David Silverman, president of American Atheists, was interviewed recently by a Washington, D.C., television station about plans for a March 24 Reason Rally on the Washington Mall.
"There are more atheists in the country right now than Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists combined and doubled," said Silverman. "That's a lot of people."
The statement piqued our interest in light of the rancorous debate over the prayer banner at Cranston High School West.
In January, a federal judge ordered the school to remove the banner, which begins "our Heavenly Father," ruling that it violated Cranston West student Jessica Ahlquist’s constitutional rights and made her feel "excluded and ostracized" because she is an atheist. (Ahlquist is scheduled to speak at the Reason Rally.)
At a time when atheists are often reviled -- as witnessed by the crowd reaction in Cranston when some testified on the prayer banner issue -- we wondered whether the percentage of atheists is really as high as Silverman said it is.
To find out, we focused on two major national surveys.
The first was conducted in 2007 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Among the 35,556 U.S. adults asked to identify their religious affiliation, 1.7 percent characterized themselves as Jews, 0.7 percent were Buddhist, 0.6 percent were Muslim and 0.4 percent were Hindu.
That’s a total of 3.4 percent. If you double that sum, as Silverman proposed in his claim, that's 6.8 percent.
And what percentage of the population identified itself as atheist? Just 1.6 percent.
The second was the American Religious Identification Survey from 2008, conducted by the Program on Public Values at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
The survey of 54,461 people asked participants to identify their "religious tradition." A total of 1.2 percent said Jewish, 0.6 percent said Muslim and 0.9 percent said Eastern Religions, which includes Hindus, Buddhists and others.
Those percentages are rounded off. When you look at the actual numbers and do the math, you get an upper limit of 2.6 percent. Doubling that gives you 5.2 percent.
What percent of respondents in that poll call themselves atheists? Just 0.7 percent.
That's so far off, we're starting to smell a little hellfire and brimstone.
So we called Silverman. He said he's counting as atheists all people who fall into the "None" or "Unaffiliated" category when asked to state their religious preference.
His rationale: They don't believe in God. They just don't say they're atheists, either because they don't know the word or don't use it.
By his definition, that would be an inclusive group. In the Pew survey, 16.1 percent are listed as unaffiliated. In the American Religious Survey, 15.0 percent are listed as having no religion. "And that doesn't includes the atheists who call themselves Jews, Christians and Muslims," he said.
Silverman also wants to count agnostics as atheists. (Our American Heritage dictionary defines an agnostic as someone "who believes there can be no proof of the existence of God but does not deny the possibility that God exists.")
"An agnostic is an atheist," Silverman insisted. "If you don't have a belief in God, you're an atheist. It doesn't matter what you call yourself. It doesn't matter whether they like it or not, they're atheists."
Similarly, Silverman wants the atheist category to include people who are listed as "secular unaffiliated" in the Pew study.
We disagree with Silverman’s reasoning.
The agnostics we know call themselves that because they don't want to be lumped into one group or another when it goes to the question of the existence of God.
And the Pew report defines the "secular unaffiliated" as people who say that religion is not important in their lives. That doesn't automatically mean they don't believe in a god, so we don’t think they should be lumped into the atheist category either.
Other questions in the survey, however, complicate matters somewhat.
When the American Religious survey asked people what they thought of the existence of God, 2.3 percent said "There is no such thing."
If you agree to add in the 4.3 percent who say, "There is no way to know," the ratio rises to 6.6 percent.
When Pew asked a broader question -- "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" -- 5 percent said "No."
Barry Kosmin of Trinity College in Connecticut and coauthor of the ARIS said there's an interesting distinction between people who say they are atheists and those who really don't believe in God.
"There's a difference between belonging and belief," he said. "A truck driver may say God doesn't exist, but he's unlikely to give you Greek names like agnostic or atheist. That's why you see different numbers."
"You're dealing here with a Jell-o. You see everything from 1 percent to 10 percent because a lot of them fall into the 'None' category and terms like secular, atheist, non-religious, areligious are used interchangeably," said Kosmin. "In terms of atheists who have come out, [Silverman] is wrong. In terms of the number of people who have that belief, if you ask them, he's correct."
Atheist David Silverman claimed that "There are more atheists in the country right now than Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists combined and doubled."
He wants to include not only people who define themselves as atheists, but others, such as agnostics, who have serious doubts about the existence of God.
But just as atheists don't want someone else's religious beliefs and practices foisted upon them, we believe that those who doubt the existence of a supreme power shouldn’t be lumped into the "atheist" category.
If Silverman had claimed that the number of Americans who don't believe in God is larger than the number of Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the U.S., he’d be on more solid ground.
But he didn’t. Instead, he said you could double the number of people in those religions and atheists would still outnumber them. The only way to achieve that number is to include people who may not desire -- or deserve -- to be in that category, so we rate his statement False.
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Update: The original version of this item omitted the first name of Jessica Ahlquist, who sued the Cranston, R.I. School Committee to remove a prayer banner from Cranston High School West.