A Survey of the Non-Religious August 6, 2009

A Survey of the Non-Religious

Luke Galen, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, recently conducted a survey in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry of non-religious people specifically.

That hasn’t happened in much depth before.

You can check out the methodology and results here (PDF). The biggest flaw, as far as I can tell, is that only people on CFI’s mailing list were polled.

That’s a big problem, but it’s tough to get a sampling of atheists without seeking them out specifically.

That said, what does the survey tell us?

This new survey reports that confident nonbelievers are more emotionally healthy with respect to “fence sitters” or religious doubters, shows that “spirituals” report less satisfaction with their lives than those who identify with other self-labels, and suggests that the common assumption that greater religiosity relates to greater happiness and life satisfaction is not quite true.

That’s all well and good, but the part that captured my attention was this graphic:


What does that show us?

When given an option to describe themselves using as many labels as they wanted, the top four categories (on the left) were Atheist, Humanist, Agnostic, and Spiritual.

But when asked to select the one best descriptive label (on the right), we see the numbers change quite a bit.

Approximately 75% of people who were comfortable using the term “atheist” felt that that was the best term to describe them.

Only about 38% of self-described Humanists felt that was the best term to describe themselves.

There was also this table to organize some findings:


You can read what Galen feels are the implications of these findings here (PDF). But before you do that, what do you think these results tell us?

How can we use this information to our advantage?

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  • “How can we use this information to our advantage?”

    Good question. I anticipate any attempts we make to circulate this will be met with protests that we’re lying, evil atheists with an agenda to destroy religion and God.

  • Neon Genesis

    There was an episode of the Reasonable Doubts podcast awhile back which Luke Galen is a host of where they discussed the findings of this survey in greater detail. One interesting point they brought up was that Canadian atheists were apparently the most satisfied with their lives of all the groups surveyed.

  • Tom

    Those New Atheists sure are young whipper-snappers at average age 47!

    One implication is that not having a high level of non-family confidants makes you more likely to be an atheist. Would confirm some people’s belief’s that atheists are “unfriendly,” and highlight a big reason why Hemant chose his blog title.

    If more spiritual atheists are women, it is strange to then see that their life satisfaction is lower. This contradicts general population surveying which shows women to always be more satisfied.

    Being highly agreeable is typically not seen as a “good” trait amongst atheists. You can’t just agree to anything, eh? But having little agreeableness isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing by us, which these findings could support.

    I love data!

  • Rokugo

    How can we use this information to our advantage?

    By going to spiritual and not atheist events to meet women.

    Oh, you meant “we” as in atheists!

  • Taisen

    Heh the thing that immediately struck me was that atheists are “less agreeable”! OK, perhaps this is a reference to the “agreeableness” category in “Big Five” personality theory, but it amused anyway.

    Those who say that atheism is a religion will point to the “high group identification” as support for their viewpoint.

  • keddaw

    Back off there guys, this is statistically dubious at best.

    Atheists (or people not of faith) tend to be more educated and wealthier than the average person of faith. This skews the results massively as people who have a solid job and are secure financially will almost certainly be more satisfied with life.

    Try this again and choose well-off middle/upper class white men (most were men!) and you will find similar results.

    To have a proper study you have to factor in wealth/age/gender effects and then you can see if atheists are happier with their lot in life than those waiting for eternal happiness.

  • Renacier

    Reasonable Doubts Podcast (episode 32) does an in-depth look at this survey. It comes highly recommended.

  • Luke

    The curvilinear belief and happiness relationship (i.e., that the strongly religious and strongly non religious have higher life satisfaction and emotional stability than the “fence sitters” or not-sure-god-exists) holds after controlling for income, education, age, and marital status.

    That is to say, the higher happiness of the confidently religious or non religious than the unsure is not due to those demographic factors.

  • Luke

    Also, the fact that atheists are more educated and wealthy and white is not due to the sample of this study being skewed. In fact those characteristics are representative of the non religious in the general population. General pop surveys such as the Pew forum show that atheists and agnostics in general are more educated, wealthy, unmarried, and male. So if this survey would have made a specific effort to recruit non educated, non affluent americans who were non religious, that would have been LESS representative.

  • Luke

    Its not that canadian atheists were specifically more satisfied with life. its that the published norms for the life satisfaction research measure (Diener’s satisfaction with life scale) listed older canadians as among the happiest group listed as being surveyed with that particular instrument.

  • Kurt

    Actually, there have been book-length surveys of atheists before, specifically: “Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers,” by psychologists Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer. Highly recommended and available on amazon.

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