Jun 11, 2007

From the Archives

Atheists and Agnostics Take Aim at Christians

A new evangelistic movement has emerged in America. Yet this effort does not spring from those loyal to a particular faith or religious view. The new evangelists are atheists. People who have determined there is no God or who doubt his existence (a group commonly known as agnostics) are adopting a more aggressive, intentional effort to discredit the notion that God exists and to critique people of faith. Widely reviewed new books such as The God Delusion and God is Not Great represent this movement.

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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.)

A new study by The Barna Group examines the numbers, lifestyles and self-perceptions of America’s atheists and agnostics, contrasting the no-faith audience with those who actively participate in the Christian faith. Surprisingly, not every measure shows points of differentiation; there was also some common ground between the two groups who are at opposite ends of the faith spectrum.

Two Worlds…Colliding?

In the study, the no-faith segment was defined as anyone who openly identified themselves as an atheist, an agnostic, or who specifically said they have “no faith.” In total, this group represents a surprisingly small slice of the adult population, about one out of every 11 Americans (9%). However, in a nation of more than 220 million adults, that comprises roughly 20 million people.

Interestingly, only about five million adults unequivocally use the label “atheist” and, when asked to describe the nature of God, staunchly reject the existence of such a being. In other words, most of those who align with the no-faith viewpoint harbor doubts as to the existence or nature of a supreme deity but do not express outright rejection of God.

Atheists and agnostics are distinct demographically from the active-faith segment. The no-faith audience is younger, and more likely to be male and unmarried. They also earn more and are more likely to be college graduates.

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%).

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.



A Secular, Faith-Resistant Mindset
is More Common among Young Adults
current ages
adult Mosaics
* % atheist and agnostic
(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)


Independent…and Disengaged

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.

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Lifestyle Gaps…and Common Ground

The study produced a mix of findings when it came to lifestyle and personal priorities. In terms of differences, Christians were more motivated by faith, as expected. Yet, just one-quarter of active-faith adults identified their faith as the primary focus of their life. For their part, atheists and agnostics were more likely than were Christians to be focused on living a comfortable, balanced lifestyle (12% versus 4%) or on acquiring wealth (10% versus 2%). Three-quarters of no-faith adults said they are clear about the meaning and purpose of their life and a surprising one-quarter said the phrase “deeply spiritual” accurately describes them. One of the largest gaps was the perception of being “at peace,” a description less frequently embraced by no-faith adults (67% versus 90%).

Nevertheless, there were a number of areas of commonality between the two audiences. The two groups were equally as likely to think of themselves as good citizens, as placing their family first, as being loyal and reliable individuals, as preferring to be in control, and as being leaders. Each group admitted to experiencing personal difficulties with similar frequency, including being in serious debt (11% versus 10%), dealing with a personal addiction (13% versus 12%), and trying to find a few good friends (41% versus 40%). Christians admit to being overweight with greater frequency (26% of no-faith, compared with 41% of active-faith), while atheists and agnostics are more likely to feel stressed out (37% versus 26%).

In their interactions with others, the two groups also share common ground. Both audiences were equally likely to say they have discussed political, moral, and spiritual issues with others in the last month. In addition, about one-fifth of both active-faith and no-faith adults said they often try to persuade other people to change their views.

Perspective on the Findings

David Kinnaman, the president of The Barna Group, directed the study of the lifestyles and habits of no-faith adults in America, and pointed out some of the implications of the research. “Neither the 20 million no-faith adults nor the 58 million active-faith Christians are as internally consistent as those who write and speak on behalf of their groups make them out to be. Proponents of secularism suggest that rejecting faith is a simple and intelligent response to what we know today. Yet, most of the Americans who overtly reject faith harbor doubts about whether they are correct in doing so. Many of the most ardent critics of Christianity claim that compassion and generosity do not hinge on faith; yet those who divorce themselves from spiritual commitment are significantly less likely to help others.

“Ironically, however, both atheists and committed Christians share one unusual area of common ground: concern about superficial, inert forms of Christianity in America. There are nearly 130 million American adults who describe themselves as Christians, but who are Christian in name only; their behavior includes little related to experiencing and expressing their alleged faith in Christ.”

Kinnaman addresses some of the realities of increasing hostility toward Christians in a new book that examines Mosaics and Busters, releasing in the fall of 2007, called unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters. “It is important for Christians to understand the environment and the perspectives of people who are different from them, especially among young generations whose culture is moving rapidly away from Christianity. Believers have the options of ignoring, rejecting or dealing with the aggressiveness of atheists and those hostile to the Christian faith. By their own admission, Christians have difficulty handling change, admitting when they are uncertain of something, and responding effectively to divergent perspectives. These characteristics make the new challenges facing Christianity even more daunting.”

Additional Readings and Resources

  • For more information about David Kinnaman’s latest book, unChristian, click here

Research Details

This report is based upon a series of nationwide telephone surveys conducted by The Barna Group with random samples of adults, age 18 and older. These surveys were conducted from January 2005 through January 2007. In total, those studies included 1055 adults who identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of atheists and agnostics is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The cumulative sample of active-faith adults was 3011 interviews, accurate to within +1.8 percentage points. The minimum number of active-faith adults interviewed in each study was 250 individuals (+6.5 percentage points), while each study included a minimum of 100 atheists and agnostics (+10.0 percentage points). Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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