Here’s a New Way for Researchers to Find Stealth Atheists

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Illustration: Arne Niklas Jansson

Atheists are not a popular crowd. In the United States, they consistently rank at or near the bottom whenever pollsters ask big samples of Americans how they feel about different groups (though Muslims are, depressingly, overtaking them by some standards). America’s still a deeply religious country, and the concept of being moral without being religious doesn’t parse quite as easily here as it does in some other places.

So if you’re an atheist and don’t live in one of America’s atheist-friendly enclaves, it might not be something you want to talk about — in fact you may have trained yourself to avoid those sorts of conversations altogether. Now imagine a stranger calls you up out of the blue, says they’re from a polling organization, and asks about your religious beliefs. Would you tell them you don’t have any? There’s a lot of research suggesting you might not. The so-called social-desirability bias, for example, is an idea that suggests that in polling contexts, people might not reveal things — racist beliefs are the one of the more commonly studied examples — that might make them look bad in the eyes of others, even if others refers to only a single random person on the other end of the phone line.

All this has made it difficult for researchers to come up with an accurate estimate of how prevalent atheism is in the U.S. Some researchers believe that the prevailing estimates — a commonly cited one is that 3 percent of atheists self-identify as atheists — may be significantly lower than the reality as a result of this effect.

But now, social scientists may have a clever new tool at their disposal to help them gain a better estimate — a tool suggesting that there may be far more atheists in the country than people presently think. Writing for Vox, Brian Resnick runs down some new research by University of Kentucky psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle — available in preprint form here, meaning it hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed — which is based on a very simple tweak to the normal process of asking random people about their religious beliefs:

They sent a nationally representative poll to 2,000 Americans, who were randomly assigned to two conditions.

The first condition asked participants to read through a bunch of statements like, “I am a vegetarian,” “I own a dog,” and, “I have a dishwasher in my kitchen.”

All the participants had to do was simply write down the number of statements that were true for them. || The value of this method is that participants don’t have to directly say, “I am a vegetarian,” or, “I’m a dog owner” — they only have to acknowledge the number of statements that apply to them. That alone should zero out any embarrassment or hesitance to admit to a particular item.

That’s important because the other 1,000 or so participants saw the exact same list — but with one statement added: “I believe in God.”

By comparing the responses between the two groups, Gervais and Najle could then estimate how many people don’t believe in God. (Because both groups of 1,000 poll takers should, in theory, have the same number of vegetarians, dog owners, and so on in each group, any increases in the number of agreed-to statements from the first group to the second should be reflective of the number of people who don’t believe in God.)

Their results, Najle told Resnick, suggest about a quarter of the country, in fact, is atheist, and that “about 1 in 3 atheists in our country don’t feel comfortable disclosing their lack of belief.” If true, that would mean normal polling has vastly underestimated the number of atheists in the country.

It’s interesting to think about the potential for self-reinforcing feedback effects here. There’s a phenomenon called the pluralistic ignorance effect in which people behave in a certain way because they wrongly perceive that the broader group expects them to: Some kids might not step up to fight bullies, for example, because they wrongly think their school is broadly pro-bullying. So maybe a version of that is going on here? Maybe atheists, exposed to underestimates of the size of their group, get hit harder by the social desirability and pluralistic ignorance biases than they would be otherwise, in part because of this misinformation. If that’s the case, then it could be that if atheists came to believe they constituted about a quarter of the population rather than 3 percent of it, that could make them more likely to be honest in their responses, which could cause the “official” statistics gleaned from direct polling to go up.

That 3 percent number garnered from asking the question directly was already an increase from recent years, noted Pew in the item linked to above, so it will be interesting to see how it looks a few years from now. It will also be interesting to see other teams try to replicate Gervais and Najle’s very intriguing finding.

Here’s a New Way for Researchers to Find Stealth Atheists