The poll, called “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 (the last time the poll was conducted) to 60 percent.
At the same time, the number of Americans who say they are atheists rose, from 1 percent to 5 percent.What interesting is that this has all happened in the last seven years – the time frame of the 'new atheist' movement.
The seven years between the polls is notable because 2005 saw the publication of “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris, the first in a wave of best-selling books on atheism by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and other so-called “New Atheists.”But how people exactly develop a non/religious identity is murky, to say the least. There tends to be a fair bit of variance in these types of polls depending on the questions asked. In this case, the question was:
“Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person, or a convinced atheist?”Huh. A 'convinced atheist'? That's a pretty loaded term – I'd be more inclined to self-identify as Richard Dawkins does: an agnostic atheist. The term 'convinced atheist' sounds a little bit like the far end of the 1-7 scale of belief Dawkins discussed in The God Delusion, in which a 7 means you are certain there is no God – a gnostic atheist. Dawkins identifies as a 6: "I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there."
Accordingly, a couple of people interviewed by the Washington Post are a bit skeptical of the data:
Ryan Cragun, a University of Tampa sociologist of religion who studies American and global atheism [...] does not believe the poll shows more people are becoming atheists, but rather that more people are willing to identify as atheists.
“For a very long time, religiosity has been a central characteristic of the American identity,” he said. “But what this suggests is that is changing and people are feeling less inclined to identify as religious to comply with what it means to be a good person in the U.S.”I'm inclined to agree. Even among non-believers, the terminology of self-identification varies tremendously. Lots of 'non-religious' people are probably atheists in any practical sense of the word, but perhaps shy away from the certainty that is often (and erroneously) associated with atheism.
That terminology issue probably extends to more religious people as well, hence one researcher's skepticism about the new data:
Barry Kosmin, the principal investigator for the ARIS report, said he’s skeptical of the new study.
“The U.S. trends are what we have found and would expect, but the actual numbers are peculiar to say the least,” he said. “The drops in religiosity seem too sharp for the time period — people just don’t change their beliefs that quickly. Most of the trend away from religion has demographic causes and demography moves ‘glacially.’”
Specifically, he points to the poll’s finding that Vietnam, while showing a sharp 23 percent drop in religiosity since 2005, also shows no atheists. “Eight million Communist Party members but zero atheists?” he said. “That statistic makes me very doubtful of the accuracy of the survey overall and some of the international comparisons.”Like any study, this poll needs to be duplicated and/or cross-referenced with other surveys to get a more complete picture. There's little doubt, though, that religious belief is eroding. That, to me, is far more important than whether someone identifies as an atheist.