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Richard Cypher
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Various statistics on religiosity part 2 – USA general and science

23 June 2014, 07:31

For the sake of brevity, I have decided to limit this article to only the religiosity stats of the general American population and the results of surveys on their scientific population. As it stands, this article is already quite long and the lies, damned lies and statistics, not to mention the confirmation bias and unsubtle agendas prevalent with the prison stats is the subject of its own long article.

In any debate whenever statistics of a demographical nature are bandied about, US figures feature prominently. This is probably due to the comparatively easily accessible nature of US population statistics, as well as numerous statistical surveys being done within the confines of that huge and affluent country.

On the N24 forum one often sees numbers thrown around like:

  • 93% of scientists don't delude themselves into believing in the god delusion

  • Agnostics and atheists comprise 17% of the American population

  • 85% of Americans are religious

  • 0.12% atheists in US jails

  • 20% atheists in the US

  • etc. etc. etc.

Clearly there is an indecent amount of thumb sucking happening with vaguely remembered or made-up statistics being “quoted” with authoritative bluster. Let’s see what information is obtainable from the real world as opposed to several thumbs.

US Demographical information

The latest US Census data relating to religion date from 2008. Quite handily, the US Census Bureau provided data for similar surveys done in 1990 and 2001. This gives us an insight into some trends relating to religiosity. Numbers are in percentage of total US population.




Christian (all)








No religion (all)




- Atheist




- Agnostic




*Note: For 1990, Atheist was included in the Agnostic figures

From this we can see that there was quite a dip in the percentage Christians in the US. The Muslim population virtually doubled as a percentage of total population (with almost 3 times more actual people). The No Religion group, including its sub-groups, all showed increases since 1990. What is quite interesting is that the bulk of all the changes happened prior to 2001, with relatively little change since then. Possibly some after-effects of 9/11? Who knows?

Surprisingly, people self-identifying as Atheist only comprise 0.71% of the total US population. This is a far cry from the 17% or 20% some commenters on this forum like to claim. Not even the entire No Religion group reaches either of the two numbers. At least the claim of 85% of Americans being religious is more or less accurate.

There are several other religiosity surveys also done in the US and available on the net, but I consider this to be the most authoritative one, considering that the US Census Bureau officially communicates it from its website.

Religiosity of scientists

This is a fascinating one, chiefly because there are two main, but quite different, surveys out in the public domain regarding religiosity of American scientists: one done on so-called elite (or “leading”) scientists and one done on the more rank-and-file scientists. And the results differ remarkably. The famous oft-referenced survey on the leading scientists is the National Academy of Sciences survey done in 1998 by Edward J Larson and Larry Witham, published in Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 and titled "Leading Scientists Still Reject God."

This survey built on earlier similar surveys and shows the same increasing secularity trend that is evident in places like England and Wales (covered in my previous article). Larson and Witham used the same wording as in the Leuba studies from 1913 and 1933, and sent their questionnaire to members of the National Academy of Sciences. The results were as follows (figures in %):

Belief in personal god




- Personal belief




- Personal disbelief




- Doubt or agnosticism




Here we can see that atheists make up 72.2% of the surveyed NAS members, with agnostics a further 20.8%. Both of these groups are disproportionately over-represented when compared to the general US population. It appears therefore that the claim of 93% non-religious US scientists is true, provided it is qualified to only refer to members of the NAS. Being elected to the Academy requires a nomination by a current member and a vote by all the current members, which makes it a bit of an incestuous setup. As with any such an august body, it is seldom that representative of the common or garden variety scientists doing actual day-to-day science. The correct statement would therefore be:

“93% of members of the National Academy of Sciences (or elite/leading scientists if you rather) do not believe in a personal god”.

The second religiosity survey was done on members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Membership of the AAAS is open to all scientists, even science students, which make it significantly more representative of rank-and-file scientists than the NAS study would be.

According to the poll, just over half of scientists (51%) believe in some form of deity or higher power; specifically, 33% of scientists say they believe in God, while 18% believe in a universal spirit or higher power and 41% say they don’t believe in either. It doesn’t add up to 100 and I am not sure where the missing 8% went; merely quoting the study’s results from chapter 4, page 36.

When it came to religious affiliation, 48% of scientists (also on page 36 of the report) consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated, which most likely overlaps a little with the 18% belief in a higher power. This number is further broken down into (figures in %):





Nothing in particular


According to this survey, only 17% of rank-and-file scientists in the US self-identify as atheist. Even if the entire missing 8% are atheists (not impossible, but unlikely) the atheist portion would at best make up 25%. Although this is considerably higher than the figure for the general public, it is also much lower than the numbers regularly quoted on this forum. The correct statements should therefore be:

“17% of scientists in the US are atheist”

Or if that number is too small for your liking or the argument you plan on using, why not try:

“48% of scientists in the US are religiously unaffiliated”

What is clear from these sections is that scientists in the US tend to be significantly less religious than the general US population, while the upper echelons of eminent scientists tend to be the least religious of all.

This might be partially attributed to the age and male-dominated nature of the NAS members. The AAAS survey also differentiated between the various age groups. Belief in God, a higher power or neither is tabled below (figures in %):


Higher Power


All scientists




























It appears that belief in God or a higher power steadily decreases with increasing age among the surveyed scientists, with men also being less religious than women. One does not typically become an eminent scientist overnight; therefore one would expect NAS members to be somewhat older and as such, less religious. Obviously age and gender are not the only contributing factors for the lower religiosity among NAS members, but they cannot be completely dismissed either.

Closing remarks

As in the previous article, if you have a problem with the referenced sources (the words coloured blue and in bold are hyperlinks straight to the sources), you will have to provide something more authoritative. If you consider the information wrong, merely saying so does not cut the mustard, to borrow a Jeremy Clarkson phrase. You will have to provide the correct, referenced figures and motivate why your source is more authoritative.

Considering the general lack of comments on the previous article and general level of accord from the people who did comment there, can I hope that we will see a reduction (or hopefully a cessation) in the quoting of incorrect numbers in future? At least in terms of the amount of atheists in the general US population and among US scientists?

There is no religion higher than truth.
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