In Phil Zuckerman’s book, Atheism and Secularity, (p.95) he describes atheists and agnostics as a tiny minority. But my experience of atheists is that they describe themselves as far more prevalent and under-represented because too few of them will speak out. They also think of themselves as more intelligent, creating the need to evangelize their truth to the rest of us.
To compile his information about atheists, Zuckerman used members of the Bright movement, founded in 2003 by Futrell and Geisert. The Bright movement is currently maintained by Daniel Dennett (Tufts) and Richard Dawkins. A Bright maintains a naturalistic worldview free of mystical and supernatural elements. There are 40,000 Brights in over 140 countries.
Zuckerman’s information places atheists at 2% of the U.S. population, while agnostics hold 4%. Agnostics were more educated than atheists or believers. Over half of atheist and agnostics continued to identify themselves as belonging to a religion despite their lack of belief. They also continue to attend church services, giving credence to the idea of “being in the closet” about their atheism.
But this contradiction is also maintained in their personal spiritual life. Only a third of atheists and agnostics claim they never pray. Many continue to attend weekly religious services despite minimal external pressure.
While more liberal than believers, atheists are almost twice as likely as agnostics to be against homosexuality. Atheists who continue to continue to attend church services are more than twice as likely to acknowledge homophobia as those who do not.
Despite this, atheists or agnostics are almost three times as likely as believers to be homosexual. (p.98) Zuckerman explores the subject of homosexuality within the Bright community, noting that over 7% of online conversations revolved around homosexuality both as a moral issue and as a model for Brights themselves to come out of the closet and go main stream.
Coming out of the closet for atheists may be a daunting task according to Robert Altemeyer’s The Atheists. They face a much larger group in the U.S., Evangelical Fundamentalists, who roughly outnumber them as 36% of the population to their 3%. The U.S. is the worst place to be an atheist, 3% vs. 9% in Canada and as high as 19% in France. In the U.S. being an outspoken atheist can cost you friends and job prospects, as well as alienate your family and relatives.
So the next time you meet an atheist, spend a moment in their shoes. They see around them a world defined by religion. Even the books written by atheists for atheists are largely defined by arguments against God and religion, not positive discussions of a positive, humanistic atheist world view. For the most part an atheist expects derision and argument as well as prejudice and discrimination. It makes sense that an atheist might be a little disagreeable, a little argumentative, so let them vent a little without taking it personally. Be polite and change the subject if you find the religious discussion objectionable.