What Do Non-Religious People Call Themselves? April 8, 2009

What Do Non-Religious People Call Themselves?

This is another one of those times when you see the results of a survey and you just scratch your head…

The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life recently released its U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.

They found the following result:

5% of American adults say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit, but only about a quarter (24%) of these nonbelievers actually call themselves atheists.

If that’s the case, what do non-religious people call themselves?

This graphic, just released this week, explains:


I understand “atheist”… and “agnostic”… and “nothing in particular”… and “refuse to answer.”

I can kind of understand “Other faiths.”

But can someone please explain to me why 14% of people who do not believe in a god call themselves Christian? And some, Evangelical Protestant?!

Ouch. My brain.

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  • This is exactly why we have to work hard to separate the concept of morality from religion. My mother has no problem saying she doesn’t believe in God, but she gets very uncomfortable when I tell her that means she’s not a Christian.

  • If your parents were evangelical Christians, and you grew up participating and acting like one, you would still call yourself one, even if you stopped behaving or believing like one.

    My family still calls themselves Catholic, even though we haven’t gone to church since 1992.

    It’s somewhat like being a cultural Jew. You can be a cultural Christian (and do the Santa and Easter bunny thing) without believing in God.

  • Looks like they’ve discovered that 24% of the population don’t know how to respond to polling questions.

  • Eric Z

    This is why I’m a fan of Dawkins’ Out Campaign. I’ve been an atheist since I was seventeen, but I didn’t self-identify as such until eight years later. I’d just done it all on my own, so I didn’t really have a term with which I could refer to myself. I was just “inactive Mormon.” I hated still identifying as Mormon, but what else to do?

    I have atheist acquaintances who won’t take the title ’cause of the bad rapport that comes with it, they’re all “agnostic” or “apatheistic” instead. Hell, I know people who would rather be labelled as “heathen” or “hedonist.”

    Thanks to all of you who are working to change how we’re viewed!

  • Simon

    I am a weak atheist.
    I used to refer to myself as agnostic, but my position strengthened somewhat. More importantly, I realized the prejudices that atheism is suffering in this country.

    So, now I deliberately choose to call myself an atheist.

  • Corey in Liberty, Missouri

    they could be CINO’s(christian in name only) who go to church out of habit, or for people.

    such as myself. im an atheist who goes to church for the nice people, and because it allows cool debates at times.

    I, however, would be part of the 24% atheist.

  • Jason R

    hmm. maybe fear… probably a plain lack of self inspection.

    sign me up for being an atheist. complete atheist.

    I’m not a weak atheist.

    I am completely without the belief of deities. I don’t believe that there is a greater than 0 probability of their being a deity. I have never seen one item of evidence for the existence of a deity (and I’ve looked). Deism, Pantheism to me is an artificial injection and unnecessary.

  • well, it’s the whole herding cats thing.

    being an atheist, by definition, does not imply a social affinity. it is simply a rejection of a belief in gods.

    dawkins’ out campaign and other recent “atheist activists” are making the point that if we want our views/opinions/voices heard, we have to unite under some banner. I’m not so interested in it except that I’m tired of trying to voice my opinion in a sea of massive religious organizations opinions.

    that said the word atheist is just fine.

  • Polly

    Ha! My first reaction was like TheManversion’s.

    But, I guess I can see it. This kind of Christianity might have been the kind that Thomas Jefferson adhered to. He denied all the supernatural stuff but held the teachings of JC as the highest moral standard (I disagree with that evaluation of JC’s teachings).

    As fort other religions: if you’re a minority, the distinction between ethnicity and religion might be fuzzy.

    I do wish they’d just come out and say it. Because they are, defintionally, atheists.

  • Harknights

    I think this shows that a large number of people really don’t think about this sort of thing. It’s not so much that they don’t believe in god. It’s that they haven’t spent any time thinking about it. They are like the people who call themselves fans of a sports team but don’t know anything about that team. They will say “I’m a Yankee fan.” and you will say “Really? Name just one outfielder on the team.” and they will say “I don’t know. Babe Ruth?” and you will say “Um he died before your parents were born. Nice try. Are you sure your a fan of the Yankees? Are you sure it’s the Yankees and not nothing?” Replace yankees with God and you have religion for 25% of the people in this country.

  • HP

    The idea that being a Christian is primarily about faith — about what you believe — is a Christian perspective. This is what the Christian leadership wants its followers to think.

    For those of us outside Christianity, we’re not privy to the inner dialogs of self-identified Christians. We don’t know who’s sincere, who’s delusional, who’s in self-denial, and who is just plain lying.

    So really, you need an objective way to look at religious identification. Being a member of a church and attending church regularly are good markers. So are reading the bible and saying grace before meals. If someone participates in a faith community in those ways, I’ve got no problem calling that person a Christian. And there’s no necessary reason why you can’t do those things without believing in God.

    For that matter, there are people who deny the divinity of Jesus, yet feel very strongly that the teachings of Jesus as laid out the Gospels are a pretty good model for how to live a virtuous and rewarding life. What do you call someone who practices Christian ethics while denying Christian theology? If such a person calls herself a Christian, who am I to argue?

  • Brian C Posey

    I kink of like the shock value of the word “atheist” although that’s not the reason I’ve started using it. The “shock” of the word can get some interesting conversations going and help inform others of what I’m about.

    I find myself sometimes coming up with excuses to inform people of my atheism. I even told my friends and co-workers that April Fools was my holiday (Psalms 14:1) and that they had to buy me presents.

    Of course, I don’t really fear any real discrimination like I would imagine some would have to.

  • I think they are “cultural Christians.” I understand that a lot of Scandinavia is the same way.

  • Siamang

    Myself, I’m a Black Protestant.

    That is, if you count the last couple religious observances I’ve been to, which were primarily Gospel concerts. There IS something to be said for signing up with the religion that both has the best music and serves up the best breakfasts!

  • Mark Webster

    I am a cultural Jew, but still an Atheist.

    Either one describes me and, in my opinion, they are not mutually exclusive.

  • Ron in Houston

    For a long time I was a “Follower of Christ” as opposed to a Christian. The label “Christian” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some it’s serving your fellow man, for others it’s peace, non-violence, and turning the other cheek.

    I lost the label “Follower of Christ” when I realized that there were so many different Christs out there and that many of them were not very worthy of following.

  • I went to school with several of these kinds of Christians. They didn’t go to church or believe in organized religion. They weren’t very religious as far as rituals or adhering to a certain set of rules. But they would believe in the Christian God and quite possibly even that Jesus was his son, to varying degrees. Their main problem was with the church itself. Maybe some of these people just didn’t realize that this was a poll for those who don’t believe in a god at all, and others, like has already been stated, are cultural Christians.

  • Efogoto

    I think at least part of it is the negative image of atheists. When they lose their belief in God, they just don’t want to label themselves with a name that they have seen as negative for a long time. Nobody wants a negative self image.

  • In fact, some of these non-God-believing Christians run churches. Can anyone say Unitarians?

  • Tradition. You call yourself what you were raised as.

  • llewelly

    Looks like they’ve discovered that 24% of the population don’t know how to respond to polling questions.

    Don’t you mean 76%?

  • Shane

    I’ve always called myself “Captain Marvel”…

  • Jack

    I think at least part of it is the negative image of atheists. When they lose their belief in God, they just don’t want to label themselves with a name that they have seen as negative for a long time. Nobody wants a negative self image.

    Yeah, but “agnostic” doesn’t have whole lot of negative image, and “nothing in particular” doesn’t have any, as far as I know. The choice isn’t between atheist and christian – it’s among a whole lot of options.

    Don’t you mean 76%?

    He’s referring to the 24% of people who wrote down “other faith” or “christian”. Since those are basically mutually exclusive with atheism. Though I notice buddhism is in there, and buddhism isn’t necessarily theistic.

    I also feel I should probably point out that agnostic and “nothing in particular” fit “I don’t have a belief in a god” pretty fine. Given sometimes inconsistent definitions of “atheist”, I’m hesitant to classify myself as one without clarification too.

  • I’m assuming it’s a cultural/ familial thing. The way that many people brought up as Jewish still identify as culturally Jewish, even if they’re not religious at all. I’m beginning to hear of people identifying as culturally Catholic in the same way.

    And while a big part of me wishes these people would just call themselves atheists — or “atheist Jews,” “atheist Catholics,” whatever — I also can get behind the sentiment. If people can preserve the good things about their religion — the beautiful rituals, the sense of tradition and identification with their ancestors, the food — while leaving behind the problematic “religious belief” part… I’m down with that.

  • Polly


    the good things about their religion — the beautiful rituals, the sense of tradition and identification with their ancestors, the food

    or “Why we will never see atheist-protestants.”

  • I wonder what order they asked the questions in and where the responders were from. For example, if they were asking people in a Bible Belt state first how they identified themselves, many would say “Christian” from cultural context.

    But if they had asked the same Bible Belt crew “Do you believe in God?” first and then came back and said, “So how do you identify yourself?” I think they would get a much lower percentage of people saying Christian.

  • Siamang

    I don’t know, Polly.

    I take “A Prairie Home Companion” to be exactly that for Lutheran atheists.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think the moral of the story here is the next time someone tells you they’re Jewish or Christian you have to curb those internal thoughts of “what a dumb a$$ religious twit.”

  • My mother-in-law calls herself a “cultural Christian”, which makes my head hurt.

    I don’t know for sure that she’s an atheist, but she acts like one, has the liberal political views of one, and is otherwise very rational. She definitely doesn’t believe in a God who cares who’s doin’ who or what you eat on Fridays, and she doesn’t much admit to believing at all if pressed.

    She says she grew up in a loving tolerant church and is reluctant to let go of that sense of community. She’s an orphan, btw, and this period of time where she belonged to this church represents one of the few not-tumultuous times in her childhood.

  • Brooks

    Perhaps some people on the survey were cultural Christians? Or maybe they’re just people who don’t really go to church or think about the subject a lot, but they still identify as Christians because that’s what everyone else does even if they don’t think about God any otherwise? Or maybe it’s like what was said earlier that some people don’t know how to take polls?

  • AJB

    Some people lie to pollsters to screw with the results.

  • I don’t find it surprising at all. Identity is a complicated thing. “Christian” is just a word, and it can mean very different things to different people. Clearly, to some people, it does not imply belief in god.

    The exact same thing happens with the words “atheist”, “agnostic”, “freethinker”, “humanist”, etc., all of which have wildly varying definitions depending on who you ask.

  • Keri

    I have a friend who was not raised in any religion, but doesn’t call himself an atheist. He just isn’t interested in religion and hasn’t really ever thought about it. If you ask him he would just say “I don’t go to church.”

    I think a lot of people are like that- just completely uninterested in religion or spirituality of any sort. I don’t understand it myself, because I’ve always wondered about Truth and The Meaning of Life, but I know people who aren’t at all. =)

  • naturalistgriggsy[ aka- skeptic griggsy, rationalist griggsy, griggs1947 sceptique griggsy, esceptico griggsy]

    I’m a new atheist, anti-theist who only on-line says it like it is about religion. I’m an ignostic- the God-notion is so vacuous.
    Google any of those nicknames to see that I mean business!

  • I agree with those who say cultural/familial tradition. I’m sure if you asked my grandmother she’d say christian because that was how she was raised even though she doesn’t believe and probably hasn’t attended a sunday church service in over 60 years.

  • Robbo

    Like Michael Herr said in Dispatches: ex-Marines are like ex-Catholics or ex-Feds …

  • «bønez_brigade»

    But can someone please explain to me why 14% of people who do not believe in a god call themselves Christian? And some, Evangelical Protestant?!

    I second what AJB said; and I find humor in the thought that RL poll-crashers are out there exploiting the flaws of telephone polls.

  • Diagoras

    It may be because they don’t under stand what “not believing in God” means.

    I’ve met some Christians who think that they “don’t believe in God” simply because they have some doubts about Christianity (although they fully believe in the existence of a God).

    They consider not being a Christian and not believing in God as being the same thing. And so since they have doubts about Christianity they say things like “I’m not sure if I believe in God”, but they still believe in the existence of a God and they continue to identify themselves as Christians.

  • This is where things like the bus campaigns help a lot, and also to some extent where the less confrontational, more religiously-engaged atheists (such as Hemant) are useful. [This is not to condemn the more outspoken atheists at all – I think both approaches serve different purposes.]

    To begin there will be backlashes against things like the bus campaigns, but as we go on, they will become less of a big deal, and atheists will be harder to demonize – and then more and more of that 24 percent will feel able to say “well okay, I guess I am an atheist”.

  • The Unbrainwashed

    If atheist Jew or Jewish atheist are acceptable terms, why do I never come across the following: Italian American atheist, British American atheist, WASP atheist, Evangelical atheist, Irish-American Catholic atheist?

    It’s ridiculous. Ethnically, one is Jewish and maybe that seeps a LITTLE into culture (though there’s too much overlap between Jewish relgion and culture). But religiously, you’re either an atheist or a Jew, NOT BOTH! Choose one. I don’t see why atheists who happen to be Jewish ethnically always have to qualify their atheist moniker. I don’t see people of Italian or Irish ancestry doing the same. When it comes to religion, atheist is sufficient. When it comes to ethnicity, Jewish is sufficient.

  • Maria

    I call myself a skeptic

  • Pseudonym

    “Why we will never see atheist-protestants.”

    Polly, meet Spong.

  • And lets not forget those unbelievers who call themselves Buddhists. i’ve met some of them here. Head hurts there too.

  • It can be fear, weakness, or just an attempt to please everyone (and not have their family/coworkers give them dirty looks). Some people just don’t have the guts or don’t care.

    The Unbrainwashed says:

    I don’t see why atheists who happen to be Jewish ethnically always have to qualify their atheist moniker. I don’t see people of Italian or Irish ancestry doing the same. When it comes to religion, atheist is sufficient. When it comes to ethnicity, Jewish is sufficient.

    Though I refer to myself as an Atheist, I often like to mention the Jew part, so Christians don’t go barking up the wrong tree, assuming I left Jesus or that I am familiar with their version of Hell… it happens quite often.

    I’m Atheist all the way, but culturally Jewish. I suppose Christians can do the same? Still, if one lacks belief in a higher power (or god), then one is godless (aka an Atheist). But nowhere on this chart does it mention culture or heritage. So they must just be fearful or not thinking clearly (if they ever do).

  • Ed

    the concept of god is man made,and i think with the motive to controll us for someone’s personal motive.The bible is one of the least interesting books I’ve ever read,so hard to relate too.I’ve had preachers tell me to have faith when I don’t understand the teachings of the bible,I think that if the bible was really the word of god,it would be the most confortible and understood book ever read by anyone that read it.but instead we’re suppose to have faith in what we don’t understand,sounds like a bad used car salesman trying to run a poor game.I believe we simply don’t know and those who say they do,are full of shit.I believe we don’t know, may never know,and when god or whatever wants us to know whats up,he’ll let us in,till then,it would be nice to hear people tell the truth and simply say we don’t know and in the nean time lets just be happy and help each other get through another day…

  • jess

    So if it means that only 24% of the 5% of the population that dont belive in god call them selves atheist, than im proud to say im part of that 24%. I do call myself an atheist.
    My parents are both catholic, and when i was born so was I, i was baptised in a christian church. But now, that doesnt mean im still a christian just because my parents are, i’v chose my own path. I am atheist, and im proud to say that i am, because not matter what other people say to me about being atheist could ever change my mind.

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