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Is One American in Four an Atheist?

That estimate comes from a new research paper, which suggests a lot of atheists avoid disclosing their disbelief.
Don't take me to church

How many atheists are there in America? Just over 3 percent of the population identifies as such, according to a Pew Research Center survey published last year. But wait: A Gallup survey, also from last year, found 11 percent of respondents said they don't believe in God. Which is it?

The answer may be neither. Newly published research suggests both of those estimates vastly underestimate the number of American disbelievers.

"Roughly one in four (26 percent) American adults may be atheists," University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. "This implies the existence of potentially more than 80 million American atheists."

Noting that atheists face a huge amount of stigma, which may lead many to deny their true beliefs (or lack thereof), Gervais and Najle used an indirect method of measurement known as "unmatched count technique." This technique has been widely used to get a truer measure of people's feelings on socially sensitive subjects.

They used two nationally representative online samples, each of which featured 2,000 adult Americans. Both groups were indirectly asked about their belief in God in a way that made their feelings clear without explicitly forcing them to confess.

For example, those in the first sample were explicitly asked "Do you believe in God?" They then were presented with one of two lists of statements. One included such assertions as "I am a vegetarian," "I own a dog," and "I work on a computer nearly every." The other had all those, plus one additional assertion: "I believe in God."

At the end, participants were asked to "please write how many of these statements are NOT true for you." The difference between the two lists indicated how many people declined to endorse the assertion of belief.

Using that method of detection (a slightly different set of questions was used for the second sample), the researchers estimated that 26 percent of Americans do not believe in God. Again, that's an estimate: The figure could be as high as 35 percent, or as low as 20 percent. But even the latter figure is far greater than the percentage as gauged by pollsters.

Atheists face a huge amount of stigma, which may lead many to deny their true beliefs (or lack thereof).

The researchers suspect the undercount is an issue of "socially desirable responding." Considering "the degree to which many equate religious belief with morality," they write, "there are profound social pressures to be—or at least appear—religious."

But another of Grevais and Najle's findings suggest those pressures may be lessening. When asking people directly if they believe in God, they, like previous researchers, found "a large generational difference in atheism between millennials and baby boomers." Twenty-four percent of Millennials called themselves atheists, compared to only 14 percent of Boomers.

The divergence between the two generations, however, "essentially disappears when atheism is measured indirectly," they write. "It is possible that the apparent generational gap exists less at the level of disbelief in a God, but more at the level of willingness to 'out' oneself as a nonbeliever."

If so, that's a highly significant shift, and one that could moderate the views of the general public. A 2011 study found less prejudice toward disbelievers "in countries where atheists are especially prevalent."

Perhaps the best way to reduce such bias in the United States is to inform religious people that many of the friends and relatives they love and respect are, in fact, non-believers.