Atheist Demographics

Finding an estimate for the number of atheists during our colonial period is very difficult. But naming disbelievers, agnostics and deists as identified by their words is easier. We only need to think of Thomas Jefferson for a beginning. (Please consult Atheism and the Law on this web site.) There were many religious denominations in the colonial period, but attendance at best estimates was four percent of the population. In the present day, at least two out of three citizens identify with a denomination. Congregations at that time were few and far between.  Commerce was the driving force that held the most common bond. Making a living, or sustaining oneself in any fashion, demanded a great deal of energy and required tolerance and cooperation.  Some of the unaffiliated could have been unbelievers but there were no statistical gatherings at that time.[1]

Today who are the atheists? What are their major characteristics? Can an atheist find a profile among the group demographics presented? How does one compare with the statistical group known as the “nones”? At the bottom of many survey tables can be seen “none,” “atheist,” “agnostic,” “deist” as separate categories.  The ‘nones’ in surveys are sometimes made up of self identified atheists, or agnostics. Researchers group these categories for statistical reasons. For further breakdown among the three groups please always refer to the original studies.[2]

An atheist rejects the concept of god or gods. An agnostic cannot prove or disprove the concept of god. Intellectually, agnostics stand closest to the atheists. The deist might think that a supreme being started it all and withdrew its intervention, but not its love.   The “nones” answer none to any affiliations on the surveys. The “nones” reject all categories. Many researchers suspect that some respondents to the”none” category are reluctant to identify themselves as atheist or agnostic because of social pressures, so they select none as their answer. Further research in this area is needed.[3]

The “none” group (including atheists, agnostics and deists) is in the fastest growing religious minority in the United States and in many countries of the world. “Nones”are 20% of the world population and growing.[4] 

As a group, compared to believers, atheists and agnostics are represented by a majority of men. The education level attained by atheists and agnostics is usually to the 16th or the 18th year in the educational system, which would mean most of them have a basic college education or higher. Compared to believers they enjoy a higher socioeconomic status. Urban areas seem to be preferred by atheists.  Almost all atheists embrace liberal politics.[5] The worldwide population of atheists fluctuates between 500 million to 750 million varying from researcher to researcher as discussed above. Our neighbors to the north in Canada show a 19% to 26% rate of atheism. In the United States the rates shift according to the question asked. 5% of Americans say they do not believe in god. 4.6% say they do not believe in anything beyond the physical world. 9% respond that they have no faith. But in all studies there is every indication that respondents to disbelief, “none”, atheism, and agnosticism are growing over a period of years.[6] 

Abrams and Yaple have constructed a mathematical model demonstrating a loop between the loss of utility in a given society for a religious group, which then feeds the growth of its opposite. As members of the dominant group (religion) perceive the usefulness of religion as lacking, those members are attracted to the opposite minority (atheism) which then experiences a growth as the dominant group declines. Abrams and Yaple applied this model worldwide and found consistency.[7]    

The growth of non-believers is increasing worldwide with few exceptions

Those who respond to religion with indifference and rejection come in fourth place by rank behind Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Atheists far outnumber Mormons, Sikhs and Buddhists.[8] 

“The nations with the highest degrees of organic atheism (that which emerges from within the citizenship) include most of the nations of Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Israel. However, atheism is virtually non-existent in most of Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Asia. Most nations characterized by high degrees of individual and societal security have the highest rates of organic atheism, and conversely, nations characterized by low degrees of individual and societal security have the lowest rates of organic atheism and the highest degrees of belief. High levels of organic atheism are strongly correlated with high levels of societal health, such as low poverty rates and strong gender equality. In many societies atheism is growing. However, throughout much of the rest of the world– particularly among the poorest nations with the highest birth rates – atheism is barely discernible.”[9]  

The Kosmin findings are used to confirm earlier studies that show Americans progressing at a perceptible rate toward secularity.  American Christianity is not threatened with religions from other parts of the world or newly formed international religious movements but from a denial of all organized religions.[10]   

Table 1 and 2 in the Kosmin study reveal several trends of interest to atheists. Self identified atheists grew between 1990 and 2008 from 902,000 to 1,621,000. The nones grew from 14 million to 34 million in the same period. “The rise of the nones has been one of the most important trends on the American religious scene since 1990.”[11] Combining the atheists, agnostics and the nones the total is 16.6% of Table 3. The above mentioned group took a 37% lead, as a percentage of growth, of the total survey population growth, leaving behind all the other categories.

Developed countries, excluding the USA, (emphasis ours) have universally high populations of atheists, usually between 40 and 90 percent of the population. The highest populations of atheists are found in Scandinavia and Japan.[12] 

Discrimination Against Atheists

In 1987, Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush was asked by Robert Sherman, a reporter for the American Atheist news journal, if he recognized the “equal citizenship and patriotism” of atheists in America. Bush responded: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.” His answer has become iconic in expression of American, religious, and Christian bigotry towards atheists. When asked the same question in 2000 Al Gore stated just the opposite.[13]

Atheists are the highest discriminated against group in the United States. 76% of survey respondents said they would only vote for a religious candidate. When given a choice for a marriage partner, atheist was always the last on any list. In contrast to this negative image statistics show atheists are higher educated, are in the upper income brackets, have a lower divorce rate than evangelicals, have fewer children and more close knit families. Atheists are also underrepresented in all criminal activities including murder, rape and bank robbery. “On numerous respected measures of societal success — rates of poverty, teenage pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, drug use and crime, as well as economics —high levels of secularity are consistently correlated with positive outcomes in first-world nations. None of the secular advanced democracies suffers from the combined social ills seen here in Christian America.”    Reverberations to this article, already, are easily found on the web from Maine to California.[14]     

A recent study (February 2011) suggests when atheists’ presence is more prevalent in a given society, then anti-atheist prejudice among religious believers is reduced. It also suggested there was a reduction of distrust by believers toward atheists. The series of experiments suggested that there was an all around change in attitude as atheist numbers increased. As a result people became more positive in their thinking about atheists.[15] 

Atheists and Agnostics score higher on a test of religious knowledge. In September of 2010 Pew Research Center published a study showing that all religious groups in the USA were outscored by the atheists on religion’s role in society, knowledge of world religions and about the role of the USA Constitution with regard to religion and state. The atheists and agnostics scored the highest at 20.9 against the participant’s average of 16.0.[16] 

Atheism and Secularization Around the World

 “Secularization is a tendency, not an iron law.”[17] The many thinkers of the past and present who predicted the disappearance of religion eventually in the 20th century might be disappointed by the obvious continued presence of religious institutions. But if they looked closely worldwide they would see the emergence of an unmistakable pattern.  Because the churches are still with us does not negate the measureable growth in secularity. The basic theory still holds true. With few exceptions (United States) when a society experiences economic growth to the point where citizens have access to education, a sustainable opportunity at employment, readily available health care, and a secure retirement, they will be more secure. Such a society will, as a rule, move from religious to secular. Some will experience a long transitional period whereby the trappings of religion are just that, and the political sway religion once held is dissipated. The people will lose their sense of dread because of hard fought survival and the fear engendered by their very lives being constantly threatened. This is happening in secure societies and it is statistically significant. Where the positive aspects are not happening religion will hold sway. When there is continued dependence on religion there are lower health standards, and weak education possibilities, employment is insecure or nonexistent, and tyranny after tyranny will be observed. It is happening and it is measurable.[18] The United States moved from security to insecurity at 9/11. As of this writing the terrorist fear is being stoked in the U.S. House of Representatives. The housing situation is contributing to a sense of insecurity.  Underemployment of our work force clouds the near economic future. The United States will continue to be an anomaly for industrialized nations.

The less religious, more secular prosperous nations in the world such as France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Great Britain, Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands have moved away from sectarianism toward secularism. These countries enjoy a higher standard of living as measured by health care, job security and opportunities for education. The more religious, less secular nations in the world such as Indonesia, The Arab world, and the African nations show the opposite.[19

A brief look at atheist statistics from the highest scoring countries

Country            Range of percentages for non-believers in God

Sweden                                           46-85%

Denmark                                          43-80%

Norway                                            31-72%

Japan                                              64-65%

Czech Republic                                 54-61%

Finland                                            28-60%

France                                             43-54%

South Korea                                     30-52%

Germany                                          41-49%

Netherlands                                     39-44%

Britain                                             39-44%

Belgium                                           42-43%

Canada                                            19-30%

Switzerland                                      17-27%

Austria                                            18-26%

Australia                                          24-25%

United States                                 3-9%  [20] 

The new study, “Sex and Secularism”, By Darrel Ray, Ed.D. and Amanda Brown,   while exploring sexuality among secularists restates characteristics of non believers that have been presented by other researchers in Demographics.  11,217 atheists responded.

There are consistencies with other studies between Ray and Brown’s results.

69% were male and 29% were female.

(Atheists are predominately male)

The researchers admitted that their sample group is younger having come from various college campuses.

For this study  67% were younger than 35 years versus Pew 2007, 34% were younger than 35 years  and ARIS 2008, 22% were younger than 35 years.  Ray and Brown worked with a younger overall group.

(The new atheists are on average younger)

Higher education showed 72.6% over 25 years of age with associates degrees or higher.

USA average is 49.1%.

Women were slightly ahead with bachelors and masters degrees.

8% of men and 5.7% of women held doctorates.

(Atheists are better educated than believers)

Income level for Atheists 25 years old and over showed 60.4% at $50,000 while 24.1% earned $100,000 or more.

(Atheists are in higher income brackets than believers)

The sex, guilt, religion, and atheism relationship this study establishes is well worth your visit.

You will find that atheists have more enjoyable sexual encounters, experience little or no guilt and are much more open to experimentation in sexual exploration. The report is very revealing.

(Atheists have a better, guilt free sex life than believers)

The chart and tables are exemplary.[21]


The growth of disbelief in the 20th century from 1900 through 2000 showed a vast upsurge in actual numbers. This pushed unbelievers to the fourth largest group in the world behind Christians, Muslims, and Hindus. In the span of 100 years unbelievers grew from a few million worldwide to almost 1 billion human beings worldwide. Such an outburst of growth far surpasses any religion in the 20th century and perhaps history![22] Based on the percentages of movement toward atheism to this point, non believers, or “nones,” will continue to expand at measurable rate both in the world and in the United States.


Americans Attend Church Less Than Half the Times They Report, 10/24/2012.

Greta Christina-, 09/20/2014

But it’s also very, very important to say this, since it’s something that even a lot of feminist atheists don’t know: The gender split in atheism is not universal. It seems to be an American phenomenon. It may exist in some other countries as well — but globally, women and men are religious, not religious, and convinced atheists at about the same rate. According to the WIN-Gallup International “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism 2012,” August 6, 2012 (PDF, Table 8, page 20 of 25), when asked, “Irrespective of whether you attend a place of worship or not, would you say you are a religious person, not a religious person or a convinced atheist?”, 60% of men and 57% of women said “A religious person.” 23% of men and 23% of women said, “Not a religious person.” 12% of men and 14% of women said “A convinced atheist.” (“Don’t know/no response” got 5% from men and 6% from women.)

Updated Statistics on Secularism taken from Phil Zuckerman’s volume, Living the Secular Life, 2014:

Americans who claim, “none,” when asked their religion has grown from less than 10% in 1990 to somewhere between 20 and 30 percent today. It is now the fastest growing religious affiliation in the country.
In absolute numbers, in the last decade, about 660,000 Americans every year have joined the ranks of those claiming no religion, and there are now between 38 and 45 million American who are non religious adults.
Between one third and one half of all “nones” are atheist or agnostic in orientation. (One quarter of the rest believe in some sort of higher power and only about 20% believe in a personal god. Americans without a religious affiliation now comprise the only “religious” group growing in all 50 states.The vast majority of nonreligious Americans are content with their current identity. Nearly 90% say they have no interest in looking for a religion that might be right for them.

Dr. Zuckerman states that in Canada, 100 years ago, only 2% of the population claimed to have no religion. But today nearly 30% of Canadians claim as much, and approx. one in five Canadians does not believe in god.  In Australia, 100 years ago, less then 1% of the population claimed no religious identity. Today 20% of Australians claim as much. A century ago, these nations believed fairly consistently in god.  Now, In Holland, more than 40% do not believe in god, in England, nearly half have no religious identity, Sweden, half self-identify as secular, as well as Czechs, 61%, Estonians, 45%, Bulgarians, 34%, and Norwegians, 31%.  Only 20% of Japanese people hold personal religious beliefs. There are significant chunks of nonreligious people in regions all around the globe- Uruguay, Chile, South Korea, Israel and so on.

Countries where people do not believe in life after death- Hungary 67%, Armenia, 64%, Germany 61%, France, 55%, Norway, 53%, Japan, 49%, Britain, 42%, Taiwan, 39%, Argentina, 37%, Australia, 36%, Canada, 27%. 25% of Americans do not believe in life after death.


1 Sweet, William Warren. Religion in Colonial America. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1942. 28.

Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar. “SUMMARY REPORT March, 2009. ARIS America Religious Identification Survey 2008.” Trinity College: Hartford, Connecticut. 2009. Web.

Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism, Secularity and Well Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” pdf 2009. Web.

Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar. SUMMARY REPORT March, 2009. ARIS America Religious Identification Survey 2008.” Trinity College: Hartford, Connecticut, 2009. Web.

5 Zuckerman, Phil. ed.  Atheism and Secularity. 2 Vol. Santa Barbara, CA.: Praeger Perspectives, 2010. 2.

Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism, Secularity and Well Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions.” pdf 2009. Web.

7 Abrams, Daniel M. and Haley A. Yaple. “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation.” Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 03/23/2011.

Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism: “Contemporary Rates and Patterns.” in Michael Martin, ed. Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge; NewYork: University of Cambridge Press, 2007. Web.

9__________. Web.

10 Kosmin, Barry A. and Ariela Keysar. SUMMARY REPORT March 2009. ARIS America Religious Identification Survey 2008Trinity College. Hartford, Connecticut, 2009. Web.

11__________. Web.

12__________. Web.

13 Cline, Austin. “American Prejudice & Bigotry Towards Atheism, Atheists, and the Non-Religious.” 2011. Web.

14 PaulGregory and Phil Zuckerman. “Why do Americans still dislike atheists?” The Washington Post. Published: April 29, 2011. Web.

15 Gervais, Will M.”Finding the Faithless: Perceived Atheist Prevalence Reduces Anti-Atheist Prejudice. Personality and Social Psychology.” Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2011 37: 543 originally published online 22 February, 2011. Web.

16 The Pew Forum of Religion & Public Life. U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. Pew Research Center. September, 2010. Web.

17 Inglehart, Ronald and Pippa Norris, Chapter One, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, 2004. 2. Web. Web.

18 _________.2. Web.

19 Inglehart, Ronald and Pippa Norris, Chapter Two, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, 2004. 3. Web. Web. (This is an extensive study. To fully appreciate the implications of this work please follow the link.)

20 Zuckerman, Phil. “Worldwide Atheism Trend and Pattern – A Summary.” Thursday, May 3, 2007.              Reviewed and summarized on Evolution Space. Web.

21  Ray, Darrel, Ed.D. and Amanda Brown. “Sex and Secularism”, March, 2011. Web. Web.

22 Paul, Gregory S. “Demography 0f Unbelief” The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Tom Flynn, ed. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 243.