American Atheism’s Diversity Problem

Google the words “atheism” and “demographics” together, and the odds are you’re looking for information about the rise in the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic. And that’s perfectly fair; there has indeed been an unmistakeable rise for atheism, or the “Nones,” over the past decade. Unbelief has never been more in en vogue in culture than it is right now.

Assuming, of course, that the “culture” we are talking about is white male culture.

It turns out that atheism in the United States is very male and very white. According to a new one-sheeter put out by Pew Research, 68% of self-identifying atheists in the country are male, while an astonishing 78% of them are white. That means that more than half of the US’s atheist population are Caucasian males.

Contrast that with the demographic data for religious groups in the country. Pew estimates that 54% of US Catholics are female, while only 59% are white. Evangelicalism–which many atheists endlessly lampoon as whitewashed and sexist–is more diverse than atheism, with more than half of US evangelicals being female and 76% being white. Collapsing all of the divisions under the “Christian” category in Pew’s data yields numbers that are significantly more diverse both in gender and in race than the numbers for American atheism.

I find this data so interesting because, in mainstream public forums like higher education and mass media, it is typically religion that is portrayed as stifling diversity and secularism as welcoming it. Much of the literature of the New Atheists takes massive broadsides, for example, at Christian churches that practice male-only eldership or that teach that husbands are to be spiritual heads of the home. It’s amusing to think that the same authors who are accusing religious people of practicing discrimination and prejudice are forming an intellectual culture that is actually less diverse than the churches they rail against.

This data is also interesting because it demonstrates the futility of trying to compact social trends under broadly sweeping statements like, “Americans are leaving religion.” As my friend Chris Martin has pointed out, those kinds of unqualified, all-inclusive sounding statements are always click-worthy but are more often than not simply incorrect. If what we mean by “Americans” is “white, male, college-educated Americans,” then the statement becomes more responsible. But of course, such synonymity is ridiculous; America is vastly more than its white, male, thirtysomething bloc.

It would be a mistake, of course, to act as if such demographic homogeneousness was itself some kind of sophisticated argument against atheism. It’s not, just like the homogeneously white history of my own denomination is not itself an indication that the resurrection of Christ is a false doctrine. But even if such facts do not affect the truthfulness of the biggest metaphysical claims being made, they do tend to reveal an internal logic to the belief system. My denomination’s pro-slavery origins reveals a white supremacist hermeneutic, for example, that struck at the very center of how my denominational ancestors would have understood the gospel of reconciliation. That’s the power of theology; it can either build slave plantations or build a biracial marriage.

So what does that tell us about the maleness and the whiteness of American atheism?  First, atheism, as a demographic, seems to be succeeding where most of the Christian denominations are failing–namely, with men. The appeal of atheism to younger men probably has less to do with its intellectual rigor and more to do with what Ross Douthat has identified as a kind of latent boredom in the West with religious and social traditions that have been undermined by progressive culture. There is a self-preserving, rebellious character to atheism that likely appeals to the atrophied moral imaginations of young men living in a lifeless sort of post-confessional, hyper-pluralistic society.

Secondly, atheism’s demographic shortcomings among minorities suggests that its appeal is not, in fact, to people who have been on the wrong side of privilege but on the powerful side. Atheism’s success on the college campus seems to be tilted generously towards white students and not towards minority students who we might instinctively think have more of a complaint against the “power structures” of religion. This too would be a significant corrective to the image of atheism and religion that is often presented in college and in media.

In any event, the whiteness and maleness of American atheism is a fascinating demographic reality and not one, I think, that many would expect or assume. Truth is sneaky like that, I suppose.

2 thoughts on “American Atheism’s Diversity Problem

  1. I’m an American atheist, and I strongly agree with some of your thoughts. The atheist community is overwhelmingly White and male, and probably overwhelmingly middle- to upper-class. I don’t think that this is necessarily the fault of the atheist movement, however. It is definitely an indictment of the sexist, racist civilization in which we live, where White males openly oppress others regardless of their beliefs, the same way that we see these power imbalances in every other part of our culture (politics, education, etc.). Nevertheless, atheists must do more to change our community, precisely because it is females and people of color who are most victimized by the hateful mythologies of Christianity.

    This post, in trying to point the finger at one of the least accepted groups in the U.S., glosses over an embarassingly tragic (and painfullly obvious) reality to claim that Christianity is some special place that accommodates gender and racial equality. Christianity IS THE VERY REASON that we have sexism ( Passages in the Bible that advocate slavery and rape cannot be ignored. Two-thousand years of evil cannot be ignored. That is part of Christianity. It is IN SPITE OF CHRISTIANITY that we have made any progress with regard to race and gender in the United States.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s