Numbers on nones

audenEarlier this week, Steve looked at media coverage of the American Religious Identification Survey and it's finding that the percentage of Americans that claim no religious affiliation is on the rise. Commenter Martha directed readers over to the web site of Paul Zachary Myers. He's the University of Minnesota biology professor who was last discussed here at GetReligion for media coverage he received after asking folks to send him consecrated Hosts in order to publicly desecrate them. And then he posted photos of the desecration. Anywho, Professor Myers makes a complaint about the media coverage of the ARIS survey:

The really bizarre news here is the way people are squirming to put a twist to the data to reassure the believers. They've got a label for that 15% that isn't "godless atheist unbelievers": they are "Nones". Don't panic, they say, only 10% of them call themselves "atheists"! They're mostly agnostics and skeptics of organized religion! You don't have to stockpile food and ammo, bar the doors and windows, and prepare for the anarchy and evil that would follow if all those people were atheists.

It's rather annoying. Every article I see on this subject makes this desperate rush to reassure their readers that this growing cohort of Americans aren't really those [expletive deleted] atheists -- they're nice people, unlike those cold-hearted, soulless beasts called atheists, and they aren't planning to storm your churches and rape the choir boys and boil babies in the baptismal fonts, unlike the scary atheistic monsters. They're special. And most of all, they aren't French.

Oh, please. All the low frequency of self-reported atheists in the survey tells you is that the long-running campaign in American culture to stigmatize atheism has been highly successful — and it's an attitude that we still see expressed in reports like this. The most important news they try to transmit is not the increase in unbelievers, it's "Thank God they aren't atheists! They're just rational skeptics, instead!"

So is that fair? Are reporters "squirming to put a twist to the data to reassure the believers"? Let's go to the survey.

The survey asked respondents who claimed no religious affiliation, "Regarding the existence of God, do you think . . .:

There is no such thing (7%) There is no way to know (19%) I'm not sure (16%) There is a higher power but no personal God (24%) There is definitely a personal God (27%) Don't know/Refused (7%)

So just to clarify, 93% of the respondents did not reply with the atheist answer. And even if you include agnostics, at most you've got 42%. But if at least 51% of the "nones" are claiming belief in a higher power or personal God, I think P.Z. Myers attack on reporters is unfair. He can have his opinions on atheism and he can even disagree with the methodology of the survey. But to say that reporters are unfairly characterizing the "none" population just can't be factually substantiated.

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