2020 Census of American Religion: Only 3% Identify as Atheists

PPRI graph

The Public Religion Research Institute recently released the results from their 2020 Census of American Religion. It seems to me that the only reasonable way to characterize the results is "mixed." Why? Among the findings that lead me to feel discouraged are the following:

  • The decline in the proportion of the population described as "white Christian" that has been happening over for a few decades is slowing.
  • The much celebrated "rise of the nones" (i.e., those who report being religiously unaffiliated) we have been hearing so much about has declined (but only slightly).
  • The number of "Christians of color" remains stable, suggesting that they still aren't losing many to reason.

I must admit, this is not the news I had hoped to see. Not even close. Still, not all of it is bad. Consider the following:

  • Numbers of white evangelical Protestants are continuing to decline, dropping from 23% in 2006 to 14% in 2020.
  • White evangelical Protestants are aging, suggesting that we may continue to see declining numbers if they can't attract younger members.
  • The number of religiously unaffiliated Republicans increased from 6% in 2006 to 13% in 2020 (if you want a more secular Republican Party, this is good news; if you want less political diversity among the religiously unaffiliated, I suppose this is bad news).

There was one number that stood out to me as being the most noteworthy, and it was not present in any of the graphs but was instead buried in the text and easy to miss. Only 3% of those surveyed identified as atheists. Only 3%! I am well aware that atheists living in the U.S. still face discrimination, bigotry, hatred, and stigma (which includes personal stigma which has been internalized), so I can't pretend that I find that low number too surprising. I am also aware that commonly used survey questions are sometimes ineffective when assessing labels with extremely negative connotations so that some atheists simply will not identify themselves as atheists. Still, 3% seems quite pathetic.

For those interested in making more atheists, we don't seem to be making much progress. Being "religiously unaffiliated" may be a step in the right direction, especially if it leads to a decline in the power of organized religion. But it is important to remember that many religiously unaffiliated Americans still believe in gods (and plenty of other woo).