Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Decade-Old Trend? Unbelief!

We plan to visit another local convention—by we I mean those of us involved with Dwarf Planet Press—to see what kind of venue it might represent for my novels. This one is called ConVocation 2010, a New Age sort of venue. Even with ample notice, we could not secure a vendor table at this con; every table had already been assigned two months in advance. In perusing the program, I noted that this gathering has a much richer offering of lectures than ConFusion had had in panels.  Even the names signal a certain difference. In any case, this led me to check  the progress of belief in the United States. A reasonably reliable source for data on beliefs is ARIS, the American Religious Identity Survey. The survey is produced by the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Some of the tabulations are available from’s website here.

Interesting trends emerge for the United States. In the period 1990 to 2001, the largest increase by religious affiliation (adults identifying themselves by belief), has been in those who labeled themselves Deists (up 717% in the period). Second were those who labeled themselves Sikhs (up 338%). In third place in this period were those who identified themselves as holding to New Age beliefs (up 240%). These folks are those most likely to visit ConVocation 2010.

These groups are practically invisible; they are less than 1 percent of U.S. adult population. But the trend is fascinating. Between these two years, Deists increased by 43,000, New Agers by 48,000, and Sikhs by 44,000. By contrast, self-defined Agnostics decreased by 195,000 and those professing Judaism by 306,000. These last two are the only categories that showed a numerical loss of adherents. Christianity showed a loss of share in believers in this period, but of that more below. No data on atheists for 1990 were available; they only show up in 2001. All of these comparisons relate to adults. But let’s take the two largest groups. Those who described themselves as Christians increased by 5 percent and 7.8 million; those who described themselves as Nonreligious or Secular increased by 110 percent and 14.4 million.

Another way to look at these data is to ask who has lost or gained in market share—in total share of adherents. Here the biggest loser was Christianity, down in share by 7.5 percent (88.7 in 1990, 81.2% in 2001), followed by Judaism, down 0.4 percent, and Agnosticism, down 0.2 percent. Among the gainers, the largest was Nonbelievers/Secularists, gaining 6.37 in share (7.7 in 1990, 14.1% in 2001). The Nonbelievers’ share would have been even greater if atheists, not broken out in 1990, were added in as nonbelievers in 2001, an additional 902,000 adults. Taken as a whole, the total net gains in “believers” in this period amounted to 10.1 million, the net gain in nonbelievers to 15.1 million. Believers in 1990 accounted for 91.6 percent of the adult population, in 2001 for 85.0 percent. Believers still dominated, but unbelief was the trend—a decade ago. No new surveys appear to have been conducted since.

Numbers to please or to worry just about any reader of this blog? The big pattern is obvious, but tea leaves at the bottom of this or any other survey cup may be read this way or that.


  1. It's interesting that between the 90s and 2001 some people started using the word "atheist" to describe their nonbelief (902,000 people!). Or perhaps that the ARIS decided it was ok to make a category called "atheists". I think it's kind of considered a dirty word in the States. But this survey shows things are changing on that front. Interesting post.

  2. Exactly the same thoughts occurred to me as I was contemplating the omission of the category in 1990 and its appearance in 2001.