we compare those numbers to those of other religious groups that are smaller, yet have more political clout. Atheists and agnostics outnumber the combined membership of Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Orthodox, which combined account for only 5.4 percent of the population, according to information on Pew’s site. Atheists and agnostics even outnumber groups like Lutherans (4.6 percent), Black Baptists (4.4 percent) and Methodists (less than 5.4 percent).

As a bloc we have the ability to be a powerful force in the political and legislative process, but only if we take advantage of our numbers, forcing politicians to recognize us as a constituency and take action on our concerns. To do that we must continue to make ourselves seen and heard both in everyday life as well as at the ballot box.

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