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Polled atheists

Barna has a poll about the beliefs and activities of the atheist and agnostic segment of the population, which has some pretty interesting results. Among them:

Beyond the bestseller lists, however, a new survey shows there is indeed a significant gap between Christians and those Americans who are in the “no-faith” camp. For instance, most atheists and agnostics (56%) agree with the idea that radical Christianity is just as threatening in America as is radical Islam. At the same time, two-thirds of Christians (63%) who have an active faith perceive that the nation is becoming more hostile and negative toward Christianity. (“Active faith” was defined as simply having gone to church, read the Bible and prayed during the week preceding the survey.)

That’s an odd result (the 56% number, that is), but I wonder about the question they asked and I wonder how it was interpreted by the respondent. For my part, I think radical Christianity (which I take to mean the modern Religious Right) is more threatening than radical Islam in the sense of bringing about government policies that are dangerous and harmful. On the other hand, radical Islam is more threatening in the sense that they’re responsible for more deaths and injuries (and will continue to be in the future) in this country. Depending on how the question was asked, I might have answered either way.

Perhaps partly due to the younger nature of the audience, atheists and agnostics are more likely than are active-faith adults to say they are into new technology (64% among no-faith individuals versus 52% among active-faith adults) and to assert that they adapt easily to change (81% versus 66%). Atheists and agnostics are also significantly less likely to say they are convinced they are right about things in life (38% versus 55%).

Into technology, ability to adapt to change, not dogmatic…sound like nice people to me! I’m just going to predict right now that we’re not going to see fewer mentions of “dogmatic atheists” based on these results.

One of the most fascinating insights from the research is the increasing size of the no-faith segment with each successive generation. The proportion of atheists and agnostics increases from 6% of Elders (ages 61+) and 9% of Boomers (ages 42-60), to 14% of Busters (23-41) and 19% of adult Mosaics (18-22). When adjusted for age and compared to 15 years ago, each generation has changed surprisingly little over the past decade and a half. Each new generation entered adulthood with a certain degree of secular fervor, which appears to stay relatively constant within that generation over time. This contradicts the popular notion that such generational differences are simply a product of people becoming more faith-oriented as they age.

We’re growing!

One of the most significant differences between active-faith and no-faith Americans is the cultural disengagement and sense of independence exhibited by atheists and agnostics in many areas of life. They are less likely than active-faith Americans to be registered to vote (78% versus 89%), to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20% versus 30%), to describe themselves as “active in the community” (41% versus 68%), and to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41% versus 61%). They are also more likely to be registered to vote as an independent or with a non-mainstream political party.

One of the outcomes of this profile – and one of the least favorable points of comparison for atheist and agnostic adults – is the paltry amount of money they donate to charitable causes. The typical no-faith American donated just $200 in 2006, which is more than seven times less than the amount contributed by the prototypical active-faith adult ($1500). Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics. In fact, while just 7% of active-faith adults failed to contribute any personal funds in 2006, that compares with 22% among the no-faith adults.

We’ve seen those statistics in other places, so they’re no surprise. At some level, it’s not a fair comparison. Atheism is not a life philosophy; it’s simply the lack of belief in gods. The social aspects of church engage people in the community and nothing about atheism does the same thing. Given that a lot of our society is built around religion, it’s not that surprising that the less religious are less active in the community. I also wonder a little about some of ideologies associated with atheism, particularly Objectivism. I imagine believing in that sort of thing can cause some to give less to charity. On the flip-side, I’m curious how a positive life philosophy like Secular Humanism influences this kind of behavior. It’s more akin to Christianity than atheism, in that it promotes ways of living and philosophical commitments. Still, there are no Secular Humanist churches, no weekly gatherings where the affirmations are discussed and emphasized.

The point of all of this is to say that atheists are not necessarily less moral than Christians, just that there’s a support structure encouraging these sorts of behaviors and atheism is lacking one.

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