People in the U.S. who are married are more likely to be religious than people who have never been married. We know that from a Pew Research Center analysis of a survey of several dozen religious groups, plus agnostics and atheists.
What we don’t know is what that means. For example, do people who marry become more religious? Or are the kinds of people who marry more likely to be religious to begin with? Or are there certain kinds of factors that are linked to both marriage and religion?
People who have always been single are less likely to be religious, but does that mean that they are not spiritual, either? A survey from the Public Religion Research Institute asked people both questions – whether they were religious and whether they were spiritual. More of the married people than the lifelong single people said they were religious, regardless of whether they also said that they were spiritual. In the category of “spiritual, but not religious,” though, there were proportionately more single people than married people.
Perhaps the group least understood today in American society are those who identify as atheist. Very few adults in the U.S. say that they are atheist – only about 4%; but again, people who have never been married are more likely to be atheists than people who are currently married.
Thanks to a new report from the Pew Research Center, we now have an updated understanding of atheists – their characteristics (other than marital status), where they find meaning, what they think about religion, and what other people think of them. I think you may be especially interested in reading, in the last section, about how often atheists feel wonder about the universe and how that compares to the experiences of Christians.
Who counts as an atheist?
The dictionary definition of “atheist” is “a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or gods.” In the Pew Research Center surveys, though, participants are asked about their religious identity without hearing any definitions first.
Of those who say they are atheists, about 18% say they do believe in some sort of God or higher power or spiritual force. (Averaged across all adults in the U.S., not just atheists, that number is 90%.) None of the people who identify as atheist believe in “God as described in the Bible.”
Who is particularly likely to be an atheist?
In U.S. surveys from 2018 and 2019, the Pew researchers found that 4% of American adults identified as atheist when asked about their religious identity. That’s a small number, but it is double the number who identified as atheist a decade earlier, in 2009.
Not everyone is equally likely to identify as atheist. In the U.S., men do so more than women. Of all atheists, about 2 out of 3 (68%) are men.
Atheists also tend to be younger than everyone else. The median age for atheists is 34. For all U.S. adults, it is 46.
In the U.S., atheists are more highly educated than their fellow citizens. More than 2 of every 5 atheists (43%) have a college degree, compared to just 27% in the general population.
The Pew report on atheists notes that “atheists also tend to be aligned with the Democratic Party and with political liberalism,” but does not include specific percentages.
Atheists typically do not come to their position out of a lack of knowledge about religion. They are actually better informed about religious matters than the general population. On a fact-based test with 32 questions, atheists got an average of 18 correct, compared to just 14 for U.S. adults in general.
Maybe you saw the TV spot in which Ron Reagan, son of President Reagan, declared himself “an unabashed atheist…not afraid of burning in hell.” He also said that “the Freedom from Religion Foundation…[is] working to keep state and church separate, just like our founding fathers intended.” He’s right about that. On the test, twice as many atheists as people in general knew that, according to the U. S. Constitution, no religious test is necessary to hold public office.
What do Americans think of atheists and what do atheists think of the role of religion in society?
When adults in the U.S. were asked to rate various groups on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 represented the coldest and most negative feeling, and 100 the warmest and most positive feeling, Jews and Christians were viewed warmly, 63% and 60% respectively. Evangelical Christians also rated on the warm side of the scale, 56%. Not so for atheists. They and Muslims got ratings of just 49%.
Atheists, for their part, look askance at the place of religion in American life. About 70% say that the influence of religion is declining, and perhaps more importantly, 71% say that the decline is a good thing. Averaged across all adults in the U.S., only 17% believe that the waning power of religion in American life is a good thing.
Where do atheists find meaning?
Atheists are similar to other adults in the U.S. in finding meaning in their families. In the general population, 69% say that they find meaning in their families; among atheists, 63% do.
More than twice as many atheists as people in the general population say that they find meaning in travel (13% vs. 6%) or hobbies (26% vs. 12%). Among Americans in general, 23% say that they find meaning in money; for atheists, that number is 37%.
If the findings about money are leading you to suspect that atheists are materialistic and maybe even cynical, or that they just don’t care about the big questions in life, then I’ve led you astray. Other findings suggest just the opposite. For example, more than one-third of the atheists in the U.S. (35%) say that at least once a week, they think about the purpose and meaning of life. Nearly as many (31%) say that “they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being.” Compared to Christians in the U.S., atheists are more likely to say they often feel a sense of wonder about the universe (54% of atheists vs. 45% of Christians).