5 Surprising Facts from the Latest U.S. Poll About God and Atheism

July 7, 2016

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CARA is a national, non-profit research group affiliated with Georgetown University. It conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission:

  • to increase the Church’s self understanding
  • to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers
  • to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism

CARA’s latest research concerns religious belief in the United States. It’s a multi-phase project in its earliest stages, but the group regular offer previews of their findings on Twitter. Here’s the latest chart:

CARA research God and belief

Five things immediately jump out to me from this data:

1. An explosion of atheism.

According to the CARA data, roughly 17% (!!) of American adults identify as atheists (i.e., they say “I do not believe in God…”). That’s about 3-4x higher than I’ve ever seen it measured by Pew, Barna, or other research groups.

(Note: Some might suggest that those in the “orange” group in the chart above, who answer “I do not believe in God but still believe it is possible that God may exist”, would better be identified as agnostic rather than atheist. But as I’ve learned from running a large Catholc/atheist website, most skeptics classify anyone who lacks a belief in God as an atheist, distinguishing between “agnostic atheists” and “gnostic atheists.” But however you cut it, whether atheists now make up 7% of the population (“red” group above) or 17% of the population (“red” and “orange” groups above), the group is surging.)

2. The rise of “hard” atheists.

What might be even more surprising is the rise of the “hard” atheists. Atheists often distinguish between “hard” (or “strong”) atheism, which positively says “God does not exist”, and “soft” (or “weak”) atheism, which only says “I don’t believe in God” or “I lack belief in God.” According to CARA, about  7% of Americans identify as “hard” atheists, which again is at least 3-4x higher than I’ve ever seen it measured.

3. The uber-confident Evangelical Christians.

Evangelical Christians almost always come out best on surveys like this. They display better knowledge, firmer commitment, and more impressive retention. But I’m still surprised by the remarkable confidence shown here: 92% of Evangelicals say they believe in God and have no doubt of his existence. Think about that. They’re not saying they have some doubts or little doubts. They’re saying they have zero doubt that God exists–impressive! Also, virtually no Evangelical Christians have “frequent doubts about God.” Contrast that with at least 5-8% of every other religious group which report frequent doubts.

4. The 2.28 million Catholic atheists.

Confusingly, 4% of respondents identified as Catholic and also said “I do not believe in God but still believe it is possible that God may exist.” Assuming there are roughly 57 million Catholic adults in America, that means at least 2.28 million Catholics don’t believe in God. If that’s not a catechesis/evangelization problem, I don’t know what is!

5. The believing “nones.”

One of the most common mistakes in religion reporting today is equating the “nones” (i.e., those with no religious affiliation) with atheists. But most religious studies show that huge numbers of the “nones” still believe in God, still have spiritually active lives, and many even go to church. CARA’s data confirms this. Roughly 27% of “nones” say they believe in God and another 37% are open to his existence.

Overall, the CARA picture is a mixed bag for Catholics. On the one hand, it reveals that atheists are on the rise and Catholics are noticeably less confident about their faith than our Protestant brethren. But there are also signs of hope. One is that more than half of the “nones” either believe in God or are open to God. The harvest is ripe, and we need to befriend those people and help them personally encounter the Lord.

That’s our challenge today, but then again, it’s always been the challenge of the Church.

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